Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Jeremy Wade and Monster Rivers of the Imagination

Close up of Jeremy Wade holding up Shark teeth and jaw in Australia.  Photo: Animal Planet.

Season 4 of River Monsters ended last night with Lair of the Giants -- a beautifully photographed, two-hour series of exploration on the Essequibo River in Guyana. Jeremy Wade wends his way deep into the forests to arrive at a secret lake where he catches what is apparently a new species of arapaima.

What seduced me was not only the fertile but forbidding landscape where life seems undisturbed by human intervention, but also the many parallels with literature of exploration in this region of South America and beyond.

Jeremy Wade makes several impressive catches here, but in the spirit of magical realism, I expected butterflies to rain a la Gabriel García Marquez.

Guyanese author Wilson Harris’ Palace of the Peacock came to mind -- the first installment of The Guyana Quartet. The narrator is a dreamer in this tale about a doomed crew making its way up a Guyana river and the colonial politics of the savannahs.

The bodies of water flow but are impenetrable as the land. I couldn't help but think of Werner Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo  -- the quixotic quest to bring opera to the frontier requires delivering a riverboat through thick jungle. Jeremy Wade’s task of portaging a heavy dugout canoe over logs to avoid the rapids seemed no less daunting, if on a smaller scale.

My mind then turned to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Set in Africa, traveling up river is a geographical and psychological journey. Its modern film interpretation, Apocalypse Now, is a story about war and battling one's inner demons, set on a river that is in many ways a central character.

It seems that rivers bring out the best and worst -- the monsters within that are caught and assuaged without rod and reel.

Jeremy Wade with an arapaima caught in a previous season in Brazil. Photo: Animal Planet.

The myth of El Dorado was alive and well in Lair of the Giants, when Jeremy Wade decides to go up river because gold-seeking vessels close to civilization interfere with the natural balance of wildlife.

And finally, while seeing Jeremy Wade stand on a ledge over a powerful waterfall, I thought about the inspiration at the spring well of rivers, the source of mysteries. The moment echoes Alejo Carpentier’s masterpiece, The Lost Steps. In the novel, a New York composer searches for the origins of music in the jungles of South America. He travels up river and finds what he was looking for -- only to lose it again once he returns to civilization. His reason for leaving? He needs pen and paper in order to sketch a great musical work. The one secret path to Eden in the thickets of the river banks is forever gone.

Such is the life of an explorer. Being present in the moment yet recording what has past must be bittersweet.


There’s no official word yet if River Monsters will continue with a Season 5, though rumor has it Jeremy Wade has been fishing in Lake Champlain.

By the way, my Gus the Grouper series has yet to be completed. I’ve been “in the moment” myself, tarpon fishing on the gulf coast of Florida. More fishing and fishing-inspired stories to come.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Fowl Gang Terrorizes Miami Urbanites

Brickell Metrorail Chicken Gang Terrorizes Urban Miami

You just never know what you're going to find in Brickell. I witnessed the aggressive shenanigans of this gang of chickens yesterday while I sat at the Lucky Clover Bar during a conference call. They fought. They hung close and tight. They're the feathery terrors of Miami's hip neighborhood, lording it over the Brickell Metrorail Station, home turf to this crew of would-be poultry dishes or santería sacrifices.

Don't mess with the Brickell Chickens. And they're too sexy to pay rent or invest in Miami condo short sales, by the way.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Gus the Grouper, Part 2: So How Do You Tell a Good Fish Tale?

Part 2 of a series on angling and conservation in Florida focused on the Goliath Grouper. Inspired by Jeremy Wade’s by-catch at Fort Pierce Inlet, which was broadcast on River Monsters, the series looks at many different ways of interpreting this fish and its relationship to human interests. Click here for all posts labeled “gus the grouper.”

Photo courtesy of mrscuba.com via Creative Commons.  This isn't Gus, by the way.

This is what I’ve recently caught at the end of my hook: a story about a famous extreme angler named Jeremy Wade and a 350 pound Goliath grouper from Fort Pierce named Gus.

It all started out when someone from the Florida diving community pointed out that Jeremy Wade's catch of Gus was illegal on the River Monsters Facebook page. I had posted a photo of Jeremy Wade and Gus not once, but twice, prior and after the season four premiere, unaware of the regulation.

Ignorance is indeed bliss, because once I read the regulation, I felt like a hypocrite. How would anyone ever take my fishing stories seriously if I turned a blind eye to conservation? Especially as a female in a sport dominated by men who both cast lines and pen lines about fishing?

This series is my retraction.

It’s also much more than that.

Ten interviews and many more pages of notes later, I’ve come to the conclusion that everyone I spoke to was in one way or another passionate about Gus.

And I got sucked into it.

Gus has been on my mind. He has almost become an obsession. Knowing what I know now, how does the journalist in me remain impartial with cold, empirical facts when Gus himself is no longer a mere fish but the object of human passions for the sea and its creatures?

