On the Many Mysteries of the
European Eel

Patrik Svensson's Long Search for Understanding

This is how the birth of the eel comes about: it takes place in a region of the northwest Atlantic Ocean called the Sargasso Sea, a place that is in every respect suitable for the creation of eels. The Sargasso Sea is actually less a clearly defined body of water than a sea within a sea. Where it starts and where it ends is difficult to determine, since it eludes the usual measures of the world. It’s located slightly northeast of Cuba and the Bahamas, east of the North American coast, but it is also a place in flux. The Sargasso Sea is like a dream: you can rarely pinpoint the moment you enter or exit; all you know is that you’ve been there.

This impermanence is a result of the Sargasso’s being a sea without land borders; it is bounded instead by four mighty ocean currents. In the west by the life-giving Gulf Stream; in the north by its extension, the North Atlantic Drift; in the east by the Canary Current; and in the south by the North Equatorial Current. Two million square miles in size, the Sargasso Sea swirls like a slow, warm eddy inside this closed circle of currents. What gets in doesn’t always have an easy time getting out.

The water is deep blue and clear, in places very nearly 23,000 feet deep, and the surface is carpeted with vast fields of sticky brown algae called Sargassum, which give the sea its name. Drifts of seaweed many thousands of feet across blanket the surface, providing nourishment and shelter for myriad creatures: tiny invertebrates, fish and jellyfish, turtles, shrimp, and crabs. Farther down in the deep, other kinds of seaweed and plants thrive. Life teems in the dark, like a nocturnal forest.

This is where the European eel, Anguilla anguilla, is born. This is where mature eels breed in the spring and their eggs are laid and fertilized. Here, safe in the darkness of the depths, small larva-like creatures with disturbingly tiny heads and poorly developed eyes spring to life. They’re called leptocephalus larvae and have a body like a willow leaf, flat and virtually transparent, only a few millimeters long. This is the first stage of the eel’s life cycle.

The gossamer willow leaves immediately set off on their journey. Swept up by the Gulf Stream, they drift thousands of miles across the Atlantic toward the coasts of Europe. It’s a journey that can take as long as three years; during this time, each larva slowly grows, millimeter by millimeter, like a gradually inflating balloon, and when at last it reaches Europe, it undergoes its first metamorphosis, transforming into a glass eel. This is the second stage of the eel’s life cycle.

When an eel is denied a way to achieve its main purpose in life—procreation—it seems able to live forever.

Glass eels are, much like their willow leaf former selves, almost entirely transparent, two to three inches in length, elongated and slithery, transparent, as though neither color nor sin has yet to take root in their bodies. They look, in the words of the marine biologist Rachel Carson, like “thin glass rods, shorter than a finger.” Frail and seemingly defenseless, they are considered a delicacy by, among other people, the Basques. When a glass eel reaches the coasts of Europe, it will usually travel up a brook or river, adapting almost instantly to a freshwater existence. This is where it undergoes yet another metamorphosis, turning into a yellow eel. Its body grows serpentine and muscular. Its eyes remain relatively small, with a distinctive dark center. Its jaw becomes wide and powerful. Its gills are small and almost completely concealed. Thin, soft fins stretch along the entirety of its back and belly. Its skin finally develops pigment, coloring it shades of brown, yellow, and gray, and it becomes covered in scales so tiny they can be neither seen nor felt, like an imaginary armor. If the glass eel is tender and fragile, the yellow eel is strong and sturdy. This is the third stage of the eel’s life cycle.

The yellow eel is able to move through the shallowest, most overgrown waters as well as the swiftest currents. It can swim through murky lakes and up tranquil streams, up wild rivers and through lukewarm ponds. When needed, it can pass through swamps and ditches. It doesn’t let circumstance stand in its way, and when all aquatic possibilities have been exhausted, it can take to dry land, slithering through moist brush and grass in pushes toward new waters that can last for hours. The eel is, thus, a fish that transcends the piscine condition. Perhaps it doesn’t even realize it is a fish.

