When I've led walks around Sussex, I've loved telling people stories about the amazing wildlife with whom we share our county. But there is one animal whose life story is just so astounding and preposterous that I’m sure people must think that I’m making it up.
Let me take you 3500 miles west to the wide Sargasso Sea, an area of the North Atlantic known to superstitious sailors (and Barry Manilow fans) as The Bermuda Triangle. Today the once mythical Sargasso is infamous for being the North Atlantic’s waste dump where surface currents deposit our non-degradable floating flotsam. But the Sargasso still holds one last mystery. Each year millions of transparent slithers- like a blizzard of tiny polythene leaves – rise from its depths. It’s almost as if the seaweed and the spirits of sunken sailors have merged with the PVC and plastic to create the leptocephali; the larval stage of the European Eel. These see-through seafarers go with the flow and slowly drift across the North Atlantic on a three-year Gulf Stream cruise.
Upon reaching Britain’s coastal waters their appearance changes. They are now wriggling transparent tubes with black eyes; ‘glass eels’. Riding the Rother, Ouse, Cuckmere, Arun and Adur they swim upstream. In these brackish waters their bodies darken; a tidal tan. They are now elvers. They finally make it to their Sussex holiday homes exchanging saltwater for freshwater in the myriad of streams and brooks that feed our county’s rivers. Yellow-bellied and small-eyed these are yellow eels and will holiday in Sussex's ponds and lakes for around 15 to 30 years. But, as with all holidays, the day comes when you have to return home. In the depths of the eel’s mind a primeval urge is awakened. The Sargasso is calling. Their bodies harden, their eyes widen, their stomachs shrivel and yellow eels become silver eels and start their epic journey home. Nothing gets in their way. Even dry land, traditionally an inconvenient barrier for a fish, does not stop them. On dark, wet nights the silver eels crawl out of the water, slithering snake-like across fields and back into the river system.
They’ll pass Rye, Shoreham, Exceat, Newhaven and Littlehampton and head out over the great Atlantic Shelf and into darkness. Here’s where the silver eels vanish. Exactly where they go is unknown. Yet each year the Sargasso will mysteriously spawn a new cloud of transparent tourists hellbent on holidaying in Sussex by the Sea.