June/July 1998

Otoliths, Icthyology and Fish Slime
Chapter 2

by Dail Bridges

It was 1983, and I had completed a Bachelor's Degree in Psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I was working in a Group Home for severely emotionally disturbed adolescents in a small coastal town in North Carolina and living with my parents.

And I was restless. North Carolina was too small for me. I had lived all over the state and not found what I was searching for. I wanted a life bigger than me, bigger than what the south, with all of its heritage and traditions, expected of me. All of my growing up years had been spent here --it was what I knew and what I was comfortable with--and what I was most afraid of. Everytime a woman friend of mine announced her engagement or told me she was pegnant, I felt a sense of panic. Please, no, not me--don't let this end up being me. As my friends disappeared into their quiet, suburban lives, I seemed more and more a stranger to them. When I spoke of traveling to far off places, of my yearning to explore the world, they would stare at me, incredulous. The uncomfortable silence would be broken with a question about my family or a comment about the weather. The weight of tradition and expectation seemed to smother me. Sometimes I felt that I would explode if I did not get out.

Then I met Victoria, a woman who lived outside the mold of all of those around me. She was a marine biologist, cruising all over the world on scientific research vessels. Currently, Vic was doing work for a scientist at Duke University's Marine Laboratory. Her job was to take her on a two month cruise on the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) ship, "The Discoverer," in the equatorial South Pacific. However, for personal reasons, she wanted to do only one leg of the trip and needed a substitute for the second month. Vic assured me that, with the proper training, I could easily take her place. Happily, I left my job with the teenagers who were intent on trying to kill me, each other, and themselves. Vic arranged it so that the lab would fly me down to Manzanillo, Mexico to meet and board The Disco (our fond nickname for the ship) and she would return home.

All that remained now was for Vic to train me to do the research and--did we think this would be easy?-- teach me how to be a scientist. The research scientists on these cruises were a highly competitive bunch and would kill for data, not to mention run roughshod over an impostor in their midst. Vic warned me that I must enact the full charade; if any of these cutthroats had even an inkling that I was not who I pretended to be, they would make my life miserable. She recounted tales of passive researchers being forgotten or not awakened so that they could collect data at certain work stations; others who missed out on computer processed data because they were too shy to ask for it. We trained together for two weeks, until Vic convinced me that I could carry off this deception without a hitch.

Working on The Disco was my first taste of being at sea, and I loved it. Much of my life had been spent exploring the marshes and islands of the North Carolina coast. Summertime, early mornings, I would set off in tattered shorts and musty old tennis shoes, wading through the tall grasses and shallow waters of the nearby inlets, searching for the treasures that low tide uncovered. Startled blue herons would rise before me, like ungainly elephants struggling to take flight. Low country smells of salt and marsh grass filled the air. I would lose myself for hours, mesmerized by the dance of sunlight on silver water. The South Pacific was warm and soft, as my summers on the Atlantic coast had been, and it nurtured me. I felt a strange sense of safety, surrounded by these vast, calm waters. I loved waking early every morning and rushing out onto the open deck, breathing deeply of the fresh ocean smell, gazing across the endless expanse of blue water. Whenever a whale or porpoise broke the surface of the glassy sea, I gratefully accepted the special gift--a personal show, meant only for me.

Amazingly, I managed to blend in with all of the real-life scientists on The Disco, working side by side with them and never arousing suspicion. One of the researcher's especially intrigued me, a marine bird specialist named Larry Spears. Larry had previously been a Foreign Fisheries Observer with the Pacific Northwest program and had worked in Alaska. He regaled me for hours with his stories of adventure on the, literally, high seas. I was absolutely fascinated and hung on his every word, asking endless questions. Through Larry's stories, I garnered a vision of what it must be like to work on a foreign fishing boat in the cold waters north of Alaska. Recognizing my keen interest, he urged me to apply to the program in Seattle, if I really wanted to work in the Bering Sea. And I finally confessed my secret to Larry.

"Right, Larry--me and my B.A. in Psychology. I am sure the Foreign Fisheries Observer Program would happily hire a candidate without a degree in Marine Biology or even simple Biology." I could not imagine anything less likely.

Larry explained that there was a high demand for Observers, as most only do the job once. At any one time, dozens of foreign vessels needed observers on board, as it was illegal to fish in American waters without one. The program needed a steady supply of new people to fill Observer positions. Besides, he said I had done what appeared to be an excellent job with my research work on The Disco--working as an Observer would be a piece of cake.

We pulled into Seattle in November, and I requested an application from Larry's contractor, Oregon State University. I returned to North Carolina, and when the Foreign Fisheries Observer application arrived, I read and re-read the questions.

