Salt, Soap, Tangs, Tattoos and Turtles — St. Croix, A Multi-Episode Event

Episode One:  Birds, Butterflies, and Salt

The Accidental Alchemist found herself fetched ashore upon a certain island again, fortunately not by shipwreck but instead by a rather painless plane flight from Miami.  And while I failed to bend any local spirits to my will, I did bring some bananaquits around through the magic of Turbinado sugar.

I’m pretty sure that’s a new kid on the block — you can still see some  “baby fuzz” sticking out from his grownup duds.  Most of our BQ gang has moved down the hill from us, because the Ginger Thomas is not flowering very much at this point in the year and I think they’ve moved on to other nectar food sources.   The concentration of hummingbirds has decreased as well, though the kingbirds are more active and vocal than usual.  This is because it is snowing.

Well, that’s what some call it — “Crucian snow,” when a local species of small, white,  faster-than-a-Wall-Street-banker-after-your-IRA butterflies (probably these guys) decides it’s time to get it on.  There are masses of them and when they start dancing together in the air, it does look like a snow flurry.  The problem is, they’re so fast they are almost impossible to catch in a photograph when you’re as clumsy as I am.  This is as close as I got to capturing the blizzards that circled our house for days.

IMG_3404(He’s the tiny white dot in the middle of the picture.)

It’s not all unicorns and rainbows, though.  The kingbirds LOVE these guys for dinner and it’s a real airshow when things get serious.

Like most other birds right now, the kingbirds have kids to feed and probably mortgages to pay, so they’re pretty determined to make as much of the butterfly buffet as possible. Much Discovery Channel drama resulted.

My own goals were a little less strenuous, as supermarkets do not regularly attempt to escape.  It had occurred to me that we were surrounded by salt water, being on a Caribbean island and all, and that “local salt” seemed to be a gourmet item flogged to death in every cooking article I’d read in the last six years.  Most “everyday” salt is mined, but a great deal (and most of the fancy-dan stuff) is made from seawater.  Enter me, a gallon jug, and the Caribbean sea off Tamarind Reef. Twice, because I’d read of two methods to make seawater salt, and as a proper alchemist I had to try both. DIGITAL CAMERA

The first method is the classic one used even today in the San Francisco Bay.  Pool some water in a shallow area, let dry in sun and wind.

The second is a bit faster.  Pool water in pot and boil the living hell out of it until you get salt.

As I am a bit OCD about ingredients, I made sure to wallow out on the reef until I could capture as clean a wave as I could.  (The UUH bravely helped with one of these attempts).  There’s a bit of seagrass and other debris that bobs around closer to the shore, and I wanted to avoid as much of it as possible.

 Even so, the water has to be sieved several times to make sure you get as clean a source as possible. A regular sieve lined with a coffee filter works great for this. IMG_4119

 Eventually, you’ll get a beautiful sparkly pool of seawater ready for the pot. IMG_4121

With the first gallon, I boiled the water until there was about 1/2″-1/4″ of water left in the pot.  The salt was precipitating out and crystallizing on the bottom even then.  One glass baking pan and a towel later, out it went into the St. Croix sun.  You can see how wet it remains, even after a day and a half out there in the wild. IMG_4098 The other gallon was used in a “Boil That Dust Speck” approach (kudos to anyone who gets that reference, minus a half-point if you’re a parent).  As it was pretty muggy and there were Some Complaints about  Using The Stove In The House, out the stainless-steel pot went onto the Weber. IMG_4125 I was surprised at how fast the process was.  The salt was still a little damp when nearly all of the water had evaporated, so I spread it out on another platter and set it outside with its buddy. IMG_4126
When all was finally said and dried, I noticed a couple differences between the two techniques.  The “evaporator pool” salt seemed clumpier and definitely more brilliant white in color — I wonder if a bleaching effect from the sun had something to do with it.  The boiled-down and sun-finished salt was crumblier from the get-go.  Both were intensely salty and have a tang to them that my “regular” salt doesn’t have.  For both techniques, I estimate about a salt-shaker full from a gallon of seawater; I got a little more from the boil-down process. IMG_4137 I used some of the salt from this experiment in the soap I made later on in the trip.  But that adventure is part of Episode Two: Wrestling With Soap And The Shocking Discovery That My Spirit Animal Is A Fish.  “Soon come,” as they say in St. Croix.

