Fish

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posted: 05/15/12
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Daniel Huertas/DCL

It's a disturbing experience — seeing something that doesn't exist.

In July 1993 I was floating in a leaky wooden canoe on a muddy Amazon lake, known simply as Lago Grande (big lake), looking for arapaima. Unusually for fish, Arapaima gigas are air-breathers. Despite having gills, they have to surface at half-hour intervals to burp stale air from their swim bladder and gulp a fresh mouthful down. It's a quirk that allows these super-predators to stay active in stagnant water, when other fish are going belly-up. And without doubt it's one of the reasons they grow so huge. Just how huge is not known for sure, but they are commonly said to be the biggest freshwater fish in the world, with some supposedly reliable sources quoting a maximum length of fifteen feet.

So they shouldn't be too hard to spot, particularly as they're also not exactly camouflaged, being decorated all over with vivid red markings. So why hadn't I seen a single one?

Perhaps they had all been harpooned or netted — the one drawback to being so large and visible. But local fishermen assured me there were still arapaima in the lake, mainly because there's a very deep hole, over seventy-five feet deep, off the southern end of the central island where their encircling nets can't reach the bottom. A few days before, José had even pointed some out to me:

"There! The size of this canoe!..."

But the distant ripples looked no different from any of the others that he had pointed out earlier, made by river turtles, caimans at periscope depth, and other fish. Or so he said. As far as I was concerned, he was seeing things that were invisible. I recalled how other fishermen had told me that the lake was encantado — enchanted — how an invisible force sometimes held canoes out in the middle, and how the fishermen had strange dreams when they camped here, dreams about ghost ships from an underwater kingdom whose occupants silently beckoned. No wonder fishermen have such a reputation for invention and exaggeration and for being all-around unreliable witnesses. Perhaps the arapaima wasn't a real fish at all but rather a spirit living in another dimension, a spirit you can only see once you've lost your grip on reality after too much time staring at the water. ...

...Such was my state of mind when, thirty yards from the boat, the surface opened and something huge heaved into the air. The size was right for a very big arapaima, but the shape was all wrong. What I'd seen — if the blurred afterimage wasn't deceiving me — was an arched back, bright pink in color and bearing a row of large triangular points.

It was like some huge gear wheel in the lake's workings, briefly cutting into the air before spinning back into the depths.

What it was not like was any living creature in the real world.

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Back at the hut that night I described it to José, who knew the lake better than anyone. He regarded me over his ragged moustache and then asked where I was keeping my secret bottle of cachaça — and why I wasn't sharing it with him.

"Nothing like that lives here," he said.

All the other fishermen I told about it said the same thing.

...For the sake of my sanity, I allowed the outlandish vision — which had once screamed for attention — to fade from my memory. And that's how things would have stayed if I hadn't gone back the next year. I was still looking for arapaima, but I also cast lures into the lake margins for smaller species — tucunaré (more widely known as peacock bass), surubim, and aruanã — usually to return to the water but sometimes for the pot. On one particular day, when these fish were proving more elusive than usual, there were several pink river dolphins breaching in the area of the deep hole. These (the scientific name is Inia geoffrensis, but they are known locally as botos) are among the Amazon's strangest looking animals — hump-backed with a bulging head that contains an echo-location organ and sports a narrow, toothy beak. I decided to pack up fishing for the day and try to photograph dolphins instead.

With my 135mm medium-telephoto lens, I had to be pointing right at them to get them in the frame. ...The next couple of hours saw me almost dislocate my neck several times, as I snapped round and pushed the shutter, as well as nearly tipping myself out of the boat, which was wobbly enough even when I was keeping still. I had an idea that I'd clicked on a dolphin or two, but there was no way to know until I had the slides processed.

Several weeks later, when I got back to the UK, most of the frames were much as I expected — shots of the sky and skewed horizons, some with anonymous splashes or spreading rings — but I did have a couple showing a dolphin's humped back. Then I held another slide up to the light — and there it was: the shape that had been transient and blurred on my retina, now clear and sharp on film. But what on earth was it? The picture was published in BBC Wildlife magazine, sparking speculation that it might even be an unknown new species. I returned to the lake the next year with a video camera provided by the BBC Natural History Unit, and after a six week stakeout I captured it on videotape in just three grainy frames — but unmistakable.

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I also looked into the mystery of its identity, and three years later, after talking to countless people, pieced together the shocking story. It's one that, in some ways, I would rather not know. But even so, there is a happy ending, for both the creature and me. The creature is exuberantly alive, almost flaunting its strangeness, and I am not losing my marbles. My fisherman's tale was true.

And in a strange way this discovery gave me a broader validation. Although a few friends saw my shoestring travels as unusual and interesting, in the eyes of most I had lost my way. ...I emerged from university with a degree in zoology, vaguely prompted by my interest in fish, but no idea of anything I wanted to do. So instead of crushing knuckles underfoot on the career ladder, here I was, in my late thirties with a trail of abandoned jobs behind me, making less than minimum wage from selling occasional magazine articles.

Part of the problem was my father, who in his youth had been a farmer but who'd been disinherited after he'd abandoned the family trade to become a priest. As a teenager, predictably, I'd rejected organized religion, but I seemed to have absorbed other, more profound things from him that I couldn't shake. One of these was an indifference to the trappings of worldly success. Or perhaps I was just saying this because, with my threadbare employment record, and something else that nobody knew about, those things were never going to be mine anyway. ... Occasionally a letter from a girl in Brazil would turn up at my parents' house and I'd see the looks next time I talked about my "research trips." I felt that if I could only magically transport my father to an Amazon lakeside then he would understand. Because this was where, for whatever reason, despite all the blood-sucking insects and mud like a First World War battlefield, I became properly alive. It was hardly the garden of Eden, but it was the gateway to a state of mind that he would recognize. Because, despite our differences, we shared one fundamental belief: that there is more to this world than what's visible on the surface.

My sighting of the Lago Grande monster and subsequent proving of its existence is also why I have more time than most for other unlikely tales. Now if somebody tells me they have seen a giant animal lurking in the water, I don't automatically dismiss it because there is no photograph. Native fishermen don't carry cameras. Nor do I swallow it without question, however. Such stories need to be subjected to scientific scrutiny. And for all the exaggeration and mutation that can arise in the retelling, some fishermen's tales do contain nuggets of shocking truth. ...

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... Casting a line into the water is like asking a question. Something could be right underneath you, but you can't see it — it's there but not there. And sometimes only a line will make it real, despite the odds against this happening being very long. After hanging limp and lifeless — maybe for hours or days or weeks or years — it will twitch and run, and the cane or carbon-fiber in your hands will bend like a divining rod. Then, if your gear and nerves are sound, you will bring something out into the light, seemingly from nowhere, from another dimension. When this happens, it has an element of magic to it, like pulling a rabbit from a hat.

This book is a series of such investigations into the murky world of fishermen's tales. The tales are of river monsters that are frighteningly large or dangerous — or both. Fish that swallow men whole, others that eat them from within, and others that pack a killer punch. And the truth, though elusive and sometimes complex, is often every bit as unbelievable as the myth.

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