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The Humming Toadfish Story

by Annie Sutter


A houseboater reports that he has again heard the mysterious humming sound that made national news and had the waterfront buzzing with theories several years ago. “Right on schedule,” he said, “It’s July and here they are. Kinda sounds like a refrigerator humming…” So, for those of you who were not around, or who may have forgotten some of the outrageous explanations of the source of the sound, here’s the story recycled from the Scope of December 1985. It turned out that it really was an amorous toadfish singing to attract a lady toadfish.


Do Singing Fish Do It?


Or is  the  nocturnal humming sound that’s been disturbing our houseboater’s sleep due to a less romantic source than an amorous plainfin midshipman buried in the mud of Richardson Bay, and singing to attract a lady toadfish? Many are the alternative explanations that have been proposed: a singing sewer outlet, the secret signal of a Soviet spy ring, a submarine sneaking around in SF Bay, some defunct railroad switching gear, and a giant electric razor. Now, however, we have it straight from the fish’s mouth, so to speak, an opinion from Dr. John McCosker, Director of the Steinhart Aquarium, who went out into Richardson’s Bay on board Charlie Merrill’s Cimba to solve the mystery of the nighttime hummmmm.

Mc Cosker, despite his impressive titles, has both the appearance and the enthusiasm of a college kid; the likes to swim with great white sharks, makes films about sea creatures for PBS, and researches exotic species such as the revolting slime eel. Now he’s delving into the mysteries of the singing toadfish, a singularly ugly little fish with a protruding chin, whiskers, and a spiny backbone. “I know what that noise is,” he said. “We’re gonna go out and prove that it’s the romantic hoo-hooing of the male toadfish during mating season.” “I saw it with my own eyes,” added Merrill, “I’ll tell you, there’s no question in my mind.”

There may be, however, questions in the minds of the many houseboaters who’ve had to live with this liquid buzz that’s heard only in the summer and which goes on and off as though a switch had been turned. Doubters offer: “Perhaps it is an orchestra of toadfish,” said Hugh Lawrence, “when you show me the leader in his little tuxedo and baton lining up the chorus and starting them all at the same time, I’ll believe.” Others deny that it could be a fish making such a steady sound without variation – “it’s some kind of electrical device,” said Tom Watson, resident of Yellow Ferry Harbor. But houseboaters’ opinions vary as much as do their abodes, and Chris Tellis, long time resident, is convinced that it is fish. “I’ve been listening to it for fifteen years,” he said, “and the sound matches their migratory patterns. Besides – anything THAT ugly would have to make a sound like that. The problem here is not singing fish, it’s the yuppification of the waterfront. The fish have always been here – it’s just the reaction that’s new. They finally got a press agent.”

Speaking of the press, the voyage on board Cimba put the houseboat community and its mysterious buzz into national news as McCosker, a couple of divers and staff from Channel 5 ventured into Richardson Bay to peep into the sex life of fish buried in the mud. At first they uncovered other items indigenous to Richardson Bay; tires, a boat’s rail, and mattress springs. Finally, following the humming sound with hydrophones, they zeroed in on the singing fish, dropped a net and brought it up caked with mud and containing ten specimens of  toadfish which were whisked off to the aquarium for observation. And yes, they sang, “and out of the water they go whoof – whoof,” said Merrill.

Whatever may be causing Sausalito’s buzzing hummmmm, theories about its source continue: a Japanese container ship loaded with vibrators ran aground and sank off Sausalito, masses of cuisinarts kicking in just after a Julia Child cooking class on PBS, from Phil Frank cartoons; other ideas were giant Magic fingers and low flying B52s; and “the only animal capable of filling an entire Bay with obnoxious sound is man,” vs “people have become so urbanized they don’t realize how much sound Nature can make – think about how much noise one little cricket can make in your house." One sure thing – residents will just have to chalk it up to one of the charms of living on the Bay.

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