Bah, Humbug: Part 1

Hello, friends! I want to tell you that I am now writing these entries from…well, not Florida. I bid my goodbyes to Key Largo a little over a week ago, and I have since made the drive home. But I want to backtrack to early June to talk about my first interaction with children in Key Largo, Miami, and the humbug damselfish.

On Tuesday, June 6th, Lawrie and I pack up craft boxes, REEF temporary tattoos, and 3D fish puzzles. After scooping Simba, the smallest lionfish in REEF HQ’s fish tank, into an open-topped fishbowl (which I clutch tightly in the passenger seat of Lawrie’s car all the way to Islamorada, trying to not get lionfish all over me and the floor), we head to the first REEF tabling event. Instead of forcing squirming kids into desks on their last day of school, a grade school in Islamorada holds Family Science Day, an outdoor event at which REEF and other local scientific and conservation organizations – I spotted Coral Restoration Foundation, Aquarius, John Pennekamp State Park, and the National Park Service – set up tables and activities for the kids. I am grateful to have Lawrie with me; a self-proclaimed kid-lover and former camp counselor, I know I could rely on her to help me with my shaky child communication skills.

As kids approach the table to oogle at Simba or grab some stickers, we tell them a little bit about REEF. Most of kids seem to already know about the lionfish invasion, which is ecouraging. I also find myself observing different age groups; I notice that the groups of younger children make a beeline for the crafts while older kids work the 3D lionfish puzzle with intense concentration. I have never seen a side-by-side comparison of how younger and older kids’ minds work, and I am surprised there is such a noticeable change in their interests with just a few years’ difference.

After Family Science Day, we drive hurriedly back to REEF HQ. From there, I grab my things and head to Quiescence. I am meeting Lad Akins, REEF’s Director of Special Projects, to make the trek up to Miami. There, we are going to try to catch a non-native fish that has been spotted at Miami Beach Marina. It’s pouring rain as we pull into the parking lot, and Lad and I hop out of his truck and hurriedly pull on wetsuits. He looks at me, grinning, and says exuberantly, “What does everyone else get to do today?” I understand what he means. Most people can’t say they’ve taken a day out of the office to try to capture a non-native fish — we are lucky.

At the edge of the water, Lad introduces me to some employees from the Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science, Miami’s newly renovated science center, along with Margaret Griffis, a local journalist and avid snorkeler who spotted the fish while eating lunch by the water. We all peer into the ocean, and I quickly spot the little guy – a small black and white barred fish, no more than a few inches long. It’s a humbug damselfish, or Dascyllus aruanus, an Indo-Pacific native and common starter aquarium fish. Like the first lionfish, it is likely the damselfish was released by an aquarium owner.


Humbug Damselfish (Dascyllus aruanus). photo by Klaus Stiefel.

Humbug Damselfish (Dascyllus aruanus). photo by Klaus Stiefel

Or, you might be more familiar with this cartoon version...

You might be more familiar with this version of the humbug damselfish…










So…what’s the problem here? It’s just one fish, right? Why risk our lives in Miami traffic and sit in the water on a chilly, drizzly day to try to catch a two-inch long fish?

Well…that also might have been along the lines of what someone was thinking when they spotted a lone lionfish, Burmese python, or Asian carp. If there are more humbug damselfish around (they have been identified and captured by REEF in Florida before) there is the possibility that an invasion could result.

I clamber down the rocks and slip into the water with Lad and the others. They are armed with only nets; Andy Dehart, Vice President of Animal Husbandry at the Philip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science, hopes to catch the fish alive and put it safely in an exhibit.

Margaret watches from her perch on a rock a little above the waterline. The fish looks easy to catch – the water is shallow and clear – but it is floating just in front of the rocky shoreline, and the rocks form a multitude of tunnels and hiding places. The hours pass. I sit with Margaret out of the water for a while, and I soon see how she managed to spot the fish while sitting at the table on the sidewalk a few feet above us. We are both looking at the water, but Margaret always immediately spots the fish when it emerges from a hiding place, and she is quick to notice when it changes location.

Five hours later, and no luck. We say goodbye to Andy and the others from the Frost Museum, and Lad and I stop in a nearby restaurant for dinner.

“I hate giving up,” Lad says as we eat.

“I know. Me too,” I say.

He pauses for a second. “What do you say we get back in the water and give it one more try?”

Thanks for reading, everyone! Be sure to check out Margaret’s article about our efforts:


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