Monday, October 5, 2009

Sheepshead Bay: Fabulous Fish Show

I. Never Too Late to Learn

Crossing the pedestrian bridge at Sheepshead Bay, I notice people leaning over the wooden railings, gesturing excitedly toward the water. What a wonder there is: massive numbers of small fish, swirling.

"What is the word for all these fish in English?" an older Russian man in a Yankees cap asks me.

"A school," I say. And, pointing to the flotilla of swans by the embankment, "a flock."

"A flock, yes," he says.

We watch a pair of cormorants diving, swimming, chasing the fish around. He tells me the word in Russian for this bird in Russian is something like "baklan."

"I think the Russians know much more about nature than Americans," he says. "It is part of the education."

We separate for a while, but eventually he comes back. "Excuse me, but what did you say the the fish were called?" he asks, in a puzzled, gentlemanly way.

He has a dictionary—a faded green hardback, well worn—and he shows me where it says that the English word for such a gathering is a "shoal" of fish.

"That's not correct," I say. "Maybe they made a mistake because they sound the same?"

"Maybe it's British English," he responds.

I insist that a shoal is a shallow place in the water, maybe with rocks—the kind of place a ship might run aground.

"Dangerous shoals," I say.

I was right, but also wrong. I've checked my own dictionaries, and guess what? Shoal and school are indeed synonymous when it comes to fish. It is I, and not the immigrant, who have been schooled.

II. Picture Show

This is a picture the camera took.

The next few have been doctored using the "enhance" button on iPhoto.

There were so many fish. At first, I felt heartened about their collective survival.

But then I began to worry. The shoal's dramatic shifts came in response to a variety of attacks.

The kids fishing off the walkway had several silvery specimens writhing on their lines, and more piled up in plastic bags.

Bigger fish and cormorants repeatedly charged the school, which over and over again was forced to part, as if the predators were Moses and the young fish were the Red Sea. If you look closely near the center of the picture below, you can see a marauding fish at the head of the channel.

The cormorants were feasting. Here's one swimming (underwater) in pursuit.

And then bursting back up to the surface, where the day seemed so peaceful in comparison.

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