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Soap Turns Rogue, Sometimes That’s Okay

On some days, when I’m out puttering around in the garden, I get some attitude from the neighbors.

Remember those celery seeds you planted? Hahaha.

(It’s true. Something ate them, or they just didn’t like the dirt, or me, or something.)  On other days, I get attitude from soap.

Colorants can be the absolute bane of a soapmaker, whenever fragrance or essential oils have taken the day off from being a pain in the butt.  I’ve mentioned “morphing” before — it’s when a fragrance or a colorant, through the mystery of the saponification process, turns into something entirely different than what you expected.  I’ve made a soap that, to me, smells way too much like an armpit (this opinion might not be shared by others) and the fragrance certainly didn’t smell like that in the bottle.  (If it had, I would’ve chucked it at the guy in the picture above.)

Fragrances aren’t the only miscreants; colorants are also notorious for misbehavior.  Finding a stable and vivid red is one of the Holy Grails of the cold-process method.  And as I noted in my earlier post, I wanted to make a soap in honor of a friend of mine, a moviemaker and heavy metal singer, and it needed a lot of red.

It took three tries.

“Tommy’s Heavy Metal THUNDERR!”

 

 

Eventually, I landed it — a soap just as over-the-top as he is.

 

 

 

But before that there was Attempt One, which qualified as an Unmitigated Disaster.  The fragrance I was using had a reputation for giving “false trace,” which means that the lye and the soap really haven’t become best buds yet, but pretend to you most earnestly that they are.  Later, they separate just as bitterly as the couple in the top story on the Daily Mail on any given day.  That’s what happened to me, and when I tried to unmold the ungrateful little &^%$#, it was a blob of hissing goo underneath a carapace so hard I could have used it as a bludgeon.  I didn’t even bother to try to save it through rebatching, I was so pissed.

Now the next attempt I got smarter, or so I thought.  I changed the fragrance base and used the little liar only as a top note.  And I had this Absolute Stroke of Genius.  I thought I’d use some micas to produce a burning copper-gold effect in the swirl with the activated charcoal.  These two, in fact.

Ooh! Shiny! What could possibly go wrong?

I’d used micas before for some pretty nice effects.

“St. Croix Night Sky.”

 

There’s the brushwork on Night Sky, for example — my attempt to show the stunning effect of the Milky Way in the absolute black of a night on St. Croix.

 

 

 

So I mixed everything up — the micas looked great in the mix — poured it in the mold, pulled off the technique known as a “hanger swirl” (yes, you use a slightly modified clothes hanger for this), and waited. And waited.  Man, this soap was soft.  I think it was the recalcitrant fragrance giving me one final “Screw you.”  But when that soap finally came out of the mold, I didn’t have the burning copper-gold I was eagerly anticipating.

I had pink.  Pink. Oh for the love of. Pink. Pink might be many things but it is not Heavy Metal, at least by the usual consensus.

So now I had a beautifully scented, coconut, olive and castor oil soap (I’ve been working on a butters-free formula for a bit) that should be a dream in the shower.  That is, well, pink and black.  Not exactly what I was after, but alchemy sometimes works that way.

"A Midsummer Night's Dream"

A very cool friend of mine gave me the name.  It’s happily and pinkily curing now in the Lab with the rest of the crew.

 

 

By Any Other Name, Would Smell As Sweet

Where’s Waldo in the Ginger Thomas? (If Waldo were a bananaquit.)

The Ginger Thomas is the official flower of the U.S. Virgin Islands, and on St. Croix it is everywhere.  It grows as a shrub or small tree, sometimes in thick stands, stays green all year long and produces thousands of trumpet-shaped, fluted, bright-yellow flowers.  Maybe because of its ubiquity, it has nearly as many names as its blossoms:  Yellow Cedar, Yellow Elder, Yellow Trumpet Flower, Yellow Trumpetbush, Yellow Bells, and in Spanish “Esperanza” (meaning hope). Or, if you’re an alchemist into Latin, Tecoma stans.

Ginger Thomas stand outside Blue Yonder.

