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Written by Dan Wolff - Illustrated by Christopher Baldwin
He was an old sailfish and he had been hooked several times over the years but never landed and he had learned all of the tricks that fish need to know to go on living when they are tasty. Over the years he had learned about fishermen and mako sharks and hurricanes and the aggressive black marlin and now he had grown to an enormous length and weighed perhaps half a ton, and his sail which covered the length of his spine was bright blue and instantly recognizable to all his prey. With this great length came an enormous appetite and the sailfish spent all of his days hunting for prey fish and even when he slept he still hunted, the lateral lines down either side of his long body alert for the minute pressure change produced by other fish in the water. He was the fastest fish in the ocean and once he became aware of another fish of edible size that other fish was doomed. He could hear a school of sardines from miles away and now was the season for the great migrations of sardines across the Pacific to the spawning grounds and the sailfish was hunting the schools.
The school was five miles distant and even though he was the fastest fish in the ocean by the time he reached the sardine ball the tuna had already been there and their high-speed attack had burst the ball into fragments. The old sailfish knew how it had gone. The sardines had been migrating in a school of perhaps two or three million fish, and once the dolphins had found them they had formed into a gigantic feeding ball spinning around its center, each sardine nose to tail and flank to flank with the next with nowhere to go and no defense except size and numbers. The dolphins hit the edges of the ball which was bigger than a sperm whale and took stray sardines from its edges but they were afraid to enter the gigantic spinning mass and feed properly. The ball was dark as the night sky and twisted like a whirlpool and its size and ever-changing shape intimidated the dolphins who were not very aggressive. But then the tuna had come and they aimed at the very center of the ball and shot right through its heart like harpoons and burst the ball into a confused shower of individual sardines, and whenever the sardines reformed into their ball the tuna circled and burst through the center again. Then the dolphins could pick up the sardines right and left as they scattered. Then from the sky above a flock of brown boobies arrived and started diving after the sardines, swimming through the water almost like human swimmers with their short, pointed wings and catching sardines to a depth of almost fifty feet. Once a booby had a sardine in its mouth it relaxed and floated to the surface again where it could enjoy its meal. For a while there were almost as many boobies as sardines in the water and the sardines dove to greater depths to escape the boobies where the tuna picked them off with ease and then there were more boobies than sardines and the entire school of maybe three million fish had been eaten. The sailfish had heard the melee from five miles away and by the time he arrived there were only stragglers to pick up. The tuna saw the grand blue sail down the length of his back and were afraid of him and dove into the darkness after the last of the sardines to get out of the blue water and his line of sight but he wasnıt interested in tuna. He was interested in sardines and he hunted through a strange landscape of birds diving in trails of bubbles and floating serenely back to the surface and all the while the sunlight filtered through the sargasso weed and caught on the bubble trails the birds made when they dived and on the spreading cloud of sardine scales that was all that was left of the feeding ball.
I will never find sardines in all of this, thought the sailfish. I cannot see them in all this mess and I cannot smell them in the cloud of scales and I cannot sense the pressure change of a fish amongst all the birds. I wonder what it is like to be a bird. Perhaps it is very like being a fish and diving for a bird is like jumping for me when I send my whole body clear of the water. It is exhilarating but it cannot be sustained because the sea pulls me down again to where I belong, just as the sky pulls the birds. I must find sardines. I am too late at this feeding ball.
There were only two or three sardines to be found and the giant old sailfish swallowed them and barely felt them go down. He was very hungry. The remnants of the school had dove deep and the tuna had scattered them in all directions so that there would be no easy meals available for the sailfish. Each sardine would take time to hunt down and would hardly be worth the energy.
There will be other feeding balls, said the sailfish to himself as he turned in circles amid the cloud of sinking scales, though it is late in the season and I must migrate after them to the spawning grounds. It is a long journey across the Pacific and though I have made it many times before I am tired this year. I am an old fish though I am still the strongest and fastest fish in the ocean.
At that moment he saw a sardine and checked his direction to pick it up. It was a wounded or dead sardine which was not moving in the water and it was at a depth of about sixty fathoms and for some reason the tuna had all missed it and the old sailfish had swallowed it when he felt the line in his mouth and knew it was a bait sardine which had been threaded on a large steel hook.
All his experience took over and he stopped dead in the water in the cloud of drifting scales. That was very stupid, old fish, he said to himself. In your hunger you were caught with the easiest trick of the fishermen. They followed the cloud of boobies and sent their baits down to where the sardines must be and you were so hungry you did not care whether the sardines you took were alive or dead. The fishermen only ever use dead sardines and you learned that long ago. Now if you move the hook will catch and then you will have a long fight ahead of you. It is nothing you havenıt done before but you are hungry and not as strong as you once were. You must not move.
