Media Gallery

Plastic 3: In another voice of plasticity at sea, Silvia Park toys with a scientific language/gaze directed at the sexual lives of mermaids.

 

Poor Unfortunate Fools

The following is a compilation of articles, logs, recordings, and correspondence of the Conservation Action Plan for Merrows (CAP-Merrow) and their previous efforts to conserve the eastern black merrow (Nereida niger). The research conducted will be used at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology for the development and implementation of conservation measures to protect the southern gray merrow (Nereida glaucus), now classified as Critically Endangered.
 

*

Merrows and drive hunting: the ultimate conservation challenge against tradition

Jared E. Oliver1, Marla S. Rowland2,*

1Oceanic Preservation Society, 336 Bon Air Center, Greenbrae, CA 94904
2Institute of Marine Biology, University of Hawaii, Kailua, Hawaii 96734


ABSTRACT: There is a high risk that drive hunting, the traditional method of hunting by driving merrows to caves, will lead to extinction of the eastern black merrow (Nereida niger), a black-tailed merrow endemic to South Korea’s Jeju Island. In 2005, the Conservation Action Plan for Merrows (CAP-Merrow) banned the capture and sale of female merrows (mermaids) and immature merrows (merlings). Although efforts to implement the plan slowed the merrow’s decline, the goal of eliminating merrow hunting by 2010 was not reached. Unless a ban is enforced on hunting, gill-netting, and trawling in certain areas with relatively high densities of merrows, it will be too late to save the species, which already numbers fewer than 200 animals.
KEY WORDS: Nereida Niger ⋅ Drive Hunt ⋅ Bycatch ⋅ South Korea


*

It was three months before the annual drive hunt when we received a call about a merman in distress. An American couple saw our staked sign, written in all-caps English and beneath it, spiky Korean. By the time we reached Saekdal Beach, the sun peeked over the horizon like a cracked eyelid. Rocks glistened, shaped like clenched obsidian fists. The wife greeted us, but the husband wanted to keep filming with his iPhone. “This is Jeju, Day 2,” he said to the camera. “Sarah and I went on a walk and ho boy, you won’t believe what we found—”

The merman lay in the sand with his hands crossed over his chest, like a teenage girl prepared to die of a broken heart. His name was Alto, catalogue number A14. He was one of Astra’s mates. He had a silken, hollowed torso and his tail, while long, was a silvered blue, a classic beta male color. Milky tears leaked from his eyes. His lips, tugged upward from the natural curve of his mouth, were crusted yellow.

“He seems so peaceful,” the wife whispered.

Alto’s tail rose, then fell wristlessly. Once the sun hit its peak, he’d overheat within hours. His skin, rubber smooth, had begun to flake. We filled our buckets with seawater. We soaked T-shirts. The husband proffered his own, which had the logo of a roaring tiger, but we told him, “We got this.” A seagull hopped past us, holding a cherry-red Coca Cola cap in its beak.
 

Marla, our head researcher, laid out the sling. She signaled us to lift Alto. We lifted him. He rolled over and rolled off the sling, baring a grainy, reddened back. Marla dug a hole underneath his tail flukes and filled it with water for ease of pushing. We pushed Alto. He flopped ineffectually. We urged him to live. We reassured him there’s always next season. We assumed he, as a beta, was lovesick. Betas remained unmated until an alpha position opened up.

Alto peeled open a gummy eyelid. Merrows secrete thick, jelly-like tears to blink underwater. His eye swiveled, then settled on us. The iris was luminous instead of the usual dark. The pupil shrunk from pain and the sun. He was likely a deep-sea diver. Very few betas are. The merrows who hunt in the deadliest depths are often the strongest swimmers.

“Live,” he said like a sigh, parroting us1. “Live.”


1Merrows are one of the few “vocal learners” in the animal kingdom with an unparalleled ability to imitate human speech.

*

Every morning at the breakfast table, over a buffet of sliced whole-wheat bread, gummy sausages and eggs, and little green-capped Yakult drinks, our conversation turned to sex. We discussed courtships, we counted eggs, we sighed about couplings, we were rooting for Bloom and Anchor, we were nervous about Triton’s sperm count, and as always, we put our heads together and schemed and plotted, and prayed to our respective deities, from God to Goddess to Science, on how to boost the number of females.

It was the summer of 2011. As part of the Merrow Conservation Action Plan (CAP), we’d partnered with the Jeju Marine Research Center to save the eastern black merrow species. After four years of dry breeding seasons, our sponsors’ patience and funding were wearing thin.

We placed Alto, the nineteen-year-old beta, in a lanolin-infused tank to recover. The tank was 20x20x6 feet, which is now an illegal size for merrow tanks, but at the time we used it for transport. In the water, Alto was no longer a shriveled sardine. His hair loosened like curls of ink. His eyes gleamed pale. For a beta, he was a beauty, hauntingly unhappy. Even his merrow smile was mopey. We always warned the interns not to get too close. Don’t be fooled by their appearance, we’d say. They may look human, but they’re still animals.

The merrow who falls in love with a human is a wishful tale. The only recorded incident of this is Fabio, who was captured in Iceland in 1986 as a two-year-old merling, then eventually rescued from Marine World. His rescuers named him Fabio as a joke because of his lush golden locks, but it turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. As a merling, he’d imprinted on the Marine World trainers. He only wanted to mate with humans. There are clips of him still on YouTube, including one where he sidles up to a diver, a fifty-something researcher named Melvin Fitzsimmons. Melvin jumps, understandably startled, when Fabio begins to rub against his lower back. Melvin’s research assistant, who filmed this, laughs nervously at 13:27, “There’s his penis,” as Fabio nudges Melvin to the ocean bed. Melvin’s neon flippers flail. Sand billows in generous clouds. Meanwhile, Fabio waves his stiff penis like a flag.