It can migrate thousands of miles, unflagging and undaunted, before it suddenly decides it’s found a home. It doesn’t require much of this home; the environs are something to adapt to, to endure and get to know—a muddy stream or lake bed, preferably with some rocks and hollows to hide in, and enough food. Once it has found its home, it stays there, year after year, and normally wanders within a radius of only a few hundred yards. If relocated by external forces, it will invariably return as quickly as it can to its chosen abode. Eels caught by researchers, tagged with radio transmitters, and released many miles from their point of capture have been known to return to where they were first found within a week or two. No one knows exactly how they find their way.

The yellow eel is a solitary creature. It usually lives out the active phase of its life alone, letting the passing seasons dictate its activities. When the temperature drops, it can lie motionless in the mud for long periods, utterly passive, and at times entangled with other eels like a messy ball of yarn.

It is a nocturnal hunter. At dusk, it emerges from the sediment and starts looking for food, eating whatever it can find. Worms, larvae, frogs, snails, insects, crayfish, fish, as well as mice and baby birds when given the chance. It is not above scavenging.

In this way, the eel lives out the greater part of its life in a brownish-yellow guise, alternating between activity and hibernation. Seemingly lacking any sense of purpose, other than in its daily search for food and shelter. As though life was first and foremost about waiting and its meaning found in the gaps or in an abstract future that can’t be brought about by any means other than patience.

And it’s a long life. An eel that successfully avoids illness and calamity can live for up to fifty years in one place. There are Swedish eels who have made it past eighty in captivity. Myths and legends tell of eels living to a hundred or more. When an eel is denied a way to achieve its main purpose in life—procreation—it seems able to live forever. As though it could wait until the end of time.

But at some point in its life, usually after 15 to 30 years, a wild eel will suddenly decide to reproduce. What triggers this decision, we may never know, but once it has been made, the eel’s tranquil existence ends abruptly and its life takes on a different character. It starts making its way back to the sea while simultaneously undergoing its final metamorphosis. The drab and indeterminate yellowish-brown of its skin disappears, its coloring grows clearer and more distinct, its back turns black and its sides silver, marked with stripes, as though its entire body changes to reflect its newfound determination. The yellow eel becomes a silver eel. This is the fourth stage of the eel’s life cycle.

When autumn rolls out its protective darkness, the silver eels wander back out into the Atlantic and set off toward the Sargasso Sea. And as though through deliberate choice, the eel’s body adapts to the conditions of the journey. Only now do its reproductive organs develop; its fins grow longer and more powerful to help propel it; its eyes grow larger and turn blue to help it see better in the depths of the ocean; its digestive system shuts down; its stomach dissolves—from now on, all the energy it needs will be taken from existing fat reserves—its body fills with roe or milt. No external interference can distract the eel from its goal.

It swims as much as 30 miles a day, sometimes as deep as 3,000 feet below the surface; we still know very little about this journey. It may make the trip in six months or it may stop for winter. It has been shown that a silver eel in captivity can live for up to four years without any nourishment at all.

It’s a long, ascetic journey, undertaken with an existential resolve that cannot be explained. But once an eel reaches the Sargasso Sea, it has, once again, found its way home. Under swirling blankets of seaweed, its eggs are fertilized. And with that, the eel is done, its story complete, and it dies.

*

My father taught me to fish for eel in the stream bordering the fields of his childhood home. We drove down at dusk in August, taking a left off the main road to cross the stream and turning onto a small road that was little more than a tractor path in the dirt winding down a steep slope and then moving parallel with the water. On our left were the fields, the golden wheat brushing against the side of our car; on our right, the quietly hissing grass. Beyond it, the water, around 20 feet wide, a tranquil stream meandering through the greenery like a silver chain glinting in the last slanted rays of the setting sun.

