The New Yorker - USA (2022-01-31)

(Antfer) #1


A Pacific footballfish

a red jacket named David Koch (“like
the dead billionaire”) threw up his hands:
“You think, There is no god!” Morale
was slipping. A big moon was rising. A
rainbow appeared over Central Park: a
shoe-selfie dream.
Just then, a Sikorsky strafed in low,
directly overhead. “One hundred and
five decibels!” came the call. The wind
tossed bicycles to the ground. River water
soaked the group. A woman screamed
in terror. Benepe, his hat sent f lying,
turned into the squall, holding aloft a
middle finger. Afterward, the corps de-
cided to retreat. “I think that was their
big ‘fuck you,’” Benepe said.
—Zach Helfand


ne morning in May, Ben Estes, a
retired Hollywood grip (“Termina-
tor,” “True Lies”) and a lifelong surf caster,
was walking on the beach in Orange
County when he came upon something
weird. “It looked like a deflated black bal-
loon that had thorns on it,” he said. “Its
mouth had some teeth you could almost
see through. They were like pins. They
were crazy teeth. And that thing that was
hanging off its head, it looked pretty crazy.
Not like anything I’d ever seen before.”
He gave the balloon a poke. He ad-
justed the crazy-looking head tassel. And
then the thing moved. “Its mouth just
opened really wide, a slow eeer,” Estes
said, making the sound of a door open-
ing on creaky hinges. Later, he learned
that the mouth is designed to swallow
prey whole.
When Estes showed his family some
pictures he had taken, his daughter, who
was four when “Finding Nemo” came
out, recognized the creature right away.
“She said, ‘I know what that is. It’s the
monster-looking fish that chased Nemo
around,’” Estes recalled.
The creature was a female Pacific foot-
ballfish, an exceedingly rare deep-sea ang-
lerfish that lives thousands of feet under-
water, in the midnight zone, and sports
a bioluminescent lure that it uses to at-
tract prey. (The males are tiny, lightless,

too large to put in a jar.” Sharing the tank
were two warty seadevils, one of which,
collected from the stomach of a sperm
whale in the nineteen-seventies, had a
parasitic male attached. In many types of
anglerfish, the male fuses to the female,
sharing her circulatory system and trad-
ing sperm for food. Among its relatives,
the footballfish is an outlier, Ludt said:
“It’s strange in that it doesn’t have para-
sitic males.”
Clardy put on a rubber glove and
eased the footballfish out: fifteen inches
of tarry blob, with a startling underbite.
“She’s basically a swimming head,” he
said. “Several rows of nice sharp teeth.”
In the throat, more teeth. “The whole
point of this is, whenever they encoun-
ter something they can possibly eat, gotta
be able to capture it—don’t let it get
away—and eat it. You don’t know when
the next opportunity will come.”
Little is known about the species’ bi-
ology. Clardy and Ludt have already dis-
covered a previously unknown feature of
the fish: in addition to bioluminescence,
it appears capable of fluorescence. Even
less is known about its behavior, as one
has never been observed at depth. The
triple stranding is also a head-scratcher.
“Why are these deep-sea fish washing
up on the beach?” Scripps’s Frable won-
dered. Was it oil spills, ocean-dumped
DDT, sonic booms? “People on the Inter-
net are coming up with Marvel-movie-
style theories about why.”
Ludt, at the museum, thinks it’s pos-
sible that the fish are gathering some-
where to breed, then dying. “But we don’t
know,” he said. The fish Estes found had
an empty stomach; the December fish
was full of sand.
The scientists agreed that the foot-
ballfish bonanza was probably just luck.
That’s how Dwight Hwang felt, too. He’s
an Orange County-based gyotaku artist,
who makes fish prints. “It’s a bucket-list
fish that I thought would be wonderful but
impossible ever to get,” he said. “When
it hit international news, I had people
contacting me all the way from Australia,
saying, ‘You need to print this thing!’”
Before Spiny Babycakes was preserved,
the museum allowed him to do so. Then,
in December, Hwang scored again. He
hooked a footballfish playing Animal
Crossing, where it appears only in win-
ter months, at night, then disappears.
—Dana Goodyear

possibly toothless, and even harder to
find.) Its close cousins are the seadevils
(spiny, prickly, warty); more distantly, it’s
related to the frogfish, the batfish, and
the sea toad.
The ichthyology world was stoked
about Estes’s find. The last time a Pacific
footballfish had been collected in Cali-
fornia was in 2001. “It was pretty exciting
to see such a rare anglerfish,” Ben Frable,
of the Scripps Institution of Oceanog-
raphy, said. “Fast-forward to November,
and I get an e-mail from a local news sta-
tion.” Another Pacific footballfish had
washed up, this time in San Diego.
“My heart was racing,” Frable said.
“I didn’t get any information, just ‘There’s
this weird fish—can you identify it?’”
But, by the time he went to check it out,
it had been scavenged or had washed
back out to sea. In December, a col-
league at the National Oceanic and At-
mospheric Administration passed Frable
another tip out of San Diego. “There
was a ‘weird deep-sea fish, like what was
in the news,’” Frable said. Bingo. That
fish went to Scripps and became one of
about thirty specimens worldwide.
Estes’s find went to the Natural His-
tory Museum of Los Angeles County,
where she has been named, via a public
Twitter poll, Spiny Babycakes. Last week,
Bill Ludt, the ichthyology collection’s
curator, and Todd Clardy, its manager,
welcomed a visitor to the room where
the museum’s three million fish speci-
mens are stored.
“So this is where she lives now,” Clardy
said. “She’s in a metal tank. She’s a little
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