What the Fish Have Taught Me

What the Fish Have Taught Me

Article Written by the Lovely Grace Peterson

Full article viewable via Saltwater Bodywork


This article is for everyone, though I hope it may serve as a gesture to spearos to dive with a deeper sense of purpose, to set a good example in our community and to be attentive stewards of the ocean that allows us joy. Remember that we are in relationship with the lives we choose to take, to honor your catch, and to honor the hunt. May this inspire you to reflect on your personal reasons for doing what you do and to humbly take anything from the ocean with immense respect.


What the Fish Have Taught Me


            The ocean is like home to me. I submerge myself on an almost daily basis whether it’s on or under the water. If a day goes by without some sort of contact with it, I feel incomplete. While either floating on my surfboard or freediving at the local reefs, there is potential for a new encounter with nature and its inhabitants, and even with my own knowing of myself. Below the surface, the world is different. The pressure of the water encloses in on the body and ears must be cleared. There are crackling sounds of fish talking, rocks moving with the surge, sometimes the hum of a boat going by. There is movement with the current and the swell and it’s hard to stay in one place so grabbing onto the reef is the only way to stay put while everything else sways back and forth. It can be disorienting, but also soothing once you can relax into it. Depending on the time of day and the visibility of the water, sunbeams dance off of the particles of sand and plant matter making everything sparkle. 

            The ocean is a site of wilderness, a place of archetypal power, teaching and challenge. The surface can easily be seen, but only those willing to dive below what is seen will get a glimpse of the everchanging, expansive and mysterious world that lives beneath. I encounter the challenges it presents and the numinous (the experience of something much greater than our selves) experiences it provides quite often. I have surfed alongside dolphins, sea lions and pelicans. Last summer, a baby grey whale breached alarmingly close me during a solo surf session. The beauty of rainbows sparkling in the spray off the waves when the winds are blowing offshore never gets old. The list goes on and these experiences never cease to grasp my attention. It is these numinous experiences that bring me back to the ocean day after day. 

            It would be easy to write about any of these beautiful, pleasing experiences that have connected me to mother ocean, and there are many of them; however, the most powerful experience I have had with her by far is the relationship I have shared with fish she has allowed me to hunt in her waters. I am not talking about sitting on a boat or a beach with a fishing pole, passively waiting for something to take the bait. I am describing the entering of their terrain, much like hunting in the forest, but rather than trees, I am among forests of kelp. Instead of walking the plains tracking elk, I am exploring the reef in search of fish. I see what the fish looks like and what it is doing before I take them. I am looking the fish in the eye like a hunter staring down the barrel of a rifle at the deer. It is intimate and it is heartbreaking, but it is not without purpose. 


The Connection of Life Through Death



            I will never forget any of the fish I have brought home from the ocean, but the impact of the first is one, I believe, all will remember forever. The overwhelming feelings of excitement, sorrow, connection with and compassion for this living being in your hands. Feeling the life force depart an animal is one of the most powerful experiences I have ever felt, and it has changed me forever. This does not get easier and, if it does, something has been lost within me. The first time I reeled in a successful catch, my hands fumbling and shaking, I pulled the knife from my holster I knew what I had to do. I’m not sure whether the urge to shed tears was out of gratitude or remorse, but words came out of my mouth, or maybe from my soul, apologizing to and thanking this being for its sacrifice. I make a promise to it that I will honor its life the best way I can. 

            Over time, I have noticed rituals that I have developed naturally. From the moment I pack the car with my mask, fins, wetsuit, weight belt, knife and speargun, I also pack the intention to hunt. The process of catching the fish and the words and feelings that are communicated with it are absolutely necessary in its honoring. The preparation and sharing of the catch (if I come home with one) is intensely important in dignifying the fish I have brought home. We are deeply connected in that moment in relationship and in exchange. I can sustain my life because it has given its own. Reciprocity.