"What courses have you had in the field of Biology? Marine Biology? What field work have you done that would apply to fisheries? To this position specifically? Have you had at least one course in ichthyology?"

For this last question, I had to pull out my dictionary to look up the word ichthyology. "Ichthyology: a branch of zoology dealing with fishes," page 244 of my old Webster's dictionary stated.

The only thing that I could come up with that was the least bit relevant from college were my two required statistics courses. Of course, I didn't mention that I had struggled terribly with both of them. In fact, I had given the second course a practice run by auditing it before taking it for a grade. Even then, the grade was miserably low. Thankfully I had something substantial to put under "Relevant Work Experience." My month of data collection and research on The Disco took up a full page of the application. I wondered if this would be positive or negative, as it certainly seemed to magnify the lack of any other experience. Mailing off the completed application, I decided not to hold my breath waiting for a response.

When an envelope arrive from Oregon in early January, the first thing I noticed was its thinness. I envisioned the enclosed rejection letter would read: "Thank you for applying to be a Foreign Fisheries Observer, but we suggest you look for work within your field of Psychology. For Observer positions, we hire those individuals who have some degree of training in the biological sciences."

Already feeling disappointed, I tore open the envelope to read: "Your application to be a Foreign Fisheries Observer has been accepted. Please report to Seattle, Washington for a two week training course beginning February 8, 1984...."

Later, I would find out that the Federal Government had just mandated that Observer coverage of foreign ships be 100%. And, per the government contract of Oregon State University, they were required to supply the majority of people for this new coverage rate. My timing was perfect.

Next began the flurry of trying to get organized to go to Seattle. What to take? What not to take? The Bering Sea...Alaska...both conjured up images of Siberia in my mind. My days of winter camping in the North Carolina Blue Ridge Mountains paid off, and I piled together hats, gloves, long underwear, and wool sweaters and socks. An army duffel bag barely contained my belongings. I emptied out my meager savings account and purchased a plane ticket to Seattle. All, I felt, was now in order for my departure in three weeks.


Day One of the Foreign Fisheries Observer Training Course in Seattle found about 30 of us gathered in a classroom at the Naval Reserve Center on the shores of Lake Union.

The trainer asked each of us to stand and introduce ourselves and discuss our background. It quickly became evident that I was surrounded by people from all over the country who had graduate degrees in ichthyology, marine biology, fisheries management and/or extensive experience in these fields.

My nervous imagination threatened to take over. I envisioned this to be the first session of group therapy. Perhaps an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. I would soon be forced to stand, raise my right hand and state "My name is Dail Bridges. I am a Pretend Scientist. Only a month ago I did not know what ichthyology meant. I am an impostor--the worst kind. I am turning myself over to this group--do with me as you will."

Interrupted from my embarrassing flight by the instructor, I stood, recited my name and actually said "I'm a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and recently worked for a month on the NOAA ship Discoverer, gathering data for research on El Nino." I sat back down, hoping no one would ask any questions and, most of all, that the trainer wouldn't say "What did you say your degree was in?" I was safe, because the person next to me immediately stood up, eliminating any chance for queries.

After introductions, the trainer gave us an overview of the course and what was expected of us as Foreign Fisheries Observers. We would be taught specific scientific sampling techniques that would enable us to determine the species composition of each catch our boat brought on board, as well as methods of estimating the total size of each catch. We would learn fish and crab identification and identification of certain protected species (various halibut, salmon and King Crab) that the foreign ships were not allowed to retain, as they were reserved for the American fishing boats. Americans being such picky eaters, out of all of the fish in the Bering Sea, these were the only ones that had a successful market in the States.

A whole session would be devoted to collecting otoliths and length frequencies from certain species. At the mention of otoliths, I leaned toward my neighbor and inquired in a whisper, wondering what they were. Fish earbones, I was told. Fish earbones? I tried to envision a fish with ears. Did they have earlobes? Perhaps some even had pierced ears, a glittery stud embedded in their slimy flesh. Surely the Pretend Scientist was going to be found out. I could never pull this off.

To record our data, it would be necessary for us to learn the intricacies of 11 different and very detailed data forms. We would also go over life at sea, safety and emergency procedures and interactions with a foreign culture. Training on fisheries regulation and enforcement, as well as our role in this area, would entail a full day. Marine Mammal identification was to complete the course.

I wallowed in my own sea of confusion. The very language the trainer used sounded like a foreign tongue. Otoliths, chin barbels, ventral fins, Sculpins, Greenland Turbot. My brain reeled with the amount of statistical and mathematical work, and work in general, that would be required on the job. I had entertained visions of throwing a few fish around, scouting with binoculars for marine mammals, and, perhaps, some paperwork for documentation purposes. My visions, it turned out, were wildly inaccurate. It was bad enough feeling intimidated by the caliber of people surrounding me; now I was concerned with whether I was even capable of doing the job. I reminded myself frequently that I had just successfully spent a month working with people who assumed I was a marine scientist.