We drove slowly along the rapids, where the stream rushed in a startled fashion between the rocks and past the twisted old willow tree. I was seven years old and had already gone down this same road many times before. When the tracks ended in a wall of impenetrable vegetation, Dad turned off the engine and everything went dark and still, aside from the murmur of the stream. We were both wearing wellies and greasy vinyl waders, mine yellow and his orange, and we took two black buckets full of fishing gear, a flashlight, and a jar of worms from the trunk and set off.

Along the bank of the stream, the grass was wet and impenetrable and taller than me. Dad took the lead, forging a path; the vegetation closed like an arch above me as I followed. Bats flitted back and forth above the stream, silent, like black punctuation marks against the sky.

After 40 yards, Dad stopped and looked around. “This’ll do,” he said.

The bank was steep and muddy. If you missed your step, you ran the risk of falling over and sliding straight into the water. Twilight was already falling.

Dad held the grass back with one hand and carefully walked down on a diagonal, then turned around and held his other hand out to me. I took it and followed with the same practiced caution. Down by the water’s edge, we trampled out a small ledge and set down our buckets.

I imitated Dad, who was mutely inspecting the water, following his eyes, imagining I saw what he saw. There was, of course, no way of knowing whether this was a good spot. The water was dark, and here and there stands of reeds stuck out of it, waving menacingly, but everything below the surface was hidden from us. We had no way of knowing, but we chose to have faith as from time to time a person must. Fishing is often about exactly that.

“Yes, this’ll do,” Dad repeated, turning to me; I pulled a spiller from the bucket and handed it to him. He pushed the stake into the ground and quickly gathered up the line, picked up the hook, and gingerly pulled a fat worm out of the jar. He bit his lip and studied the worm in the flashlight; after putting it on the hook, he held it up to his face and pretended to spit on it for luck, always twice, before throwing it into the water with a sweeping motion. He bent down and touched the line, making sure it was taut and hadn’t traveled too far in the current. Then he straightened back up and said “All right,” and we climbed back up the bank.

What we called spillers were really something else, I suppose. The word spiller usually denotes a long fishing line with many hooks and sinkers. Our version was more primitive. Dad made them by sharpening one end of a piece of wood with an ax. Then he cut a length of thick nylon line, about 15 feet, and tied one end to the wooden stake. He made the sinkers by pouring melted lead into a steel pipe and letting it set before cutting the pipe into short pieces that he would then drill a hole through. The sinker was placed about a hand’s length from the end of the line and the fairly sizable single hook right fastened at the end. The stake was hammered into the ground, the hook with the worm rested on the streambed. We would bring ten or twelve spillers, which we’d bait and throw in, one after the other, approximately 30 feet apart. Up and down the steep bank, the same laborious procedure each time and the same well-rehearsed hand-holding, the same gestures and the same spitting for luck.

When the last spiller had been set up, we went back the same way, up and down the bank, checking each one again. Carefully testing each line to make sure there hadn’t been a bite already and then standing around for a minute in silence, letting our instinct convince us that this was good, that something would happen here if we just gave it some time. By the time we’d checked the last one, it would be completely dark—the silent bats visible now only when they swooped through the shaft of moonlight—and we climbed up the bank one final time, walked back to the car, and drove home.

I can’t recall us ever talking about anything other than eels and how to best catch them, down there by the stream. I can’t remember us speaking at all.

Dawn colored the lower edge of the sky a deep orange, and the water seemed to rush by with a different sound, clearer, brighter, as though it had just woken up from a deep sleep.

Maybe because we never did. Because we were in a place where the need for talking was limited, a place whose nature was best enjoyed in silence. The reflected moonlight, the hissing grass, the shadows of the trees, the monotonous rushing of the stream, and the bats like hovering asterisks above it all. You had to be quiet to make yourself part of the whole.

It could, of course, also be because I remember everything wrong. Because memory is an unreliable thing that picks and chooses what to keep. When we look for a scene from the past, it is by no means certain that we end up recalling the most important or the most relevant; rather, we remember what fits into the preconceived image that we have. Our memory paints a tableau in which the various details inevitably complement one another. Memory doesn’t allow colors that clash with the background. So let’s just say we were silent. In any case, I don’t know what we might have talked about if we did.

