The Seagulls Call My Name

(After graduating from Wheaton in May 2009, Sam Kestenbaum headed back to his hometown, Deer Isle, Maine, to work on a lobster boat. This is the tale of that summer.)

Onboard the boat, the seagulls call my name. They call my name all day. To them I am a legend, a source of sustenance, their very survival hinges on me. Emptying old bait from the traps, I dump small bags of herring off the side of the boat. The water sloshes and splashes; the seagulls cry and descend on the old, soft bait—it’s lunchtime.

There are thirty, maybe forty seagulls that follow our commercial fishing boat through the day. They hover around us as we haul through our gear—as we gaff buoys, pull rope through the hydraulic winch, pick traps, measure lobsters, toss crabs and jellyfish back into the ocean. The seagulls perch on the bow of the boat or float on the water, moving with our wake. They wait. They wait for their breakfast; they wait for their lunch and dinner—that moment when I empty the old knit bags of bait overboard. They scream my name.

At this point in the season we haven’t begun to catch many lobsters, meaning we aren’t making any profit. But I say to myself, “at least we’re feeding the wildlife.” The gulls squawk and laugh.

“We’ll get ’em eventually.” My captain looks back at me, smiling regretfully from the cabin of our lobster boat. It’s our first day hauling through our gear—checking for lobsters, replacing the bait and maybe shifting traps to another area if we aren’t catching anything. We’re constantly on the search for where the lobsters are trapping; maybe they’re in the mud, maybe they’re in the boulders.

“It’s still early in the season,” my captain says. It’s a messy day on the water. An easterly wind blows hard through the islands and the water is choppy. I slip and slide on the soggy deck as seawater sprays over the side of the boat, soaking the rubber floor mats.

We rock back and forth and I grip a pair of wire traps in my hands, holding tight so as not to let them slide over the railing. Inside the traps there are lobsters of many shapes and sizes, in all of their stages of life. There are baby lobsters, which are too small to sell; egg-bearing females, which cannot be sold; old, hard, barnacled lobsters, which have not yet shed their winter exoskeleton; soft, soft lobsters, which have just shed their winter exoskeleton; battle-scarred lobsters with misshapen claws or with no claws at all. And every once in a while I see that which we seek: a big, beautiful lobster, a keeper, a counter.

Sam Kestenbaum '09I shackle the lobsters that we keep with rubber bands, one around each claw and toss them in a barrel onboard. At the end of the day, tied to the dock onshore, I drain the barrel and toss the lobsters into a crate that will be weighed and sold. The workers at the lobster-selling dock watch me unload the catch and make conversation.

“Kind of rough out there today, isn’t it? That’s quite the wind,” one man says. A cigarette is dangling from his bottom lip and his eyes are squinted at the horizon. “You guys want anything to drink? Soda? Beer?” Sitting on the dock is a cooler full of Budweiser and Bud Lite.

As we walk onshore I notice a massive ship unloading hundreds of pounds of freshly caught herring—this will be the next few weeks’ worth of bait for the fishing fleet. There is a thick layer of herring scales on the water around the boat and some fish have spilled onto the pier. I thought I was a kind of legend to those seagulls on the water; I was mistaken. I was a minor character in the saga, a cameo in the epic. This ship is a legend—stories will be told about this ship by the gulls, myths will be created, songs sung. This is revelation; this is their Mt. Sinai. Hundreds of gulls circle the vessel, calling her name. Q