Gallery: Kenny Nielsen [8 Images] Click any image to expand.
by Donia Moore
Looks can be deceiving. In Ken Nielsen’s case, they’re not. White hair, white beard with twinkling blue eyes, Kenny could be the model for the fisherman’s image on one of San Clemente’s favorite restaurants. Maybe he was – Bob Novello, who manages the restaurant, has been friends with Kenny for years, as has Barry Berg and many of his other friends who grew up in San Clemente.
Kenny has lived in the “Spanish Village By the Sea” since he was two-years-old, and in the same house for the last 52 years. “We raised our daughters, Jennifer (Cuda) and Christine (Bonnet), in the same bedrooms I grew up in.”
His vivacious mom, formerly with the Sun Post, lives with him and his wife Maureen in the same house. At 96, his mom still reads the New Yorker and National Geographic magazine cover to cover.
The Nielsen’s, are that rarest of commodities, true life partners. Since the day he first brought her a fish, (instead of flowers, since “she likes to eat fish”), she has been actively involved in his every adventure. Kenny and Maureen were both surfers who met on the beach at San O, her father was one of the founders there when it was a private beach.
When Kenny dove commercially for abalone (at 25 cents per abalone) years ago, Maureen dove alongside him holding a bag open while he harvested. When he fished for lobsters for 25 years, she occasionally accompanied him on the boat. Now married for 40 years, they are proud grandparents of Michael (9), Logan (6), and Majken (1).
“Growing up in San Clemente was great. We spent our days fishing, diving, surfing, working, and of course socializing – almost everything centered around the pier and North Beach,” remembers Kenny.
“In the mornings we fished, worked, and played at the pier. Afternoons, we went to Ole Hanson Pool, which had a high dive and one pool, at that time. If a kid didn’t have a quarter to get in, the attendant would let him do a job of some kind, like skimming the pool, to earn admission. No one was ever turned away because of not having a quarter.
“Evenings were spent at the bowling alley or the movie theater – little kids sat up front, bigger kids in back. Dances and Proms were held at the Casino.” The last performance Kenny and Maureen saw at the Casino was by Chuck Berry who came for a two-day concert. Of course they went both days.
“We had ponies at our family’s first house in San Clemente, over on Calle Valle. My Dad rented them out for birthday parties and events. Whenever my friends came over, they got to ride our ponies,” shared Kenny.
Las Palmas was Kenny’s first school, but his folks moved him to Concordia as soon as it opened. Since there was no junior high in San Clemente at that time, students remained at Concordia up to 8th grade. Capistrano High School was the only one in the area so Kenny and friends attended there until San Clemente High School opened its doors. Observing its 50th Anniversary this year, graduates are looking forward to their 50th Class Reunion and a major party to celebrate.
Hunting in San Clemente?
Kenny and his friends thought nothing of carrying their shotguns in a rack in the back window of their cars when they were in high school. After school they’d pull on their hunting vests and walk up Pico, which wasn’t a street at the time, to hunt for quail, doves and rabbits. Everything was eaten. They frequently saw deer but didn’t shoot them. Often, the law enforcement officers would stop them to ask how the hunting was going.
The Art of Mitigation
Kenny believes in using mitigation to get things done. He’s learned through the years that that’s the most positive way to accomplish anything, whether it’s in relationships or
“We have to compromise to get things done,” explains Kenny. “It’s the only way.”
One of his favorite examples is the former Treasure Island area. Originally closed to the public, it was only during the sale of the land to Mirage Hotel that the county was able to gain public access to the beach. Part of the stipulation for the hotel’s building permit was that public trails and walkways would be built to the beach. Thanks to mitigation, this was done accordingly and people once again have unfettered access to a lovely piece of California coast.
Following his own advice, Kenny caught himself some bigger fish to fry. Who better to serve on the Coastal Advisory Committee for 14 years than a professional sea captain?
“I’m so familiar with every rock and reef in the area that I can drive my boat to any of them without looking at the charts.”
A member of the Committee since its inception, he has worked tirelessly to promote a sand replenishment program for San Clemente’s declining beaches. Inspired by former Mayor and City Council member Stephanie Dorey, he was an early advocate of the Beach Trail. He organizes and participates in neighborhood and community beach clean-ups. He’s a knowledgeable force to be reckoned with on the San Clemente Watershed Task Force.
Once a Fisherman…
Although he talks about slowing down a bit, Kenny’s professional life is still very active. No longer commercially fishing, he still goes out to collect fish for the DSBIA (Doheny State Beach Interpretive Association). Long an enthusiastic supporter for many years, Kenny now sits on its Board of Directors.
Daily cruises along the coast in his fishing boat allow him to collect native species to donate to the beautifully remodeled aquarium. Complete with docents and tide pools, the exhibit lies just inside the entrance of Doheny State Park. The new aquarium boasts state of the art digital exhibit signs above the fish tanks, highlighting each species displayed. Admission is free to the aquarium, natural history museum and butterfly garden. Kenny’s hope is to share the nature program with school children on class trips. He is helping develop a multi-ecological program based on all three of the exhibits.
In the fall, the DSBIA hosts a Halloween Haunt for food collection for FAM. Last year’s haul was over 1400 cans. His clients won’t let him go - many having become fast friends over the years. So even if he decides to stop all his commercial activity, he will still be along for the ride as a consultant to whomever fills the breach.
Kenny has seen a considerable increase in the size of ships using local commercial harbors. Ships are getting bigger and bigger. That means that harbors have to be dredged deeper. Los Angeles, Long Beach and San Diego all face dredging to accommodate the greater tonnage. Because of this, Kenny’s principal areas of business for the past few years have included dive surveys for government entities like NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and the Navy, studying possible dredging issues. Water and sediment core sampling in coastal waters and harbors have become important services he offers. Impressive as are the USS Kitty Hawk and the USS Nemetz, the new atomic ship USS Reagan, docked in San Diego, dwarfs them.
The Mystery of San Clemente Island
Kenny’s work takes him in and around the coast of San Clemente Island, a somewhat m enigmatic place to many San Clementeans. Once home to wild goats and used as bombing practice for the military, the Island’s shroud of mystery is fading away. Among its stony shores and paths exists a unique ecological environment, closely monitored by teams of biologists and other environmental scientists. While not open to the public, military studies continue to refine and process information collected there.
Diving for Dollars
When Kenny graduated from school, he began doing survey dives in the US and Mexico to supplement his fishing. Gradually, that part of his business grew to be as important as the fishing itself. One thing he discovered through those years of commercial fishing was that fishing is definitely cyclical. Fish come and go depending on the weather conditions. California lobster is sustainable and very much in demand for export. That is why he included lobster trapping for 25 years in his commercial fishing routine.
And speaking of fish, Kenny has some great tips for buying the freshest fish. He favors John’s Fish market at Dana Point Harbor or Point Loma Fish Market in San Diego. “Really fresh fish has a translucent rainbow on the skin and sometimes curls up in a hot pan. Usually it has to be put into a refrigerator for a day or two to “cool” down” he explains. Another good place to find fresh fish is over in Newport Beach in the morning when the fishing boats come in.
Now, if we could just find somewhere to get fresh sand for our beaches…dredging,