Eagle Ray Divers guest Juanita Cerf poses an arithmetic question to Bernie the Nassau grouper on Blacktip Island’s Hammerhead Reef Thursday. (photo courtesy of Grady Cerf)
A Blacktip Island divemaster has taught a Nassau grouper to do basic arithmetic to entertain dive guests, the Caribbean island’s Eagle Ray Cove resort announced Wednesday.
“Gage Hoase’d been messing with that grouper at Hammerhead Reef for ages. Bernie, the one who likes to be petted,” Eagle Ray Divers operations manager Ger Latner said. “We had no idea what Gage was up to until he had the fish add and subtract for guests during a dive.
“Nassaus are smart, on the fish scale, but this blew us away,” Latner said. “Divers can ask Bernie math questions, and the damn fish’ll answer back. Correctly. Our boats are packed, and we’re diving Hammerhead two, three times a day.”
Hoase said Bernie’s skill came about by chance.
“He’s a friendly fish, always interested in what I was doing,” he said. “One day I was counting divers on my fingers and I noticed him bobbing his head in time with my counting.
“I held up four fingers on each hand and he nodded eight times,” Hoase said. “From there it was a natural jump to writing math problems for him on an underwater slate.”
Dive guests raved about their encounters.
“I asked Bernie what seven plus nine was and that little dickens answered right!” said Eagle Ray Cove guest Kenny Bloate. “He bobs his head for single digits and shakes it side-to-side for larger numbers: one shake and six nods equaled 16! They charge extra for the dive, but it’s worth it.”
Other divers were skeptical at first.
“I thought it was BS, then I put Bernie through his paces,” Juanita Cerf said. “I even gave him a problem with a negative number as the answer and he turned 180 degrees and counted it right out.”
The island’s scientific community remains dubious.
“We dived Hammerhead Reef without any Eagle Ray Dive staff present and found the fish to be curious, but otherwise untalented,” Tiperon University-Blacktip marine biology chair Goby Graysby said. “Our working hypothesis is Mr. Hoase is signaling to the fish.
“That’s not to say Gage’s work isn’t impressive,” Graysby added. “To train a grouper to respond to signals is unusual. But the fish can’t perform arithmetic.”
Hoase rebuffed Graysby’s claim.
“It’s a game for Bernie. If he doesn’t like you, he won’t play,” Hoase said. “And fish learning is more common that you think. A woman on Barbados taught a parrotfish to tell time. And a humphead wrasse in Palau can spell. In Latin and Cryrillic scripts. It’s working on kanji characters, too, but so far is only up to emojis.
“The next step for Bernie is quadratic equations,” Hoase said. “He understands them, but we haven’t worked out a system for him to communicate anything like ‘x=y+2’. It’ll probably involve barrel sponges.”