Free Willy Gone Wrong
- story and photos by Ellis Anderson
Growing up far from any coastline, I was unfamiliar with the treacherous nature of crabs — until I rescued one from the boiling pot.
In the North Carolina hills where I was raised, our only crustaceans were the small crayfish that scurried across rocky beds of swift moving streams. No one dreamed of eating the tiny critters. Back then, the only seafood for inland dwellers consisted of mushy frozen flounder or the soggy fish sticks served up in school cafeterias. Fried shrimp were a rare delicacy reserved for birthday meals at chain restaurants.
I moved to New Orleans in 1978 when I was 21. People there ate things I’d never imagined. Like raw oysters, frog legs, alligator sausage and monster crawfish that seemed like small lobsters to me.
Friends took me to Smitty and Maggie’s at West End for my first meal of boiled crabs. We sat on picnic tables outside at dusk and and swatted mosquitoes as they taught me the proper techniques. While I’d never worked so hard for a small morsel of the meat, by the end of the evening I understood the lengthy ritual increased the meal’s pleasure, allowing more time for conversation and laughter.
In the ’90s, after I’d moved to Bay St. Louis full-time, I found myself contemplating a crab boil, so a friend and I drove out to Bob’s Crabs in Lakeshore on an exploratory mission. The business headquarters consisted of a small cinderblock and screened building on the banks of a canal, wire crab traps piled high outside, open boats tied to pilings.
Inside, a large rectangular holding tank was tucked into one corner. I peered in the shallow pool and found it held several inches of water, but no creatures. We pressed on to the adjoining room, which held more tanks.
Bob was helping a customer who was buying up all the available live crabs for a family reunion. They’d corralled all the ones in the front tank and were now depopulating the rear ones. Frantic crabs raced around the shallow pools, easy targets for the tongs Bob wielded with expert accuracy. He snagged them and dropped them into seething bushel baskets.
Returning to the front room to wait our turn, my friend and I noticed a single crab, motionless in the corner of the empty tank. The tank was a tan color and this sole survivor had cunningly camouflaged itself in the shadows. While the others had scrambled to escape, this one had frozen, like a fawn or baby bird, hoping the predator would miss it and move on. Even Bob’s expert eye had passed over it.
The idea occurred to me that this intelligent crab should be rewarded. Saved from the boiling pot. Why perhaps this crab represented the next evolutionary step up for its species! It obviously had developed a reasoning of sorts. A cunning that overcame panic.
When Bob returned and the customer left, I told him I wanted to purchase the single crab.
Are you planning to eat just one? he asked.
I answered that I intended to release it. Then I gave my reasoning: It’s smart, so it should be out there enhancing the gene pool, I said.
Bob was polite enough not to ridicule me outright, but that can’t have been easy, especially with my friend rolling his eyes and snickering in the background. Yet he fished out the dark crab with his tongs, declaring it a female. To me, that seemed an omen: She would go forth and propagate more intellectually superior crustaceans.
Single crabs didn’t merit a basket though, so Bob asked me to hold up a bag. But I had no idea the extent of a crab’s reach. During the awkward transfer, the beast unfolded a claw and fiercely clamped onto my thumb. I shrieked with pain and dropped the bag.
In a whirling dervish frenzy, I hopped up and down shaking my hand, hoping the creature would let go before dismembering me. Bob and my friend weren’t much in the way of help; howls of laughter bent them over. They were useful only as witnesses to this spectacle of woman versus crab.
Bob finally recovered enough to snag my tormentor with his tongs and pulled her away from my hand. My thumb bled freely onto the concrete floor. Bob led me over to a sink to wash the wound, and then dispensed a Band-Aid.
I’m thinking you’ll be eating it now? he said, wiping at his eyes.
I asserted that the incident had merely convinced me that the crab was as courageous as it was intelligent. Yes, I was still going to turn it loose.
Bob said something about biting the hand that releases you and said there’d be no charge.
But he never knew the real ending. Once we hit Beach Boulevard, I pulled over and parked, then clambered down the seawall steps with my hard-won prize to face the Mississippi Sound. While my thumb still throbbed mightily, this was a Free Willy moment. I could tell.
Cautious now about the long reach of those crane-like claws, I put my entire body weight behind the throw. I hurled the crab from the bag, aiming to get her several yards out.
It worked. She sailed through the air toward freedom and her future — without taking any of my flesh.
But I didn’t see her hit the water. My pitch threw me off balance. My sandals skated beneath me on the slime-covered seawall steps. I slid like a luge toward the water, feet first. My backside slammed the concrete and hammered against each step all the way down.
My friend helped pull me from the water, filthy and drenched and covered with algae that stank. He struggled to keep a straight face, without much success. For a good five minutes, laughter cut off his sentences before he could finish them.
I might have laughed too if I hadn’t hurt so much. For weeks after, I bore the blackened bruises of the afternoon, a generous double-dip in humiliation and hilarity. The only balm was the thought of generations of ungrateful crustaceans who would soon be carrying the genetics of Bob’s Chameleon Crab.
We left before dawn, motoring his skiff through the mists toward Bayou Caddy, then out into the sound. The sweeping sky, the hiss of wind across the water and birds silently winging overhead wove a fabric of total tranquility. I began to envy a profession that started each workday with such beauty.
Bob cut back the motor and coasted up to his first trap. When he began emptying it into a crate, I crouched down in the bottom of the boat with my camera, seeking the best angle.
Hey, you better back off a little, the fisherman said. Those crabs have got a hell of a bite.
The rising sun behind Bob’s head made it hard to see his expression, but there was no way to miss the wide grin.