Thursday, December 10, 2009

Save the Puffers

The puffer fish, in all its varieties, is one of my favorites. The porcupinefish is one such variety and it is very common in the Caribbean. No matter how many times I come across one, I can't help pausing and look for as long as it will let me before swimming out of sight. Turtles and eagle rays also have the same effect on me. Maybe it's because of the puffer's wide eyes which we, as humans, are genetically programmed to associate with infants in order to trigger our nurturing instinct. Or maybe it's because they seem so gentle and cute with their ET-like face.

One of the peculiarities of the puffer fish is its natural defense mechanism. Its body, is covered with spines, and whenever it feels threatened, the fish will suck in sea water and fill itself up until it turns into a balloon. As it does this, its spines become erect because of the body's surface tension and so, once puffed up, the fish will resemble one of those medieval spiked iron balls which would look pretty menacing to anyone who has ever seen one. Granted that the puffer fish is not made of iron and thus it wouldn't hurt anyone (with the exception of those puffers that have venomous spines), but its predators don't know that, and fish in general are not known for their intellectual acumen.

We humans, who possess such intellectual acumen, have figured out that the puffer is not really as menacing as it looks when puffed up. This is unfortunate from the puffer's perspective because some uneducated divers, and some uneducated snorkelers and aquarium owners alike, will simply try to trigger such a defense mechanism for their own amusement. Aside from the cruelty of a behavior that is tantamount to torture - just imagine a Kong like creature scaring you to death for its own amusement - the puffer's defense mechanism is not without drawbacks.

The main drawback is the fact that the puffer fish can only puff itself up so many times before it exhausts itself and dies. That's right, just think of a bee's stinger. The bee's stinger is a defense of last resort and the bee will sting if, and only if, it feels it has no other option. This is because the bee is aware, somehow, that when it does utilize its ultimate weapon, it will die as well. Sort of like: "I know I will die, but I will hurt you as much as I possibly can before I do."

Even though the puffer's defense mechanism does not have the same one-time-only finality of the bee's stinger, it still is the weapon of last resort in the puffer's arsenal, and because of the risks involved, this mechanism is reserved only for staving off an imminent threat. Like all animals when they sense danger, the puffer fish will first try to swim away first and will only resort to puffing up if and when it feels it has no other way out.

All in all, the puffer's puff is like the emergency brake on a subway car, or on a train, with its big red handle and its big red sign saying "Emergency!" Nobody in their right mind would pull that handle unless it was a real emergency - even though I am sure everyone has had the temptation of pulling it just to see what would happen. But aside from the few obsessive compulsive people or the remainder reckless ones, most people will not pull on the lever because of the predictable negative consequences - some people will get hurt, and the perpetrator will receive a substantial fine.

So the question is: why is that people who are smart enough not to pull on the emergency brake in a subway car just for kicks, will carelessly trigger the puffer's defense mechanism given that this could cause the fish's death? I have already hinted on the most likely answer to this question earlier in the blog, which is that I believe that people are simply unaware of the potentially deadly consequences of forcing a puffer fish to puff up too many times. So, it's not so much that people are mean but, simply, that they are ignorant; and this goes to show that ignorance, sometimes, makes people do some pretty mean things. I am sure that if anyone knew the unintended consequences of molesting a puffer fish, people would not do it.

For this reason, and per suggestion of my always inventive friend Laura, I have decided to start raising people's awareness on this issue. This blog, in its own little way, is the first step in what will hopefully evolve into a Don't Scare the Puffers campaign (the name is still a work in progress; feel free to make suggestions). Hopefully, with a little more awareness, people will refrain from molesting such a beautiful creature and will do what every properly trained diver is supposed to do: look but don't touch.

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