Tuesday, October 27, 2009

More Buck Fever

This is a very short story to demonstrate that I am not the only one in this family who gets buck fever. I am thinking particularly of one dive, probably in 1973 or 74. It was a beautiful day with warm, clear water and soft trade winds. Actually, a rather typical day on Guam. Joanne and I were diving on a reef dotted with larger coral heads. Suddenly she found a lobster peeking at her from a deep hole in a dead coral head.

She dropped her spear and grabbed the lobster’s antennae with both hands. Forget the sugar plum fairies. Visions of lobster with garlic butter danced in her head. She tugged on the antennae, but the lobster refused to cooperate. Instead, he dug in and would not be prized loose. And there Joanne sat a few feet under water, unable to let go of the antennae to get her spear gun because the lobster would simply disappear. She reminded me forcibly of the possibly apocryphal tale of the monkey with his hand inside a jar clutching a banana. But it would have taken some time for the monkey to starve. It wouldn’t have taken Joanne very long at all to run out of air

Joanne tugged on the lobster for ten minutes before it finally occurred to her that she wasn’t going to win. She might break the animal’s antennae off, which would damage him greatly, and she still wouldn’t get lobster tail for desert. Two antennae would look pathetic on the dinner plate.

It was buck fever all over again. But at least we didn’t hurt ourselves or each other.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Satan's Cat

It was outside of a bar in Torremolinos in 1975, near the beach, where Joanne and I met Satan’s cat. Just like that. Satan’s cat was neither small nor large, but he gave off an aura of a saber toothed tiger. Missing left ear. Right eye, gone. Several major scars adorned his face and front end, none on the back. Satan’s cat obviously faced his troubles squarely. And loved it. Even a casual inspection from ten yards away assured you of his gender. He swaggered down the middle of whatever path he chose, this gato del Diablo, this jefe of Andalucia. He was an El Máximo.

Neither Joanne nor I would have approached him with anything short of a .357.

Suddenly two Dalmatian pups bounded out of the bar and, sighting the cat, decided it would be fun to chase it up a tree or, even better, in front of a car. They charged, but the cat, rather than fleeing, sat down in the middle of the road and eyed the young dogs speculatively. I could almost hear him think, “Shall I blind the one on the right and castrate the one on the left, or vice versa?” The cat did not run, but waited calmly and with fell intent. I smelled brimstone. The cat smelled blood.

The pups realized that something wasn’t quite right and stopped bounding and prancing. They surreptitiously looked at each other. Neither would retreat first, but for damn sure neither would attack first either.

So there the three sat in the middle of the street. They would be there yet, but the pups’ owner came out of the bar and called them to follow him. The pup followed their master. Gladly. Quickly.

And Satan’s cat went on his way, his afternoon paseo undisturbed.

The Swimming Bolt Cutter

I am a man of many gifts. For instance, when I go scuba diving, I present more than just a menace to myself. Sometimes I am a clear and present danger to others as well.

We used to night dive a lot. All you needed was your usual scuba gear and a flashlight that wouldn’t short out in salt water. Usually the lights were encased in a waterproof plastic box with a handle for ease of carrying and a switch in case you actually wanted to use it. Such lights in these distant days were known for their bright light and high price.

Night diving was fun. The water always warm, the weather never cold. One New Years Eve we dove off Agat, speared some parrot fish which we cooked on a small hibachi and dined in style, fresh fish accompanied by white wine, white rice and kim chee. Such style. Such elegance. We needed only Guy Lombardo. Or Don Ho.

But one particular night Joanne and I went diving off Tumon (TOO-mahn) Beach. We were armed with spear guns and nightlights and cruising over the coral reef which, at that time, thanks to the Crown of Thorns starfish, was mostly dead and alga encrusted. We found a little fish, bright yellow, about the size of a saltshaker, sound asleep on top of a rock. Down for the count. Joanne picked him up gently in her hand and there he suddenly woke to his great danger. He vanished. Disappeared. I’m sure he left behind a little pile of fish poop in Joanne’s hand.

Since we were fishing instead of sight seeing, we cruised on slowly, two stealthy, menacing predators desperately seeking some fish that didn’t come frozen in a box. Suddenly I came upon another fish soundly sleeping on top of a rock. Only this one wasn’t little and yellow; he was BIG and algae colored. (Underwater at night, everything looks algae colored.) He looked to be as long as my leg. Things underwater look much bigger than on the surface, but if he looked bigger, so did my leg. This fish was as long as my leg.