 

Around Blue Yonder, the Ginger Thomas stands support a thriving community of bananaquits, Anguillan crested hummingbirds, yellow warblers, St. Lucia warblers, and the occasional smooth-beaked Ani, cattle egret, zenaida dove, or one of the kestrel pair that lives down the hill.

 

The plant’s not just useful for the birds, though.  According to Traditional Medicinal Plants of St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John, a remarkable book produced by the University of the Virgin Islands, the Ginger Thomas has had therapeutic uses for generations.  The leaves are used externally for fever and strengthening women after childbirth.  Internally, they are a treatment for colds, diabetes, headaches, high blood pressure, and jaundice.  It’s not all folk wisdom, either; a 1977 study showed that plant compounds in the Ginger Thomas demonstrated hypoglycemic activity, and may show promise for developing insulin substitutes.

You have coffee, I’ll have lunch.

While it’s cool to have what is essentially part of a medicine cabinet right next to your house, though, that’s not really why I am so passionate about these flowers.  There really isn’t anything like waking up to a mass of green and yellow glowing in the sunlight, and listening to the bananaquits and hummingbirds bicker their raspy, musical little complaints at each other while you have your morning coffee on the deck.  The bloom is highest in August, but there are flowers all year round.  There’s always a riot of green and yellow — so of course, inspired, I had to make a soap.

“Ginger Thomas.”

 

It’s a straightforward formula of olive, coconut and castor oils, colored with ultramarine green and lemon micas, and swirled using the “ITP” (in-the-pot) technique.  The fragrance of the flower is very delicate (and believe me, you have to watch out for bees if you try to smell one), so I mixed a number of fragrance oils to try to replicate it. The scent is both blossomy and lemony, with a touch of greenery as a base note.  I think, once cured, this soap will bring me right back to the island whenever I use it.

The greenery isn’t the only transfixing thing about St. Croix, though.  There’s always the water.

Waves over a reef on the way to Buck Island.

At just the right time, usually in the late afternoon when the sun lowers, the light can turn everything it touches to gold.  It will trace along the breaking waves in streaks and bolts, almost as if it is dancing with the water, and it lasts for only a moment.  I’ve never caught a picture of this happening, and given my clumsiness with a camera, probably never will.  But I have enough of a memory to try to replicate it.

“Swirling Reef of Death.”

 

Now I’d done more than one sea-inspired soap, the last being the “Swirling Reef of Death” — named after a snorkeling site that really isn’t.  It was obvious that I needed to create and name the next one after another dive site, but I had to show the golden light on the wave, and maybe make the soap itself a little less “busy.”

I used the same “tiger stripe” technique as Swirling Reef, and pretty much the same formula, but I let the soap thicken more before pouring. I also created a “mica swirl” with some gold mica and oils set aside from the base formula, and drizzled it along the peaks and valleys of the soap top to try to show the afternoon light dancing along the wavefoam.  The scent is my go-to island fragrance, sea and flowers and fruit.  What resulted was “Cane Bay.”

“Cane Bay.”

Cane Bay is a first-rate snorkeling, sunning, and dive site on St. Croix’s North Shore, visited by both residents and tourists, and about as low-key a place as you can find anywhere in the Caribbean.  It’s popular with young families because the water is warm and usually quiet. There’s a dive shop right there, because the Wall is very close by, but you don’t have to go far out to see astonishing visions of fish and corals. In fact, the UUH and I saw one of the biggest green Moray eels that I would not want to see ever, ever again, considering I was about a foot away from its astoundingly toothy face (seriously, you have never seen that many teeth in a single animal smaller than a shark) when I blundered close to its headquarters. I was amazed by how fast I could swim backwards and that it is indeed possible to wave one’s arms around Kermit-the-Frog-like while making incomprehensible but obviously alarmed sounds through a snorkeling tube at one’s husband.

I made one more soap from the images from the island.  Hibiscus flowers (Hibisca rosa-sinensis), like the Ginger Thomas, grow enthusiastically everywhere you turn.  They’re not only cultivated for their beauty, but for their usefulness — the flowers make a delicious traditional tea in the Caribbean.  One afternoon, I saw a single deep ruby blossom floating in a tidepool, itself as blue as a robin’s egg, near the shore.

