Fish Monitor

Xcalak, Mexico

When I’m writing or cartooning, I get really absorbed in what I’m doing.  John knows not to bother me or make a lot of noise when I’m in “creative” mode.  If my thought train is jostled around, when I’m on a roll, it takes me at least 20 minutes to get back on the train.  Sometimes the train passes me by completely and I lose the thoughts. If you write, or have ever lived with a writer or artist, you know what I’m talking about.

A few weeks ago, I was on a super duper bullet train while writing.  I was pumped.  In the zone. Probably could have written the next great American novel.  And then, I had to get up to go to the bathroom.  I wanted to make a short pit stop, so that I could get back to speeding along on the creativity track.  I guess I didn’t realize how long I’d been at it, because my foot was asleep.  Not just tingly asleep, but completely dead.  A doctor could have performed surgery on it and I wouldn’t have known it.  No, even worse, it was like I didn’t have a foot at all kind of feeling.  

In my haste, I fell.   Not tripped.  Not stumbled. I went all the way down, right on my non-existent foot.  And, the floors of the casita, where we are staying, are concrete, so there was no bouncing.  Wonderful!

I sat on the floor for a while making sure all my limbs were still attached.  Head-check. Arms and hands-check. Legs-check. Right foot-check. Left, asleep foot:


The numbness started to wear off and the throbbing pain started.  I pulled myself up and hobbled to the fridge, got a bag of ice, plopped myself down on the couch, elevated my foot and tossed the ice bag on it.  Goodbye great American novel.

The only time I’ve ever broken anything was in my 30’s, when I broke two bones in my foot from wearing high heels all the time. Ah, the price we pay for glamor! This felt and looked a lot like that.  Back then, all they did was make me wear a really ugly, blue lace-up boot with a sole made of really hard wood.  The doctors said the bones would eventually heal themselves and I guess they did.  

Since we don’t have any ugly, blue, lace-up boots laying around here, I figured that I’d just take it easy and let my foot heal itself.  This meant no run/walks in the morning and no romantic strolls down the beach with my honey.  So there wasn’t much left for me to do outside with the brilliant, tropical surroundings and beach, but become a…FISH MONITOR!

There is a gorgeous pier here at the property we are sitting.  Each day, while John takes Sadie, the Wonderdog, for her afternoon walk, I’ve been hobbling to the end of the pier and just sitting, looking at the water.  I really wanted to be with John and Sadie, exploring the beach, but with a bum foot, that is not an option.

The first day of my pier duty, I dangled my legs over the edge of the stairs, leading down  into the water, and looked out into the vast blue expanse of the Caribbean.  I was hoping to see dolphins jumping out of the water and chirping at me like Flipper, or maybe Moby Dick spewing a waterfall.  No such luck.  I looked and looked, and by the time John and Sadie returned I was all bummed out and announced that there just weren’t any interesting fish in the Caribbean and I was destined for boredom, until I got my foot back. Poor, poor pitiful me.

John looked at me like the fall had hurt my head more than my foot.

John:  So where are you looking?

Anel: Out there, where the waves are foaming, by the reef.

John:  You’re looking in the wrong place. How about looking down?

He was right! I was too caught up with the big, the vastness, the Cecil B. De Mille epic, to notice the fascinating world beneath my feet. Once I got my attention focused, I became absorbed and forgot about my aching foot.  Here’s what I found:

Bumble Bee Fish — Sergeant Majors of the Ocean

The first time I saw these tiny critters was at the base of the stairs, at the end of the pier.  They lived under the last step.  I thought they were bumble bees, until I blinked and really focused on what I was seeing.  They were about the size of a penny and loved zigzag swimming back and forth under the stairs.  I did a little research and found out that these tiny guys are called sergeant major fish, because of their stripes. As babies they have a green-yellowish color between the 5 vertical bar stripes. As they age, the yellow can turn to dark blue. They grow to a maximum length of 9 inches.

Sergeant Major fish are big time reproducers from November through April.  The male prepares a nest in shallow areas in the crevices of rocks or under things like stairs of piers!!!  Once the nest is ready the male will chase the female into it where she will lay approximately 200,000 eggs.  And, I felt sorry for my friends that have twins!!  The eggs hatch in about 155-160 hours.

I figure the bottom of the stairs must be one of those nests and I was lucky enough to watch these little guys meet the world.  Wow!

