Eric and fish. (Fish on right.) Photo by Mark Tichenor.

OK, so now you have listened to me being very excited about fish, and perhaps you have wondered, Eric, what is the big deal with these things that are, after all, slimy and smelly and probably inferior in brains to most children’s toys? (I was talking to a psychologist recently about fish and he used the memorable expression “not a lot of neurons to work with.”)

It is, as Captain Mike says, the drama.

Years ago, when I was first starting to explore the outdoors on trips into the mountains, my backpacking buddy and I would bring only side dishes, so that we would have to catch fish to eat. Inevitably we’d end up in the fading evening light at some pine-ringed mountain lake, fishing poles in hand, desperately scanning the surface for clues as to where we’d find dinner.

I think this is the critical element of my obsession: I used to stand there without any idea what was going on. (A severe case of not a lot of neurons to work with.) I would adopt a confident expression and squint appropriately, allowing a faint, knowing smile to curl at the corner of my lip, while my brain was racing furiously on the hamster wheel to hunger. Because to me the lake always just looked like … well, a lake. An inky blue puddle of void.

But to my friend there was always some transparent truth written on the water’s surface. He was the fish whisperer: He’d squint for a minute, and he would point to some lake part that looked much like every other lake part, and he’d say, “There.”

In years and years, I have never seen him be wrong. We once went on a month-long trip to remote Alaska where we had a bush pilot drop us off at a lake that was at least three days walk from nowhere and we, again, did NOT BRING FOOD except for butter and some seasonings and maybe a side of green beans. We never went hungry. (We got pretty sick of trout, but that’s a different story.)

So I have always been utterly transfixed by the mysteries of the deep, and the idea that somehow this secret code was decipherable, and by the people to whom nature so meaningfully reveals itself.

That idea led me to marine biology. As an amphibious surfer/undergraduate at UC Santa Barbara my first ever internship was in the laboratory of Dr. Milton Love, author of Probably More than You Wanted to Know About the Fishes of the Pacific Coast.

Briefly, what I would do as intern was this: Once a week I would seat myself at a light table in Dr. Love’s office, just out of snapping range of his finger-eating lungfish Bebe. Someone from the office would rummage around in the freezer in the back room for a while, and would emerge with a frozen, basketball-sized chunk of hundreds of extremely expired inch-long silver fish. They would thunk it down in front of me on the table.

Some of these fish had two photoreceptor spots on them, and some of them had three photoreceptor spots on them. So every week I would sit for an hour with tweezers and tweeze the fish out of the chunk and sort them into little piles based on the number of spots they had. At the end of the day, I would count up my little tally marks, and give the number to one of the lab assistants, and walk back to the dorms feeling like I had contributed in some very small way to the advancement of Science and the Understanding of Itty-Bitty-Spotted Fish.

I did not last long as an intern, because at the same time I was counting fish I was secretly falling in love with newspapers. So instead of professional fish-counting I have spent my post-undergraduate years finding the fish whisperers among us and asking them, “What do you see?”

It’s a role I love: To ask about the nigh-unknowable. To ponder the great uncertainties of creation. To stand at the edge of the lake in the rapidly closing darkness, adopting my most panicked squint and with the first pangs of hunger just licking at my insides, and to imperatively wonder at the glorious mysteries of the deep.

That, anyway, is why I like fish. Can you even imagine what it’s like when I go to the ocean?

Finally, here is a neat little trick from a biologist of my acquaintance:

 

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