Now I had a vague idea of how to reproduce this, and it involved a two-step process — making an insert for the flower, and then placing it in another batch of blue soap once it had hardened a bit.  I’d tried this before, last year during August’s Blue Moon, with a somewhat simpler insert.

“Blue Moon, for Neil Armstrong”

“Blue Moon, for Neil Armstrong” came out pretty well, so I forged ahead.

The first problem was the flower.  It’s one thing to pour soap into a tube.  It’s entirely another to make it look like a flower.  It stumped me until I thought of a cookie cutter — once the soap had set, I could push a cutter down the tube of soap, peeling off portions of the exterior into petal shapes.

And here’s where I made my first mistake.  I didn’t pay enough attention to how big I should make the flower insert, so I used a much larger cylinder mold than I should have.  Once I popped it out, I realized to my horror that not only was the bloody thing harder than a rock, it was enormous. (Spatial relations are not my strong suit.)  It was so big that it wouldn’t fit into the mold I was going to use for the finished soap. Stalemate.

A panicked search through the house produced a cardboard box that just might work.  And now I had to do the cookie-cuttering.  It must have taken an hour to push the cutter down the insert with about as much sweating and swearing as you’d find in a boxing gym.  I was so fed up with it by the time I finished that I briefly considered tossing it into the pool and saying, “THAT’S IT I’M DONE,” but fortunately rationality won that war.  I lined the box I found with a patterned silicone liner usually used for fondant on cakes (hat-tip to Cake Alchemist Navi for that idea!), whipped up the blue soap, and as carefully as I could I placed the insert inside.  24 hours later I had this:

Out of the box.

I immediately discovered ANOTHER problem.

Tank cutter.

 

 

The thing was so big it wouldn’t fit into the tank cutter.

 

 

 

The UUH’s handmade cutter (that’s the first “Christiansted” soap on it).

 

 

 

In fact, it was so big it wouldn’t fit into the other cutter either.

 

 

 

It was so big that the UUH had to make another cutter especially for it.  We had to use a gigantic chef’s knife to assault the thing. But in the end, after all the work and angst, we had “Hibiscus In Blue Water.”

“Hibiscus In Blue Water.”

Now I’m not kidding when I tell you this soap is BIG.  While most of my soaps run between 4 and 5 ounces, these dudes weigh in at about 11 ounces.  We could use this soap to deflect asteroids and then take a shower with it.  The irony is that it has a delightful combination of really lovely, full fragrances — the flower is scented with osmanthus touched with a deepening amber, and the sea is the island fragrance I love. Due to its size, it’s a soap for the sensitive, discerning yeti, I suppose.  But on the other hand (well, both hands) it will be a gentle, bubbly and creamy soap once it’s done curing and it will last forever.  Let’s not be sizeist.

Everything is relative.

Now that I’m back on the mainland, other things are starting to take precedence.  There’s a garden that needs tending, jerky and sausage and bacon to make, and the Hive Queen has some prickly pears that should be made into syrup, jellies, and hot and barbeque sauces.  Calendulas and roses need drying and the front of the house needs replanting since the water main explosion. (Don’t ask.) There’s a lot of recordkeeping and paperwork and accounting to be done for Blue Yonder Botanicals — not to mention a massive reorder for supplies — that needs to be fitted into the usual routine of shopping, feeding, cleaning, and dealing with water main explosions.  You know, just like everyone else’s life.  So I’ll leave you with this:

Wherever you go, there she is.

Until next time.

/ps That’s Big Fred The Reluctant Passiflora in the pictures.

And Now For Something Not Too Completely Different

Up in Blue Yonder (that’s her center in the picture above — she’s kind of hard to miss from the St. Croix South Shore, where this picture was taken), you’re surrounded by Ginger Thomas flowers.  From the deck, you quickly become aware that there are entire nations
of birds, lizards, mongeese, bees, and other bugs you don’t really want to think about that view the place as home.

The most common birds, bananaquits and Anguillan crested hummingbirds, rely heavily on the nectar produced by the bright yellow Ginger Thomas flower.  They get it, though, in two different ways:  while the hummingbirds use their tongues to go into the center of the flower, the bananaquits are a little more brutal.  They use their curved beak to pierce between the petals and the calyx (the little green pocket that holds the petals), to get directly to the nectar without any fuss.  This might be because, unlike hummingbirds, they cannot hover and must perch to get their food.  It also might be because it’s more fun that way, which is the explanation I tend to believe because of their relentless pugnacity.  (Also, anyone who’s ever torn apart a baked potato might appreciate this.)