Using the VFH system, we tracked the A pod swimming past Beom Isle, about six miles from where Alto was stranded, heading east. Swallows swooped overhead, as we loaded Alto’s tank on our research boat and left the facility in a hurry. Merrows swim on average forty miles a day. They can outrace boats, shedding their soft flaky skin every two hours, reducing drag, freeing themselves of anything that could weigh them down.

As we neared Moon Isle, we were forced to slow down. South Korea’s Jeju Island had some of the deadliest currents, whimsically cruel, and we wanted to dampen the engine noise. Below in the tossed, dark waves, streams of silhouettes glided under the surface. The waters churned in a whirlpool of pinkish foam and flakes. Using a pole, we fished out what looked like plastic bags. For once, it wasn’t plastic, but transparent sheets of skin embedded with little chunks of rosy flesh. Our boat rocked like a lullaby, as the merrows below rubbed their scales against each other in a frisky, swirling frenzy.

It was the annual mass scratchathon. We fished more sheddings for samples2, which are then tested for industrial toxins, including PCBs, DDTs, mercury, and flame retardants3. Not all the skins were silver. Some carried a rainbow tint, which signaled breeding potential.

We lowered Alto on a sling. The scratchathon explained the rakes and abrasions we found on him. His tail flicked nervously. Before the sling’s sagging bum could touch the water, Alto twisted his torso and leaped into the ocean. He swam toward the pod, his dorsal fin slicing the waves. Another, much larger male cut off his path. It was Triton, Astra’s primary mate.

As he approached Alto, Triton clicked and whistled. Alto brushed past him, unthinkable for a beta, but he and Triton used to be “kissing pals,” immature merlings who pair up during puberty. They rub and grind against each other, practicing copulation. They bond for life and often one of the merling pair will transition into a female.

Alto and Triton, however, belonged to Astra4.

Marla, our leader, was the first to slip into a wetsuit. She bound her blond hair into a fist-like bun and pulled on her hood with a thwack. Loose hair is a risk when swimming with merrows. Alpha mermaids grow their hair long as a sign of authority and like to rip out the hair of perceived rivals.

Every time we swam with the merrows, it was a fresh shock. Merrows are much larger than us. Their skin, brown and rubbery, fades into a ghostly silver underwater. Their wide eyes are more fish than mammal, their tastes more shark than dolphin. They could surround us. They could herd us into a trap. They could grab our ankles and tug us into the darkness.

A dark tail whipped past Marla, who seized the scuba rope out of reflex, rather than fright. Astra circled us. She nuzzled her cheek against Marla’s arm, then glided past the boat like a giant stingray, wings spread. She chirped a greeting and like an orchestra, her pod replied with groans and clanks. We held our breaths until our snorkels fell silent, as the last of the bubbles slipped away. Surrounded by the wisps of skin and feces, the clicks, shrieks, and cries, we listened to the merrow songs, reverent and reverberant.

They communicated through echolocation. They could see through us. They could see through our bones. They could see our hearts, beating faster.


2Another technique used to collect skin samples, which has proved controversial, is biopsy-darting. A dart with a hollow tip is shot into the side of the merrow. These darts were originally so large, the merrows tended to react violently when they were hit.
3PCBs, despite being banned in 1979, continue to be linked to infertility in merrows. In 2011, the eastern black merrow species had an infertility rate of 60%.
4Merrows live in social assemblages as pairs or triads consisting of a dominant female, surrounded by an alpha male and an immature juvenile, or beta male. If the dominant mermaid of a triad dies, all subordinates seize the opportunity to ascend in rank and grow. The alpha male is poised to become female and rapidly changes sex to assume the vacated position, while the beta male completes the breeding pair by turning into a mature male in a short amount of time.

*

Astra rose with us to the surface. Strands of her hair, so dark it could be green, clung to her fluttering gills. Her face was a silken deep brown. Her cheekbones were terrifying. Her smile reached her ears. Merrows have wide mouths and their corners are naturally fixed into a smile, a friendly effect that is undermined by their sharp teeth.

Since the 1980s, CAP’s photo-ID catalogue had swelled to seven merrow groups, lumped under two pods, with over forty members. More than a hundred of them, of crisp Grade 5 quality, belonged to Astra, our most receptive merrow to date.

Triton and Alto joined her. In simple English, we told Astra we found Alto stranded on the beach. We didn’t mention his reluctance to be saved. Looking back, perhaps we should have.

Astra looped her arms around them both and laughed, full-throated, “My poor, unfortunate fools.” A magnificent voice. Her underwater cries haunted us, but when she spoke in our tongue, she carried a lilt so persuasive, it was no surprise fishermen used to drown in the past, lured under the waves. She had a voice like sea glass, the edges weathered from years of tidal beatings. But it was her laughter we treasured. She cackled and giggled. She chattered and shrieked. She laughed, unheeding, like a child.

She was the alpha of the pod. She was their matriarch. She was our star.

