Thursday, October 22, 2009

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.

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