            Clearly, I am not dependent on spearfishing for my survival. If I come onto land empty handed, I can stop at the store to get dinner on the way home. Spearfishing connects me to what it was like when my ancestors depended on a successful hunt for sustenance. While I am out among the kelp and reef, I exist in a mindset that makes me feel that if I come home without dinner, I will go hungry. There are days that I leave my refrigerator empty and I wonder if I have done this more or less on purpose when I plan to go dive for fish so that my dependency of success feels more authentic. This deepens my connection to the fish, for who I am depending on for nourishment, and the ocean, which is the landscape and habitat for the life within it. 

            In addition to experiencing the connection of spirit, I feel the connection to the source of my food. It is easy to forget that the filet of salmon on a plate is not just fish, but it is Salmon. It comes served without eyes, without movement, without its story to be told. There is a vast separation from the animals we depend on for sustenance and ourselves. Something has been lost of an important awareness that connects us to the spirit of the being and ourselves. When we neglect this responsibility of knowing where our food comes from, or even the basic knowledge of what it is, the outcome is a detachment from nature. 

            For several years I did not eat meat because the moral rule I held for myself: If I could not kill it, I do not deserve to eat it. Once I started hunting fish, I felt an overwhelming connection to all of the fish that I consume, even those that came from the market or restaurant. I started to wonder about who caught the fish I was eating, how it was caught, how long they lived, what they looked like before they lost their beautiful iridescent colors of their scales. It became much more than a delicious dinner. These fish that I have taken have taught me so much more than the skill of hunting. I used to believe that I understood the gravity of what it really meant to take a life, and I never thought it would be something I could do. I believe that this experience is one we must have in order to understand the meal on your plate and to intimately know death without experiencing it for oneself.

            The fish I choose are taken with immense gratitude, dignity and love. I thank them not only for their life, but also for what they have taught me. Ecopsychologist, Gary Snyder said, “there is no death that is not somebody’s food, no life that is not somebody’s death.” To touch death, to be responsible for that blood, is a responsibility that our ancestors took seriously. It was understood that death is a part of life, but we have become desensitized from this fact. I may not need to do this for survival, but I do need to do it to understand my place in the order of things. 


Risk, Instinct, and Knowing My Ancestors


            Our ancestors have been catching fish with sharpened poles for an estimated sixteen thousand years. Traditional spearfishing, however, has been mostly restricted to shallow water such as reefs, rivers and streams. Shore diving, walking directly from the beach into the water without a vessel, is the type of diving that I do and is included in the shallow water category. For me, diving and spearfishing is not about catching the biggest, most prized fish as it is for others. My personal reasons for doing what I do which, I believe, are sharing a relationship with the ocean, feeling my ocean dwelling ancestors as I provide my own food, and the freedom I experience within the risk of diving into the unknown. 

            Freediving can be considered a risky activity. It shouldn’t be done alone for a number of safety reasons. It is an intense physical activity in an environment that cannot sustain human life for very long. As a freediver, I am welcome in that environment only for as long as one breath will allow. Even then, I can only take so many dives before I become too tired to go on. One is completely dependent on their body, trusting one’s abilities and knowing one’s limits.

            Though it may not often be a conscious thought, there is an inherent knowing that something bigger than you could be to the left, right, above, below, in front of or behind you. This knowing is enlivening. It places me deeper within the order of things, furthering my understanding of my place in the world. I am not an all-powerful human. I am no different than a seal to the shark. I am no different than a shark to the fish.  

            Last September, I decided to do something a little riskier than usual. I decided to dive alone at a local reef that I have been many times. It was also opening day of lobster season so I was sure plenty of other divers would be out. This was indeed the case, however, as I was kicking out to the reef, the lifeguards made an announcement which is somewhat unusual this early in the morning. “Attention all swimmers, surfers, divers in the water. There has been a confirmed shark attack just north of here. We strongly advise you calmly exit the water.” Oddly enough, I didn’t immediately feel alarmed other than I knew someone had been hurt. I thought for a second about continuing my dive and decided to go back in to the beach. Of all the days I could have chosen to dive alone, I had to pick today. As I stood on the beach deciding what to do, three divers came down the stairs and wondered why I was standing on the beach. I told them what had happened and they ultimately decided to go out anyway. They invited me to go with them so I at least wouldn’t be diving alone and that was all of the convincing I needed to go back out. 

