Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Wisdom and Good Fortune of Bonus Fish

In every job, there are little things that happen on occasion that just really make your day.  Those little things are specific to your world; outsiders just don't get it the way you do.  They may nod their head in a sort of, "Hmmm...that's...interesting...." way, but only you and your colleagues appreciate the full awesomeness of it.

In the marine mammal field, one of my favorite things in the whole world is


Everyone loves a bonus!

If you're a marine mammal trainer or any zookeeper who feeds fish to the animals under your care, you know what Bonus Fish are.  Maybe that's not what you call them, but you encounter them regularly. 

When I first started as an intern, I never encountered Bonus Fish.  This was likely because I didn't have the pleasure of thawing frozen flats on my own.  At that time, another department sorted through the boxes, piled the fish into giant stainless steel trays and left them to thaw overnight in our refrigerator.  By the time I got to fish prep the next morning, I had my pile o' capelin and herring to weigh out and that was that.

It wasn't until I landed my apprentice trainer job and met my future spouse (Russ) that I had my Allegory of the Cave* moment.  There we were in the fish house, sorting through hundreds of pounds of capelin and herring, trying to beat the clock.  At that time, we had a lot of dolphin mouths to feed and not a lot of time to prep the fish before the first sessions.  Concentration was paramount because despite the limited time, you could not allow any sub-par fish to slip past your watchful eye.   You had to make sure that the fish was superb quality, the amounts of fish were correct for each dolphin and each session, and that everything (floor to ceiling) was cleaned and disinfected.  It was a serious business and for a brand new trainer like me, who was convinced at any moment I'd probably get fired because seriously whose dream actually comes true, I was fully involved in the task at hand.  There was no fun to be had.

Uh, because I have to finish fish prep.

Russ on the other hand was a seasoned trainer who didn't feel the same pressure to Prove He Could Win Win Win and/or Be The Best Trainer Ever.  He had established himself.  He knew how to sort fish at lightning quick speed.  He also grew up on the beach in Florida and was an avid fisherman, so fish was his life.  The ease at which he completed a task that I struggled to keep up with made me uneasy.  I treated Fish Prep like we were performing triage on a critically wounded soldier and he treated it like a crawfish boil.


But, as the topic of this blog is so good at doing, there was something that could pierce my fervid focus.  And that something was a stickleback.


"Whoa!!!" Russ said in his surfer-dude way.  "Boooooonus fish!!!"

He picked up a tiny little fish roughly an inch long, richly counter-shaded with a black spike sticking up near the head.  He placed it on the top edge of the sink (the splash guard I guess?).

"WTF is a bonus fish??" I asked him, slightly irritated that he'd interrupted my flow of capelin-sorting.

"Dude!! It's a fish that is extra! A bonus fish!"

"You can't put that up there," I said.  "That's not where fish belongs."

"It's where Bonus Fish belong!" he countered.  "Plus, they're good luck."

By the end of the fish prep shift, Russ and I had found about ten stickleback Bonus Fish to decorate our sink with....and they were good luck.  I mean, we finished our fish prep early and for the first time in my employment I felt really happy and relaxed.  The Bonus Fish had really improved my mood.  Plus, they looked great on the sink.

Bonus Fish became something of an obsession for me from that day forward.  I told every intern and new trainer about it when training them in the fish kitchen.  I made sure to tell them that Bonus Fish were good luck, and soon enough I started hearing those people train other newbies on the same Bonus Fish principles.  You could hear squeals of delight coming from the Fish Kitchen door every time someone found a fish that wasn't supposed to be in the flats.  "Hey!" they'd say.  "Look at this guy!! He's good luck!"

Ponyo is arguably the best Bonus Fish find ever.

Finding Bonus Fish is like exactly what Charlie Bucket experienced looking for the Golden Ticket.  I mean aside from the fact that he won an amazing prize and got to hang out at Wonka's factory and wound up owning it.  But other than those things it's the exact same thing.  You KNOW there's something special hidden in some of the fish flats.  You don't know WHAT.  You don't know WHEN.  It's random luck and deeply satisfying when you find a little guy who doesn't belong.  And I don't care what anyone else says, those little things are good luck.

You start to learn what Bonus Fish are more common than others.  In capelin flats, sticklebacks, thread herring, and sand lance** are pretty normal to find.  That doesn't make them any less Bonus Fishy though; they have their rightly place on the sink to keep us company through the rest of food prep.

Sand lance, bringing good feelings to fish preppers everywhere!

