During the New Moon phases in May and June, under cover of darkness, palolo worms are sprung from the coral that populates the seabed off the coast off Key West. Trillions of red and white worms are released from the ocean floor and preprogrammed to
swim to an offshore reef, temporarily transforming the liquid they inhabit to an incandescent and colorful froth. No one knows where the hatch will occur, or exactly when, and news of this phenomenon is closely followed, and the co-ordinates guarded. Fishermen are a notoriously secretive breed. To ask after a location is met with a stony, Out West, or, Bay Side, helpfully narrowing things down to the million nautical miles of the Gulf of Mexico.
Tarpon know when the hatch is going to happen and gather well before it starts. Tarpon are gigantic sardines, shaped like missiles, and the size of skiffs. Tarpon have an oily repulsive flesh, relegating them to sport, rather than steak. Indolent predators usually found submerged near docks, lazily scavenging scraps, however, when the palolo worms sprout from the coral tarpon adopt the personality of crack whores.
Fishermen have scant interest in the worms; they come for the tarpon. A hooked tarpon, interrupted from his orgasmic meal of palolo worms, transforms into a freight train of power and charge, providing a mighty challenge to the angler. Sport fishermen are eager to fish this event because it requires some skill to trick a tarpon in the midst of a worm hunt.
For reasons as
yet unexplained by science tarpon lose their minds for the palolo worms. Tarpon travel from all over to engage in this wilding with the worms. They feast on them, they gorge. They roll around and whisk the ocean into a heavy churn, they fling themselves about, frolicking like dolphins. The tarpon devour the tiny worms swimming for their precarious lives. The worms are so small and the fish so big some question the relationship. Some believe the worms are hallucinogenic.
Keen to see these worms and the crazed tarpon I begged a ride from Caloosa, my friend who keeps a boat. It was 10pm.
Caloosa is always up for an adventure and soon we were trickling through the harbor half lit from town, chugging around the edge of the piers. Guiding lights in green and red reflect in wobbly ribbons. The air was whitish, dense with moisture, tasting like soda bubbles, making for a mist with which to enshroud the anchored sailboats with their tall masts and wrapped sails, and all of them rocking mildly, a scene stolen from pirate days.
Under a moon like a wafer of beaten gold we gathered speed toward the Atlantic Ocean, port-side passing a
forested promontory and the shadows of a civil war fort. Discouragingly there were a mere handful of crafts on the horizon, spaced sporadically, like fairy lights.
“Not enough boats,” Caloosa said, shaking his head.
“Where are the worms?” I implored.
“You missed them,” he explained. “Better luck next year.”