They say home is where the heart is, but if you were a pearlfish, you'd say home is where the colon is well, down a bit, and a little to the right.
For the humble pearlfish is an animal that dwells within the safety of a sea-cucumber's anus. It is a vile thought, but we must ask ourselves whether the poor creature is really aware of its home's true identity. Does it have a little embroidered sampler saying "Home Sweet Home" tacked to the walls of its host's rectal tract? A "Welcome" mat at the door?
And what would its reaction be, if one was so callous as to break the news? Rest assured, pearlfish would suddenly become a common species. They would abandon their reclusive habits and swim into the open for a good scrub. Whole squadrons of them would be lined up at cleaning stations, waiting for the attentions of cleanerfish who would most likely be on strike, or mysteriously out on call.
It is a difficult scene to imagine, but that is because few divers have ever actually seen pearlfish. And I would be worried if they had. Having just completed a book on fish, I know the stigma these poor cucumber-dwellers carry. "No," Alex, the photographer, declared, "there is no way I am fixing my lens on some sea-cucumber's warty backside. No."
They are protective about their equipment, these photographers. Or perhaps it is their reputations they are trying to cover. Maybe they have nightmares about the headlines: "UK diver in cucumber-porn scandal". Whatever the reason, it was impossible to source a picture of the humble pearlfish until recently.
Helmut Debelius has changed everything. His new Red Sea fish guide proudly displays our tunnel-dwelling friend in all its glory. "How could he?" some will say. And I can picture their horror as Debelius' long lens zooms in on the hapless cucumber's sensitive parts. I guess it is his continental pedigree. Unfettered by our English restraint, these Continentals will try anything.
Many photographers push the boundaries of decency, but none more so than macro photographers. As I understand it, parasites are their favourite subject. The sea might be full of swirling clouds of colourful fish and statuesque corals, but no, they would rather photograph some nasty parasitic shrimp picking away at its host's sensitive membranes.
I should know on the wall of my bedroom I have a nicely framed shot of a red shrimp hanging out of the gills of a Spanish dancer. Hanging out of its gills how personal can you get.
If there is alien life, I suspect it is just as fascinated by our parasites as we are by those of the animals that surround us. Right now some cosmic macro lens might be probing through our atmosphere and zooming in on the top of your head, waiting to get just the right angle on your headlice, or whatever else. In fact, that nasty little infection you picked up in Tenerife last summer could now be immortalised in film, and gilt-framed on the wall of some interstellar bedroom.
But back to rectum-dwelling. It makes reincarnation an awesome prospect. I mean, what a gamble: to come back as a dolphin, serenely cruising the ocean waves, frolicking and chattering all day long; or to come back as a pearlfish?
For some, I might have overstepped the mark that invisible boundary between harmless smut and gross obscenity. For some, I have uttered the A-word just one time too many. They need not worry. For the anally retentive, the next life holds a special treat: to come back as an anemone, an animal that has no anus at all.
Appeared in DIVER - June 1999