Sex and the single skate

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THE mermaid legend supposedly arose from sightings of manatees or dugongs by grizzled old salts who had been at sea for too long. But there must be more to the fable. Those sailors must have been glugging away for weeks at paraffin destined for the ship's lamps, if they really mistook a woman combing her hair with a muddy brown sea cow that can weigh 600 kilos.

Another, less well-known myth concerns fishermen who spent weeks gazing lustily at their voluptuous figurehead, with nothing to relieve their sexual tension but the tedium of hauling in nets. If the stories are true - and I merely repeat them as a historical anecdote - the fishermen became hopelessly aroused when they landed female skate.

The topside of these strange fish is mottled so they can hide on the seabed, but the underside is a pale white, not unlike human skin. Skate, which are related to sharks, even look as if they are smiling at you (though they resemble those upside-down Ben Elton faces). The nostrils look like eyes and the mouth is remarkably humanoid, with large, fleshy lips. But the horny sea dogs didn't just want to kiss the fish. At the base of a skate's spiky tail is its reproductive organ, which bears a vague similarity to its human counterpart. If maritime tradition is true, battles were fought for the right to have their wicked way with a particularly attractive skate.

I pass no judgement over the practice, which makes tales about sheep and remote hill farms seem like something from Jackanory. But if true, love-making must have been extremely uncomfortable. The thornback skate has very sharp rosebush-like spikes, called bucklers, along its back and tail. It would be like making love to a gooseberry bush. Kissing a skate wouldn't be a lot of fun either. Those sexy "lips" can crush a hard-backed crab. But I suppose love always finds a way, even if it does make your cabin smell a bit.

A strange practice, it is true, but skate figure in some bizarre anecdotes. There are those stories about manta rays or devil fish leaping out of the water and crushing boats. There is the Jewish belief that skate should not be eaten because they have periods. The notion probably arose from the skate's empty egg cases.

When a male skate fertilises a female, the eggs develop within her body. She lays them in pairs in their egg cases. Long, curly tendrils dangling from each corner, like wisps of a mermaid's hair, attach the eggs to seaweed to stop them floating away. The embryos inside live on the yolk sac and after about six months, wriggle free as baby skate about four inches long. These discarded "mermaid's purses" wash on to beaches and get their parents on the non-kosher list.

Another weird skate tale surfaced last week in Angling Times - the Essex woman who thought she had discovered a set of genitals on her local beach. She was walking her dog at Clacton when she discovered what looked like a grisly gangland punishment. The woman ran to the nearest phone and called the police, fearful that she would discover the rest of the body a little farther along. The law removed the evidence, only to discover that the owner was not a eunuch, but a skate.

A police spokesman is quoted as saying: "The poor woman felt very embarrassed when she discovered the truth. But it was an easy mistake to make. They look very similar. She did right to call the police. We might have had a murder hunt on our hands." At this time of year, Clacton is a popular area for skate fishing. The police spokesman continued: "I believe that many anglers snip off the genitals in case they frighten the wife when the fish is brought home."

Male skate have modified pelvic fin extensions called claspers. One is inserted into the female and sperm released. When you're swimming along the seabed, it must be an extremely tricky operation, and it makes love- making in a Mini look simple by comparison. But how anyone can mistake a thornback skate's clasper for a lopped-off tadger is beyond me. You may think the answer is that the woman came from Essex, and that it wouldn't have happened in Littlehampton. However, I'm still baffled.

Footnote: Wouldn't you know it? After my less than sympathetic comments about the family fridge during the last couple of weeks, the damned thing has packed up completely. There goes the trout fishing trip to Ireland.

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