The ocean water off Asbury Park, New Jersey was clear to about 4 feet down.
It was nice summer day and I had invited a fellow worker to go fishing with me in my 19-foot Grady White outboard. The last time he had been fishing was about 10 years before in China, so I hoped he would catch a nice fluke. Instead we seemed to have landed in a pod of Sea Robins – technically known as Triglidae.
Every fisherman I ever met call these trash fish. If they are not thrown back they are left on jetties to dry out and rot. Sometimes they are filleted for bait. Rarely are they eaten.
My friend’s pole bent to what I hoped was going to be a nice scrappy fluke. I watched as he reeled in unsteadily.
Into my view of the line came an adult sea robin preceded by a sea robin half the size of the one struggling for its life. What happened next had such a profound effect on me that it changed my view of sea life forever.
The smaller sea robin proceeded to bite the leader of the hook in an attempt to free my friend’s larger captive! It was a fruitless exercise because a sea robin does not have the teeth necessary to make a success of such valiant effort.
I released the croaking fish to the sea and watched it swim straight down. The little one had scooted away unnoticed.
Thus, I just watched for the first time what I considered to be the sentient mind of a dumb fish, analyzing a problem and developing a solution. Was that little “garbage fish” the other’s best friend, its child, or teammate?
There was an interpersonal connection between the two which had to mean they were friends at the very least. To be friends they have to have an emotional connection. They certainly didn’t hate one another. Let’s give that brilliant little fish credit where credit is due.
I wondered what went on when they both safely reached the bottom. Was it a happy reunion and a bunch of croaking sounds, meaningless to a human being?
The only other sea-based experience that had as stunning and lasting impact on me was when drift fishing with my young son half a mile from shore when a fully grown humpback whale surfaced alongside and exhaled with a roar. It turned on its side and looked at me straight in the eye, then it slowly swam away. But we connected and knew one another in that instant.
A lot is happening underwater in the minds other living things in a dimension we don’t fully understand.
As an old man, if I leave you anything, it’s those two experiences to mull over.
The author lives in Ocean, NJ, and has been fishing for 70 years. He’s 82.