The eels in the Palmiet River down the road lead an interesting life. And there’s still lots we don’t know about them. Especially me, so know that this is a story of our eels written by someone who’d like to know more.
Firstly, there are about four species. I say ‘about’ as the number is likely to change as we find out more. So this is a composite of the interesting things I have found out. OK?
The thing about being an eel is you should never have children. Never. This is good advice for other species too, like Homo sapiens, but especially for eels, cos once you spawn, YOU DIE! You’ve been warned. Ask yourself, eel: Is that single orgasm worth your life? Usually eels can spawn after seven years, but if they don’t, they can live to eighty five years of age! Child-free!
Parts of this story won’t actually pertain to our Palmiet eels, but to other Anguillidae eels world-wide, especially European and American eels on which most research has been done. They are fascinating river fishes who go to sea at the end of their lives to spawn.
The eels we actually see in the Palmiet River are usually adults. They could leave on vacation at any time, downstream to the confluence with the Umgeni River of Duzi Canoe Marathon fame near the Papwa Sewgolum golf course; then on downstream to the famous / infamous Blue Lagoon; then out into the Indian Ocean and the inshore counter-currents heading north; I would warn them they should think twice about leaving our beautiful valley, but you know how these primal urges are.
All the way up between Mocambique and Madagascar, past Beira, past the mouth of the Zambezi River, to where Africa bulges eastward around Mocambique Island, and into the open ocean where they spawn. Once. The larger females laying up to twenty million eggs, the males emitting their sperm onto the eggs. This is likely done in very deep water, as it has never been observed. And maybe they’re shy. Because it has never been seen, scientists speculate about ‘mass eel orgies.’ You know how people are when speculating.
The tiny larvae hatch and drift with the current back to Southern Africa; the southward currents which flow east and west of Madagascar and join to form the warm Agulhas current flowing away from the equator. They’re now often called ‘Glass Eels’ for obvious reasons:
They drift southwards, and by the time they get the mouth of the Umgeni they can also swim – they have grown quite a lot. As they approach, they lift their snouts and say Hey! Listen! and Smell! They recognise Blue Lagoon at night by the pumping music and the whiff of bluetop and dagga drifting to sea; so up the Umgeni they go, till they can taste industrial pollution in the water; then the offspring of our Palmiet clan hang a left up the Palmiet River. Others carry on up the Umgeni. All the while going through larval stages and getting more pigment as they go.
There they live their river fish lives until, one day, seven to eighty five years later, they may get an urge, just as their parents did before them (you know that feeling, right?) and head for the ocean again. ‘Again,’ in our story, but for the first time for each of them. Each one only does the homeward journey once, as a juvenile, and the spawning one-way journey once, as an adult.
The well-known story of the salmon migration has been told and shown so often it helps to explain the eel migration; Just the opposite of the salmon, our eels are freshwater river fish that spawn in the sea; Ours spend most of their lives in the Palmiet, just taking this incredible, Every-Vaalie’s-Dream vakansie by die see to spawn.
We might be thinking what a hard journey. But ours have it easy. If an eel needs to get back to where Mom and Dad lived on the Zambezi it has to bypass Cahora Bassa and Kariba dams! Is that even possible!? Indeed it seems to be. They move overland if they have to!
Of course with everything in nature the story includes Homo sapiens. What we do. We transport eels, elvers and eggs to where they shouldn’t be; We introduce parasites from one area to another; We farm them, chopping up other fish to feed to them; We catch them to sell as sushi or jellied eel by the ton – so much so that catches are down to 10 to 14% of what they used to be in Europe. When the scarcity became known we stopped catching and eating them, right? No, the price just went up, businessmen offering over R20 000 per kilogram. Don’t eat eels; Don’t buy eels! Please. They’re endangered. Never eat anything if you don’t know how many there are.
Next time I see an eel in the Palmiet I’m going to tell him or her: Stay put! It’s a minefield out there! That vacation has no return ticket!
bluetop – cane spirits liquor traditionally swallowed down by Blue Lagoon
dagga – cannabis, weed, zol, marijuana
Vaalie – inland person, far from the coast; only wade to ankle-depth
vakansie by die see – seaside holiday