Okay wait a second, I'll change something I just wrote.  Finding thread herring isn't really that awesome.  I'd actually like to contend that thread herring are Bogus Fish, not Bonus Fish.  Despite being very popular prey items for wild dolphins, their razor-sharp anal fins make for serious Fish Kitchen Hazards and most facilities don't even feed them to their dolphins.  They look pretty similar to the herring species we feed our animals, so to the untrained eye it's easy to let one get in a bucket.  I mean, those fish are called "Razorbellies" for a reason, and they'll cut you like a razor if you leave one in a bucket.  So no, thread herring.  You are not good luck.  You are not Bonus Fish.  You are dead to me!

The razor bellies seem to say.

But it's when you find the REALLY cool Bonus Fish that you just know your day is going to be super awesome.  The best finds I've seen?

1) The time that Russ and I found a flounder.  Like, a big flounder, probably four or five pounds the size of a dinner plate.  "This is good meat," Russ said.  He did not put the flounder in the usual Bonus Fish display area.  He promptly filleted it and ate it for dinner later that day.

No no, not that Flounder!  Cheer up!

2) I've found a couple of dogfish at two facilities I've worked at.  It's sad that this awesome predator was bycatch, but it was still a delightful Bonus Fish surprise.  Those guys are hard to display in the usual place, so when I find one I usually just lay them gently on a flat surface where I can see it to keep my spirits high.  Usually I'll look in their mouths at their teeth because well, I just like doing that!  Don't rain on my Bonus Fish parade, man!

This could be a slightly better find.

3) Baby cod.  Those guys are so cute with their giant mouths and big eyes.  I don't see them very often, so when I do it really makes my day.


4) Little baby squids.  Oh my god.  So cute.  And so easy to stick anywhere.

Yes, we're very excited about it.

5) Rock cod.  I've only found one of these things.  And technically, Russ found it (again, this dude apparently attracts Bonus Fish).  Over a year after he first taught me about the awesomeness of Bonus Fish, we had another fish prep shift together and he found a massive rock cod.  At first, we didn't know what it was.  We just knew we'd found the best Bonus Fish ever, and that maybe it was some kind of toad fish.  It was the size of a small dog and looked real crabby, but I suppose that had something to do with the fact that it had gotten unceremoniously killed and stuffed into a flat of capelin.  In fact, imagine that guy's last few moments.

No no, I said rock COD, not rock GOD.


His poor body was squished and flash frozen in a box that would wind up in a southern Florida deep freezer, patiently awaiting the day that two morons would do their normal fish prep shift and stumble upon the entombed animal.

Russ and I couldn't handle it.  We called everyone we could over to see it.  Our bosses let us preserve it in the freezer, Russ carefully laying it on a lid of an unused Igloo cooler and covered it to prevent freezer burn.  He took a zillion photos of it with his then-cool Motorola razor phone.  He sent them off to Florida Sportsman magazine for identification, since we could not figure out what it was.  

The rock cod was the talk of the department.  People traveled from all over the park to see the Best Bonus Fish Ever in his freezer mausoleum.  That guy was in there for a couple of days before we had to dispose of him, but the memory of him lasted a long time.  In fact, here it is being presented to you, dear reader.

The holy grail of Bonus Fish.

It's been almost nine years since my first Bonus Fish and I still think they are the most fun thing ever. Fish prep is clearly an important element to our job, but let's face it, it gets awfully tedious.  But at any given moment you can find something unique, something that gives you a little pick-me-up, and that's worth looking forward to.  

There is one thing I wish I could find.  I've heard tell of it but have yet to experience it: I want to find a big octopus.  Or some bizarre bottom fish that is so weird and hard to identify that it causes another excited buzz around my facility.  Alas, the only way for that to happen is to do fish prep a whole lot, and sadly those opportunities are fewer and fewer the farther up the career ladder one climbs.  

What weird things have you found in your food prep history?  Even if you don't work with fish, I'm sure all zookeepers must find weird stuff in their food all the time.  I'd love to hear your stories!

* You know, that story where people are all like in a cave for their whole lives and then suddenly realize they can leave, so they do, and they go outside the cave and see what's outside the cave (e.g. sunlight, trees, cupcakes) but then when they have to go back into the cave they know what they're missing on the outside world and they're all sad and stuff.

** Is that what those long fish we find in the capelin flats are?? I still can't really ID them.  Some of us call them "snakefish".


  1. I think the long dudes in your capelin flats are sand lance.

    I've found a bunch of crabs, little squid, and mantis shrimp in our flats of regular shrimp for the turtles.

    Plenty of 3 and 9-spine sticklebacks in the flats of silversides.

  2. You found a rock cod?!?! Man, I get excited every time I find even a stickleback or silver dollars even after all this time. I never thought of them as lucky but definitely makes for happy surprises during fish prep. And here I was thinking I'm one of the few weirdos that get overly excited about anything that strays from the usual. Thank you for this post. I will be calling them bonus fish from now on.