A fish out of water

Recently, I read that nine out of 10 living species on our planet are in the ocean. That amazed me, until I started thinking about more than fish – all the living coral and shells, and the sheer enormity of the deep waters food chain.

And then I remembered just how big the Pacific is. If my ocean, the Atlantic, was the enormous world beyond my New England childhood, I found out how big the Pacific is, flying across it. Blue on blue on blue for hours on end, that massive ocean is even big enough to fly across an imaginary line into – tomorrow. There was no visible buoy marker or lighthouse indicating the International Date Line

Yet, for some reason, the massive Pacific seems more exotic. It’s probably the enticing names of Hawaii and Fiji and Tahiti. Those islands certainly sound more alluring than Block Island and Long Island. Or maybe it’s the grass skirts – and all that swaying.

But the Pacific is also where they have Honda-sized octopus and Toyota-sized jelly fish. And I have it on good authority that the man-eating Great White sharks consume surfing tourists for appetizers and scuba-divers as entrees. Better to stick with the swaying.

Long before I first saw the Pacific at age 21, I grew up exploring the little shallow bays of south shore Massachusetts. Early on, I got acquainted with the strange prehistoric horseshoe crabs, learning to pick them up by their spiky tail and staying clear of their flailing underbelly pincers. I had less luck with real crabs and remember the day I learned how to catch them from a rowboat.

We sat in very clear water, maybe 10 or 12 feet deep. We lowered hooked strings overboard, weighted down with a mussel or clam as bait, letting out the spool until the hook lay visible on the bottom. When the crab climbed aboard the fatted hook and began feasting, we’d slowly pull up the string while the ascending crab concentrated on his lunch. I pulled crab after ugly crab into the boat, carefully prying them off the bait. Then they’d be dropped onto the floor with their other scurrying buddies, all wondering where their free meal had gone.

It was slow, patient work … until the bottom of the boat was filled with angry crabs waving their claws. Not anticipating so much success, my 12-year-old instructor had neglected to bring a container. And not willing to return our catch to the bay, we rowed back to the cove with our feet up on the gunwales. One particularly furious crab managed to grab an edge of my shorts, pulled himself up and clamped down hard on my thigh. The quiet atmosphere in the boat evaporated as my screams got louder. Together, we managed to pull him off, only to have him latch onto my finger. If I remember correctly he didn’t survive his second attack although I wasn’t sure I was going to. I was ten, and that was the first and last day I crabbed from a rowboat. It was also the day that I learned that a tiny ocean creature can inflict enormous pain with his small, anti-human weaponry system. The scar is still visible on my right index finger.

It was a similar lesson learning to avoid walking barefoot on mussel coated rocks. Bandaged feet are ugly in sandals and sting in salt water. I also learned how to dig soft-shell clams and quahoags, although I never mastered opening them very well. More scarred fingers.

My early swimming lessons were at a sheltered beach and I didn’t really think about the differences between swimming in saltwater versus fresh. Spoiled by the natural buoyancy of the saltwater, I later felt uncomfortable in ponds where I swam more like a stone than the certified Minnow rank I had earned in the bay. I knew that the wave action of my salty ocean cleaned the bottom of Duxbury beach constantly, but I was sure that the bottom of Flax Pond was teeming with creepy crawlies that I couldn’t see in its unmoving waters.

Although my dear Richard grew up with mostly fresh water swimming, he is no longer comfortable in the ocean or ANY body of water – well, maybe up to his ankles on a daredevil day. He enjoys being on it, but in it is another question altogether.

On the day that changed things, he remembers clearly standing chest high in the storm-tossed waters of the gulf and being bumped by something large and finned, decidedly non-human. It is possible he set the sand speed record as he ran through the breakers for the beach. He is convinced the bump was not a friendly hello and has decided that a return to the ocean, beyond the shallows, is not on his agenda.

Oh, by the way, Dear Richard’s last name is Fisher.

Marcy O’Brien is a member of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. She can be reached at Moby.32@hotmail.com.


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