We keep zapping guys onto the moon, but we don't even know what's around the corner in the bay." N. G. Vick, marine biologist.
For Norman Gibbs Vick, admirer of marlin, amberjack and assorted porpoises, crabs and octopuses, it was a 19-word personality profile. The infinitive "to zap" is part of a vocabulary in which storms are "Walloons," fish are "animals" and misery is to be "on the hill" or stuck ashore, which is what provoked his strong sense of irony in the first place. The walloon that could easily have drowned him, he pointed out, was to the astronauts but an invisible swirl on a pea-sized ball. And, he kept thinking, why was everyone walking around moon-eyed anyway? Hadn't he felt that same sense of wonder nearly every day of his adult life just looking at the sea?
Since 1961 Vick's eyes have been open wide at the Gulf of Mexico off Panama City, Fla., where he is the Eastern Gulf Marine Laboratory, part of the U.S. Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife. Vick's work with a marlin-filled ocean river called the Loop Current is already a Gulf Coast legend. Two years before he came to Panama City little was known about the Loop, and only one marlin had been caught on rod and reel in the northeastern Gulf. Last year 1,510 were brought into Destin, Fla. alone.
To Vick, the Loop Current is a restless, living thing, a great liquid serpent that sleeps the winter curled around western Cuba, then starts northward in spring, a deepening inverted U, fed by warm expanding currents from the south. By early July it is 85 to 180 miles off the Mississippi Delta, sliding eastward over the walls of the continental shelf, its top and right leg roughly paralleling the shoreline from Louisiana to southwest Florida. And two days out of three, from mid-April to early November, Vick is probing its course. For four consecutive springs Vick has caught the first marlin in the eastern Gulf.
"It should be called Vick's Current," says Harley Howcott Sr., of the New Orleans Big Game Fishing Club, one of many such groups indebted to Vick for his gathered information. "He's out there in rough seas doing things that many scientists try to do behind a desk."
Despite his local fame, no one on the Panama City fishing docks knows any Norman Gibbs Vick. There he is "Guru" or "Ole Man," "Dr. Vick" or "Vick"—Guru because the term suggests knowledge and they are awed by his; Ole Man because most of his friends are younger than he (probably because few men his own age, 39, could ever keep up with his seemingly endless physical energy); and Dr. Vick, though it is technically incorrect, because he knows so much. He says he is just too busy right now to complete a doctoral thesis.
Vick's land base is four drab rooms full of charts and bottles of fish in formaldehyde in a one-story building a block from the marina in Panama City's St. Andrews section. He is rarely there. "I'm a held researcher," he says, "not one a those 8-to-5 sports-coat types, with nothing to worry about but whether their coffee pot's gonna bubble."
One rainy day Vick was on the hill, and he was violently landsick. He drove down to a waterfront fishermen's hangout to commiserate with his sidekick, Raymond Groom, whom for no particular reason Vick prefers to call Ralph. Groom works a midnight to 8 a.m. shift with the telephone company, leaving his days free to make trips with Vick. For months they had been daydreaming of broadbill swordfish, unknown in the Gulf until shrimp trawlers and longline fishermen recently caught more than 50.
"C'mon, Ole Man," Groom said, "you can't get swords sittin' here in the lounge. Why don't we just get down and start her up now. Why wait until tomorrow?"
Vick was deep in thought. "In the last three years I've had eight 12/0 reels emptied," he finally said. "They might've been tunas, but maybe they were swords." Minutes passed and no one spoke.