Thursday, May 31, 2012

My First Mentally Disabled Lionfish

When I arrived in Jamaica almost a year ago (!), I hated the ocean. Hated. Going to the beach sounded like the last thing I wanted to do after training in Hellshire. Yes, after sweating my ass off all day in these ugly khakis, I would love to go get covered in itchy sand and crusty salt water while fighting off the hordes of children throwing bag juice wrappers everywhere. Or be punched in the face, rough call. After I arrived at site and realized I was literally next door to some beautifully clear ocean that was much more pleasant to be in than the almost palpable humid air, I became a quick convert. I now look forward to my time in the ocean and get the same itch for it as I do for mountains. This new addiction has led me to seek out as many ways as possible to spend as much time as possible in my new aquatic environment. One of those ways was getting SCUBA diving certified.

Not only did this certification allow me to fully submerge myself in the ocean and stay there for longer than what is natural, it also opened up opportunities for work with a local environmental organization. For the past several months I have been conducting lionfish research dives with the Portland Environment Protection Association, along with another PCV (Brie), around the Portland area. Lionfish are a very damaging invasive species, relatively new to the Caribbean, and the government of Jamaica wants to collect more information about their invasion. Our task is to dive at three different sites once a month, doing transects, collecting any lionfish within our transect area, dissecting them and sending the data back to the Discovery Bay Marine Lab. This sounds very scientific and professional, right? Right. Really this means we get to go stab devil lionfish with spears, sometimes repeatedly, and laugh diabolically when we chop off their heads in the name of research in our very slick and sterile rooftop laboratory.

                                                                     Official rooftop laboratory

Our dives in Buff Bay and Manchioneal rely on fishermen we've recruited to take us out in their little boats to somewhere that is the appropriate depth. This means we get to hold on for dear life as the boat half the size of the swells cuts through the water, threatening to capsize at any moment, while our dive gear rolls around under our feet, looking just as out of control as we feel. Or so we think. The reality is that these boats are made for the ocean and can safely roll all the way to either side with the gunwhales just an inch above the water, making it easy for fishermen to pull in their fish pots. These guys also might pilot their boats through the ocean, oh, I don't know, almost every day of their lives. Of course this was the last thing on our minds as Steve and Sanchez helped us suit up before our first dive off of this miniature vessel. Shrieks may have escaped our throats as the boat tipped all the way to the water when we prepared to do a back roll entry off the side, while the obviously wiser Steve and Sanchez just laughed at us. The level of terror may have approached that of when I was a young child, learning how to use the rope tow at the ski hill. Only this time when I fell off, I wasn't dragged along by my fingertips with desperate shouts of 'Let go! Let go!' following me while other passengers on the vehicle-of-ski-glove-death approached from behind, just waiting to cut me in half with the large pieces of fiberglass and wood attached to their feet. Instead, I just floated. Huh. Well, that was easy.

Our primary objective is to locate and collect lionfish. When I say collect I mean use a Hawaiin sling, a type of spear used for spearfishing, to poke straight through the little monsters and jam them into a very uncooperative collection bag. After many dives, I finally speared my first lionfish after two previous attempts on the same dive. The first two were acting in their usual devious ways, hiding deep underneath overhangs, just teasing us with their feather-like but very spiny (and dangerous) fins, buggy unintelligent eyes, and gaping mouths ready to vacuum up legions of native fish. I just grazed them, as my upside-down, sideways and very reaching position didn't exactly allow accurate targeting, and they quickly swam deeper into the tiny cave, living to destroy native fish stocks another day. With this disappointment, I was determined to spear the next one we came across. And what would you know, literally meters away floated the perfect target.

It was out in the open, solitary and floating languidly. It was just what I needed, a bull's eye within reach and no distractions. At first glance it appeared to be wrestling with an imaginary opponent, and was assuredly in the choke hold of this invisible Hulk Hogan with gills. Upon further inspection, it clearly had some sort of mental capacity issues. Lionfish aren't too bright to begin with; you can literally aim your spear inches from its side and it won't budge as you hone in on its vital organs. This one, however, took lionfish mental retardation to a new level. If this had been dry land, it would have been drooling all over itself and sitting on its head. They usually don't hang out in the open water very much, and apparently this one's parents didn't teach it proper survival techniques. These deficiencies in upbringing and mental development were to my advantage and I did not hesitate to launch my spear into the fleshy fish.

I went on to spear myself another, much smaller and lively lionfish right after my first victory. Brie and I wrestled with the collection bag, trying to jam the little guy in there to hang out with his much bigger and special friend. Of course, the beast I thought I had adequately speared decided it had a little more life left in it and proceeded to swim out of the bag. It didn't make it far though, and patiently waited for us to fight with the Fort Knox of collection bags until we safely had the little one inside, never to wreak havoc on Jamaican's fishes again. As if one Hawaiian sling to the side wasn't enough, Brie speared it again and we stuck it with a sense of finality back into its new home. And with that, we were out of air and the dive was over.

After shedding all of our dive gear, we waited up on the dive boat for the rest of the dive group. We were diving with Lady G'Diver that day, a dive shop owned by the wonderful Steve and Jan, who let us borrow their dive gear for our dives in Buff Bay and Manchioneal and come along for Port Antonio dives when they have space on the boat. Since verbally communicating underwater is a bit of a challenge, the few minutes after everyone surfaces is full of post-dive sharing of submerged stories. This was when we learned that Jan, who was somewhere off ahead of us during the dive, had been spearing and leaving dead and wounded lionfish in her wake. It took about two seconds for us to put two and two together. What I thought was my first lionfish kill was in actuality a re-kill of Jan's expert speargunning spree. While my first lionfish was probably mental disabled, it was also physically disabled, as in already almost dead. It was like learning to fly a plane then realizing auto-pilot was on the whole time. Or something like that.

But I will take what I can get. I ate the three-times killed lionfish the other night and it tasted just as good as if I had been the first one to successfully end its personal invasion of the Caribbean. It also served as a great stationary target practice, setting me up to spear not one, but three massive lionfish on our next dive. In other words, this lionfish project I have gotten myself into is going quite well and promises to keep me fulfilled and entertained for some time. And I am spending more time in the ocean than I ever thought I would, which if you knew me before Jamaica, is mind blowing. Believe it.

                                                             Not the three-times killed lionfish, but just as big.