Greed invested every cell of my body. Simply put, I came down with a case of “buck fever.” “Buck fever” is a deer hunting term referring to your state of mind when you see your first buck, or your biggest buck with the greatest rack, and you don’t even notice your dog, your pickup or your spouse standing behind the deer until after you’ve fired. In this case I cocked my spear gun and let fly, taking direct aim at his head, never giving a second thought to what would happen if I missed, or if I hit him but didn’t kill him.

As it turned out, I scored a direct hit. And woke him up. I stunned him a little, because I had taken a sizable chunk out of his head. He shook himself, creating a big cloud of mud, and began to swim ponderously away. He had a mouth made of two platelike structures, suitable for eating coral. You could hear him grind the plates together. He puffed up like a bladder. You guessed it, I had just shot a huge puffer.

I hadn’t even checked to see what kind of fish I was trying to kill. Even if I had killed him, I wouldn’t have had the nerve to slice and dice him. There is a singular toxin in the puffer’s gall bladder, and if even a drop of it contaminates the rest of the fish, someone is going to die. Perhaps a whole restaurant full of somebodies. The Japanese think this fish is a great delicacy. They eat some curious foods in Japan. Even in Japan you have to have a special license to chop up a puffer. I had just speared a fish that I wouldn’t have the nerve to eat even if I had killed him.

Joanne swam over to see what the cloud of mud was all about, and the fish slowly swam towards her, without aim or purpose, still stunned by the impact of my spear. We listened to his grinding mouth as the puffer slowly moved through the water. Directly toward Joanne. He could certainly bite off and swallow a finger, probably at the elbow, and not even notice it. Slowly the fish approached Joanne. Slowly Joanne laid on her back on the reef and used her spear gun and her fins to gently guide this swimming bolt cutter over and beyond her. We listened as he ground his way into the night.

At that point we aborted our dive. We decided we’d had enough adventure that night and we didn’t want to wait around until the fish came back.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

More on Shell Collecting

Guam, about 1972.

One evening while sitting down to dinner, we heard a knock on the door. We opened it to greet a group of people we had never seen before in our lives. They were Howard and Sharlene McCord and family from the hamlet of Meadow Vista, just a few miles east of Auburn, the wide spot in the road we called home before moving to Guam. Howard was a meteorologist sent to the Naval Station to do whatever it was meteorologists did out there. Sharlene was a primary school teacher. They had heard of us, somehow, back in the States and resolved to look us up when they arrived on the island.

We invited them in for ice cream. While they took no ice cream they did accept our offer to show them around the beach and do some snorkeling. They loved snorkeling and soon set out to complete their shell collection.

However, instead of bringing home living animals to kill them so their shells could be attractive paperweights, Howard set up a salt water aquarium where the mussels lived together in harmony. I remember sitting by the aquarium one for a half hour watching Howard’s snails. They had their personalities. Some were energetic and moved rapidly, for snails. Some snails were jerks who seemed to take delight in bothering the others, and some were, well, sluglike. Watching the snails play for a half hour was epiphanous. I learned that I really needed to get a life.

One day Howard noticed that some of his cowries were dead. The only symptom was a small hole drilled in an empty shell. Then he learned that the miter shells we found all over the reef were carnivores. They didn’t devour green algae like the cowries and conchs. They wanted flesh, snail flesh. Their MO was to drill a hole in their prey’s shell, kill them (venom? I don’t know) and eat them, leaving only the empty shell. Howard quickly evicted his antisocial tenant and restored harmony to his aquarium. Attention shell collectors: you don’t have to kill your specimens if members of your own collection are willing to do it for you.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Shell Collecting on Guam

Shortly after we began scuba diving people told us of the “poisonous cone shells.” Yeah, right, venomous sea shells. It turns out that this time the urban mythologists were right. There really are venomous mussels. And their toxin is deadly. It will kill a reef fish instantly, but it takes minutes to hours to kill a human because humans have so much more mass than reef fish. The mussels first stick an eye out of the small end of the cone and scout the territory. If they find a target, they withdraw their eye and stick out their proboscis, their nose, which then becomes an honorary blow gun. They snort their dart out, and whoever is on the receiving end of the dart dies. Now here is where it gets tricky for the cone fish. He has to withdraw his nose and stick out his stomach, retroverting it to envelope and digest his prey. It takes a couple of hours for this digestive process to occur, during which the cone shell is helpless.

