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Thomas Lee Mills, skipper of the shrimp trawler Norma Evonne, purled his cigarette in the darkness and flicked on the fathometer. The needle noisily traced out a black line over the sheet of graph paper. "We're at 70 fathoms right now." Mills said, "and it won't be long before the bottom starts dropping off pretty fast. By three or four in the morning we'll have a good 200 fathoms of water beneath us."
"But I'll tell you," he continued thoughtfully, "the way these seas have been building I ain't so sure we're gonna be able to work when we do get out there. Now it used to be that you could work this Royal Red shrimp territory out here in between the northerlies. But crazy acting as the weather's been, I don't know. Last year they'd blow through about once a week, then it would clear up and even get pretty out here. But now these fronts come down one right behind the other, and I'm afraid that's what's happening."
"A big boat like this ought to be able to take it," I said hopefully, leaning back in the pilothouse chair, watching the sweep of the illuminated radar beam. We were alone out here, with not a blip of any kind on the screen.
Mills laughed sardonically. "Oh hell, yes, this boat can take it. She weighs 50 tons; she don't ride the waves, she flattens 'em. But you ain't gonna stand up to it. When she hits those 25-foot seas and goes to slamming, she'll beat your guts out. And when you got them big seas breaking over the bow, it don't take but a second for a man to get washed overboard. Damned if I'm gonna get drowned out here trying to drag up a mess of nasty looking sea roaches."
Thomas Lee didn't think much of our expedition. He had agreed to run the Norma Evonne for Aquila Seafood in Bon Secour, Ala. only because it was January, the coldest and most wretched month of the year. His own 68-foot wooden trawler was tied to the dock, along with nearly all the other shrimp boats, because shrimping inshore had been so poor. He needed to make some money.
Finding a vessel large enough and equipped to trawl the submarine DeSoto Canyon off Pensacola in 200 fathoms (1,200 feet), where the giant sea roaches (Bathynomeus giganteus) lived, had proved an ordeal. Never had these grotesque joint-legged creatures been placed alive on public display. Occasionally deep-water shrimp fishermen after Royal Red shrimp would haul up a sea roach in their nets and bring it ashore dead as a curiosity. Months earlier we had gone from dock to dock, fishing village to fishing village, asking if anyone was fishing for Royal Reds. But all we got was an emphatic "No! I doubt you'll find anyone still messing with Royal Reds."
In the 1950s the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries (now known as the National Marine Fisheries Service) first discovered the large Royal Red shrimp resource. They were doing exploratory fishing in 200 fathoms and brought up a deckload of big red succulent Hymanopenaeus robustrum, previously known from a handful of pickled specimens on the shelves of the U.S. National Museum. The crew cooked the shrimp, and overnight the Royal Reds changed from a scientific curiosity to a gourmet's delight. Adventurous shrimpers, spurred on by the discovery, rigged up their boats to work in the deep water. But fishing out there, farther than any shrimp boat had gone before, was brutal on equipment. The heavy seas would snatch the rigs off the bottom and tangle them. As cables were wound in, standard winches used on trawlers would often burn out from the strain, leaving the crew to haul in more than a mile of steel cable by hand, sometimes in howling gales. Enormous sharks attacked the nets, and when violent squalls struck, there was no nearby shore to run to for safety. After a few years of trying, most skippers gave up and went back to working inshore for the traditional pink, brown and white shrimp.
But at last we located the Norma Evonne, which had been especially rigged for fishing Royal Reds. With giant hydraulic winches, she was built to work out there. "But I'll tell you something," Thomas Lee said, "it damn sure don't pay to fool with them red shrimp unless there ain't nothing in shallow water. Long as I can catch three or four boxes of pink shrimp in 20 or 30 fathoms, that's where I'm gonna work. I ain't got near the expense nor the risk in getting them." Then he winked. "And the trash fish ain't nearly as boogerish-looking as this deepwater stuff."
As we headed farther and farther out, we studied the National Marine Fisheries Service computer printout of when and where Bathynomeus had been captured over the past 25 years. Nixon Griffis sat quietly in the galley puffing his cigarette. Nearing 60, Nick was the oldest member of our expedition. As a trustee of the New York Zoological Society, he was a longtime scientific adventurer. He had funded expeditions to study whales, dived on the Great Barrier Reef and collected fishes in Surinam. A few months earlier, in New York, he asked me, "Jack, where can we catch a monster? We need something unusual for the New York Aquarium."