Tuesday, May 22, 2007

King Fish

I learned how to snorkel in Mexico. It's easy. You just put on the fins, walk backward into the sea, spit into your mask, rinse, put it on your face, snuggle the snorkel into your mouth, and off you go.

It's so easy that one day I decided to snorkel into the sea alone, heading southeast a few hundred meters from shore along the coral reef. I was looking for schools of little fish, coral fans and other plant life.

As I swam out, I noticed that the sea floor was growing farther from me. Lovely. I now had a panoramic view of all sorts of colorful fish, busily streaming around the coral banks. The steady sound of my breath flowing in and out of the snorkel tube was musical accompaniment to the tropical kingdom laid out below me.

And then I spied something to the right in my peripheral vision. What was it? Whatever it was, it was floating along with me, on my level. I took a closer look. Could it be? Yes, wow. A big silver fish. A long silver...so long...maybe two, three...how the hell long was this fish? Four feet? Five? And why was it swimming up near the water's surface with me, when it should have been down there with the cute little fishes on the sea floor? Why was he (I'm sure it was a he) staring at me with those big, gaping fish eyes? Why was his snout so pointy?

"What are you looking at?" I seemed to hear him say as I spied him from the corner of my eye. I think he was smoking a cigarette, but I was too afraid to make direct eye contact.

"Glub blug," I burbled through the snorkel. Something wasn't right about this. "I have to leave now," I said.

I turned tail and swam. Swim swim swim. Suck suck suck, sucking air through my snorkel, headed as fast as I could go toward shore. Thank god I was wearing fins. Puff puff pant pant, drinking in seawater. There was something not right about this.

I poked my head above the water's surface. Damn. Damn damn damn. Still a couple hundred meters to shore. I turned my head to the left, to see if I'd lost the fish yet.

"Goin' somewhere?" he sneered.

Oh help. Surely I would have outrun him by now? But here I was, swimming like the panic-stricken fool that I was, and this evil-minded silver fish was traveling alongside me, with plenty of breath to spare and laughing in his sinister, fishlike way. What had I ever done to him?

"What have I ever done to you?" I said. Well, would have said, if I wasn't flailing my arms and legs as I hyperventilated and slurped up saltwater at a dangerous rate.

"You're in over your head, estupida gringa," he said. "Go back home to your subways and Chinese restaurants that deliver."

"I'm trying to go back home," I sobbed in a glubbing sort of way. "Or back to my little cabaña, anyway, where I can lie on the swing bed and sip a rum y coca con limón."

His menacing laughter sloshed around in my ears as I swam. Swim swim. Pant pant. Swim swim swim. Pant pant pant. I needed air and tore the estupido snorkel from my mouth. What's the onomatopoeia for "hyperventilate"? Har har har? GHARGHie GHARGHie gargle snorf snorf...huck huck huck...

I looked back. Fish still there. Still silver, still four feet long, same gaping eyes and long pointy snout. He kept up with me so easily I thought I was standing still.

Eventually, as you may have guessed, seeing as how I'm writing about it now at leisure, I did make it to dry land. And obviously, at some point, I did manage to lose the fish, probably as I got closer to the shallower, warmer waters just off shore. Having swum to land in a direct line, I landed on jagged rocks and slippery sea grass rather than soft sand, but I didn't care.

I may be amused now in the telling of my tale, but at the time, my panic was so fresh and pure that I could barely think. Strangely, though, even then there was a little corner of my brain, the distant observer, that was watching me and finding this scene very funny. I was laughing at myself along with the fish. I hope I also have that laughing distant observer with me at the moment of my death, helping lessen the pain of my demise.

Later, at the bar, a guy from Florida said it sounded like my fish was a kingfish.


I googled kingfish when I got back to Brooklyn, and learned that its habitat includes both Florida and the Caribbean coast of Mexico. The kingish is a type of mackerel that can grow up to five feet long, weigh up to 150 lbs, and swim at speeds up to 60 mph. Oh, and another thing: "King mackerel are constantly feeding carnivores that can attack with high speed, powerful jaws and razor-like teeth. They feed on all and any available food but favor jacks, sea trout, sardine like fishes, ribbonfish, herring, shrimp and squid."

What about human limbs? I bet human limbs are on the list of favorite foods, too.

Now I keep expecting the kingfish to visit me in my dreams, but I haven't seen him yet. Or maybe it was a her--a bad-girl fish, since kingfish can also be female.

Or maybe my fish was a wahoo, also called a queenfish, which enjoys eating flying fish, bonito, squid, tuna, and again, possibly human limbs. According to the website: "A common feeding tactic when taking larger fish is to shear off the tail, then return to gulp down the head as the bleeding fish spirals downward."

Huh. That could have been me, rubber fins snapped off cleanly with the queenfish's razor-like teeth, spiraling downward into the briny deep and the queenfish's open, glittering jaws.


potdoll said...


I now have 'holiday envy.'

You're looking stunning, Joycerella!

Joyce Hanson said...

I just received an email from Alice, a scuba diving instructor I met in Belize. She just read my "King Fish" blog post, and I think she has the right answer about just what kind of fish was following me: "hi joyce,
i just read your fish tale....it was hilarious! i mean it! great description of the thoughts and emotions that go through our heads, even when we are sometimes inwardly laughing at ourselves.....
however it was probably a barracuda as they are most common in the snorkeling reefs and because of a natural curiousity, and obviously, lack of fear ( they are the apex preditor after all! ) they often follow us divers and snorkelers...of course they also want to make sure we aren´t hunting in their fishing area! and if you do, they will be sure to try to eat your catch - as they can swim 40 mph. when they are ready to. but really, you are bigger than they and fish tend to try to eat things smaller than themselves.....but still its that toothy grin!!!!!!!
and that haunting stare, which you so wonderfully describe! i used to have a job where sometimes i was feeding a barracuda, for a audience at an aquarium, and i too swear i could telepathicly¨¨ talk¨¨ with ¨her¨....we called her ¨kudz¨...and she was big! but i learned alot from her, and felt that adrenalyn rush, and of course i was! carrying dinner....and she had those razor sharp teeth right there in front of me......grinning.....
Thanks for the clarification, Alice! (Hope you don't mind me quoting your email.)