The old fish knew that the hook was attached to a long line that lead upwards to the hands of the fisherman in the skiff above and once it was set in him he and the fisherman would be so closely connected that he would even be able to feel the man change his grip. Until the hook was set the fisherman would not be certain that the sailfish had swallowed the bait and would not pull on the line lest he spook his prize and the sailfish was determined not to move until he had worked the sardine out of his mouth. He knew however that the sardine was no longer in his mouth but further down his throat with the hook, perhaps even in the stomach, and the sardine would not work itself out.
You really fell for that one, old fish, he thought to himself. The hook is deep inside you and you cannot move without the fisherman realizing that fact.
He knew what he had to do now and that was run with all his strength and hope to catch the fisherman by surprise so that the line would break. He knew that the line was tied to the boat and if the fisherman was not surprised then he would let it out gently so that the fish could not jerk it too sharply and break it, and so he had to run so fast and so far that the fisherman was surprised or ran out of line and then he could break it.
Here we go, he said to himself. Perhaps the hook is not too deep in me and then when I run it will come loose. But he knew that would not be the case and he felt the pain deep in his throat and to the right hand side as he started his run and he felt the line come taught and he felt the fishermanıs hands on the other end of sixty fathoms of line and then he felt the pressure slack off before the line broke but still be tight enough that the fish was now running with all his might and barely moving because he was pulling the entire skiff with him.
Break, damn you, he thought. Break and let the fisherman go hungry.
But the line did not break and the fisherman was letting it out carefully. The hook was in him deep and permanently now and he was committed to trying to break the line. He was the strongest and fastest fish in the ocean and knew the line would be simple to break if only he could get it to its full length so that it was attached directly to the boat but the fisherman was a skilled man and kept the tension on the line to just below breaking point.
This is a new kind of line, he thought. The lines I have felt before were made of sashcord and were thick, but this line feels as though it is made of a much thinner, more elastic material.
The skiff too was heavier than the fishing boats he had known in the past and pulling it was a great effort. The old fish pulled with all his might until he could not pull any more, and then when he rested a moment he felt the fisherman move like lightning to wind in some of the line that the pulling had cost him. This stung the fish to action and he ran again unreeling fathom after fathom of line and dragging the skiff behind him.
You must pull now while you are fresh, he thought. This is a new line which feels much stronger than the old ones and the boat is heavier too and the fisherman is a skilled man. You stand your best chance to break the line if you pull with all your great strength now.
I am glad I do not feel much pain from the hook. Sometimes I feel more pain when the hook is in my mouth but this one is deeper where I do not feel as much. Now I can be calm and not panic and figure out the best way to defeat this skilled fisherman.
When the sea began to grow dark the sun was going down and the fish had run out so much line he could feel it trailing behind him like a great weight in the ocean. He was towing perhaps a thousand feet of line and the boat on the end of it and the fisherman was still feeding it gently to him hours later and the fish felt even his great strength begin to flag.
I must jump, he said to himself. If I jump then I might be able to break the line which is a tactic that has worked for me before. But this line does not feel like it will break easily and then if I jump the bladders along my spine will fill with air and I wonıt be able to dive again. Iıll be in reach of the harpoon. Better I dive deeper.
He dove deeper and as the angle between him and the boat became steeper the boat became harder to pull and the pressure of the water, which was increasing one atmosphere for every ten feet, compressed his organs and made his throat clench tighter around the hook. If only I could spit up the hook, he thought. But it is lodged in my flesh and it will never be spat out. My only hope now is to break the line and let the hook slowly dissolve in my belly. It will be in good company with the other hooks I swallowed when I was younger. I should jump. It is a wild chance but I must take it. Otherwise all I can do is keep running and hope to tire out the fisherman and this fisherman does not want to tire.
Tire out, fisherman, he thought. You are experienced so maybe you are old like me and then you cannot endure forever.
The fish could not decide to jump. He knew that if he stayed low then the fisherman would not be strong enough to haul his great weight up through the water, but then the hook might never come loose and it would be a contest to see who died of exhaustion first. On the other hand, if he jumped and the line did not break he would not be able to dive again and when he ran out of strength the harpoon would come and end his life.
It has been a long life, he thought. I had lived many years and defeated several fishermen. I fear nothing in the ocean so this is a worthy way to die. But I am not dead yet and I want to beat this man who thinks he is the greatest fisherman on the ocean. I will stay low where he cannot reach me and we will see who tires first.