As class progressed, the instructor often shared stories from past observers ("priors," as the program referred to them). We heard detailed descriptions of elaborate cheating systems boats set up to throw off Observers' calculations. Tales of working in the factory day and night, of endless piles of fish, of food so bad everyone on the ship became ill. Drunken crews who staggered to work when a trawl came on.

One prior returned from sea as our class was in session with a tale that disturbed all of us. His Japanese trawler collided with another one in heavy seas and sustained minimal damage, but the second one sank. This Observer had participated in an intense rescue operation which was only partially successful; 14 men went down with the ship. Like passengers scheduled on an airline whose jet had just crashed, we could not resist the news of the disaster. We clustered around Tom, demanding that he share every morbid detail of his nightmare.

Ironically, the training schedule called for survival suit drills the next morning. We entered our training room to find a large stack of heavy canvas bags piled in a corner. Our instructor issued each of us a sack, which contained a standard, one-size-fits-all survival suit. Huge orange insulated affairs, the suits were to be pulled on over our clothes and zipped up tightly. If an emergency found us heading into the water, the suit design should keep us dry and warm. The instructor held a Gumby-like suit up in front of the class and pointed out the features: a small air hose that inflated a ring around your neck to help you float; a whistle that dangled from one shoulder--the instructor insisted that its shrill sound could be heard over thunderous waves and shrieking winds; a dynamite-sized flare nestling under the deflated neck ring that ignited when you pulled it sharply forward and off the suit. The instructor assured us that even using an arm weakened by shock and cold, we could throw the flare as far as necessary to attract the attention of near-by rescue vessels.

The feature demonstration completed, the instructor somewhat casually mentioned that a ship can sink in as little as four minutes. He shouted a command and clicked on a stop watch as we raced to put our suits on. The room filled with the sounds of ripping Velcro as we pulled open our storage bags. I yanked my suit out, rolling it onto the floor. Suits were always stored unzipped, so I thrust my steel toed boots (again, standard issue) into the leg holes and sat on the floor. The polyurethane squeaked and stuck along my boots, resisting my tugging. My left boot jammed in the knee fold. I twisted and shoved, lying flat on the floor and raising my tangled left leg in the air. Nothing worked. I shook off the suit. My hands quivered, lacking the strength to try, once again, to pull the suit over my boots. Sweat rolled down my face and dampened my clothes. I breathed deeply to calm my racing heart.

One-liners flew back and forth among my classmates:

"Hey, maybe we can market these as giant sausage holders!"

"Are we supposed to be able to move in these things, or just roll around on the floor?"

"Joan, you've got your leg in my arm hole!"

Though my class mates laughed and joked, an underlying tension hung in the air. We all understood how serious the situation would be if we had to actually put these on at sea. I was warm, dry and on solid ground and still my suit defeated me. I could not imagine what it would be like attempting this on a storm-rocked ship in the Bering Sea.

After class that day, I wandered the shore of Lake Union, huddled in my wool sweater and gortex jacket, plodding along in the cold rain. I thought about Tom, the shipwreck survivor, wondering what it felt like to be faced with the possibility of going down at sea. He had related only the physical details of his experience. We had not allowed him to share his emotions with us; there had been no room for this.

I had buried my fear in a deep, hidden place. Sometimes, pieces of it would creep out and startle me with their strength. I closed my eyes, seeing men tumbling around on the flooded deck of a ship, grasping and missing at hand-holds, sliding into the water as the boat upended into the churning ocean. I remembered sweating on the cool linoleum floor of the training class, my survival suit hopelessly tangled around my knees.

I could leave class. The trainer reiterated daily that this was an option; if any of us felt uncomfortable or unable, we were free to leave at any time. But what would I do? Where would I go? I watched the Canada Geese paddling around on the lake and thought of going back to North Carolina. The rain pelted my face as I shook my head. This job meant my escape from that world. It was my ticket out. Not only that, but to return home would mean defeat. I would feel like I had quit before I even started. Besides, I wanted to surround myself with people who were totally different from me. Who talked, ate, and thought in a way I did not know. I flashed again on the smallness of my world, the sameness of the people who had always filled it. And I knew I could not go back.

By the end of the training course, five people had dropped out. They gave various reasons, not the least of which was actual fear of being in a dangerous environment. (Three of the five left the day after the survival suit drill.) The trainer bestowed the remaining 25 of us with ship assignments, some Soviet, but mostly Japanese.

Which is how I found myself standing on the deck of a 150 foot long Japanese fishing trawler in the middle of winter, in the pouring rain and freezing cold of Dutch Harbor, Alaska.

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