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Prickly Encounters Under a Pale Moon

With a “See you in a few,” the sharp-eyed “boss” of our crew dived into the darkness of the sea.

We had taken a breather from the hustle and bustle of the city and found ourselves at a beach on Iriomote Island in Okinawa – far off the beaten path. We came for the camping, to catch fresh fish and enjoy a drink or two but found ourselves without a nibble due to a problem with oversized bait.

“What’s a meal without a main dish?” As we concerned ourselves with the night’s feast, the “boss” gathered his harpoon and goggles and dove into the deep, black sea hoping to find something to fill our growling stomachs.

The lack of moonlight turned the sea into a blanket as black as coal. Our guide, who makes his living harvesting herbs and moonlights as a sea kayak guide, dived into the water like a submarine.

He took up kayaking in order to get to the backwoods areas where the best herbs are most plentiful, and his unlimited knowledge of Iriomote’s mountains and ocean certify him as native. Therefore we refer to him as the “boss” out of respect.

After some time a shadow appeared out of the darkness and made its way to land. He was grasping the night’s catch firmly in one hand and remarked in a thick Okinawa dialect, “It looks like abasa (porcupine fish) tonight.” Abasa is similar to fugu (blowfish) but substitutes fugu’s poison with 300 to 400 sharp spikes along its white belly and gray-colored back.

The fish was still stuck to the end the harpoon and appeared to be alive. A poke to its head sent all spikes to attention and the eyes seemed to glare at the offender. This was the first time for me to see such a thing and the tension in the air was palpable.

A stone was used to hold open the mouth, causing the fish to bite with surprising strength. Cuts around the mouth brought forth an amazing amount of seawater from inside, and deft use of the blade removed the skin like a winter coat, revealing the white meat inside.

The “boss” then pulled out something resembling a plastic bag from the fish’s belly and explained the contents as “eggs.” Had the fish not found the end of a spear, perhaps it might have laid these.

We placed the fish in a bowl filled to the brim with water and boiled the dish over the campfire. The pot finally boiled and from the smoke of the fire came abasa soup. We paid our respects to the “boss” and gave thanks for the food. I also thought of the creatures living below that coal-black blanket of a sea, constantly engaged in an eat-or-be-eaten relationship. The night’s adventures in remote Iriomote won’t soon be forgotten.

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