On the rear deck of the Alpha Helix a rubber children's swimming pool held live coho and pink salmon. Occasionally, when a fish appeared ready to belly up, someone would shove a green garden hose down his throat, sharply increasing his oxygen supply.
Don Wilkie, the only ichthyologist among the laboratory anglers, filled the scientists' daily orders. They might want four female coho or six male sockeye taken from the river or spring salmon taken from the sea. These Wilkie bought for 78� a pound from the purse seiners along the British Columbia coast. The spawning fish he picked up in dip nets. "Some of the scientists did not wonder, or apparently care, where the fish came from," Wilkie says. "These men tunnel in on one problem. I've seen this at Scripps where I also provide the fish for laboratory tests. I remember one man there who for several years had been analyzing the blood of the keyhole limpet, which is a snail. One day he saw one of the limpets lying intact on a table in the lab and he asked someone what it was. Biochemists should go out and find their own specimens. They would acquire an appreciation for the animal. A lot of them think getting a spring salmon is as easy as going to Woolworth's and getting a pack of chewing gum."
In Bella Coola Wilkie would watch a scientist dump a 10-pound coho in a wash basin, slosh a bucket of sea water over him and begin a test. "Some of them forgot they were dealing with a living animal," Wilkie says. "They would forget about his needs and think the salmon in the basin or the mayonnaise jar was responding normally. I had to suggest the fish might be under stress in these circumstances." It is, another naturalist suggests, something like studying the heart of a man after holding him under water for three minutes.
From their studies the scientists say they hope to gain insight into such maladies as heart attacks, strokes, arthritis, liver disorders, bone diseases, malnutrition and certain types of cancer. But the most significant research gathered is expected to be on the process of aging. To Dr. Trams an important finding was that the brain of the spawning salmon loses control over its pituitary gland. The gland increases greatly in size and productivity as the fish enters fresh water. With the pituitary running wild, there is a metabolic speedup in which the fat in the salmon's body is burned up. "It is as though all the glands were programmed to synchronize the combustion of fat simultaneously so that the whole machine runs out of fuel," Dr. Andrew A. Benson, the head of the expedition, explains. The gland that regulates the calcium in the salmon's system dissolves and with it its bones. The activity of the pituitary gland and loss of bone calcium are familiar symptoms of aging in man.
One significant difference in the physiology of fish and human, however, is the amount of cholesterol a salmon can tolerate. In the ocean it has five to 10 times as much in its bloodstream as man. High concentrations of cholesterol in humans cause strokes and heart attacks. "If we find out how the salmon manages to survive with gigantic amounts of cholesterol," Dr. Benson says, "perhaps we can help humans survive."
Engrossed in their scientific research, the doctors worked long hours—often from 9 in the morning until 2 or 3 the following morning. On a rare occasion someone would walk along the shore gathering mushrooms for hors d'oeuvres. In the evening in the lounge of the Alpha Helix they would tell their fish tales as a stereo played Bach.
They were unusual anglers but they saw value in their naivet�. "It is naivet� in the Kantian sense of the word," Dr. Trams explained. "If you do not go on a trip like that with preconceived notions, you get a lot better ideas and can visualize new approaches."