Mullet Tales and Shipwrecks

The Mullet Story© Part II

Osprey Photo from the Montana Natural History Museum

Mugil and his mullet horde swam vigorously in the bay exploring along its shores where tall tribes of saltmarsh cordgrass stood still and tall in the gentle waves. Ducks, herons, and other fish found refuge, food, and shelter in the marsh which drew the mullet families from the ocean to its teeming life and sweeter waters. The saltmarsh protected hundreds of birds, fish, amphibians, and mammals.

It was wintertime and the grass had turned brown and rotted below the surface of the water where bacteria and other microscopic life turned the dead stuff into food for many forms of life. Mugil’s round head and low mouth were perfect for sucking- up this delicious army of microbes. He gulped down the little snails and worms that got caught in the updraft into his mouth as he sucked along the stems and bottom of the marsh grasses.  Hmmm, hmmm, hmmm—this was good eating!

The mullet school swam vigorously toward the south end of Pensacola Bay Bridge where lay a slither of land named Deadman’s Island. It was surrounded by reefs and marshes that would provide Mugil and his family another great feast.  Long before on a fatal night, a British sloop wrecked upon the reefs of this island in a violent storm.  It sank to the bottom two hundred years before and gradually disappeared below the sandy bottom as waves swept sand over it.

Nearby the University of West Florida’s Archeology Institute students snorkeled and dove around the wreck to map its contours and recover sunken treasures. Mugil thought the divers were funny and he joined the crew, snorting around the places where they dug or measured, eating little tidbits of algae that grew on the old ship’s anchor and masts.  His mullet friends joined him to sail by the rotting barrel wells and shoot like bullets past the masks of the divers. However, sharks and dolphins also joined the curious onlookers, sending the mullet horde toward safer marshlands inshore.

It was on the way inshore that Mugil had his first real encounter with death. High above him and the mullet school there flew an osprey—a bird of prey. Its keen eyes spotted a moving shadow – the backs of hundreds of mullet swimming as one below. It turned its small head downward with its sharp curved beak ready to rip and tear flesh, its talons ready to grab a juicy fish for lunch. The bird folded its wings back and plunged from the sky at record speed right into the middle of the mullet where Mugil swam happily along unsuspecting of danger from above.

When the osprey hit him he was stunned and left helpless in the clutches of the giant bird. He felt himself lifted from the waters into dry air. Through one big eye he saw his tribe disappearing toward the reef and through the other he glimpsed the terrible form of his killer. Mugil’s gills flailed up and down for water and the sweet release of oxygen when suddenly he felt himself released from the tearing grip of the bird. He plummeted down, down, tail over head into the sparkling ocean that was his home.

Smack! Wow – that hurt!

Mugil lay motionless just below the surface until the return of oxygen to his brain and body allowed him to move his fins and right himself. He sped toward the shoreline unaware of the battle for the skies above him.

Check back soon for the next adventure of Mugil when he learns about gill nets.

Mullet, mullet, mullet!

The Mullet Story©

Mugil (Mugil cephalus) drifted with the current, tossed by emerald green waves. His tiny body was developing at a rapid pace since his mother had shed her row into the misty depths of the ocean. Millions of his brothers and sisters joined the transparent hordes of the plankton world encapsulated in an egg the size of a pencil dot on a page. Unaware that most of them would be eaten by a host of predators or crushed by giant waves, Mugil broke free of his egg casing on the second day of his life, emerging as a small larva about 15 mm long. Mugil instinctively snapped at passing zooplankton to fuel his growth and with his miniscule tail he followed the crowd up from the murky depths of the ocean toward the sunlit surface waters where the Gulf of Mexico food chain begins.

Phytophankton images from the Earth Observatory/NASA web site.

Sparkling microscopic phytoplankton were busy changing the sun’s energy into the food of life inside their diamond bodies. The diatoms, dinoflagellates, coccolithophores, and algae start out as drifters— prey to tiny copepods, crab,  shrimp and hungry mullet larvae on up to baleen whales that scooped them up by the billions. Mugil gobbled up the crunchy food as fast as he could manage. No human eye could see the teaming hosts of tiny ocean life struggling for existence at the base of a food web, yet all these tiny creatures were supporting  humans, whales, dolphins, sailfish, and sharks.

Instinctively Mugil headed toward land with thousands of mullet-fry (only one out of a thousand would live on to become a full-grown, frisky mullet.) As small as he was, it would be months before he found the bays and bayous of Pensacola where he would spend at least half of his life. Meantime it was a struggle for life in the sparkling waters of the Gulf. He grew by leaps and bounds changing from a larva to a true fish about three inches long with a torpedo-shaped body and strong forked tail fin. But those advantages also made him more visible to the eyes of spotted sea trout or a sea turtle with strong jaws.