Starfish – Bionic Sea Stars

Walking out to the pier one day, I spotted a starfish.  I’ve seen them at aquariums and zoos, and of course, Disney, but this was the first time I’d ever seen one in the wild.  I found out that these cool creatures are not really fish, but rather are echinoderms, which are closely related to sea urchins and sand dollars. They are literally all legs and can regrow a new appendage when one of their legs has been severed or injured.  

They also eat outside their bodies.  Weird huh?  They have tiny suction cups on their feet that pry open clams and oysters and then their stomachs come out of their mouths, oozes inside the shell of what they are eating, digests it, and finally withdraws back into their body. I never got to see a feeding session, but it’s got to be a really cool thing to witness.

Rays – Ahead of the Class in the School

I was fortunate enough to see several types of rays during my time as a fish monitor.  I found out that rays are the nerds of the ocean, with exceptional brain power.  Their brains are about 10 times the size of sharks.  In fact, they are smart enough to recognize themselves in a mirror.  

They are often really hard to see, because they bury themselves in the sand, waiting for prey, or just resting. In fact, these critters are too smart to pose for a picture. (see above) Sorry ’bout that! They certainly were a ray of light for me as I watched them.

Turning to Jelly

When John showed me this beautiful guy that had washed up on the beach, I was wowed.  I remember when I was a little girl, on a family trip to Galveston, we saw a group of jellyfish washed up at the shoreline.  I ran to go and pop them like bubbles, but my mom jerked me back and gave me a lesson on their stings. I remember the bubble part of the Texas jellies being clear.  This guy was a brilliant blue.

He’s actually an Atlantic Portuguese Man-o-War also known as the terror of the sea.  Actually, the Man-o-War is not a jellyfish. Actually, it’s not an “it” but a “they,” a siphonophore, or animal made up of a colony of organisms working together. There’s 4 separate organisms that make up each creature: the top bladder, which acts as a sail to propel the group; the tentacles, which can extend up to 165 feet long; the stinging nematocysts, which paralyze and kill prey; and, the reproductive organisms. So what you see above is not a single creature, but a colony of gooey, stinging ooze that probably won’t kill you if you get stung by one, but would make you wish you were dead!

Huffing & Puffing

I wouldn’t have recognized this little guy if John hadn’t told me what he was.  This is a puffer fish, also known as a blow fish. These guys are clumsy, slow swimmers, so Mother Nature gave them a remarkable way to protect themselves.  When a predator comes around, ready to chow down, the puffer has an incredibly elastic stomach that allows him to swallow enormous amounts of water and even air to make himself too large to swallow. 

But even if a predator is able to gulp one down before the bloating, he will wish he hadn’t.  The puffers have large amounts of tetrodotoxin on their skin and in their livers, which makes them taste awful and poison most fish.  It’s definitely deadly to humans. Tetrodotoxin is 10 times more deadly than cyanide and each puffer contains enough to kill about 30 humans.  To top it all off, there’s no known antidote.   

Even though puffers are considered a delicacy in Japan, one wrong cut in preparation can kill.  Eek!

Barry and Theda Barracuda

On my second day out on the pier, I nearly lost it when I saw a 3-foot barracuda right under my feet on the stairs.  Holy Cow!  John was way down the beach so I took a few photos of this big guy, just in case he decided to swim away.  But he didn’t.  In fact, every day he joined me during my fish monitoring time until the day we left Xcalak.  I named him Barry.   

After a week or so of checking him out, I noticed that he had a girlfriend.  I named her Theda.  Theda was not quite as long as Barry, but close.  

If you ever take a look at a barracuda’s face it’s scary.  In fact, it’s the stuff nightmares are made of. They have two rows of razor sharp teeth that stay in a permanent, fierce gnarl or a dastardly grin. They are carnivores and though it is rare, have even been known to attack humans.  I didn’t want to take a chance on this, so I quit putting my feet in the water after I spied Barry. 

Barracudas are fast, as well as scary looking.  They can swim up to 40 mph to swallow small prey or use their teeth on the larger ones. I decided that Barry and Theda are lazy, or maybe just on vacation.  They don’t even have to hunt for dinner, because the sardines living under the pier evidently aren’t real bright.  

“Just as ripples spread out when a single pebble is dropped in the water, the actions of individuals can have far reaching effects.” ~Dalai Lama

Although I’m hoping that I never again do a dumb thing like falling on a foot that is asleep, I guess this time it turned out okay. It made me slow down a bit and pay attention to things I wouldn’t have ever noticed before, right beneath my feet! It also allowed me time to have some quality conversations with some pretty incredible critters under the sea.  

I’m not so good at being graceful, but now I’m one heck of a fish monitor!

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2018,House Sitting,Mexico

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