I found this time that the Ginger Thomas isn’t the only local plant that produces the nectar these guys desire.  Along a stone wall above the house, some wild-looking cactuses grow.  They have long, spindly, wickedly thorned appendages that look like they just stopped flailing around the second you turned to look. And this visit, I found that they produce an equally-weird looking flower that was like crack cocaine to the hummingbirds and the bananaquits.

This is the lone bananaquit I caught actually getting at the cactus flower.  The rest of the time, the cactus was surrounded by a buzzing swirl of divebombing hummingbirds, who would argue in their rasping musical-saw voices with each other, the bananaquits, and me whenever I dared step foot outside.  (I always apologized profusely. I doubt the bananaquits did.) Now the hummingbirds move like lightning, and I’ve never been able to get any good photographs of them.  But when you’ve got the avian equivalent of a “Free Beer” sign right outside your door, you might just have a chance.

Gotcha. Anguillan Crested Hummingbirds on the Weird Cactus Flower.

In fact, one stuffed himself so much that he had to stop and take a break.

I ate the whole thing.

Most of the time, in the light you have, you’ll see these guys as nearly black, tiny little projectiles whizzing around in the branches or right past your head if they’re annoyed.  But in the shot above, you can really see the irridescence of their feathers.  (A moment later this guy de-poofed and zipped off, yelling at the top of his lungs at an interloper.)

The ferocious competition over the Weird Cactus Flower made me start thinking about nectar, and then honey.  St. Croix has a thriving apiary/beekeeper community, and the honey they produce is the best I’ve ever had.  Like fish and lobsters and fruit on the island, you can buy local honey in unexpected places:  for instance, from a little stand by the side of the road on the way from Blue Yonder to Christiansted.  So I bought some,

The secret weapon.

(well, a lot), and when I got home I started thinking about a St. Croix honey soap.

Mushroom cloud or alien spaceship? You make the call.

Honey soaps can be tricky; as with any additive that involves sugars, you take the risk of massively overheating the saponification reaction in the batter, and ending up with a) a mess  b) a disaster or c) a Soap Volcano, which is the absolute epitome of all soaping screwups.  I’ve seen pictures of soaps that their horrified makers described as “crawling out of the mold and across the counter,” bubbling and steaming and spreading its active lye on anything that came close. (Go ahead — Google it.)  But it isn’t that I’m blameless in this.  I’ve had a Tiny Soap Mushroom Cloud, and that’s about as close as I want to come to this experience.

So I had to think pretty carefully about the formula I’d use, and the technique for incorporating the honey, at what temperature I’d mix the oils and lye, and how I’d handle the molded soap afterwards.  It was pretty clear from my research that I had to disperse the honey in reserved water first, mix it in at “trace” (the point, demonstrated by a certain thickening, that the saponification reaction between the lye and oils is well and truly roaring along), and then whip that puppy into some ice after I molded it up.  If I didn’t disperse the honey well, it might recollect in droplets inside the soap — harmless and actually kind of cool (think “sweet honey in the rock”), but not exactly what I was after.  If I didn’t cool it down fast enough, I might end up playing Steve McQueen in “The Blob” to the dismay of everyone else in the house as well as the local HazMat team, who I seriously do not want to piss off.

So with all due caution, “St. Croix Honey Blossom” began to come together:  olive and coconut oils, shea butter, and a generous dollop of genuine St. Croix wild bee honey premixed for addition right before the mold.  I picked a combination of amber, honey, and citrus blossom fragrances to try to maintain the richness of the honey scent in the bottle I had.  And then I had one of those orthogonal ideas about how to color it — I’d try the stamens from a bouquet of Stargazer lilies that the UUH had brought home out of the basic goodness of his heart. For the next couple days, every time a blossom opened, I’d carefully clip the bright-orange stamens off and collect them in a little container.  Once they were done, the moment of truth arrived — would the stamens release their color at all, and if so, into what?  My first experiment was a grand slam.  Olive oil will release the color of the stamens, and it’s a beautiful dark red-orange.  I let it set for a day, strained it a few times, and then my new natural colorant was ready to go.