As he swam with his kind in a sleek cloud that moved in unison across the lightening sands, moving away from the deep blue of the open ocean into the aquamarine waters of the shoreline. He was growing all the way and now he needed a lot more food. Diving down to crystalline white sands he and his horde ate algae, sand fleas, worms – whatever they could find. Along the shore line Mugil detected the sweet scent and taste of fresh water mingling with the bitterness of the salt-laden sea. Mugil was entering the Escambia Bay. Its bottoms and shorelines, bases of the bridge pilings, docks, old sea wrecks and reefs provided more and more good food for the mullet hordes. Mugil stuck his blunted head into the soft brown detritus on the bottom—a teaming microcosm of life on its surfaces. He ate it all indiscriminately. And he grew.

Lurking in the depths, a water snake spotted Mugil and lunged at him out of the shadows where the tiny fish and his family were feeding. Mugil caught the movement out of his big eye and with a jerk of his strong tailfin he barely managed to avert the jaws of the slithering beast. But sadly, one of his cousins became its prey. There were no guarantees in life. Mugil learned the hard way that the laws of nature spared no living creature. Every living thing was prey to something else.

To Be Continued

Adventure in the Bayou!


Beyond Margaritaville

Jimmy Buffet created Margaritaville on Santa Rosa Island, Pensacola Beach. He opened the Land Shark Landing bar and grill next door and gives benefit concerts to support local businesses hurt by the recession and Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. It is a jaunty-looking hotel now that Jimmy’s designers have added some color to the decor. It was originally built as a five-star, upscale resort until the recession tanked the project. Enter the tanned though aging Buffet whose reputation for losing his lost shaker of salt engenders a deep sigh of relief, donning of flip-flops and faded, oh-so comfortable tees—excuses to let the world’s tireless bantering just pass on by. Meanwhile, we’re in a hammock swinging in the breeze while Jimmy instructs us on how to develop the right attitude for the latitude. It’s a happenin’ place, part of the area’s story of adjusting to the times, cultivating resilience, and learning to keep on, keeping-on in spite of  environmental disasters.

Pensacoleans reflect the long history of seafaring, lumbering, fishing and tourism that have fueled the coffers of the community and made it possible to live long enough to air condition homes and spray down the mosquito hordes so that it’s actually a pleasant place to live in between hurricanes.

We’re a tough lot. When the big winds blow, we stick together and the community builds back bigger and better than before, like antibiotics that select out the most resistant strains. We build bigger but do we builder smarter? Jury’s still out on that one. Our bravado against nature seems dimmed somehow, especially after the Oil Spill. That’s a horse of a different color, now an invisible invader. We can’t see it but we know it’s around. Haunting…disturbing.


Beyond Margaritaville, if you travel another half-mile west, you enter the Ft. Pickens National Park—a seven-mile stretch of protected barrier island beaches and habitats. And, even though it, too, has been impacted by the human footprint (the park maintains an asphalt road for the big recreational vans to get to the camping grounds), you can still get a glimpse of the natural habitats of a barrier island ecosystem. And it is truly a wonder. If you go off-season like now, in December, and you take time to walk around the marshlands, oak-pine woodlands, beaches, bay and inlets, you will not go unrewarded for your troubles getting there.

Go light. Binoculars and camera allowed. Pack a snack or lunch and beverage and go to Battery Worth part of the William Bartram Trail. You can park your car and head out to the bay, back to the view from the top of the old ramparts, then head out on the west-facing sandy marsh trail (1.7 miles) that ends at the main fort and information center. Meander and listen. Lots of bird action, wonderful wildflowers and vines, herons, ducks, and estuaries. You might see a beaver or an armadillo waddling around. Stop to rest on a bench, better yet lay back and watch the clouds. You can find peaceful moments if you let your thoughts run off on their own, unattended. Keep going. There are miles of trails, interpretation of history at the Fort, a marvelous bookstore and lots of Civil War history. Walk to the fishing pier and diving points; you will not be bored. Keep going out onto the shore line and watch for the mullet run to the ocean waters where they are spawning millions of mullet babies now through February. Look for jumping silver-bellied fish, and dark-backed schools of mullet running the waves. I actually saw some cut the curl.

Beyond Margaritaville you’ll capture the attitude of the latitude for certain.