Deep Breath

The lobster exposed itself darting backwards across a twenty-foot open sandy area, then ducked into a ten-inch wide hole in the reef. The water wasn’t deep, maybe ten or twelve feet—yet well over my head. I took a breath through my snorkel, dove beneath clear Caribbean waters and kicked hard, hurrying after the lobster. Arriving at the lobster’s hiding spot, I hastily plunged my stick into the small cave. My attention was distracted from the lobster as I saw an arm appear from nowhere, reach out from one side of the opening, and wrap around my stick, then another. Suddenly, I had a clear view of an octopus or part of one—suction cups, rapidly changing colors, a hint of an eye.

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On a mid-1980s getaway to Belize, Alice and I had headed to Ambergris Cay where we stayed for ten days exploring the world’s second largest barrier reef. In the cay’s little village, we rented lodgings with kitchen over a local fisherman’s home.

Our quarters faced the beach with a direct view of the barrier reef from the second story porch. At that time, the whole village operated on a single municipal diesel generator. It was often not working, and there was no television. There were no paved roads and only a couple of cars, primarily for delivering tourists into the village from the airstrip. People living on the cay used feet and boats as their primary modes of transportation.

After getting our bags put away, we took a walk along the beach trying to shake off our airplane rides—from North Carolina to Belize’s Philip S.W. Goldson International Airport just outside of Belize City and then by small plane out to the cay. On our walk, we met Ramon, a smallish yet quite fit dark-skinned man who was hawking trips on his glass-bottomed boat. We decided to join him on his strange-funky, homemade craft. The excursion turned into a pleasant afternoon of drinking Belikin Beer and drifting across the Belize Barrier Reef while staring through Ramon’s magic portal into the lives of countless wriggling flashing fish, crustaceans and corals. A rainbow of colors ranging from muted camouflage to outlandish neons met our eyes.

Ramon’s informative chatter so interested us that we arranged to go snorkeling with him the following day. We intended to gather our supper ourselves from the reef in the form of crabs, lobster and fish.

The following morning, we met Ramon on his rickety pier built on coconut palm posts, hopped into his small boat, a panga, and motored north along the reef—away from the village toward the Mexican border.

When Ramon arrived at the “right spot,” he anchored and began to instruct us in catching lobsters. We used well-worn, fifteen-inch long wooden batons Ramon simply called sticks. They were about the diameter of a broomstick. On the end there was a barb-flattened 6/0 long shank fishhook securely wrapped with soft wire. The first chore was to find a lobster in a spot with no “back door”—a hole, small cave or crevice between corals. The trick then was to position the hook behind the lobster and pull—hooking the point under the hard shell in front of the tail meat. Once hooked, you draw the lobster out of its hide and grab it. As Alice and I caught on, we were gathering a more than respectable feast.

***

Then, I encountered the lobster that introduced me to that octopus. After realizing an octopus had my stick, I attempted to assert control. I pulled hard to retrieve my stick. It was as though I was trying to pull Excalibur from the Stone—it didn’t budge. I tried twisting, shaking, and underwater cussing. I soon realized I was at my breath-hold limit and had to let go of the stick to surface and regroup. Ramon rolled with laughter when I told him what had happened.

“Yu no pull it out”, he chortled.

Well, I’d seen the octopus. He wasn’t that big. He couldn’t be but so strong.

“Oh, don’t worry, I’m sure I can get it,” I told Ramon.

I took a deep breath, returned to the hole, and grabbed the unmoved stick. I couldn’t move the octopus even a little. Again, I had to resurface. I took more deep breaths and made another dive. This time I set my swim fins flat on either side of the hole, took hold of the stick with both hands and put the full strength of my back into a power pull.

Nothing.

Ramon was laughing when I surfaced, but said, “Hey, watch out. Nu mek ih grab yo wris’.”

And then it hit me. I’d still be down there if he’d grabbed my wrist instead of the stick.

Ramon told me to get into the panga and we’d return when the octopus was finished “playing.” A half hour later, we checked the hole. The octopus and the lobster were gone—the stick still jammed in the hole. For all I knew the octopus was camouflaged a few feet away—laughing as I retrieved my stick. Yes, they are smart and strong.

***

I read an article by Sy Montgomery entitled Deep Intellect in Orion Magazine online (https://orionmagazine.org/article/deep-intellect/). Reading it flooded my head with the memory of my octopus encounter in Belize.

I recommend this article to anyone who has ever had feelings of superiority to animals. The descriptions of octopus behavior will wow you. How could these shell-less mollusks be so strong and so smoothly negotiate the intelligence games put before them by researchers at the New England Aquarium?

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