But the sun came up and the fish was still pulling and there was no more or less line than there was before. He was hungry now and very tired and the fisherman was inexhaustible.
Perhaps there is more than one man in the boat, he thought. Perhaps they swap the line between them when one tires. That is not fair but it is not fair when the tuna break the sardine ball either. I do not want to be caught by this group of men. I do not think I can break this strange, new line. Instead of jumping I will dive deeper where if I die they will not be able to pull me to the surface and perhaps they will cut the line instead.
In all his life the fish had never been deeper than one hundred fathoms. Above that depth the rays of the sun could still penetrate and allow phytoplankton to photosynthesize and zooplankton to feed on them. It was an area rich with food but the sailfish knew it was only the roof of the ocean and below it was a dark, strange area where he had never been. Now he dove straight down, unreeling line as he went, to the murky zone where the sun was not visible and neither were other fish. The sailfish felt the lateral lines on his side quiver as though something gigantic were passing and then caught a glimpse in the darkness of the flukes of a blue whale as it moved onward, filtering krill out of the water through the combs in its mouth.
You are no threat to me, old whale, thought the sailfish. You are the biggest thing in the ocean and you eat one of the smallest. If you donıt mind, Iıll stay down here with you.
The pressure on the fish was astronomical and yet he stayed down at one hundred fathoms because at this depth he could finally stop pulling and the fisherman could not haul him in. Perhaps when they realize I am not coming up they will cut the line, he thought. That would be respectful of them. But he stayed low until all the thin light was gone and the sun had gone down again and still the line was taught on the hook in his stomach.
The fish dozed and dreamed of the years when he was only six feet long and dodging mako sharks as he followed the great schools of sardines across the Pacific to their spawning grounds. In those days there were no drift nets combing the ocean and he could run in any direction as far as he liked, and he could outrun sharks and he could jump for the thrill of it and not fear the wait at the surface while the air bled from his swim bladders. He was woken by a change in the pressure on the hook in his stomach and he knew the fisherman was trying to pull him upwards. He saw from the lighter color of the water that the sun had risen again though the sun itself was not visible at this depth.
Perhaps they think I am dead, he thought. I have not moved in a long time. If they think I am dead then they will know they cannot pull me up and they will cut the line. This is the last trick I will play on you, fisherman. I did not jump and get in range of your harpoon and your strange thin line will be no use to you if you cut it. The old sailfish found his thoughts coming very slowly.
The fish resisted all urge to move and let the fisherman tug him upwards a few feet, feeling the great strain on the line which like all things must break if the tension is severe enough.
Cut the line, fisherman, thought the sailfish. I will not move.
As he waited he dozed again and then the line went slack and the sailfish knew the fisherman had cut the line and the pain went away from the hook in his stomach and the great fish floated there in the dark, half asleep and half awake, and did not notice the light dim as he drifted further down into the mesopelagic zone. At that depth almost no sunlight at all penetrated so plankton could not photosynthesize and the inhabitants fed on waste material raining down from above - decaying phytoplankton, droppings, and dead animals like the sailfish.
But I am not dead, he thought. I beat the fisherman. I did not jump and that was my choice. Maybe I would have broken the line if I jumped but in any case now I am going to a place where there will be no fishermen although I have never been there and cannot know for sure. Soon I will know.
The pressure on the fish was almost unbearable now and gradually he became aware of tiny lights in the darkness.
Perhaps I am dreaming, he thought. There is no sunlight down here to reflect off scales so what can I be seeing?
The lights reminded him of the bioluminescence he sometimes saw on the surface of the ocean on summer nights but the lights moved as though they were swimming. Some of the lights were organized in rows and were blue and these were lights on the bodies of squid that moved backwards through the water away from him as he came ghosting slowly by, deeper, and some of the lights were green and they were lights on the bellies of lantern fish.
Soon the lighted fish were all the light there was as he dropped below three thousand feet and entered the near-freezing world of the bathypelagic zone. The water was completely black all around him because the sun could not penetrate and yet the sailfish saw more and stranger fish illuminated by lights that grew from their heads like the lures used by squid fishermen. In silence the tiny fisher-fish watched him pass by on his way to the very depths of the ocean.
I have never been down there, he thought. There will certainly be strange creatures I have never seen. No fishermen can follow me down here and there is no line long enough to reach this deep. I hope there will be no fisherman. I will not mind being down there so long as there are no fisherman. I wonder what is down there.
Then the fish was asleep and he was dreaming again. He dreamt about the time before the drift nets and about the giant feeding balls of sardines and he dreamt about outrunning sharks and jumping clear of the water just for the thrill of it.