Wednesday, 22 June 2011

The Pint Glass Aquarium

Image above: Shrimps chasing shrimps
Location: Below the pier, Isle of Erraid, Mull, Scotland

The Pint Glass Aquarium

There is a soft edge to the water almost as if it has taken on the sombre mood of the sky. The day is poised on the edge of a raincloud that looms over the bay and island. It adds a thickness or a density to both the air and water, hushing activity like a hand placed on a drum skin. Small wavelets ‘phawp’ and collapse into the sand while the calls of oystercatchers have lost their echo.

The full moon has rolled up the ocean like a rug, draining all but the lowest fingers of the bay. I am waist deep, pushing a shrimp net and small wave through what remains. I look back at the island and see it as if through the eyes of a seal and draw breath from that same film of air that sits over water, still and damp. The surface has begun to dimple as the rain moves in. I am mesmerised by ripples that move within ripples and the shortened perspective my viewpoint affords. If I was to chose the life of a seal, the surface world would be always for-shortened by the next wave, beach, cliff face or the curvature of the blue earth; maybe unlike a seal I would miss hillsides.

The net is heavy now. At the far end of the long pole I am pushing, a wide board planes over the seabed disturbing the top few millimetres of sand and the life held therein. Behind, the net gapes inflated by its drag and content, mainly of loose weed fronds that have drifted into the bay, shrimp and a cross section of life too large to pass through the mesh or find a route out of the tangle. I push leaning into the pole until the weeds bring me to a stop and then turn the net over sealing its contents in until I return to the beach.

In the long reach of the shallows where the wavelets race each other I roll the net back over and it opens like a purse or the crop of a giant bird displaying its contents. I work my way through what is immediately visible, picking the larger shrimps for the bucket and releasing smaller. Amongst the haul immature flatfish lie upturned their translucent undersides clearly displaying their small pouch of organs. Righted and placed outside the net they skitter away leaving puffs of sand in their wake like badly aimed rockets. I inspect old winkle shells and find the striped clown legs and claws of hermit crabs tucked neatly out of harm. They retreat from every experience whether it is my touch or contact with the sand as I return them to the sea.
Tugging at the netting rolls the seaweed mass up like sushi in bamboo leaving me to unpick what remains. Peeler crabs soft bodied like kid leather flop motionless still waiting for their skeleton to harden. A larger shore crab raises its pinchers in threat fixing its eyes on me it weaves from side to side ready to lay one on me if the opportunity should present itself. Not looking for a fight I toss it back into the sea and it scuttles off to tell its friends that it could have had me. The strands of kelp slowly unwind revealing the flicking tails and twitching antenna of the shrimp. Some I loose in transit to the bucket as they summersault out of my hands under their own propulsion and quickly bury themselves in the sand.

As the weed thins out I find a small member of the cuttlefish family and place it in the shrimp bucket, it hovers gently above the shrimps undulating its ghostly fins. When the net is empty I am done for the afternoon and make my way back up to the street. The cuttlefish finds a temporary home in a pint glass on the windowsill. In the cottage’s small kitchen I drop the shrimps into a pan of boiling water for a couple of minutes, drain them and return to the windowsill to peel them under a watch-full gaze. The cuttlefish changes colour eventually blending with satin white finish of the woodwork. When I am done with the shrimps I provoke it by introducing a black towel to the background and it responds with browns and blues.

When the school-boat returns I carry the pint glass aquarium down to the pier and show it to my neighbour’s kids; they are unimpressed and tell me they had found their own when they were shrimping at the weekend. Back in the sea in changes its colour almost instantly taking its cue from the reds and browns in the granite pebbles.

Image above right: Orlando shrimping

Image Below: Cuttlefish

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Mackerel Evenings

Image Above: Rainbow Amongst The Mackerel
Location: Isle Of Erraid, Mull, Scotland
Mackerel Evenings

The lines stretch away either side of the stern, weighted and rigged with feathered hooks that swim like sand eels as they are pulled through the waters of the sound. The sun has set beyond Iona but there is still light enough, if it is only the half-light of a summer’s evening in these northern latitudes. The nights no longer darken to a blackness that properly separates or measures out the days, instead summer’s shell-sand light fades into dusk as the sun briefly skirts below the horizon. Sometimes it is hard not to believe that the island doesn’t lie at the centre of this orbit, the sun moves around that hoof print of land as if held within reach and the tilted axis of a discus throwers spin.

I am running the outboard engine at its lowest speed, the boat is gently pushing through the flat water and the ebbing tide. Orlando has the bow seat, nodding his fishing rod with a rhythmic motion that pulls at his trailing line and the lures. I hold the other rod and stare into the wake, watching jellyfish undulate as they pass like the ghost of drowned ballerinas.

I am following a course between Easter island and the channel-marker buoy in the hopes that we will pass over a small knoll that rises five or six metre from the sea bed. Shoals of fish often congregate here drawn from the featureless plains of the ocean floor. If the tide is running fast enough water is often pushed up from the depths breaking the surface in a slow boil untouched by the breeze that ripples the surrounding water. Most often it is the line weights touching down or snagging in the weed that signals a change in depth.

Orlando feels the tug of fish first and is already reeling in his line, my feathers cut through the shoal seconds later and I am in, hooked. I put the engine in neutral and wind, four mackerel a piece, we unhook the fish and return the feathers to the water as quickly as possibly, it is all about speed. The boat, the tide and the shoal are all moving and it is largely guesswork as to which route will bring us into contact again. We drop our lines vertically into the depths and bring up three stragglers that had probably followed the other hooked fish towards the boat. We unhook and return our lines to the water but there are no more takers and I slip the engine into forward and let the lines trail from the stern as I make a wide circle.

With the excitement over, we count our catch and the total stands at fourteen. We then count up the population of the island which including guests, residents, children, friends and visiting family members stands at somewhere round twenty-four. We knock off two, one vegan and one vegetarian, twenty-two and only fourteen fish. A fillet each and we can pad it out with some rice or potato salad. Orlando suggests a barbeque and we discuss recipes and whether to smoke them or not. Our lines find another five mackerel but it is late now and even the rainbow glow, that shimmers along the flanks of the silver bolts of lightening can not keep me from longing for a good night’s sleep. With the engine and boat idling near the buoy I gut and toss the heads of the fish to a herring gull who as if performing a side show swallows four and still floats, maybe a little lower in the water. We tidy the boat and then set off for home, watching the lights of houses on the island’s small street sway in the half-light.