Pico Pico Vinaigrette
By Douglas Bernon
June 29, 2001
Southwest Cay, Glover Reef, Belize
16 45.707 N 87 47.001 W
Last night I went to bed alone in the V-berth, stark naked, keenly vigilant, and clutching a long-handled wooden salad spoon, just the right instrument to scratch my back in hard-to-reach places, and an ideal weapon for smashing mosquitoes that are only slightly smaller than Volkswagens. The forward cabin was too hot for two bodies, so Bernadette slept in the main saloon, directly under a fan, and besides, she was fuming that despite her entreaties, I continue to employ kitchen utensils for bodily functions. There you have it: yet one more of the fundamental differences between boys and girls. I wonder if female gorillas were miffed when their partners started using favorite household twigs to extract termites from logs. I posed this anthropomorphic hypothesis to my beloved, but in her own gyrations of itching, she groused that it was a wacky comparison and I was missing badly some essential crux. I'll allow I may be off beam about our arboreal ancestors and termites, but I'll tell you this: when it comes to bugs, forget Skin So Soft. Forget Bounce. Forget all that drivel everyone ever told you about natural, organic bug repellants. Get yourself a 55-gallon drum of Deet and take a full-body dunk every dawn and dusk. We're at Southwest Cay at Glover Reef, the southernmost of the four Atlantic atolls, 25 miles off mainland Belize. Glover's lies outside the barrier reef that's been our protection from waves and swell since we arrived in the country. But with its reputation for spectacular underwater life, we've been longing to get out here: 80 square miles of turquoise mountain-top lagoon in the middle of the dark-blue ocean, with more than 600 coral heads to snorkel or dive and, when sailing, to avoid.
But neither shallow coral patches nor airborne varmints are the cause of our woes. The price we're paying for being anchored out here, this week in particular, is that for the past several days we've been itching lunatics, scratching ourselves within an inch of our lives, trying to alleviate the stinging effects of the justifiably dreaded Pico Pico, the local name for a rash caused by ghastly little, oceangoing equivalents of no-see-ums that can spring up unannounced anywhere in the northwest Caribbean and this week, per chance, we're here at Glover's together. Lemme tell you about Phylum Cnidaria, which is from the Greek for nettle.
Most Cnidarians are microscopically tiny colonialists who band by the bazillions. Two species, jellyfish and anemones, are a tad anti-social and live alone, but the rest of these guys attach to whatever they can (including people) and make up hard and soft coral, which means if you stand long enough in one place underwater, you too can become a reef. While Cnidarians come in different colors and sizes, all these urticating little bastards have a cup-shaped body and one opening that serves as both their mouth and anus, so I reckon they got just what they deserve. All Cnidarians have tentacles with infinitesimally small capsules called nematocysts that, for prey and protection, or if they just cop an attitude, can be discharged and cause a sting.
Curiously, while you're in the water and the Pico Pico are staking claims inside your wetsuit, and on your thighs and ears and fingers, and between your toes and up and down your arms and legs, and actually just about everywhere you'd especially not want to be stung, you don't feel a thing. It's once you get out of the water that they let you know you're just a convenient, symbiotic, and nettlesome host. One coral-reef book cautions: "In the event of a sting, never rub the affected area or wash with fresh water or soap. Both actions can cause additional nematocysts to discharge." Great advice, but the first time they take leaseholds on your body parts, while you're in the water, you don't know it, so you take your customary shower after a dive, and that just gets up their dander. They feel jerked around and need to show what they can do.
Reference books suggest that if one is stung (in, say, 200 or 300 places), upon getting out of the saltwater, you should pretend you're bib lettuce and coat yourself with vinegar, although it need not be a vintage Italian white balsamic. This neutralizes those Pico Picos that have yet to sting you.
In the event you're low on vinegar, old hands inform us that urine is equally effective, less expensive, and plentiful; I'll leave the details of application to your own perverse imagination. Finally, meat tenderizer can quell the itch. If you have no Adolph's, and I've never trusted any product named Adolph, baste your body with hydrocortisone cream and gobble Benadryl. That's what we do because, despite the itch, we're still going in the water at least twice a day. Glover Atoll is nothing less than the best diving site I've ever been to anywhere in the world.
Depths inside the lagoon range down to 75 ft, and the outside atoll wall, which is easy to dinghy out to, is a sheer drop down to 800 ft; there's a greater variety of sponges and coral here than I knew existed. Plus, the hunting is unsurpassed; conch are everywhere and fish and lobster are so plentiful they cut in line in front of each other just for the privilege of impaling themselves on your spear. So by continuing to snorkel and scuba and hunt, both My Commodore and I are covered from head to toe with inflamed welts, white hydrocortisone ointment, and blotchy red bumps that make any contact other than ethereal a dream for the future. Local Belizeans at Glover's, a number of whom seem to be scratching a lot lately, say the symptoms disappear in five or six days, and total relief comes with the rains, because freshwater does for the Pico Pico what garlic and sunrise do for Vampires. They swim deep for their lives. So right now, as we sit below and scratch, smelling like artichoke leaves already dipped, we're beseeching the song gods to open the heavens, and Nina Simone is on the CD player singing "I think it's going to rain today."
You tell 'em, Nina.