A Sense of Place: Seascapes
An Essay from Revered Diver
Wines of place are tasked with a higher calling, sacred and not easily attained – to transmit the unique vinous identity of an individual plot of land from which the grapes came. The reasons we ask this of fine wines are cultural, commercial and historical. They are also personal and spiritual.
Through OVID Guest Essays, we invite a broader perspective on the intersection of place, purpose and time, as told firsthand through authors, artists, innovators, explorers and craftsmen. Each storyteller has spent a lifetime listening to these evocative places and advanced our understanding as vineyardists and students of terroir.
We invite you to enjoy this piece by Stephanie Mutz about the deep sense of place that can be found at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.
One place in this world grips me like no other. Actually, it’s more than just one place; It’s an entire world – albeit a world few others ever see, existing beneath the surface of most people’s perception. Where they see only an undulating expanse of ocean, I see the flip side of an entirely different reality. I crash through this surface to find myself immersed in the most strange, beautiful, peaceful and enthralling place I know.
This place is underwater, specifically the depths of California’s northern Channel Islands due south of Santa Barbara. These islands are San Miguel, Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz – the latter being the one I frequent most and where I’ve been diving regularly for over two decades, since the age of 18.
I come here for work, to hand harvest wild urchin from the bottom of the sea and then sell to a wide range of customers ranging from Michelin-starred chefs to seafood-loving individuals. The urchins are an interesting story unto themselves, but it’s the totality of their dwelling place that keeps me coming back over and over again.
To set the scene: When it’s not too windy and the water not too choppy, I can get in my boat at Santa Barbara Harbor and head out to the islands. I travel with another person, my trusted and crucial deck hand who minds the boat when I’m underwater.
This time of year (spring), I’m wearing a big rubber wet suit, a really thick one that makes me look like the Michelin man – the frigid water can get into the forties and deep down, you can really feel it. I strap on a weight belt to help me stay at the proper depth and slip on fins, a mask and a dive watch, which helps me know my depth, direction and how long I’ve been down. Time is less of a concern, as this is hookah diving. (I breathe through a long tube connected to an air pump on the boat.) My partner monitors everything so I seemingly have unlimited air. When I go down, I carry a rake and a bag, using the former to scrape urchin into the latter. I generally dive for around three hours at a time, going back up to the boat occasionally to empty the bag.
I don’t dive terribly deep, generally between 20 and 40 feet. Some urchin divers will go down a hundred feet, but I don’t. I want to keep doing this a while longer, and the deeper you go, the bigger the toll it takes on your body. There is an element of danger, but we do our best to mitigate the risks. I’m more scared of currents sweeping me away than I am of sharks, for instance.
Kelp is key. In a way, I’m just landscaping – taking the urchin helps the kelp grow, and the kelp is a foundation for much of the biodiversity in the water. If left unchecked, urchin can proliferate and wreak havoc on the kelp beds. Sometimes, though, the kelp cover can make things kind of dark. Dark water can be very creepy. We call it “sharky water.” It’s not necessarily the kelp; Sometimes the water just gets murky and dark and kind of spooky, and in those cases I say to myself: “I don’t care if there are tons of urchin, I’m not going in there!”
What is it about this place that compels me? I’ll start with the fact that the level of solitude, quiet, peace and focus is almost impossible to find in our populated, noisy, familiar, above-ground environments. Just imagine floating on water, limbs suspended above the seascape. Your state of awareness is heightened with your mind attuned to every sensation – not necessarily with your conscious mind, but like an animal: wordlessly, physically, vitally. No phone to distract. No screens. No one talking to you. Your mind might flutter about through the various contortions of surface life, but not for long.
Most of the time, you’re in a Zen-like state, focused on the task at hand, navigating the terrain, bucking the currents, searching for urchin. A hunter’s state of mind – or forager, for that matter, I’m not sure exactly which I’m doing – is famously perceptive and focused. I feel that way when under the surface. My body is attuned to every rush of water, every change in temperature, the play of light through the kelp, the turbidity of the water, the swoosh of speeding seals, the glimmer of passing fish. It’s a remarkable state of mind in which to dwell, and that’s what being in this place gives me. (Not to mention, the presence of fish and seals is reassuring, as it means the landlord isn’t around. You know, the man in the grey suit, the one with the rows of sharp, gleaming teeth.)
Of course, there’s an untrammeled, otherworldly beauty down here. You’re in the midst of teeming life and most of it couldn’t give a damn about you. This crazy explosion of biodiversity is awe-inspiring, humbling and endlessly engrossing.
Perhaps the most gripping thing about it is the change. Every time I return to a place, something is different – something has changed. The change can be subtle or it can be radical. This is not a static world but one completely alive – and not just the beings but the seascape itself. There can be more kelp or less kelp. More sediment or less. Recently we’ve gotten blankets of these jellyfish-like organisms called Velella Velella , these little hydrozoans that sailed in, usually attributable to an incursion of warm water. They weren’t there last time, and I think they’re just dying out now.
After a certain amount of time doing this, I’ve started to think like the underwater creature I partially am. I find myself scanning a terrain – the rock structures and plant outcroppings, ridges and sand beds – and thinking to myself: “Hmm, this would be a great place for scallops.” And then I look underneath the ridge and, sure enough, there are rock scallops.
When you start to think like that, you realize that the connection between a person and a place can be profound. We become part of each other – at least for a time. And then everything changes again. My underwater world can be likened to that of OVID’s vineyards. Everchanging. Ever evolving. Singular in the sense that nowhere else in the world can mimic the micro-ecosystem in that moment. A true sense of unique place found at the bottom of the ocean or the top of Napa’s finest hilltop.
About the Authors
Stephanie Mutz grew up swimming, surfing, and free-diving along the shores of Newport Beach, California and in many a sense, has never left the water. She traveled up the coast to UCSB to get a degree in marine biology, which she figured would be her profession. Graduate studies and fieldwork took her to French Polynesia and Australia and back to the west coast of North America, whose waters she traveled, collecting data for marine ecological surveys. Ultimately she left the track of academia and entered the world of commercial fishing, specifically urchin diving, always with an ethos of healthy sustainable fisheries and environmental protection of marine habitats. Over the years, Stephanie has gained notoriety thanks to her prodigious knowledge of the seas, her strong voice and leadership, the quality of the products she brings to market, and as a woman in an industry dominated by males. When she’s not in the waters of the Channel Islands, she can be found at the Santa Barbara harbor, traveling the coast selling her wares, or at her slightly inland hometown of Los Alamos.
Jordan Mackay is a journalist, writer, and co-author of several award-winning books on wine and food, including Secrets of the Sommeliers, The Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste, Franklin Barbecue, and Franklin Steak. His most recent books The Maison Premiere Almanac and Franklin Smoke released in May 2023.