*

In 2001, we’d picked her up when she was neither Astra, nor he nor she, but a young merling with dark fins, black as a slippery eel. We’d tracked the A pod for weeks along the coast of Kyushu. The September drive hunt was looming forth where fishermen herded merrows into coves, strangled them in nets and dragged them by the flukes. The most attractive mermaids were captured and sold. The rest were slaughtered. The Japanese believed in longevity from the consumption of merrow flesh, advertised as Ningyo Sashimi! in neon-trimmed Shinjuku bars, often with the painting of a splayed mermaid, bite-sized chunks of her pink marbled flesh laid out on her ivory skin.

Our methods of rescue were still primitive back then. We’d select the most vulnerable members of the pod and keep them safe in our sea pens until the drive hunt ended. Astra was one of these rescues. The rest of her pod watched us with accusing eyes, corralled behind the net, a bobbing of wet heads. We promised we’d return her, safe. But Astra’s mother, a mermaid with yellow eyes and a scarred mouth, wouldn’t stop screaming, her gills flaring obscenely.

Astra was five years old, the size of a young child, but with the strength of an adult man. It turned out to be the perfect age. She wasn’t so immature she’d imprint on us and turn deviant like Fabio, but she was young enough to be curious and calm. We had to return two of the merlings within hours. One became so agitated, his gills shut and he sank unmoving to the bottom of his tank.

Astra was different from the moment we hauled her in. We bundled her in our net like a swaddle. Instead of squeaking in fright, Astra smiled up at us through her seaweed hair.

Now we know better. Merrow smiles are an anatomical lie, arising from the configuration of their jaws. Their smiles drag humans down bottomless spring pools. Their smiles convince us they’re happy.

*

After the scratchathon, we invited Astra for a health check due to the risk of open wounds and infection. Some members of her pod were coerced into following, including Triton, her mate. Oh, Triton, we’d often sigh. Triton, t-A13, was a survivor of a measles-like viral epidemic that decimated his pod, the T pod from the Great Barrier Reef, in 2002. Before we traced his lineage, we used to call him Flame, or catalogue number X135. He had a braided mane, dark as coagulated blood, and when he reached sexual maturity, his silver tail deepened into a royal blue, mottled with flakes of crimson, like a fire flickering between red and blue, hot and hotter.

He was a troublemaker. He had a track record of being netted. At first, we wrote it off as low intelligence, which was why some of us, Marla included, were disappointed when Astra chose him as her primary mate. Later, we learned it was recklessness. After the T pod was wiped out, Triton traveled hundreds of miles as a solo merling before the A pod accepted him. Aside from Astra and Alto, he never bonded with the pod6. He hunted alone, targeting fish farms where he risked entanglement. Instead of waiting for someone to cut him loose, he lashed out with his tail. Once, he broke a fisherman’s ribs. We apologized on Triton’s behalf, but we knew Triton had held back. We’d seen him hunt, stunning a school of sardines with a whip of his tail, like a shockwave.

Despite this streak of aggression, we tried to avoid sedating Triton, or any of the merrows, when we checked them for possible injuries from the scratchathon. He was devoted enough to follow Astra to the outer rim of our facility. Astra pulled herself onto the dock, familiar with the squeaking wooden planks.

Triton protested. Leaving the waters was deemed too dangerous. He rammed against the dock. He slapped his tail on the surface. He screeched and clanked, like the chains of a shipwreck. Alto treaded about five feet away. He eyed Astra and Triton with a quiet, gleaming look. As the beta, his duty was to support Triton, but in almost every triad, tensions between the alpha and beta male bubbled.

Now Triton began to whimper, holding out his arms. Astra, with impatience in her smile, lunged for his neck. Her teeth sunk into his shoulder. Alto reared up, but the shock passed and he sank back down, tucking his chin under the water.

Triton winced but his smile didn’t waver. There was an almost gratefulness to his pain.


5The catalogue letter X is used for solo merrows. Merrows without pods rarely last more than five years on their own. They are rarely seen again.
6Every merrow population has a unique call or “dialect.” These acoustic differences are used to identify membership of a pod and prevent inbreeding. Dr. John Bigg’s groundbreaking research on merrow dialects has since proven why outsider merrows have difficulty overcoming these “language barriers.”

*

Even after the 2001 September drive hunt, we’d kept Astra, a sexually immature merling, in a sea pen by the dock. Our volunteers taught her signs on laminated flashcards and rewarded her with fish, mackerel being her favorite. She liked to mimic us7. “Good morning!” she’d crow. “Hello! Do you want fish? Yes, you want fish. What do you want? I want to go back.”

She liked to perform for us. Once, she threw up her mackerel8 and waved it at us, gripping the fish at the base. A week into her rescue, she tore into the fish, instead of swallowing it whole. Astra was mimicking how we ate. We scolded her. We didn’t want her to pick up unnatural habits, invasive to her way of life. Astra responded to our chiding with a furtive, bloodied smile. But she was eager to please. She learned to swallow. She learned to ask for fish. She learned over 2,000 verbal words, but what made Astra truly remarkable was her grammar. By day 41, her level of grammatical orderliness and conceptual complexity was typical of a three-year-old human child.

Jared, the head researcher at the time, was thrilled. He had Astra tested at the Jeju research center. Using a magnetic resonance imaging scanner, we made a tremendous discovery. Astra had a portion of the brain that was missing in even humans. Her anterior cingulate cortex, the language center, was unusually dense, twice as heavy as the average bilingual’s.

Some of us held the childish belief we’d cultivated Astra’s exceptionality. Again, this was 2001. We used to play mermaid films to impressionable merlings, hoping to massage their gender predisposition. Marla hated the films, especially Splash!, which spawned the multibillion dollar industry in Marine World, but we were desperate for more females. All merrows are born protandrous hermaphroditic, meaning they’re born male.

