The Legend of the Eel

Dean in Southern Delaware

October, 1992


My favorite story comes from the 1992 Columbus Cruise. This was a cruise of a flotilla of three ships, out of St. Lucia for St. Maarten. Before I go on, please remember I am a marine biologist, and a computer specialist. Also, this story is not typical of WJ — it probably WILL NOT happen to you! The world ocean is not a Disneyland ride, and I hold WJ in no way responsible (feel better P.R. Mike?). This story could have applied to walking on the beach and cutting my foot on a pop-top, like JB, but I hope my tale is a little more interesting (if not as profitable). I have spent YEARS in the water, and this is a first for me.

Anyway, we were aboard Polynesia, out of St. Lucia.  We had arrived on Thursday at Frigate Bay on St. Kitts. This was a beach stop. To the north of the beach is a mile-long rock fall and cliffs, which offers superb shallow snorkeling within 100 feet of the cliff base and beach. I had dived there alone on a previous trip, and loved the area.

This area has lots of critters, and especially (since I specialized in molluscs) nice squid and octopi. My wife and I were about half way along the wall,  when she pointed out a red and white scallop shell she wanted. I dove down 8 feet, toward a 4-foot wide crevice with a sand floor. As is my practice, I looked around for any critters, and seeing none, I reached down for the shell. As I reached for the shell, out of a tiny crevice, an 18-inch tan colored, spotted baby moray eel dashed completely out, and bit my right index finger.Goldentail-Moray-457x303

Shocked, I yanked my hand back, and out of the eels mouth. I uttered a few censorable words underwater, and surfaced. I said an eel nailed me, and her response was “was it poisonous?”. After reassuring her I was in no immediate danger of missing swizzle time, I looked at my finger and realized I was well bitten. I wrapped the T-shirt I was wearing around my finger, and headed at my top speed back to the beach, all the time keeping the finger above my head and out of the water. My wife wasn’t a competitive swimmer as I had been, and tried to keep up, but she trailed me back to the beach.

(Aside: Some have asked if I was worried about sharks. The water was too shallow, it was daylight, and I reminded them of the old rule — I only had to outswim her!).

I got back to the beach and got the bartender to call the launch to come in and take me out to Poly. While waiting, I got bottled water from the beach, and poured over my finger to clean it.  While the purser (also a nurse) was getting up, the first mate decided to help. After my wife (a pharmacist) pointed out the first brown bottle he grabbed was cough syrup, not peroxide, he helped clean up and bandage my wound with the right stuff. The purser/nurse arrived, and we decided maybe it would be wise to get a doctor to look at the finger. The mate radioed for a taxi to meet us on the beach, and we headed ashore with all of our ready cash. The ship had a steel drum band party planned, and would be waiting for us in the St. Kitts harbour.
The taxi took us to the St. Kitts Hospital. We had to wait for an hour in the ER, as the doctor was treating TWO different compound fractures from one of those “safe”  Foo-Foo cruise line ships. Both patients were being flown to Barbados for further treatment. As it was, the ER was sort of like an enclosed porch, with open glass slat windows, and wooden benches. one painted green. No AC. After an hour or so, the doctor called me in to his office, and looked at my finger at his office desk. He had never seen an eel bite, and decided to treat it like a dog bite. But first, he had to leave for an hour to settle his stomach (not from me, I hoped!)
When the doctor returned a Caribbean hour later, he took me into the treatment room. Again no air conditioning, and it was HOT!, at least 105F. He numbed my finger and began applying stitches. The treatment table was wooden, once painted green. I watched, and I have enough background to know he used reasonably good sterile technique.At least he put down sterile paper, and used sterile sutures. My only worry was the suture needle, which he took out of a covered glass dish, where there were several other needles. I had to assume/hope, the solution in the dish was some sterilizing solution. I felt like it was the 1950’s.

The angle was awkward as he applied the stitches. The nurse was well-endowed, and was getting in the way, so I offered to assist. The doctor got me a glove, but about then the heat and novocaine got to me and I felt faint. My wife brought in the gurney and some water, and the doctor finished up. Fifteen stitches later, I was done.

After recovering, from the heat, we went outside and braced ourselves for the bill.  The nurse sail to come back in the morning to pay. We expained the ships were sailing first thing in the morning, and we couldn’t come back when the office opened.  The nurse then asked for $20! ($54EC) WOW!! The cost of a WJ tour! She stapled the $20 bill to the chart, and gave me a prescription for antibiotics. The taxi was waiting and we were on our way.
We stopped at a pharmacy on the way back to the ship, and got the medication for $8 US ($21 EC) ($30-40 stateside). The pharmacist also decided on his own that I might need a pain killer, and  put in some (Very) strong painkillers, which are highly restricted in the US. I never even needed an aspirin.

Once back at the ship, we settled back to enjoy the music, but I and my finger were instant hits. I remember many people from all the ships coming up and taking my picture. The next morning, I found that my name had been added to the board as an island activity at St. Barts, “Eel Feeding Demo – $20 – See Dean”. I found out later that I was also mentioned at story time on all three ships. The Captains had a combined 30 WindJammer years experience, yet had never had a passenger bitten. On a launch later that morning, one of the passengers from another ship said “Oh, YOU’RE the one!”. I was an instant celebrity, and attraction, and I loved it!
Once back home, I had my doctor check out the wound. He found no problems, infection or anything of concern. He enjoyed the story, however, and charged a LITTLE more than $20!

When we turned in the bills from St Kitts to our insurance, they paid us back $75! We finally figured out why. The original bills were written in EC dollars, which uses a “$”, but they paid us in US.  When we called to correct this, they said to ignore it, since it would be too complicated and cost too much to change. So we kept it, and made a little money!
While many may find my story a little worrisome, please don’t. I have spent a lot of time in the water (I once calculated 3.5 years!), and nothing of this sort has ever happened before. This really is a favorite story, and my cruise on Poly will be something I will always be able to point to … uh with.