And how does the storyteller in me resist the temptation to weave a good yarn?

This isn’t just a story about fishing. It’s a story about passion.

This is a story about passion conflicted with science, business and politics, all seemingly impossible to untangle like a bird’s nest on a miscast reel.

Honestly, I can tell this story in three sentences: “Goliath grouper are protected. According to official sources, Jeremy Wade violated a Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission regulation about possessing the fish above water.  Angler gets slap on wrist for broadcasting.”

That’s your Cliff Notes. End of story.

But this is also a narrative about storytelling. About me trying to figure out how to even tell this convoluted story. Because it's bigger than River Monsters or Jeremy Wade.  It's about Gus and the people who interact with him in Florida: recreational anglers, commercial fisherman and divers. It's about a consciousness -- or lack thereof -- particular to Florida regarding our natural resources.

Anyone who has watched enough River Monsters episodes knows that it’s never really about the fish. Compelling fish stories aren’t mundane; no one ever regales you with facts about gear, hooks and leaders. Those stories are clinical.  If that's what you want, browse the pages of a technical manual.

It’s the human interpretation of the fish and its relationship to culture that matters. It's the experience of the angler, his or her contact with the animal that moves us, brings us closer to something primal within. It's these stories that capture our imaginations and redefine our relationships to the natural world.

We don’t exist in a vacuum, separated from denizens of watery realms. What we don’t know fascinates us and what we do come to know, beckons our innate curiosity. These fish, suddenly, so remote and alien, become part of our world, our casual dinner conversation.

Well, that was just a lot of hot air from me about the mystery of fishing for sport.

To be frank, every single time I hook a fish and release it I ask myself the same question: why the hell am I doing this if I'm not going to eat it?  What's the point? This is the moral dilemma of every angler who doesn't fish for subsistence.  The very conservation community, the divers whose point of view I respect, are in conflict with my own compulsion.  At the end of the day, the best conservation is to never touch a fish at all, but we are humans, some of us eat fish and to not fish would be impractical.

In many ways, the series River Monsters has mastered the art of fish tales for mass audiences, bringing finny creatures to the fore without espousing their destruction. But many would disagree. Some say Jeremy Wade demonized Gus, when the fish is really just a gentle giant.  And then there are those who wish to ban the laws that protect Gus, even though his kind was nearly fished to extinction just a few decades ago.

And somewhere in this murky water there is a truth that gives the fish a fighting chance while we humans co-exist with our environment.

"Gus the Grouper" isn’t just some fanciful idea I concocted to feel less guilty about my own lack of knowledge about a particular regulation. It isn’t just about what Jeremy Wade did in Florida last summer. There’s also a great opportunity here for education, to get to know Gus and his kind, to be more mindful as anglers.

Armed with as much knowledge as I can possibly acquire before going down into a deeper research wormhole, I’m going to tell this story the way I know best, from my heart, without losing sight of the facts.

Part 3, coming up soon.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Gus the Grouper, Part 1: A Fishy Tale

Part 1 of a series on angling and conservation in Florida focused on the Goliath Grouper. Inspired by Jeremy Wade’s by-catch at Fort Pierce Inlet, which was broadcast on River Monsters, the series looks at many different ways of interpreting this fish and its relationship to human interests. Click here for all posts labeled “gus the grouper.”

goliath grouper florida keys
Photo courtesy of Tiswango's Flickr.

My name is Gus. I’m a very big fish but I wasn’t always so big! When my parents met, they had traveled far from their homes to make babies on a reef. And once they made me, I was just a tiny little blob. I floated alone on the currents of the ocean to an estuary, a very special nursery close to land.

I spent the next eight years of my life growing up in the underwater roots of mangrove trees. Other baby fishes also called this protected place home, but it wasn’t easy being so small a baby fish. I had to fend for myself. Bigger fish, birds with big beaks and alligators weren’t my friends.

florida mangroves
Baby fish grow up in the Florida mangroves. Photo courtesy of Cletch's Flickr.

By the time I was eight years old, I was already pretty hefty and tough. I had outgrown the mangroves and felt like exploring the big, wide world. I set out toward the ocean, determined to find a nice new place to live.

I ended up settling in an inlet, a place where a river meets an ocean. My home was grand, a shady spot under a big castle made from sand by crafty worms. It wasn’t a bad place to live for a young grouper like me!

I’ll admit my life wasn’t particularly exciting. I kept to myself, venturing out from my home every now and then to see what was going on in my neighborhood. I ate smaller fishes, crabs, lobsters and yucky things that live under the sand.

But life wasn’t always boring. I kept getting bigger and more curious about the things in the world around me. Sometimes, these weird creatures that didn’t always live here and didn’t look like fish and flashed lights at me would pay a visit to my castle. They’d blow bubbles that would rise to the strange, airy world up above.

They never bothered me, though. And sometimes, I’d let them tickle my belly if they were kind and gentle.