We snagged Astra’s interest by filming her and playing home videos on a television box, a waterproof extension cord trailing down the dock. She’d rise from the sea pen and watch herself with a parted, teething smile. The mermaid movies weren’t as successful. She yawned through Splash! She farted bubbles during Mr. Peabody and The Mermaid.

But every time we played The Little Mermaid, Astra surged out of the waters, dimpled elbows on the dock. She’d lean in so close, the tip of her nose smeared a teardrop on the screen. She’d peek, pupils shot, through the wet seaweed of hair.

We moved Astra from the sea pen to the tank for blood tests. Marla circled marks along Astra’s arm with a ballpoint pen. For hours, Astra rubbed her forearm, trying to erase the marks. To distract her, we’d turn on the movie.

It wasn’t Ariel who bewitched her. From the confines of the tank, Astra danced when Ursula filled the screen, tentacles splayed and spinning, singing, Poor, unfortunate souls. Astra’s hair swirled above her like a storm cloud. Her tail had grown five inches. Her scales flushed from black to a deep aubergine violet, like Ursula’s soft, vulnerable underbelly. Her voice had changed too. From the flutey cries of a choir boy, she sang in Ursula’s sultry tenor, though her voice would crack and squeak on occasion, pantomiming, Poor, unfortunate fools, in pain, in need… this one wanting to be thinner…that one wanting the girl…

We were witness to an unprecedented phenomenon. Within fourteen days, Astra had transformed from a black immature merling into an alpha mermaid, violet as a sea witch, skipping the silver stage of beta males entirely. We realized, this is it. She was going to be our Queen Victoria, the Grandmother of the Ocean. Her children would go on to breed with clans across the globe. She would revive not only the eastern black merrows in the Pacific, but the gray-finned pods back home, the white merrows near Iceland.

Years later, we watched one of her tapes. Someone, maybe Linda, pointed something out. Astra, our prodigy, had botched the lyrics, singing on the behalf of fools, a word we’d never taught. Some of us thought it was intentional. Maybe she didn’t have a need of a soul. Maybe she had a soft spot for fools.


7Aggressive mimicry is the most popular theory on why merrows imitate human speech, stemming from stories of merrows that drowned humans in oceans, lakes, or rivers. This theory is largely dismissed as superseded within the scientific community. It may have even contributed to the extinction of the freshwater merrow species.
8Merrows have two stomachs, one for digestion, one for storage, where food can be regurgitated at will.

*

Long-term recording of gastric ulcers in merrows stranded on the Jeju (S Korea) coast

Marla S. Rowland1

1Institute of Marine Biology, University of Hawaii, Kailua, Hawaii 96734


ABSTRACT: Long-term (2001-2011) results of recording gastric ulcers in the eastern black merrows (Nereida Niger) are presented for the South Korean Pacific coast. The occurrence of merrow carcasses with gastric ulcers are also discussed. Ulcerations were detected in 17.2% of the animals examined, with 25% for eastern black merrows. A positive relation was noted between ulcer counts and length and maturity. Clusters of the nematode Anisakis simplex could be seen embedded in the gastric ulcers of 3 eastern black merrows. It can be concluded that gastric ulcers are non-fatal lesions in merrows stranded in South Korea.
KEY WORDS: Gastric ulcers ⋅ Nereida Niger ⋅ Merrow carcasses ⋅ South Korea


*

According to Astra’s 2011 health reports, she exhibited unusually high GCC levels, which is often a sign of gastric ulcers9. Upon detecting occult blood in her stool, we prescribed Maalox, which we’d covertly slip into the gills of her favorite mackerel. Stress, we surmised, had to be the reason why Astra had failed to conceive for four years, though we were also concerned with Triton’s low sperm count.

After the post-scratchathon checkup, we gave Astra a shot of Clomid, the fertility drug, which had proven successful with gray mermaids and lowland gorillas. Astra let us circle the vein in the crook of her arm with a ballpoint pen. She didn’t flinch as the needle pricked her. She giggled, as if nervous. “Will I lay the egg?”

Of course, we told her.

Astra’s smile seemed tentative. She yearned to be a mother. Every year, she let us approach her eggs in her anemone nest to check for fertility. We’d scan the eggs for the telltale blastoderm, a particular spot on fertilized eggs. Every year, the eggs were pristine and spotless.

Marla, slipping the pen behind her ear, tried to cheer her up.

“Remember tentacle porn?” Marla said.

Between December 2001 and March 2002, Astra had begun exhibiting secondary female characteristics, so we’d banned male volunteers from approaching her. Within days, we’d caught a volunteer named Brett, a surfer who swore that a mermaid had once saved him by headbutting a tiger shark, with his pants down. He scrambled for his trunks, crying out, “She asked for it!” which raised a few eyebrows. Later, we checked the cameras. They backed his story. In fact, Astra hadn’t asked for his penis, but demanded it. Merrows have a canine-like intuition for social hierarchy. Even at her tender age, Astra could ascertain where Brett the surfer stood.

Brett tried to withdraw his penis, but Astra seized it, eliciting a pained squeal of shock. None of us moved. But again, we believed it was curiosity. With her grip, Astra could have crushed it into a pulp. Astra unwrapped her long spindly fingers and weighed his member with a chilling fascination. Her conclusion?

“Too soft.”

Brett deflated. We were relieved to see Astra’s encouraging, almost pitying smile. Some of us worried our star pupil might turn deviant like Fabio. We couldn’t Fabio this.