The very last aspect of the soap involved the garden. It ran wild all winter after I sowed a few seeds, and I went out a few days ago to find it blanketed in Calendula blossoms. Calendula is both a flower and an herb that’s been recognized since the Middle Ages for certain medicinal properties — but that wasn’t why I was going to use them this time.  Unlike almost every other herb or flower petal, Calendula petals do not turn brown when in contact with the high-pH of cold process soap. (Lavender is well known as turning into “mouse poo” after a few weeks on top of soap).   I cut a few, tossed them into the dehydrator, and in a few hours had the petals I needed for the tops of St. Croix Honey Blossom.

“St. Croix Honey Blossom.”

It’s a softer soap that’s going to take a bit longer to cure, but the stargazer colorant came through as a lovely honey shade, and when it’s done it should have superior lathering and conditioning qualities due to the honey and shea butter.  The fragrance is citrus blossom with a deep bottom note of pure honey.

I think both the bananaquits and the hummingbirds would be pleased.

 

 

 

Dinner May Be Alchemy, But Fishing It Up Is Magic

Frigate bird over St. Croix seas The bellwether.

That’s a Magnificent Frigate Bird, commonly seen soaring effortlessly over the seas and reefs surrounding St. Croix, and it’s magnificent for more than one reason.  Its enormous, tilted wingspan (over 6 feet in most instances) allows it to soar for hours, even days, without touching land.  (The only other bird known to do this is the Common Swift). Frigate birds snatch flying fish as they jump — a stunt I’d pay good cash to see, considering how wicked fast those slippery little freaks zip inches over the waves  — and pick off smaller fish that come close to the surface without even wetting their feathers.  They’re also thugs to other birds, harassing them until the victim drops their dinner. Yes, even birds push each other around for their lunch money.

But aside from their superb aerialism and obvious antisocial personality disorder, frigate birds are also incredibly useful.  I’ve learned that when an offshore fisherman sees one or two of these guys circling an area, that means that there’s almost certainly some serious sportfishing action going on right there, right now.

Unbelievably Useful Husband (hereafter, “UUH”) and I found this out when we booked a fishing charter for our next-to-last day in the little house on the island.  We’ve gone sportfishing before in Hawaii, where UUH solidified his reputation as “Tailfisher.”  For some unknown reason, every time he actually caught a fish, it wasn’t in the standard operational mode.  You know, fish bites hook, hook gets stuck in fish’s mouth, guy reels fish in face-first.  Nope, not nearly interesting enough for UUH.

For him the fish would evade the hook, but somehow would get the line wrapped around its tail, so UUH would drag it in backwards in a comic reversal of the usual process.  How he managed this multiple times was one of those mysteries that deserved further investigation, and we were eager to see if he could replicate it in the Caribbean. So friends of ours found the Island Girl II of St. Croix Deep Blue Charters, a superb custom 45-foot Hatteras that works off the Christiansted area of St. Croix, and we began the experiment.

The Island Girl II is run by a husband and wife team  — Ben, the Captain, and Megan, the First Mate. (Island Girl I, we discovered, was crushed and sunk by a yacht during Hurricane Hugo.)  After the usual confused period where the charterees load on about six times more beer and food than they need, which turns out to be exactly the right amount, we were off into the Caribbean Sea.

The Island Girl II in full display is an impressive sight. The multiple rods and lines are spread out in perfect geometries, interconnected in complex but aesthetically beautiful ways with connectors and hooks and even rubber bands.  The reels are polished, golden, wickedly functional works of art in themselves.  As the boat moves farther out, the baited lines take flight, extending and then disappearing into the vanishing point as the wake surges behind.  We had a pretty calm sea that day, with a warm sun and few clouds, so it was tough not to doze off.

One thing I did notice in my sun-induced stupor, though, was the constant communication between the captain and first mate.  They were constantly scanning the skies — looking for frigate birds like our lead player.  Frigate birds are great bellwethers; they’re the pathfinders to what you want.  Fishermen know that they tend to circle over groups of small fish hovering near the surface, hoping to evade larger fish hunting them.  When you see a few frigate birds in one place, you know that the party’s on down there.  First Mate Megan carefully tracked and circled the boat right at the birds that were spotted, as Captain Ben ensured that the bait was correct for what we were after.

