Magnified

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Today we get a true fish story.

The picture above is from the lovely Marathon Key, where I stayed last fall over Labor Day so I could go kayaking and snorkeling and gorge myself on fried shrimp, not necessarily in that order. It is mainly there because the photos I have to showcase my story are so horrible that I needed a good photo to avoid damaging my self-esteem. It’s also the dock where I did most of my snorkeling, so at least it’s germane to the episode.

Snorkeling! I first went snorkeling in Puerto Rico a few years ago and fell utterly, obsessively in love with it, enraptured to the point of resenting the need to re-surface to breathe and avoid shriveling like a prune, like when you stay in the bathtub too long when you’re a little kid. If you are not a snorkeler or a diver – and really, why are you not? – I can only describe it as the closest you will ever come to another planet. My first skin dive showed me a neon-blue-and-yellow eel, a lobster, and a foreshadowing of never vacationing far from the ocean again. I instantly “got” why people who scuba dive never want to do anything else, ever, ever. Dave Barry had it right – once you go under and see what’s going on, you suddenly feel like you’ve spent your life at the circus, but sitting outside, staring at the tent.

This trip I was stoked (do people still say stoked? I am so out of it) to go diving on some of the offshore reefs in the Keys. Due to scheduling and weather I only managed to get out once, to John Pennekamp State Park, where they take you out five(!) miles to a reef that comes to within a few feet of the surface. It was incredible, but the ocean was so rough – I’d never been out that far – that my primary memory of the whole day was desperately trying to stay afloat. I suddenly, vividly, terrifyingly understood how people drown.

The rest of the trip I stayed in the MUCH calmer waters right off my apartment – the dock above. It was the equivalent of a kiddy pool after the reef, but my jangled nerves were okay with that. And it held an AMAZING variety of fish, even in 4-5 feet of water, which was as deep as I felt comfortable going, since I’d spent the previous week clocking 40 hours of “Shark Week” watching. Not the best idea. 

I saw – in no particular order – mangrove snappers, a pufferfish, a trunkfish, and a bunch of other lovelies that looked like they’d escaped from the aquarium of your dreams. There was a – flock? herd? of parrotfish, easily the most exotic thing I’d ever seen, that I watched, entranced, for what seemed like hours; they bumbled about the dock, content and clueless and nibbling little bits of everything in sight. If no one has called the parrotfish the cows of the ocean, allow me to do so now.

There were also a zillion tiny baby barracuda, each as long as my pinkie finger and perfectly camouflaged to hide in the sun-dappled sea grass. 

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And then… there was Mom.

Mom to all those adorably tiny babies lurked around the dock, queen of all she surveyed. The first day I ran into her (or him; I really have no idea) I turned my head and was startled to see her hanging in the water a couple of feet from my head, looking as surprised to see me as I was to see her. With the classic underslung jaw bristling with teeth and a sleek, missile shaped body, Mom looked like three feet of very painful trouble. 

My mind raced thru all the info I’ve heard about barracuda, checking off my safety points – no jewelry, good, underwater camera with shiny bits, bad – somehow completely forgetting that I was in all of four feet of water and could have simply stood up and walked away if things got weird – and frantically reminding myself that wildlife underwater always looks bigger than it is, because of the water’s magnifying effect. Twenty percent, I told myself. Of course, that left me staring at the pointy end of two and a half feet of fish, but…

Mom decided she’d had enough and swam off. Whew.

Over the next four days, we came to an uneasy detante. Once or twice a day ( I snorkel a lot, okay?) I would see her come looming out of the green water, regarding me with a curious, but not aggressive, eye. I gave her a wide berth. Nobody needed to lose a finger. We could share. My final morning I even got the nerve to drift a bit closer to her, admiring her long, powerful body hanging in the water.

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(I warned you that these photos were hideous.)

That afternoon, I wandered down and sat on the stone jetty, saying goodbye to the Keys – I was on my way home that evening – and hoping to get a glimpse of my friends the parrotfish in the crystal water. One of them actually did nose up towards the jetty, saying farewell in its bumbly, nibbly way. I was thrilled. And then… Mom arrived. 

It was the first time I had seen her from above the water, able to really see her in perspective without the disorienting, misty effect the water creates. I could see what a perfectly designed predator she was –  she was magnificent, all power and speed with beautiful deep stripes crossing her back, breaking up the silver pattern of her scales and periodically rendering her invisible. 

She was also all of  14 inches long.

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Can you even see her?

I had spent the last four days in terror (l can admit it now) of a fish only marginally larger than the goldfish in my pond. If by some chance she had taken it into her fishy head to bite me, I doubt she’d have taken much more than the nibbly parrotfish would. I probably lost more blood scraping against the dock she was obviously using for protection from the larger, scarier predators in open water. 

Something stirred in the water, and she streaked off, a flash of silver. 

 

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