Her preference for merman penis was understandable10, but for weeks, Brett moaned “cocktease,” and we assigned our intern Tina, a budding woman in her own right, to stand guard. She usually sat in front of the tank and read her Japanese comic books.

One day, Astra asked, “What is that?”

“Tentacle porn,” Tina said.

Astra reared up. “Octopus? Squid?”

“Wanna see?”

Astra preferred movies over books. While she could read signs, she didn’t find the written word as compelling as the spoken. Tina scooched her chair closer, so Astra could peer over her shoulder and read the comic book through the layer of glass. As Tina turned the pages, Astra asked, “Does octopus have sex with human?” “Why is octopus so large?” “Where can I find large octopus?”

At the end of the comic, Astra sighed, as if satisfied. She told Tina the octopus was a female.

“How can you tell?” Tina said.

“Females are large. They have sex with male octopus and kill him.”

Octopus sex remains a paradox. They’re deeply antisocial and yet, their bodies have evolved in a way where they can only mate with the utmost intimacy. A male octopus, brave and desperate, must penetrate the female with one of his tentacles. He’d slip it directly into her bulbous head and inject a stream of sperm, and sometimes a warning alarm went off, and he’d sacrifice his arm and flee.

Sometimes he wouldn’t. Sometimes he’d stay or come back, and slip his arm into her ear, as if to caress her brain, and sometimes she’d wrap him in her arms and hold him until she strangled him, then she’d drag him home and eat him with a slow, careful regret.


9We later compared Astra’s 2011 GCC levels with that of captive merrows in Marine World. She had the stress levels of a merrow living in a 20×20 ft steel box.
10Merman penises are fibroelastic, filled with collagen. Even flaccid, their penises are stiff. Humans have attempted copulation with merrows for years, but a human male, even with a week’s supply of Viagra and a flashlight, would never find his way through the twisting maze that is a mermaid’s vagina.

*

Type in “mermaid sex” and more than 455,000 results will register on YouTube, though many will be of music videos or animated simulations. Merrows rarely have sex near the surface. Only seven recordings of the eastern black’s mating rituals exist on record, which makes the following video footage, recorded on June 5, 2011, all the more valuable.

The morning after the scratchathon, Triton was swimming in circles when we returned Astra. She leaped into his arms, but before Triton could hug her, Astra slipped out of his embrace and looped once around him, playful. Her claws softly raked his face, as she hissed in his ear. Her voice, no matter how whispery, rang in the salty air.

In front of us, Astra began sexual contact, first through mouthing, then licking11. Triton’s confusion bloomed into pleasure when Astra tongued the spiraled ridges of his ear. She slipped the tip, black and glistening, into his hole, like an octopus’s arm, reaching deep inside the head until it hit the crinkled folds of the brain, so she could stroke the brain, so the brain would tingle because the brain is the most sensitive of organs, and it’s shaped like a maze, like the inner workings of a mermaid.

Astra pushed Triton’s hand down her waist, toward her genital slit, as her finger peeled the lip of her slit open. Triton’s tail blushed a deep red. The blue flecks faded in the force of his arousal. His fins fanned out, flickering orange. He expanded his chest gave a quick, sonic boom, a mating call.

As Astra looped her tail around Triton’s, she eyed Alto, who remained chin-deep in the water. Her unblinking gaze was clearly provocative. Alto’s fins flared, a sign of either anger or arousal, a far cry from the dehydrated merman we’d found stretched on the sand, resisting rescue.

Astra extended her webbed hand. She drew Alto into their embrace. Triton made a noise like a growl, but Astra chittered. His growl melted into a whine, helpless. Astra and Triton rubbed belly to belly while Alto swam by them. He dipped under the water and supported Astra from below, his chest pressed against her spine, as Triton rolled on top of her. As they entwined, strangling, choking, loving, we realized the positions had switched and now Alto was on the bottom, with Astra above and Triton in between.

Alto melded against Triton’s back. He closed his luminous eyes and rubbed against the navy dorsal fin, as if they were kissing pals again, just two merlings bonding for life.


11We knew merrows had no sense of impropriety, but still we questioned why Astra would initiate sexual contact in our presence. Marla, of all people, conjectured it came from a desire to please. “She wanted to show us,” Marla said. “That she’s trying.”

*

On the Fourth of July, Astra laid a spotted egg, our first fertile egg since 2006. We emailed Jared, who sent out a mass email of congratulations to the entire merrow protection network with a picture of five-year-old Astra, grinning at her regurgitated fish. Our volunteers wanted to celebrate with fireworks, but we couldn’t risk it. Merrows were exquisitely sensitive to sound. We grilled hamburgers and hotdogs, and drank beer on the dock and toasted Marla for giving up her career as an astronomer and joining us in the fight to rescue all merrows, and Rodney for thinking of using Clomid, and Eddie for being our translator, and we thanked everyone, including all our volunteers.

Astra’s nest was located near Seki Isle, a tiny islet with some of the wildest currents, which is why it was rigged underwater with a stout web of ropes, designed to tether and guide divers through the wretched waters. Diving with cumbersome equipment could be a challenge, but on Day 4, we set up the underwater cameras. On Day 7, we made plans to retrieve the egg.