It didn’t take long after that before there was a loud BZING!, one of the reels began buzzing frantically, suddenly there was great deal of frenzied activity, and apparently the fight was on.  UUH was in the chair.  There appears to be a great deal of physical work involved, and as I try to avoid that as much as possible, I was quite happy to simply observe the process. There’s a constant chatter of “ease up,” “let him out a bit,” “pull him in,” “he’s running, he’s running,” and the whole event has the adrenaline of a Top Gun dogfight.  This fish didn’t breach the water much, but as the churning water kept coming closer and closer to the boat the tension became so excruciating everybody watching had to have another beer.

 

 

One brief but brutal side-of-the-boat struggle later (a word of advice — don’t get into a fight with Captain Ben, especially if he has a big stick) the fish was eventually brought aboard.  It was a mahi-mahi, which folks also call a dolphin. They’d been hunting the little fish that the frigate birds had spotted.  In the water, they are even more gloriously incandescent than they are on land, though considerably less delicious.

The end of an era.

It was a victory for us, but sadly, UUH’s unbroken record as “Tailfisher” has now been broken. It cannot be disputed that the hook is actually in the fish’s mouth.

It didn’t take long before there was another BZING, another challenge accepted, and our friend Denise was fighting a fish to the boat.  These guys are no slouches and it takes a while, but eventually we had another dolphin on board. Two big, beautiful mahis later, we returned to dock.  If you’ve caught fish, tradition demands that you put a flag up indicating what you’re bringing home.

Dolphin flag — a successful mission!

 

Captain Ben was kind enough to fillet them for us so we’d have dinner that night.  The scraps he produced during the precise, exacting filleting process (this guy could teach knife technique to surgeons) he threw to a group of tarpon fish loitering near the boat.  They obviously knew the routine:  fishing boat coming in = dinnertime.  Tarpons are pretty much useless except for entertainment; they’re big but bony and unpleasant-tasting, so no one eats them, but my God can they put on a floor show.  Several bars on the Christiansted harbor boardwalk have tarpon gangs in the water that hang out waiting for scraps, and it’s nearly irresistible not to feed them something simply for the amusement value. Kids are transfixed. Hell, I was transfixed. We took about fifty pictures of the tarpons just fighting over mahi scraps because . . . because . . . well, because. It was the sun, or the beer, or something.  Anyhow, look at these fish! The expedition was fantastic, and the dinner was even better. The expertly filleted steaks were probably the best meal we had on the island. A few days before while grocery shopping, I’d found irresistible a bottle of Tamarindo Bay Caribbean steak sauce and bought it on the spot without knowing exactly what I’d do with it. The answer was obvious the minute we got home with two chunky, perfect mahi steaks.  A few minutes marinading in the sweet but tangy, unmistakeably Caribbean sauce — this stuff would be great on anything up to and including truck tires — and they were ready for the grill.

On the advice of a brief website search (how on earth did I ever do anything before the Interwebs?), I put the steaks on a piece of foil and then directly on the little house’s big Weber grill on the porch.  The foil makes it easier to flip the steaks without sticking and breaking.  About three minutes a side and they were ready. A simple side salad was all that was needed.

It was the perfect farewell meal to St. Croix.  Our thanks to Captain Ben and First Mate Megan of the Island Girl II, our friends Keith and Denise Murphy, the mahis that graciously provided our dinner, and especially to our bellwethers, the Magnificent Frigate Birds that helped it all happen.

 

 

Happy Hour at Blue Yonder

Nearly every night here on the island there’s a short, brutal downpour — the type that can wake up us statesiders with our hearts pounding and the conviction that the roof is coming off.  Imagine a cartoon where the character steps outside and has a bucket of water thrown on him — that’s what they’re like.

You’d think with all this water, it would be easily available to all the critters, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.  One of the crucial components that brought the bananaquits back to the feeder was adding a dish of water along with the sugar dish.  So every morning, when I refresh the sugar in the dishes that were brought in and washed the night before, I always make sure to fill up the water dish as well.  The idea seems to be a hit.

Bananaquit, St. Croix Next time fill ‘er up a little higher, eh?