            I learned something about myself that day in particular. Though my actions may not have been wise, I no longer have an irrational fear of predatory sharks, perhaps a symbol of the biggest, most hidden fear within the unconscious. By going back out, perhaps something deep within me wants to meet the greatest fear of human ocean dwellers (and that of many land dwellers who choose not to enter the ocean because of those fears). I do have a conscious awareness that they are out there. It is their home. Every time I enter the ocean, I make an unspoken agreement of accepting the risk and understanding that I am swimming into their territory. There are always sharks in the water, and that’s not to say they have lost their numinosity to me. I feel respect rather than fear when I speak of them; however, if I were to see one, instinct would most likely say otherwise.          

            Though it is still very rare to encounter them, and much less so to be bitten, on that particular day one person had the unfortunate encounter while diving for lobster. He has since recovered and now has quite the rare experience to take with him through the rest of his life. For me, sharing the water with his experience allowed for me to recognize the possible risk that I inherently agree to when I am also a predator in their landscape. 


Surrender and Gratitude 


            One of the most recent dives I took was just before Thanksgiving having the clear intention of bringing home a Thanksgiving fish. I packed my gear, suited up and went out into the water with the conscious mission of bringing home a nice fish; however, I also had the awareness that if my intentions are too strong, the living ocean will be able to sense it. I must remember to wait for the fish to come to me. I have recently gone through a long period of time in which I have come home empty handed. I tried to blame it on the unseasonably warm waters we had this year, on my lack of experience and skill, or perhaps just bad luck. 

            This day happened to be one of the most beautiful that I can ever remember. The visibility was seemingly endless, schooling bait fish were circling around me, cormorants and pelicans were diving for anchovies and smelt. This was the day my luck would return. It had to be. An hour, if not more, had gone by, yet no fish presented themselves to me. I started to feel the determination creeping in. It is a familiar conflict of emotions, a temptation to give up and a stubborn determination to keep trying. I was feeling frustrated and discouraged, but I was not ready to give up just yet even though it was starting to become evident that today would not be the day that my luck would return. If I did leave empty handed, at the very least it was a beautiful day under the water, so I might as well enjoy it. 


   Suddenly, out of the endless blue, a foreign silhouette caught my eye. I have only seen one once before in this area, so it takes me a moment to register that I am in the presence of a sea turtle. I followed it for a long while and had forgotten about my tenacious determination to find dinner. Nothing else mattered but that moment of coming into relationship with this turtle. I left her and decided that that was to be the highlight of my dive and it was indeed time to return to land. I took two or three more dives and on the last one, to my amazement, a sizeable sheephead was hovering in a tunnel in the reef. I asked the ocean silent permission and it allowed me my Thanksgiving dinner. 

            It was as if the visit from the turtle pulled me out of the stubborn mindset I had acquired. It was a surrender to coming back to being one in and of the wilderness, letting go into remembering my place among the ocean, the fish and the turtle. The ocean continues to challenge and teach me with every encounter. Its depths put me in touch with my inner wilderness areas, with my instincts, my ancestors. It is my landscape for visiting the depths of my own unconscious and allows for me to be in touch with my soul. I have come to enjoy the solitude that I find in it all the while not being alone whatsoever. It truly has been, and continues to be, transformative for me.  


Spearfishing has taught me to remember that I am a being in the world among other beings. It has broadened my respect for all life and has connected me to the deepest roots of what it means to be human. Relating to the vast and intimidating ocean is extremely humbling and reminds me of my place in the world. If I ever forget, all I need to do is dive into the ocean and I remember, I am wild. 




The Author:


Grace Peterson is a freediver, surf therapist, and M.A. of Depth Psychology with a specialization in Somatic Studies. She is the owner of Saltwater Integrative Bodywork in Leucadia, CA where she practices somatic awareness education and teaches topics related to bridging the unconscious and conscious by way of the body in order to help clients to know their most authentic self. Find out more at Saltwaterbodywork.com


This article has been edited by the author from the original version for length as well as for the intended audience. It was written in December 2018 for a graduate course in ecopsychology and citations have been removed for ease of reading. If you are interested in references or further reading, please contact the author.




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