The Beach, the Ballyhoo, the Barracuda and Me
© Copyright 2018 by Valerie Marcley
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
This authentic fish yarn (without the hyperbole), was included in my first book Alize’, A Caribbean Love Story. I thought readers would most likely wonder why this somewhat magical occurrence was shimmed in, and certainly think it came from my imagination. I’m glad to have the opportunity to reveal it is, indeed, true.
Islands. Islands seduce. At least for me. I spent idyllic childhood summers barefoot on a little island. Oil lamps and candles, wild raspberries eaten off the bush; fresh well water pumped into jugs, hauled back to the cottage in a wheelbarrow; a surrounding frigid sea every plucky kid gleefully jumped into from the pier, from the beach, showing off to the shivering adults. The beloved seagulls' scolding caw. That’s where islands’ first serenaded me.
Sailing and working as yacht crew in the Caribbean - it’s all islands. We’d no sooner drop anchor at one island, when I would see another island hissing from the horizon. “Psst - I’m here. Come to me”. I needed to go to that one, as soon as possible. Did I get my fill? Not yet.
Some Caribbean islands are volcanic with lush green mountains, purple in the morning shadows before the sun tips the peaks. Some are flat coral islands, all sand, beaten by sun, surrounded by reefs. It was at one of these where my encounter with two fish took place. It’s an island that’s all beach and salt pans. You could walk around it if you had the time and the sun didn’t eliminate you.
My partner Bill and I were sailing on his boat, living a life many would envy. Drifting wherever we wished, needing only wind and a fish. We’d trail a line behind the ketch and usually caught a wahoo or kingfish by the time we found an anchorage. Or I’d dive in and hunt for a lobster. We’d pick the tender shoots of palm trees to make salad.
It was a long sail to this particular island. We rested on board and the next day dinghied ashore for a walk on the endless white beach. Bill, who has been dubbed “Bill the Nudist”, stripped his tee-shirt and shorts immediately and got back to nature.
The sun’s razor rays were depraved. We buttered ourselves with sunscreen and soaked in the warm water when needed. The surrounding ocean was, as always, an unreal blue but near shore almost white - the shade of a lovely refreshing cocktail - so glass-sheer you could see through it for thirty feet. Listless, it barely stirred as it lapped the leeward side of the island shore.
Around West Indian reefs, a small silver fish swims in the top few inches of the sea. It’s a bait fish local fishermen call a ballyhoo. It's about 8 inches long with a long slender needle “nose” somewhat unicornish. In some places it is called a needlenose or a garfish - a Lilliputian swordfish. They skip in and out of the water like a shining stone.
The beautiful silence was broken by a kerfuffle of splashing. A ballyhoo swiftly arched out of the water flying several feet though the air. A big barracuda followed, just a few feet behind. They both splashed down and we could see the life threatening race continue through the limpid water. Again the little fish jumped airborne; the barracuda again and gaining. I could feel the terror of the tiny fish. On their third jump into the air, I yelled, “Come here, I will save you!” The ballyhoo turned and jumped directly to my feet at the water’s edge. I picked it up with both hands. We could see the barracuda through the transparent water, nose to us, glaring. He was angry! Barracudas have a natural frown and always look angry, but I was sure he was raging specifically at me! Shortly he spun, seemingly in a huff, and swam away. I watched him until he disappeared then gently lowered the ballyhoo in the shallow water. It swam away - in a different direction.
Bill and I looked at each other happily astonished. Did the fish understand me? Or was I the only alternative? Do fish hear? Did we speak a mysterious language of the cosmos? Of nature? Do ballyhoo speak English? Will he send a thank you note?
I prefer to believe that little guy understood and we had a remarkable encounter I shall cherish and never forget. I hope my ballyhoo feels the same.