We convinced ourselves it was vital to care for the egg during this sensitive time. Many fertilized eggs had suffered needless deaths from neglectful mothers, opportunistic predators, or oceanic whims. After the decimation of the T pod, the eastern black merrow population teetered at only thirty-seven merrows, with eight breeding females left. Artificial incubation would boost those numbers. Since 1996, rescuers had hand-raised nineteen merlings and returned them safely to the wild, with a survival rate of 81%.

The triad alternated between hunting and watching over the egg, nestled in a lavender anemone among the soft corals. Triton, as the father, was too dangerous. His shockwave tail could smash our innards. We wanted to avoid Astra. Deep down, we feared she’d be unwilling to give up the egg. We told ourselves she’d understand.

*

July 23, 2011 (Day 19): We anchored the boat by Seki Isle before sunrise and waited an hour in the stinging wind to time the egg’s retrieval. Red buoys bobbed nearby, a sign of local divers. The craggy shoreline shone like onyx. Legend was merrows had pitch-black tails because they were sloughed from Jeju’s porous black rocks.

We waited to retrieve the egg during Alto’s watch. As a beta male, we suspected he would be less confrontational. He confirmed our suspicions by fleeing upon spotting us. He retreated ten feet away from the corals and hidden behind pink mossy rocks, he watched us with his luminous deep-sea eyes. Alto could have lunged at our divers or released a distress signal. The fact that he made no attempt to summon Astra or Triton disappointed us.

A mermaid egg is sometimes called a mermaid’s purse. It looks like a blood donation bag, but is far more delicate, more precious. We bundled the egg into our transport bag, which two divers needed to carry, as we kicked toward the surface. Alto followed. His gills flared once before his head broke the surface. His dark, tangled hair curtained his face, shielding his eyes from the sun.

From the boat, one of our volunteers pointed over the railing. The silvery blue of Alto’s scales was darker than usual. He was changing color. His eyes remained pale and opaque, watching us as we drove the boat away.

*

Alpha mermaid brutally attacks challenger mermaid / AMAZING MERMAID ATTACK
1.2M views


 

Bale TV
Published on September 8, 2009
An ALPHA mermaid has been filmed for the first time killing a CHALLENGER mermaid. The footage, which is believed to be a world-first, was captured off the coast of South Korea by underwater photographer Carol Jackson. It shows an older mermaid challenging the alpha matriarch of a mermaid pod. The matriarch wears down the older mermaid with opportunistic bites at her fins. She moves in to deliver the death blow.

For more compelling footage of the amazing side of life: Like Bale TV

3,525 Comments

Josh Giles 1 year ago
Tremendously strategic in biting off its fins. Amazing.

phantom lover 2 years ago(edited)
CAT FIGHT!!!

Double Agent 139 1 year ago
Rest in pieces

*

The Jeju locals grew aware, if not appreciative, of our efforts to save the eastern black merrow species. After years of trying to raise awareness, we were now giving talks four times a week at schools, diving schools, fishing clubs, yacht clubs, lifeguards, anyone that was willing to listen. We would get calls from mothers collecting shells with their children. Teachers on field trips. Tourists on boats to Udo Island. Ferry captains. Fishermen. Even the coastal guard.

We raised Astra’s egg in a tank, warmed at seventy-eight degrees Fahrenheit, under a fiber-optic bulb to see through the translucent sack, and recorded fetal growth, one millimeter at a time. Hand-rearing of merrow eggs was an exhaustive procedure that required at least five people on staff to remain in constant supervision.

On Day 17 of the egg’s incubation, we received a tip from local divers, who had spotted the A pod12 near Sup Isle. We rushed out, grabbing just our wetsuits and a small dive boat. We hadn’t seen Astra in weeks, not since we’d taken away her egg for protection, despite our efforts to reach out to her. The extended silence was concerning, but we reasoned that merrows spend 90% of their lives under the surface. They couldn’t always be found.

As the sun dipped behind a pinnacle of shaven rock, we drove past a black-sand beach. The beach, once a tourist hotspot, was closed. Garbage speckled the shoreline in tumorous piles. Convenience store bags, laid flat by paperweight rocks, looked like dried jellyfish. Plastic cups with melted peanut butter ice cream, soda bottles, makgeoli bottles, cigarette butts, chopstick sleeves, straw wrappers, a punctured tire, a smashed surfboard. Once, on a different beach, we’d uncovered a rare find. A half-gallon bottle filled with uncooked rice, a first-aid kit, a USB stick, and a single US dollar bill, folded with a note that said, “God loves you.” It was a care package, flung by South Korean activists and missionaries, in the hopes it would reach the shores of North Korea, one day.

Elderly women divers13 peeled sea urchins with thick starched gloves. An old woman tucked in her dyed-brown frizz into the black hood of her wetsuit. She picked up her green-netted Styrofoam buoy and waddled on stubby flippers toward the ocean.

We asked the divers where they’d spotted a pod of merrows. We nudged our Korean-American intern to translate for us. After some back and forth, the divers burst out laughing. Our intern said the divers didn’t see the pod, but one or two merrows, headed for the estuary. He said one of the divers had recognized Astra. They called her “psycho,” which caused some of us to bristle.

“Why did they laugh?” Rodney said.

Our intern had tried to explain that her name was Astra and her importance. One of the divers had replied, Why hang her in the sky when she belongs to the sea?

We drove toward Soesokkak Estuary, the mouth of a stream where salt meets fresh, some of us skeptical. The estuary was too shallow for merrows who were open-water swimmers14. But as the divers had claimed, we spotted a dorsal fin speeding across the estuary, the water so shallow, the fin stood at least half a meter. We counted two more shapes, three in total. One of the merrows was chasing something, but water visibility remained at zero from the stirred sediment. We couldn’t see who the merrows were or what they were hunting.

