Salt, Soap, Tattoos and Turtles: Episode Two (Good Lord, My Spirit Animal Is . . .)

Now I’m not trying to torture anyone, but we do need a bit of backstory before I can answer the question posed.  Here’s a hint, though.

Blue Tang fish

The mystery deepens, as it were.

One of the things that I’m most thankful for to the UUH is that he showed me the marvels of What’s Under There (and by “there” I mean the surface of the ocean.  Get your mind out of the gutter.).  I’m not a strong swimmer and have about as much body fat as a stick insect — which means the iconic “Dead Man’s Float” they teach you in swim class really IS — so I’d always been cautious to the point of paranoia about getting water deeper than my (bony) knees.  Clamping a clumsy plastic mask to my (terrified) face and trying to breathe (without hysterical gasping) through a ridiculous plastic tube was not first on my list of priorities.  But when you’re in St. Croix, you’re in one of the most extraordinary places on earth to snorkel, and the UUH eventually coaxed me into it.

Now it’s one of my favorite things of all. I have a list of favorite places to go, certain fish I want to say hello to, and the usually justified expectation that something utterly surprising will happen at least once during any swim.

The UUH is way ahead of me on this because he’s a certified diver.  On the last trip, he bought an underwater camera.  He’s seen sharks,

I would have levitated out of the water back to the boat.

various pretty bubbles and things,


and a barracuda named Psycho that hangs around a certain reef, waiting for the divers to off a few lionfish for its lunch.  (Lionfish are a destructive introduced species that are destroying fish and reefs everywhere they go.  Certain divers are authorized to carry spearguns to kill them.)

This is Psycho the barracuda. He’s about four feet long.

Now I don’t usually do quite so much dramatic sightseeing, but our last trip to Buck Island was extraordinary.  I’ve mentioned in past posts that Buck Island is a National Marine Reserve, and contains a marked snorkeling trail through its reefs that everyone should try at least once.

Part of the Buck Island snorkel path. Sometimes even the natives need directions.

As we’d been to Buck Island a few times, I took a different direction than the rest of the swimmers.  I was poking around the corals, minding my own business, when I was surrounded by hundreds of blue tangs in a matter of moments.  They streamed past me on all sides — I was in the center of this amazing moving tribe — and while a couple of them gave me the side-eye, most of them were utterly unconcerned by the appearance of this odd-looking creature amongst them.


A small part of the Blue Tang Clan at Buck Island. There are hundreds more.

Blue Tangs (in the Caribbean, Acanthurus coeruleus) vary in shade from dark to robin’s egg blue, eat krill and algae off corals, and can group in gangs to beat up damselfish for the best buffets.  No joke.  These guys have a “caudal spine” near their tails (that’s the yellow marking you can see in the first photo) that when deployed is sharp enough to slice through a wetsuit and leave you with a nasty infected cut.  Some even are thought to have poison glands at the caudal spine, which is pretty cool if you think like a twelve-year-old, like I do.

The more usual way to see blue tangs.

The more usual way to see blue tangs.

On our various trips, I’d seen a lot of blue tangs, but nothing like this massive flow of fish.  I swam with them for at least a half hour as they wended their way through the snorkeling trail, grouping occasionally to pick algae off the corals, and then surging away again.  When they finally streamed off through a gap in the reef to head out into the open ocean, I turned back to the boat, where I sat for a while like a person who’d just been hit with a skillet in a cartoon.

The Blue Tang Clan was on my mind for the rest of our stay.  I did have some work to do; I had to test out some soap formulas to see how they performed under the different weather conditions of the Caribbean.  My first batch was an unmitigated disaster — wet, sticky and beyond ugly in virtually every possible dimension.  I tossed it and reworked the formula from the ground up. With that in hand, I looked at what I had available for ingredients —  I’d scored some genuine St. Croix coconut oil from the Mango Melee festival, St. Croix honey from the tiny farmer’s stand down the hill, some unrefined Ghanaian shea butter from a local beauty store, and a slightly oddball silicone bread mold from Gallows Bay Hardware.  It came out beautifully and smells like heaven.

St. Croix Pure Honey.

“St. Croix Pure Honey.”

The second batch I made on island wasn’t quite so successful. I had added a touch of my handmade sea salt to make the soap a little harder, and apparently I added too much; the soap was crumbly and unappealing in texture when I cut it after we got back to Northern California.  Time for a rebatch.  And what better time than to commemorate that amazing swim at Buck Island?   A bit of coconut milk, a  bracing shot of lavender, a touch of jasmine and some ultramarine blue, and I had “Blue Tang Clan.”

"Blue Tang Clan."

“Blue Tang Clan.”

The soap wasn’t the only way I memorialized  the experience, though.  You see, I’d been thinking about getting a tattoo for some time . . . which I’ll talk about in Episode Three.

Oh come on, it’s practically required nowadays to save the Big Reveal until after the commercial.  Psycho wouldn’t have it any other way.

'Till the next lionfish.

‘Till the next lionfish.

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