When the rest of the net was in the canoe, Boudji waded to the fallen boat shed, dived and retrieved a wide board. After dragging it back to the boat, he showed us hundreds of pink larval toadfish, less than half an inch long, looking like tadpoles as they clung to the muddy surface. Pulses of movement ran through the colony as the infant fishes' orange tails wriggled back and forth. We slipped the board into the box, and the big toadfish immediately settled down on top of it. Then all commotion ceased.
Toadfish are notably good parents. In some species the male sits on top of the eggs, after the female lays them in shell, rubble or under logs, and guards them ferociously for weeks. We really didn't know whether our prize was male or female. Maybe when we got back to New York we'd find out. In the meantime, Griffis dubbed our catch "Big Mama."
Dawn was breaking by the time we arrived at the docks of the Suriname Fisheries Department. The masts of the shrimp trawlers were silhouetted against the pale tropical sky. I opened the lid of the box and regarded the puffy brown toadfish gazing balefully up at us. "It looks to be a little over three feet," I said.
"Well, I'm not sure we could handle one bigger," said Griffis, yawning. "She acts like she's 10 feet long. Big Mama's a monster all right."
Boudji looked at the fish appraisingly. "Next year you come back we catch great beeg lumpoe that make this one look small. I can catch!" he said, his voice full of pride.
Three days later we unpacked 15 large Styrofoam coolers at the New York Aquarium. Our flight out of Suriname had been delayed, and we had lost some specimens to the tropical heat. When I sliced through the filament tape of the box marked Big Mama I reeled backward at the rush of putrid air. She had fouled her water during the long transit and lay motionless in the big plastic container of fetid brown slime. Sadly, I reached for her remains, only to be startled by a warning growl.
With great joy and speed, then, we slid her into a tank of clean water. And there she sat, glowering at the crowds of curious onlookers. Griffis and I sat on a brass railing, watching her triumphantly. "You know, next year we ought to go back and see if we can catch one this big," he said, spreading his arms four feet across.
Although no roars ever echoed through the carpeted corridors of the New York Aquarium, the grotesque beast slowly finning behind the thick plate glass, casting its forever malevolent glower outward, drew large crowds. But last December, after being on exhibit for two months, the toadfish grew increasingly lethargic and eventually died. The cause of death was parasitic infestation. While the aquarium staffers had been unable to maintain the Suriname toadfish in captivity, they had been correct about one thing; an autopsy showed that Big Mama was indeed a female.