One of the merrows leaped from the waters. The torso disappeared underwater before we could see the face, but a pair of dark purple flukes slapped the surface.

Marla wobbled over to the bow. “Astra!”

Astra chased after a silhouetted shape that slipped under our boat. We spotted the third merrow, Triton, recognized by his blue dorsal fin, as he tried to wedge himself between Astra and the fleeing merrow. Astra swerved and rammed into the other merrow from the side.

Alto lashed back at her with his tail. It’d taken us much longer to ID him. His silver scales had darkened into a deep hue. Alto released a sonic boom, a cry only alphas could make. His scream shuddered across the waves. Astra shrieked back. Blood flowed from the corners of her enraged smile. She raked his face with her claws, then headbutted him in the stomach. Alto dove under her and flipped her over.

“Astra,” Marla screamed.

Astra’s head rose once more. For a moment, her gaze swiveled in our direction. We couldn’t recognize her. Her eyes had sunk deep into her sockets, either from grief or fury. But she recognized us. Her merrow smile seemed to falter. In her hesitation, we saw confusion and in her confusion we saw her head droop, like a heartbroken child, before she dove under the water.

The waves rippled over, but the air remained sticky with salt and blood. Then the boat lurched. Marla crashed against the railing. A merrow had headbutted us. We scanned the waters for a blue dorsal fin, signs of Triton. But it was Alto, with his deep-diver eyes and mopey smile. A gruesome flap of skin dangled from his nose. Astra had almost raked his face clean off.

Alto bared his teeth at us. “What is he doing? Why is he attacking?” Marla shouted, but none of us could answer. He smashed into our boat again and screamed. His gills splayed pink. He shrieked nonsensical words. Shaken, we turned the boat. We had to chase after Astra, following her wispy trail of blood before it faded. Some of us remembered Kara, who’d once challenged a thirteen-year-old Astra for leadership of the pod, who’d died from her injuries, entangled in a cage net. Alto’s screams echoed, chasing after us.


12The A pod was difficult to track during this two-week period. Merrow pods avoid traveling long distances when the females are nesting, so the A pod’s sudden migration toward Kyushu, Japan, was considered unusual.
13The haenyeo, or “women of the sea,” is the deferential appellation given to the Jeju female divers. They too have dwindled in number, but a recent K-drama rekindled interest in their trade. They’ve set up a haenyeo school near our facility. Sometimes, we see them selling fresh octopus and squid to tourists, wielding sea knives and shouting prices. “Just for you, I’ll make it 25,000 won,” they shout to no one in particular. “Just for you.”
14“Benthic foraging on stingrays by merrows (Nereida glaucus) in New Zealand waters,” Journal of Marine Science (2013), dispelled this popular theory in scientific literature.

*

We searched for Astra, but she’d left the range of her VHF tag. We recruited volunteers from the Korean Oceanic Rescue Service, divers from the local school, and even a crew from an aquaculture site. Volunteers scanned the islets, from Beom Isle to Moon Isle, for hours.

We returned to the estuary where we found Triton swimming under the strong sun, back and forth along the surface, standing on his tail, a strong indicator of distress. We hauled him in with little effort. Alto, no longer bleeding but sluggish from the fight, had also lingered within sighting distance. He dove deeper whenever we tried to approach. But he never strayed too far. He wouldn’t leave Triton and we had finally begun to understand why.

Rodney, who had the license and the aim, shot Alto in the back with a tranquilizer. Back at our facility, we measured Alto’s length. The growth was astounding. He stretched 11.5 feet long. His colors had settled into a turquoise, flecked with bright yellow. He’d transitioned into a splendid alpha male.

Triton watched Alto from an adjacent sea pen. He hissed whenever we drew close. His own transformation was palpable. The sea pen was shallow enough to expose his scales, fading from crimson to orange-yellow. As we would later discover, the collagen in his scales had already softened from the ridged ctenoid scales of males into the smooth cycloid scales of females.

An external event had triggered Triton’s hermaphroditic transition and we feared the cause15. Perhaps Triton sensed this. He rammed against the walls of the sea pen, not purposefully, but as if he was disoriented with loss.

A few days later, the A-pod was spotted near Beom Isle, but Astra was still nowhere to be found. “She’s strong,” Marla said, jaw tense16. At her suggestion, we played a merrow song on speakerphone every night. We listened to Astra sing as a merling when she used to cry for her mother, who was killed in the 2001 September drive hunt. We waited on the dock until dawn. We wanted to believe in her smile, no matter how illusory it was.


15Ibid, p 6. If the alpha mermaid of a triad falls ill or is injured, the alpha male changes sex to assume the female role while the beta male completes the breeding pair by turning into a mature male. Casas, Lisa & Ryu, Taewoo (2008). “Sex Change in Merrows: Molecular Insight from Transcriptome Analysis.” Scientific Reports.
16In 2012, Marla Rowland gave birth to her first child, a daughter named Marina, at the age of 38. At Marina Rowland’s first birthday, Marla is reported to have told some of her past coworkers she wished she could apologize to Astra.

*

Fabio eventually returned to the sea. The twenty-million-dollar Free Fabio Project rehabilitated him in a makeshift pen by Klettsvik Bay. He was taught how to swim, how to hunt. A month after his release into Icelandic waters, Fabio was found near a Norwegian village, flirting with the fishermen, playing with the children. Tourists often spotted him preening his long, golden hair, singing Christmas jingles like “Jingle Bell Rock.”

