The Overage Diver

People always say: If you do what you love for a living, you’ll never work a day in your life, but I disagree. Nobody imagines getting up at 4 in the morning when they think about their dream job.

Peter Halmay, 76, reads the morning paper on Halloween Day (2017)

I set off before dawn on Halloween day for San Diego by way of Los Angeles. It was distinctly grey outside, southern California has a habit of getting dark and gloomy right on the 31st of October.

I first met Peter Halmay on the second to last day of a 17 day, non-stop documentary shoot with a famous chef from Britain. We started in the bay area and made our way south, highlighting California cuisine along the way, eating delicious food by day and drinking ourselves silly by night.

Peter was the last person we interviewed just before I was due to head back north in the baby blue convertible Mustang that we rented for the shoot. I was mentally and physically checked out but Peter impressed me with his charisma and passion for diving.

Months later, while looking for an engaging subject with a compelling life story for my next film, I instantly thought of Peter.

Halloween Day:

I beat most of the traffic heading south and arrived to the dock in San Diego an hour early. I got the cloudy day that I had imagined when I was in pre-production–a sign that it would be a good shoot.

The dock was peaceful and serene. I could see how somebody could get used to starting their mornings here. The harbor was just a stones throw away from a giant aircraft carrier and war monument that attracted thousands of people on its busiest days but on a Tuesday morning in late October, the only sounds that could be heard were the construction noises coming from the city.

While I was busy shooting the dock, somebody stole my skateboard that I had naively left unattended. There was no time to look for it or get mad, I just hoped that who ever stole it, got some use out of it.

Peter pulled up shortly after my skateboard disappeared in a Honda Prius that looked like it was recently in a minor accident. His rearview mirror donned a blue handicap pass.

The first order of business was to wake up Kenny, Peter’s long time co-worker and friend. A former diver himself, Kenny lives a simple life of solitude–helping Peter, riding his bike and watching football.

Peter went to grab lunch while Kenny got the Erin B ready for departure. Peter had owned and operated the same boat for over 30 years. It was the second longest relationship he’d had following his 32 years with Kenny.

I was instantly reminded of what it was like to be at sea when we set off from the dock and left the construction littered horizon of downtown San Diego behind us. The boat never stopped rocking side to side, it only intensified as we got further away from shore.

After about 45 minutes of motoring outward, Kenny anchors the boat, Peter suites up and dives into the cold water–disappearing for almost an hour. I have to go in after him except, I’m with out any diving gear or a wet suit. I only brought a pair of swim shorts and an extra pair of underwear.

When the time comes, I have no choice but to jump in without much hesitation. The cold hits me like a shot of something potent. My body temperature quickly descends as I tread water with one hand and hold a $2000 camera rig in the other. The bottom is a distant 60 meters below.

I struggle to film as Kenny smiles from the bow of the Erin B. “You’re tough Lex” he remarks while tending Peter’s line.

I‘m faced with the challenges of shooting video underwater for the first time matched with swimming in the historically cold, late fall pacific waters. It didn’t help that I was missing flippers, a life vest and snorkel.

As I climb back into the boat, I ask Kenny if there were any sharks in the water?

“Of course!” he replies.

The airport in San Diego is built right into the city so you’re almost always 5 miles within the radius of a no fly zone–which makes flying a drone complicated. Additionally, helicopters are constantly piloting back and forth from the various coastal bases and military ships.

Desperate for a couple of aerial shots, I see a window of opportunity open at a time when there are no helicopters and I take off in the Class D zone. I make the most out of a half battery worth of footage and catch my drone on the stern of Erin B safely. Kenny marvels at my skills as a pilot, he’s never seen a drone before.

Peter returns with a couple dozen sea urchin and we head back for the dock. The work day is nearly complete for all of us. Peter and Kenny have to process their catch and I have to conduct an interview.

Peter Halmay was one of the pioneers of the co-management system, an effort to cut down on over harvesting and keep sea life at healthy population levels. Co-management creates an honor system amongst fishers that encourages divers to go after urchins that attract top dollar from high end restaurants, leaving most of the population of sea urchin where they belong. Today Peter and most divers in the area only catch what they can sell that day.

At the age of 76, Peter is one of only 18 licensed divers in the San Diego area and one of 150 in California. He discovered diving for fun back in the 70’s and has since turned it into a career after he gave up on the dream of being an engineer and working a suit and tie gig.

We were suppose to shoot this documentary a week ago but I found out the day before cameras were suppose to start rolling that Peter was in the hospital. As a triple by pass survivor, Peter has had his fair share of health scares. He admits that he’s sometimes scared to take a stress test because he doesn’t want to fail and feel like he has to give up diving. This time, everything ended up being okay.

Peter doesn’t see an end to diving, it’s what he does and he’ll do it until it’s all over. He knows that he’s not immune to disease or psychical ailments but he doesn’t let the idea of something bad happening limit his love for diving. Peter is taking things one day at a time.

I join Peter to drop off some sea urchins and a load of kelp to a couple of high end restaurants in downtown San Diego’s Little Italy neighborhood. Everybody loves looking at sea urchins, people are so impressed with them. Even the kelp–a plentiful weed of the sea–is seen as a spectacle.

Peter walks away from his last delivery with a youthful grin on his face–like a fine artist he loves seeing people react positively to his work.

Peter buys me a coffee and insists I eat some food. We sit down in a park filled with homeless people, adjacent to the newly built luxury sky scrapers of downtown and talk casually for 45 minutes about life, being your own boss and doing what you love for a living.

One of the things I love most about documentary filmmaking is how it forces you to get sucked into someone else’s world. For a few hours in October, I had to become a sea urchin diver, overcoming some of my fears and discomforts, in order to tell a good story. I could do this everyday for the rest of my life.

I draw the interview to a close, Peter drives me back to my car and we split. I listen to the Dodgers win Game 6 of the World Series on the radio during the two and half hour drive back to Los Angeles. I’m reminded of the last time I made this journey back in late May, hung over and exhausted from shooting but totally thrilled–leaving today feels similar. For the rest of the evening I feel like I’m on a boat, rocking back and forth, side to side.

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