A holiday job with a slippery difference

2012-03-28 00:00

MANY students get jobs during their holidays to augment funding their studies. Like waiting on tables at a restaurant, selling clothes at a retail outfit, or working in a pub. I studied eels. Yes, those slippery fish-like creatures that frequent most rivers and dams on this most lovely tip of Africa. In the seventies, Fiscor an NGO at the time, commissioned the J. L. B. Smith Institute of Ichthyology at Rhodes University to conduct a five-year survey to establish whether it was possible to create an industry out of these animals. Other countries around the globe had been successful and we had to determine if we could be as well.

I applied and got the position as a team member. It was a most wonderful arrangement.

The migrating stage of eels sees them moving up the rivers of the east coast during the summer months, coinciding with our extensive university holidays. They migrate at night, on the high tide. So a couple of weeks before the end of the academic year, we would be found pushing weights at the university gym, in an egotistical attempt to get into shape for the forthcoming couple of months. An impartial observer would be forgiven for thinking that we were showing extreme commitment to our forthcoming task. The truth is that vanity outstripped our work ethic as our days would be spent on the beach, tanning, surfing and socialising with the holidaymakers. Nights would find us wading, catching, weighing and recording, often in the company of the late-night revellers from the local pub and our new-found acquaintances. And we got paid for it. Not a king’s ransom, I can assure you, but enough to fund smokes, beers and other important aspects of a student’s life for the forthcoming year.

The eel story is a fascinating one in itself. After many years, the gravid female adult eel decides to depart her watery home. This could be a dam in the upper reaches of the Drakensberg or a pristine stretch of an Eastern Cape River. She then begins a laborious journey that follows the water course out into the Indian Ocean. In the open sea, she turns left and heads up the coast to somewhere beyond Madagascar, where she deposits her load of offspring. Mrs Eel then finds herself on the menu of the denizens of the deep. Meanwhile, her batch of small leaf-shaped progeny float off down the coast with the Mozambique current, most of them succumbing to the appetite of the plankton feeders along the way.

When the survivors come into contact with fresh water pouring into the ocean on our east coast they change into a form resembling a tiny replica of their adult (not much bigger than a match stick) and embark on a course upriver in shoals of huge numbers. On a good night we would catch 20 000 of these creatures. The method was simple. A barrier was constructed at the edge of a weir where the brack water of the estuary was separated from the inflowing river. These migrating “glass eels” were forced to the moist sides of the weir where they would leave the water and slither up the vertical obstruction into our waiting nets. Most of them were returned to the river. Some we collected for transportation back to the institute in Grahamstown where they were placed in tanks and fed a high-protein diet, the intention being to grow them as quickly as possible to a marketable size.

The only problem was that these little critters refused to mature. No matter what we gave them to eat, they hardly put on weight at all. So after five years, the survey was concluded on an undesirable note. We had the numbers, had worked out the biological details of their migrating patterns but were unable to get them to grow. The conclusion was that, because of our dramatic escarpment, it was necessary for them to remain small for as long as possible to enable them to progress up these steep, vertical obstacles.

So it was better for them to remain immature juveniles. It was preferable for them to feast on the environmental bounties without growing up.

I am not sure if Mamma Eel gave her offspring names and I can’t recall offering suggestions.

But if her modern-day compatriot was soliciting recommendations, I am sure she would find many appropriate names in the ANCYL directory. Juju and Floydie are two that come to mind.


• The writer is a practising vet with a passion for his profession and a giggle in his heart.


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