We were biking along the shoreline when we saw them: stock-still humans knee deep in the surf, staring off into the distance like sunburned zombies. On instinct, I dropped my bike and signaled my 11 year old to do the same. Approaching the crowd, we fished my camera out of a bag, guessing aloud what might be holding our fellow vacationers so enraptured. A swimmer in trouble? A stranded whale? Weird pod-creatures from a crashed UFO?
Alas, it was only a fisherman, a lone figure in shorts and ball cap, reeling in a bent-back pole for all it was worth. As the stranger wrestled with the unseen beast, murmurs of delight and concern floated up from the crowd. Sensing tension, my daughter held back a bit as I approached the center of the pack. Amid the moms and kids I spotted a dad or two sporting their own lens. Challenged by their unspoken presence, I jockeyed for a better shot...
...just in time to get the landing of the phantom creature. As the silent fisherman hunched around his reel, a slopping black mass rose to view in the surf. Suddenly applause broke out amid the Soccer Moms and beat-red kids. The fisherman looked around uneasily as he pulled his quarry closer. Oohing and aahing, the crowd leaned in to see. A stingray! Or skate! No one officially proclaimed the gleaming black swimmer as either, but the visiting crowd splashed around and gleefully debated the matter.
Hook deeply engorged in it’s flesh, the stingray/skate convulsed and whipped its thin long tail. A few feet away, a three year old in arm-floats squirmed in her father’s arms as she screeched at the sight. A clutch of women in an unfortunate bathing suits stood about and shaded their eyes from the sun. Camera pressed against my face, I circled the crowd and collected close-ups. Watching my daughter with one eye, I scanned the curious pack as they peeked and commented on the flopping fish-thing. Something about this feels familiar...
“So what are ya gonna do with it?” A tall rangy Dad asked the quiet fisherman.
“Dunno - YOU want it?”, the fisherman only half-joked. His eyes darting about at the concerned collective.
Well no...you’re not gonna keep it are you?” Something in the tall Dad’s tone reminded suddenly reminded of the PETA photo-ops I’ve covered.
The fisherman chuckled nervously and looked down tat the skate-ray. “Naw I’m a let her go. Probably cut that tail off - it’s right dangerous.”
At that, a few in the crowd repelled in horror. The fisherman heard it too; I noticed that through the viewfinder. As he looked around at the sudden mob, Tall Dad spoke up.
“No, no - she NEEDS that tail! Let her go!” A chorus of Moms murmured and nodded, like the Oprah audience members they watched every day at four.
Looking back at the squinting onlookers, the fisherman wisely acquiesced, shuffling off in deeper water to free the beast. Whatever his initial mission, he must have figured a floppy skate-ray wasn’t worth fighting Tall Dad and the Soccer Moms. Can’t say I blame him.
With a quick clip of his Leatherman, the erstwhile fisherman snapped the line to another round of applause. As the creature disappeared in the surf, the crowd slowly, reluctantly broke up. I was deciding who to interview when I heard my daughter’s voice.
“Can we go to Bird Island now?”
Sure honey. Daddy just fell into work for a moment…