Monday, August 11, 2008

Swizzle Fish

Deep deep in the water off the coast of Northern California, beneath the roving whales and the sea ships sailing into San Francisco Bay, there lives a strange and wild jellyfish unlike any other. The Swizzle Fish, two dimensional and transparent. The Swizzle Fish, with a stinger tail that can stun an adult whale. The Swizzle Fish, a creature older than civilization, and a creature that will likely be here when we're gone.

I think the 19th Century Chinese poet Haitori put it best in his famous haiku, Paper Fish. He had seen a dead Swizzle Fish floating on the surface of the water just outside San Francisco Bay while en route to that City's Chinatown in 1879.

"Floating on green sea
Swiggles and swirls that sing sad
Tales of ancient death"

Haitori believed that seeing the Swizzle Fish portended his own death, and he wasn't wrong. He was flattened by a runaway cable car less than a year later.

In fact, the Swizzle Fish has often signified death, and not always as an omen. In 1987, 12 dead Swizzle Fish washed ashore on San Francisco's Ocean Beach. Thinking that they were nothing more dangerous than weird looking jellyfish, a band of five wayward teenagers picked up the fish with their bare hands and ran around the beach terrifying sunbathers - at least until they dropped dead from the toxins, screaming in agony and ripping out their own eyeballs in a vain attempt to end the horrible pain. Three more children and two adults who had inadvertently been touched were rushed to the hospital, although all survived.

Today signs warn bathers about the dangers of those dead Swizzle Fish that still occasionally wash ashore. Even fishermen avoid them, although those who do inadvertently find one in their net are in for a rare bonus - the fish are much prized in Japan, where the poisonous jellyfish is carefully carved into sushi that sells for $1,700 a piece.

In culture, the Swizzle Fish does occasionally make an appearance, usually on television, and primarily because of its powerful neurotoxin. An episode of Matlock called The Case of the Swizzle Stick featured the Fish's poison mixed into a drink, while more recently, an episode of Grey's Anatomy featured one of Grey's old boyfriends suffering a sting, and on House, Doctor Cutty injected diluted Swizzle Fish venom into Gregory House's leg in an attempt to reduce his pain.

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