We kept aquariums at home when I was a kid. My older Brother always found it hilarious, that my Dad… the “eminent marine scientist” as he called him, would ever allow fish to prematurely die in his care. He’d come down to check on the tank every morning, counting the casualties and bring it up as we were having breakfast: “We lost two Tetras last night, Dad…. any idea why?”
At first, my Dad would go to great lengths to explain the possible causes to us, until he realised that my Brother wasn’t really interested in the finer points of marine epidemiology , but rather trying to get a rise out of him. Realising he had to up the ante, my Brother then began to keep a highly detailed log of fish mortalities, and diligently read them out at breakfast, cumulatively; much to my amusement, and my Dad’s chagrin.
Years later, I spent several summer weekends as a teenager accompanying my Dad to the lab as he’d put in weekend hours either catching up or getting ahead… probably the latter, he is like that. Sometimes, I’d carry out one of the feeding cycles on the fish in the big outdoor tanks on which they were conducting experiments. When I was done, I’d wander down to the dock and read, or tan while listening to music on my headphones, depending on the weather. Don’t ask me what he was specifically studying at the time, but when I’d walk in from the beach into the always goosebump-inducing air of the lab, I’d find him head down over a microscope as he analysed histology slides.
One day I was stretched out tanning on the dock when I heard my name being called. It was Dale, one of the aquarium technicians that had come in to borrow some gear for a dive. He waved me over to his portable “office”, opened up his bar fridge and proceeded to pop open a couple of Coronas which he then behatted with slices of lime. I wasn’t yet old enough to legally drink, but it wasn’t my first beer either. I squeezed the lime down into the bottle and watched it fizz as I plonked myself down on the fraying nylon deck chair he offered me. It tickled my bare thighs.
Dale was a typical beach-bum surfer dude that would rather be in Maui. Lean and athletic, in his late twenties or early thirties, shoulder-length blond and blue-eyed under his Oakleys, tanned all over, and dressed from flip flops to sunglasses in equal parts O’Niell and Quiksilver. The hair on his limbs looked like thousands and thousands of perfectly aligned strands of shiny white-gold silk. We’d met several times before at employee parties – both formal and informal – and he was always loudly cracking jokes, keeping everyone entertained, and getting way more drunk than was right for a work function – even I knew that. He had a reputation for being lazy (which I had heard mostly from my Dad), and for shamelessly taking advantage of company resources for his extra-curricular pursuits, which he clearly was in the process of pursuing when he called me over.
He talked on and on about some randomness I can’t hope to remember as my eyes adjusted to the darkness inside the fishy portable. I clasped my dripping wet Corona with both hands as I looked around the room and saw a cornucopia of green netting, long metal pipes, a rainbow of plastic piping, beige file cabinets, and plastic milk boxes in which he stored his books. On the walls were posters of tropical destinations, sinewy surfers ripping massive curls, and nude or micro-bikini-clad women from every conceivable angle and ethnicity, the only commonality among them being that they were all very tanned, their curves shiny from sun lotion. And, between all of this, were framed colour photographs of fish, lot and lots of fish.
Who took those? I interrupted him. His eyes lit up in a proud smile as he said that they were all his, and that he was writing and illustrating an encyclopaedic full-colour photographic guide to fish of the Pacific Northwest.
I was stunned, and not a little bit impressed. And he knew it.
This was the first real author working on a real book that I remember meeting, that wasn’t at least three times my age signing autographs in a bookstore. I hadn’t realised until then I think, that you didn’t have to look like an author, to be an author, if you know what I mean.
His pictures were truly beautiful. Keep in mind that these weren’t your stunning-to-begin-with tropical fish that make your eyes pop out, these are mainly grey-blueish-silver saltwater and inshore fish, but photographed with such talent and attention to detail, that it compelled you to appreciate them in a whole new way. Yes, he made salmon look sexy. I got up and looked at each picture like one might walk through an aquatic museum, reading the titles written in pencil on the white mats beneath the glass… acipenseridae…esocidae…osmeridae… salmonidae… gadidae…
Noticing my keen interest in his work, he offered to take me on a dive the next morning, that was if I was able to get up at some ungodly hour that I hadn’t seen since taking an early morning flight.
I said I didn’t know how to dive.
He said he would teach me.
“I’ll ask my Dad if it’s ok.” I said, knowing full well, that it would, absolutely, positively, never be “ok”.
Dale made a funny face and told me to save it for another time. The water wasn’t going to be that clear the next morning anyway.