Sometimes, he sang in a lost language, echoing clicks and guttural groans, as if he wanted to stretch his vocal cords, his ability to reach out to his own kind, no matter how far away they were.

He died a year after his release. They found his body in Taknes Bay, a calm pocket of coastal water, deep enough it wouldn’t freeze in the winter.

There is only one recorded instance of Fabio’s attempt to establish contact with a wild merrow pod. He was once seen bobbing in the periphery of the pod, at least five hundred feet away, facing the closest merrow, as they passed by.

*

After 35 days of incubation, the fetus in Astra’s egg resembled a human baby, curled up in a spiral, with a misshapen large head, five webbed little fingers on each hand, and small hind protrusions, which would shrink and meld into a merrow tail, just as the tail would shrink and meld into a human spine.

The tests proved Triton wasn’t the father. On top of his low sperm count, we suspected he was infertile. The surviving merrows of the T pod who had reintegrated into other clans never yielded any fertilized eggs. We’d hoped it wouldn’t be the case for Triton, who was a merling at the time. The virus had not only decimated his family but killed his fragile reproductive capabilities. Even as an alpha female, the chance Triton would bear children was frighteningly low.

If Triton wasn’t the father, then that left Alto. He floated in his tank, listless and belly-up, his merrow smile now a sutured gash across his face. He was always so passive, drifting aimlessly in his tank. Was it this same passivity that had angered Astra? Had she taken his refusal to protect the egg as a betrayal? Perhaps Alto had always known he was the father and still he’d relinquished his offspring to us.

We debated the reasons for Alto’s lack of paternal enthusiasm until someone proposed a theory: Alto and Triton had bonded when they were merlings. They used to be kissing pals. Perhaps Alto had always wanted Triton as a mate until Astra, an established alpha female, claimed Triton as her own.

To test this theory, we lifted the door separating his sea pen from Triton’s. Triton, who had almost fully transitioned into a female, rubbed against Alto for comfort. But Alto shuddered. He swerved sharply. He continued to dodge Triton’s attempts to communicate.

“He’s a deviant17,” Rodney said. “He won’t mate with females.”

That evening, we released Triton and Alto into the ocean. Alto dove under the waves without a backward look. Eddie snapped a blurred picture, Grade 3 in quality, a final glimpse of Alto’s scarred shoulders, crimson in the setting sun. We’d counted more than thirty bites around his neck and shoulders. The majority of his scars were puckered white and old. Astra had been sinking her teeth into him for years.

Rodney gave a despairing laugh. “An infertile alpha and a homosexual beta, Astra truly picked the best!”

Astra must have inflicted injuries on Alto with an increasing desperation every time he tried to refuse her. But why hadn’t she simply abandoned her mates18? Why would she try to mate with Alto to the point of inflicting bites that went beyond mouthing behaviors?

This is where we split into factions. Some of us believe Astra had known all along. After four years of failure, she must have realized Triton was infertile, she must have sensed Alto’s covert desire for Triton. The rest of the pod would have chased them out for their deficiencies. And yet, Astra had laughed and accepted them with a helpless fondness.

The other faction has accused us of projecting human qualities onto Astra. We were trying to make her into something that she wasn’t. Had we not done this already? We’d always told Astra she was meant to be a mother. We’d called her so many things. Our star, our queen. We’d promised she’d be the grandmother of the ocean, we’d caged her with promises she had to uphold and still she’d tried to embrace us, her poor, unfortunate fools.


17Homosexual behavior in merrows is not uncommon in social play, but a male’s rejection of a female’s advances was unheard of within the marine science community in 2011. Later studies have disproved this misconception.
18Merrows often do mate for life, but this is seen as an evolutionary strategy for maximizing the number of merlings they can raise. Monogamy only comes after the successful conception of a fertile egg. Alpha females are known for discarding males who are incapacitated in any way that prevents copulation.

*

COMPLETE RESULTS REPORT

 

Case#: 15-1831

MMSC-15-117Species: Merrow


Verified by: Dr. Laura Ravasi Breed: Eastern Black
Verified on: 12/10/11 Sex: Female
Date Administered: 12/10/11 Date Reported: 02/22/12
Test: Gross Pathology Specimen Collected on: 12/08/11

Animal IDTestSpecimenResult
MMSC-15-117 Post-Mortem Whole Body Dead gross pathology

Comments: A necropsy is performed on December 10, 2011. The body is that of an 82kg adult female merrow (Nereida niger) found stranded on Shiretoko Beach in Japan. The body length measures 285cm and has severely depleted adipose deposits in postmortem condition. All organs not described are within normal limits.

 
GROSS DIAGNOSES:
Body as a whole: Emaciated, severe.
Lung: Pneumonia, granulomatous, chronic, multifocal, mild.
Thorax and abdomen: Effusion, serous to serosanginous, mild.
Stomach: Ulceration, chronic, multifocal, mild, forestomach (non-glandular gastric compartment) full of marine garbage such as garbage bags, sacks of Raffia, ropes, pieces of nets and plastic bottles, etc.

 
The manner of death is undetermined.

Silvia Park grew up in South Korea. She's a graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop and an MFA candidate at NYU. Her fiction has won the 2018 Fiction Prize from Sonora Review’s Issue 74: The Future and is forthcoming in the Asian American Writers’ Workshop’s Transpacific Literary Project.

Tags: , , ,

Add a comment
2500 characters allowed
User Guidelines

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *