Home' Work Boat World : October 2015 Contents The worst meal I ever had
By Michael King*
While I was working as a marine biologist at the University of
the South Pacific in Fiji, something happened that kept me
engaged in absorbing work for several years.
I was examining the gut contents of some snappers caught in
deep water beyond the coral reefs and, when I opened up the
stomachs, quantities of red shrimps spilled out onto the
laboratory bench. I was astonished - the strange-looking shrimps
were bright red and the females carried blue eggs on their
swimming legs. The red colouration was typical of deepwater
creatures and suggested that these shrimps were eaten by
snappers in depths of over 200 metres.
Why is it that many marine creatures from deepwater are red?
With increasing depth the red components of white light are
absorbed first and beyond 15 metres, no red wavelengths are
present. So if a fish or other creature living below this depth is
coloured red it is effectively invisible. I once cut myself on a reef
while diving at a depth of 30 metres and my blood appeared
I was excited by these weird crustaceans and made plans to
catch some of them. I constructed simple traps with steel
reinforcing rod frames covered with chicken wire mesh and set
them from my yacht outside the coral reef which forms a barrier
around the area of Suva Harbour. And when I hauled them in,
there they were – several different species of red shrimps in each
I found that the catch rates of the shrimps tended to increase
with increasing depths and distance from the reef – the best
catches were in depths of over 600 metres. So I needed a more
suitable boat than the yacht that I had sailed in from Australia
The university had a 12-metre research vessel, ‘Nautilus’,
which was fitted with a hydraulic winch, so I made
arrangements to use her. Over the following months, whenever I
was not teaching, I mapped the depth distribution of the many
different species of shrimp off Suva Harbour. Whenever a trap
broke the surface there was always a tang of expectation – an
uncertainty about what deepwater creatures we would find. This
spiced up the hard work and made the difference between a
chore and an adventure.
To extend the surveys for deepwater shrimps beyond the area
near Suva I arranged to take longer trips on the university
research vessel. At the time, ‘Nautilus’ was conducting surveys
on deepwater snappers and I decided to go along with my
shrimp traps to see what I could find. I thought it would be a
bonus if we could have a meal or two of these large snappers,
which are regarded by many as the best tasting fish in the world.
They we re e xported from Fiji and other Pacific Island countries
and fetched high prices in auction houses in Honolulu and on
the west coast of USA. But on this first of my extended trips, I
had the worst meal I have ever had.
The Fijian crew and I prepared for a five day cruise to fish for
snappers and set my shrimp traps in deep water off the islands
on the east coast of Viti Levu. Before the cruise, I was busy
loading traps and scientific gear and didn’t take much notice of
what was being put on board in the way of food. There was
always a lot of fun and banter going on when working with
Fijians and I was vaguely aware of the crew loading bags of rice
and canned food of some sort.
“I took more notice when a snapper, unscaled and
ungutted, was cut in half and placed on top of the
rice in the boiling water”
After leaving Laucala Bay, we motored all day to the east
coast of Fiji. We arrived in time to set the shrimp traps (to be
collected the following mor ning) and used hand-lines to catch a
re spectable haul of deepwater snappers. We anchored just before
sunset in a beautiful quiet bay on the small island of Naqani.
The anchorage, which was well sheltered by a rocky headland
and just a stone’s throw off a white beach backed by coconut
palms, w as just like a postcard. Here we identified and measu red
the fish by the light of the setting sun and soon the coconut
palms were just silhouettes against the night sky.
The cre w lit a pressure light and set a huge Chinese stockpot
of water to boil on a kerosene stove, placed in the middle of the
large cockpit. I listened to the hiss of the pressure light while I
sat on the stern happily checking data collected during the day
and one of the crew placed a huge amount of rice in the boiling
water. I took more notice when a snapper, unscaled and
ungutted, was cut in half and placed on top of the rice in the
boiling water. I gloomily watched it boil for about twenty
minutes, after which the cook ladled it out a gray gruel of
undercooked rice and overcooked fish. Everyone around me
tucked into their bowls and I felt that I had to do the same. I
spat out scales and bitter pieces of intestine fro m each mouthful
and I realised that, as hungry as I was, I just couldn’t eat it. It
I pointed to a make-believe light on the dark horizon beyond
the bay and, while everyone turned their heads, I flicked the
remainder of my meal overboard. But an arrowy school of small
fish sped in to snap up the remains of my meal and their splashy
rush must have given me away.
After everyone had cleaned up their bowls, the kind old Fijian
skipper asked me if I would like some dessert. Guessing that the
cans I had seen being loaded onboard in Suva contained peaches
or pineapples or something similar, I thanked him, perhaps a little
too effusively - anything to take the taste of the main meal away. I
then watched in dismay as the cook picked up the stockpot and
scraped as much of the remaining fish off the rice as he could. He
then poured in three cans of condensed milk. The crew watched
me more closely this time as we ate our gray, sweet, fish-flavoured,
rice pudding. It was a very long five-day cruise.
*Adapted from Michael King’s Beneath the Surface: Tales of a Sailing
Marine Biologist, Zeus Publications, 2015
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