Sunday 3 November 2013

Near Death Experience

Synanceia verrucosa - stonefish
In my description of the deadliness of the sting of Chironex fleckeri, I made comparison to the fact that those jelly-fish had killed more people than stone-fish. Synanceia spp are a genus of half a dozen related species of the most toxic fishes known. I've never met a box-jellyfish but I've probably come closer to an intimate encounter with Synanceia verrucosa than most Europeans.   They deliver a cocktail of toxins through poisonous spines along the back and fins.  These proteins are cytolytic (they open up cells, including blood-cells, and spill their contents) and are known to inhibit calcium channels which are essential for normal neuro-muscular activity. So they have a completely different mode-of-action to Chironex but they can kill people just the same.

I have many happy memories from my time working for my fees to graduate school in Afdeling Vissen in Blijdorp Zoo in Rotterdam, including cleaning and banking the money from the crocodile pit.  My first job every morning was to go round the outside of every aquarium with a bottle of acetic acid, a chamois leather and a bucket. It was a long time before I could put vinegar on my chips - the smell gets up your nose and lingers all day about your person.  That was okay in the Netherlands because they eat their chips with mayonnaise there - it's more fattening.  Cleanliness (Schoonmaken) is a religion in Holland, so it was not allowed to just clean the outside surface.  On a regular basis, I was required to immerse my arm up to the elbow in the Pirhana (Pygocentrus nattereri) tank to clean the inside of the aquarium-glass with a hank of filter-wool. You could use a bohemian blade on a long stick but the filter-wool did a better job. But that had nothing to do with my NDE, those pirhanas were all red belly and bluster and cowered in the far end of the tank while I was invading their personal space.

Another job I really enjoyed was getting out of the tropical heat and humidity of the Rivierahal and going down to the lake to catch water-lice for feeding the fish. They took my bucket and vinegar off me and gave me a long-handled net and a tray of little plastic boxes.  If I caught more than were immediately required - and on a nice sunny day I was out there for a long time - I had to take the surplus to the walk-in freezer.  This was a separate building 'hidden' in a little copse of shrubs.  I nearly dropped my boxes of lice the first time I went in there because the walk-in was primarily used to hold the dead animals until the vet could get round to making an autopsy.  Wedged in from corner to corner at the back was the head-and-neck of a giraffe awaiting investigation.  The other specimens were mostly in plastic bags so I could only make an informed guess about what part of what animal was inside.

One day, I was asked to clean the inside of a mammoth (maybe 90cm H x 80cm W x 300cm L) free-standing tank because the management needed layers of old paint stripped off.  They took my bucket and vinegar off me and gave me a scraper and a gallon of paint stripper. The only way to do this was to stand in the tank, slosh on the chemicals, wait a few minutes and then strip off the century-thick archaeological-dig of paint.  At the top it was okay, but towards the bottom, my little arms not being quite long enough, I had to duck into a vat of fumes and work away until I had to broach the surface for air like a desperate whale.  I never complained about the lingering smell of vinegar after that.  But it didn't kill me.

After a while I got a reputation for being the general handiman and one who wouldn't complain whatever they asked him to do.  They asked me to clean up behind the huge display windows in the Rivierahal - the pigeons used to get inside the building and roost above the window, so somebody had to go up there with a shit-shovel.  The only way to get there was to climb a 3m ladder and walk along a couple of scaffolding planks which went across the section of the aquarium that contained fish from tropical reefs.  I took the shovel (they let me keep my bucket this time) and set off.  The next thing I knew I was sitting on the floor in the service area behind the tropical fish tanks, my bucket had come with me but my shovel wasn't in evidence.  I never did work out what had started my downward trajectory but I do remember putting out my hand to break my fall so I'd effectively done a somersault before landing.  

When my pal Yvonne came to fetch me (I was missing morning coffee which a misdemeanour in Holland), she noticed that the stone-fish tank was cracked at the top.  I'm glad that a) I made contact with the edge of the aquarium rather than plunging my hand into tank b) the glass supported me long enough to turn over and didn't crack and slit my wrist c)  the beast didn't slop out on top of me.  So the stone-fish didn't kill me either. But I used to have cold sweats about might-have-been years after I was back on the vinegar and sniffing paint-stripper with the best of them behind the students union.

I'm told that the Japanese eat stone-fish as sashimi but I think we should all leave it well alone.


  1. The closest I've come to death with direct contact with a fish was years ago when we used the old fish weirs in the suir to collect bait for eel pots. The bait was hauled up in the cod end and spilled out into fish boxes. We went through it on the off chance of finding a cod or more likely a flat fish such as sole or turbot, which coincidentally I enjoy with vinegar. Anyway, on one such occasion, a colleague (the one with the Oyster farm for thou in the know) immersed his hand up to the elbow in the fish box to dredge up the bottom only to lift it out fairly sharpish and cus and swear till the air was blue. Within minutes his arm was numb and it stayed that way for most if not all of that day. He'd arm wrestled with a golden coloured beauty called a weaver fish,, apparently very common visitors to Irish beaches, and can be dangerous if swimming away from shore

    1. Didn't know that at all at all, TYFS. Interesting etymological connundrum too: Wikipedia: "Weevers are sometimes erroneously called 'weaver fish', although the word is unrelated. In fact, the word 'weever' is believed to derive from the Old French word wivre, meaning serpent or dragon, from the Latin vipera"