By Larry Clinton, Sausalito Historical Society
Old-timers will remember the notorious humming toadfish that created such a ruckus in the floating homes community in the early 80s.
Back in July and August of 1981, a few houseboaters first began noticing reverberations through the hulls of their floating homes from sundown to sunup. The volume ranged from the sound of an electric shaver up to the level of an airplane engine at full throttle. When the noise returned in 1984, the drone became intolerable at higher volumes, especially for those with bedrooms at or below the water line in steel-reinforced concrete hulls. Other forms of flotation did not seem to pick up on the toadfish “vibe.”
Since this was during the Cold War, theories as to the cause of the problem ranged from secret government submarine projects to diesel generators, sound “leakage” from an electric cable, emanations from a nearby sewage plant, or even extraterrestrials on summer vacation!
Eventually John McCosker from San Francisco’s Steinhart Aquarium determined that the source could be biological. The search was finally narrowed to the humming toadfish (Porichthys notatus) aka Plainfin Midshipman (so named because the bioluminescent buttons on its ventral surface resemble those on a naval cadet’s jacket).
Male toadfish enter bays and harbors to mate in July and August. Once they find a suitable nesting spot, these eager bachelors summon likely mates by vibrating their gas bladders up to 150 times a second. The phenomenon has been documented as far back as the 1800s, so it must work, although these hand-sized critters, which look like the black sheep of the catfish family, clearly need all the help they can get in the dating game. Some years they cluster around rocks, other years on concrete houseboat hulls, much to the dismay of the residents.
The Sausalito toadfish story created a media shower in the mid-80s. The local papers had been reporting on the mystery for months, and CBS Evening News sent a crew along on one of McCosker’s trawling expeditions. Several other national radio and TV news shows picked up on this “only in Sausalito” story.
In a classic case of making lemonade from lemons, floating homes residents created a Humming Toadfish Festival, which drew hundreds of curiosity-seekers to Sausalito’s Bay Model. John McCosker served as Grand Marshall the first year, and Lappert’s even developed a toadfish flavored confection to sell at the site (it’s no longer on the menu). The festival also featured booths for environmental activists, a marching kazoo band, plus craft beer and sausage tastings – probably for the first time ever.
United Press International quoted the Festival organizers, Suzanne Simpson of Issaquah Dock and Suzanne Dunwell of Yellow Ferry Harbor. “'It's like a Chinese water torture,” said Ms. Dunwell. ‘As the night gets quieter, the humming gets louder,' Dunwell said. 'It may be the mating call of the toadfish, but it plays havoc with the sex lives of people living here’.”
UPI also reported: “McCosker said he's captured some of the odd-shaped fish for a display at the Steinhart Aquarium and at the Toadfish Festival being held at the Bay Model in Sausalito, where he'll begin the day-long event by leading a humming toadfish kazoo parade. Some 25 environmental groups and 16 microbreweries are participating in the event along with musicians, mimes, jugglers and comedians.
Once again, the national media jumped all over the story.
The L.A. Times reported: “once the mystery of the engine-like sound was solved, Sausalitans decided to welcome the culprits̶─bulging-eyed, bubble-lipped humming toadfish that swim in Richardson Bay─with an annual Humming Toadfish Festival.”
Across the country, the New York Times said: “It is not a community gone mad, but the high jinks of the Humming Toadfish Festival, which celebrates a fish so ugly it has been likened to a tadpole with a hormone problem. Part of the celebration is humans, dressed as fish and other fauna, imitating the call of the toadfish on kazoos.”
Even the landlocked Deseret News in Salt Lake City jumped on the festival bandwagon, when it covered the 1989 event: “Revelers dressed as sea monsters and playing kazoos held the second annual festival in honor of the humming toadfish, the underwater lovers who torment residents each summer with their rhapsodizing.
"’We figured if we can't beat 'em, join 'em,’ said newly crowned Toadfish King Phil Frank, a cartoonist whose coronation was accompanied by kazoo music, the sound residents say is most like the love sputters of the toadfish. Frank then led the dancing, leaping revelers along the dock Sunday as they played "Yes, We Have No Bananas" and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."
Alas, the festival was discontinued in 1990 when the fish took their act on the road, so to speak, returning only briefly to the floating homes community from then on.