But sometimes, the very same weird creatures that blew bubbles would take my neighbors away after piercing their bodies with a stick.

One day, I felt an urge to go somewhere. I wasn’t sure where I was going, but I knew I just had to go and leave my comfy home for a while. I swam out to the ocean until I found many other groupers just like me!

It was here I spotted the prettiest grouper lady fish I had ever seen.

I tried to get her attention. I danced around her, even changing my colors and yelling a loud BOOM with all my might! Boy, did I really want her to notice me instead of all the other handsome groupers!

We never really touched, but next thing I knew, we had all made grouper babies. And just like me many years ago, a new little blob floated on the currents to an estuary where it would grow up in the safe, watery world of the mangrove roots, learning how to fend for itself.

My romance didn’t last long and I swam back home to my peaceful life.

But once a year, I returned to a reef where I courted another lovely grouper lady fish and made more grouper babies.

Photo courtesy of Charles and Clint's Flickr.

I am now a big, strong grown-up fish and I have many birthdays to look forward to. I just hang out under my shady spot, occasionally taking a swim around the neighborhood. And once a year, I go meet a lady fish grouper.

Those weird creatures that blow bubbles and aren’t fish and flash lights at me come visit my spot from time to time.

Sometimes, those very same weird creatures cast a shadow on the waters above me. I hear a funny noise, a rrrrr followed by a clank-clank. I’m not sure what happens up above in that airy world, but I do know that whenever that shadow, rrrrr and clank-clank happen, some fish make a mad dash to the surface. If I’m hungry, I’ll hang out under that shadow. I’m not a dumb fish. It’s a free lunch.

But even though I’m big and powerful, I never eat more than I need to survive. Us groupers watch our figures, you know.

One day, not long ago, I was just roaming around my neighborhood when I spied a very juicy piece of fish.

And then something extraordinary happened.

No sooner did I chomp on the tasty morsel, I felt an incredible pull in the opposite direction I wanted to swim. I wasn’t quite sure what was going on! It was very strange. The harder I tried to get away, the more difficult it became to let go. Whatever it was, it was dragging me close to the beach. I like the beach, but I’d rather always be underwater.

Next thing I know, one of those weird creatures that aren’t fish was looking at me but this time, it wasn’t blowing bubbles. There was something stuck in my mouth, which it took out right away. There were more of those flashing lights and then just like that, it let me go.

My lip hurt a little as I swam back home, a bit tired and confused. First of all, I didn’t get to eat the fish, so I went to bed without dinner. And then I didn’t understand why it let me go after all that pulling and pushing between us, but I’m glad it did.

That was surely a strange day.

So I am still here calling the inlet my home, hoping to grow into a very old grouper with more stories to tell.

If you see me, say hello and if you catch me, let me go.


The above creative interpretation on the life of a Goliath was crafted from research based on personal phone interviews with several legitimate sources; however, I claim no absolute scientific accuracy.

The fish is called Gus because a source who dives in the Fort Pierce area claims to have recognized the fish caught on River Monsters and had already named it thusly. Stay tuned for more …

The Goliath Grouper is currently a protected species.  Special thanks to scientist and Goliath Grouper researcher Dr. Sarah Frias-Torres at the Ocean Research and Conservation Association in Fort Pierce for her time.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Two Dudes Looking for True Love in South Beach

south beach hot guys

Yesterday, I was on my way to a blogger party at the Versace Mansion and these two charming comemierdas were hanging out on the sidewalk by Ocean Drive. When I walked by, one of them asked me: "I'm a little bit lost. Where can I find true love?"

Now, as a former forum editor for Miami's premiere travel website, I've fielded many questions, and I suppose I wear the sign of "Miami ambassador" on my forehead because even on the street, dogs ask me where to find the nearest fire hydrant.

A friend on Twitter told me in jest that these two guys were actually comedians he'd seen at Hollywood's Laugh Factory last week.  Another buddy said they seem Dominican because of their "papi chulo swag."  They definitely weren't local; we know a good bluff we see one.  What kind of Cuban doesn't know purée de malanga?

Anyway, I bet they were surprised I would call them on their bluff by whipping out my iPhone for an impromptu interview.  My answer to them: "True love is in your heart or you can ask some of those fine ladies working 23rd street and Collins."

And remember: All a man needs is "love and steak, love that's FREE 99."

Thursday, May 03, 2012

What if Edvard Munch Had Access to Xanax?

Edvard Munch, The Scream, Circa 1900. Or, how some folks feel when driving in Miami.

A pastel version of Edvard Munch's The Scream recently sold at a Sotheby's auction in London for a record $120 million to an anonymous bidder, according to BBC News.  That's a lot of clams for a painting that depicts the artist's moment of "trembling with anxiety" as he walked through a park.

I wonder if we'd have this iconic work of art if he'd been on Xanax, avoiding the most famous panic attack of all time? In making us run from fear and doubt, do pharmaceuticals dumb us down and make drones out of artists?