Not many people on Guam collected cone shells. However, we had many Korean laborers on the island and you could find them on the weekends at the beach, boiling water over an open fire and dropping in mussels we called “Top Hats.” After the animals were cooked, the Koreans would eat them and canned kim chee and beer. We tried it ourselves and found that if you put enough catsup and mustard on the shell fish, it was quite palatable. Of course, with enough catsup and mustard, you could eat a sponge. And that just about described the texture of the boiled shellfish.

We have never regarded sponges as a great delicacy and, beyond that, don’t like the idea of boiling animals while they are alive. I’m told it doesn’t hurt them. Says who?

So, giving up on sponges as a source of protein, we were still interested in completing a shell collection, minus the cone shells. Many people on Guam collected shells. Some had spectacular collections, but the best ones came from living animals. Once the animal dies, the shell loses its glisten. The shell is, after all, a living part of a living animal and it needs nutrition. Without a living animal to provide it, the shell loses something. Being rolled over and over in the surf doesn’t help.

I lost my ambition for shell collecting on one diving expedition in shallow water. I’d found a large spider conch and held it in my hand, ready to store it in my net game bag, when it stuck its eyes and looked at me. Then it extended a claw-like appendage from its shell and flipped out of my hand to freedom. I figured that anyone who wanted to live that much deserved what he got and I would help him survive. I picked him up and hid him away from other divers. I don’t know if my puny efforts at conservation were effective, but over the years I sequestered half a dozen such conchs.

I concluded that a conservationist was someone who had already completed his shell collection.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Crown of Thorns Starfish

We lived and taught on the island of Guam from 1970 to 1974. That was where we encountered this curious animal, the Crown of Thorns starfish, Acanthaster planci, who destroys living coral. He doesn’t mean anything by it. That’s just the way he gets his food, by dining on the small animals who live inside their coral caves. The once vibrant colors of the reef become the fetching grey of concrete. The reef soon becomes covered with slimy green algae. The algae don’t mean anything by being slimy and green, either. That’s just the way they are. The best you can say for the algae is that the dead coral is no longer grey.

With the coral reefs dead, the fish soon disappear, first the one who directly depend on coral for the sustenance, and then the other fish who consume the coral eaters.

But there is worse.

Guam is a part of the Marianas Islands chain, a group if islands built almost entirely of coral and protected from instant destruction by the coral reef. And the Pacific Ocean around the islands is very deep. How deep is very deep? Try seven miles, the depth of the Marianas Trench not too distant to the east.

For we who lived on Guam, the plague of coral eating starfish posted a problem. We had to take strenuous counteraction. Either that, or pray and practice our dog paddle.

Not everyone on the island saw the Crown of Thorns as a problem. One sailor on the Naval Station took the opposite view. One graffito found on a men’s room wall exhorted, “Go, Crown of Thorns!”

But most of the divers and snorkelers with whom we associated felt very differently about good old A. planci. Search and destroy parties were organized to locate, gather and dispose of the pest. But you had to be careful because any animal that could munch coral could do serious damage to the bod as well. If one of them nails you with a few spines, the result will be colorful scarred pits. The spines themselves can be up to two inches and extend downward from the up to 30 arms the animal may possess. Most Crown of Thorns starfish are around a foot in diameter, but they have found a few elsewhere measuring over 30 inches.

Some people tried to chop the animal up. But they were informed as they were happily chopping away that all they were doing was creating new starfish. Starfish have some great regenerative properties.

The next solution worked. Not a silver bullet or a stake through the heart, but burning alive. Hey, it worked for the Inquisition. Why not for us?

However, the sound and the smell of this splendid solution were yucky in the extreme. It was so unpleasant that few people wanted to do it. There was something so basically satisfying about chopping them and chopping them and chopping them.

Fortunately, the infestation ended by itself, although there have been other major invasions throughout the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific, most notably on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef currently. Guam’s plague doesn’t even merit a mention among those people studying and dealing with A. planci. Our Crown of Thorns invasion was just a minor episode in a long line of inconvenient cosmic events.

It was just one of those things, just one of those crazy things.