We lived just a mile or two from the stream; when we got home late at night, we would pull off our wellies and waders on the front steps, and I would go straight to bed. I’d fall asleep quickly, and just after five in the morning, Dad would wake me up again. He didn’t need to say much. I got out of bed straight away, and we were in the car a few minutes later. Down by the stream, the sun was rising. Dawn colored the lower edge of the sky a deep orange, and the water seemed to rush by with a different sound, clearer, brighter, as though it had just woken up from a deep sleep. Other sounds could be heard all around us. A blackbird warbling, a mallard entering the water with a clumsy splash. A heron flying silently over the stream, peering down with its large beak like a raised dagger.

We walked through the damp grass and stomped our way sideways down the bank to the first spiller. Dad waited for me, and together we studied the taut line, looking for signs of activity under the surface. Dad bent down and put his hand to the nylon. Then he straightened back up and shook his head. He pulled the line in and held up the hook for me to see. The worm was gone, probably stolen by crafty roaches.

We moved on to the next spiller, which was also empty. As was the third. Approaching the fourth one, however, we could see the line had been dragged into a stand of reeds; when Dad pulled on it, it was stuck. He muttered something inaudible. Grabbed the line with both hands and tugged a bit harder, to no avail. The current might have carried the hook and sinker into the reeds. But it might also have been that an eel had swallowed the hook and gotten itself and the line caught up in the plant stalks and was now lying there, bid-ing its time. If you held the line taut in your hand, you could sometimes feel tiny movements, as though whatever was stuck below the surface on the other end was bracing itself.

Dad coaxed and pulled, bit his lip and cursed helplessly. He knew there were only two ways out of this situation and that both had its losers. Either he managed to dislodge the eel and pull it up, or he could cut the line and leave the eel where it was, tangled in the reeds with the hook and heavy sinker like a ball and chain.

This time, there seemed to be no other option. Dad took a few steps to the side, trying a different angle, pulling so hard the nylon stretched like a violin string. Nothing worked.

“Nope, no luck,” he said at length and tugged as hard as he could, breaking the line in two with a loud snap.

“Let’s hope it makes it,” he said, and we moved on, climbing up and down the bank.

At the fifth spiller, Dad bent down and tentatively touched the line. Then he straightened up and stepped aside. “You want to take this one?” he said.

I grabbed the line and pulled on it gently and could immediately feel the strength that answered back. The same force that Dad had felt with just his fingertips. I had time to realize that the feeling was familiar, then I pulled a bit harder and the fish began to move. “It’s an eel,” I said out loud.

An eel never tries to rush, as a pike might; it prefers slithering sideways, which creates a kind of undulating resistance. It’s surprisingly strong for its size and a good swimmer, despite its tiny fins.

I reeled it in as slowly as I could, without letting the line slacken, as though savoring the moment. But it was a short line, and there were no reeds for this eel to hide in; before long, I pulled it out of the water and saw its shiny yellowish-brown body twisting in the early-morning light. I tried to grab it behind its head, but it was virtually impossible to hold. It wrapped itself around my arm like a snake, up past my elbow; I could feel its strength like a static force more than movement. If I dropped it now, it would escape through the grass and back into the water before I could get a secure hold.

In the end, we got the hook out and Dad filled the bucket with water from the stream. I slipped the eel in, and it immediately started swimming around and around the inside; Dad put his hand on my shoulder, said it was a beauty. We moved on to the next spiller, stepping lightly up the bank. And I got to carry the bucket.

__________________________________

book of eels

From the book The Book of Eels by Patrik Svensson. Copyright © 2019 by Patrik Svensson. English translation copyright © 2020 by Agnes Broomé. Reprinted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Patrik Svensson
Patrik Svensson
Patrik Svensson is an arts and culture journalist at Sydsvenskan newspaper. He lives with his family in Malmö, Sweden. The Book of Eels is his first book.





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