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Droning From the Deep Puts Sausalito in a Festive Frenzy

Times Staff Writer

The constant loud, droning sounds not only kept houseboat-living Sausalitans awake at night--it was also driving them crazy.

But once the mystery of the engine-like sound was solved, Sausalitans decided to welcome the culprits--bulging-eyed, bubble-lipped humming toadfish that swim in Richardson Bay--with an annual Humming Toadfish Festival.

On Sunday afternoon, the bay town threw its second annual celebration for the toadfish, celebrating with revelers costumed as sea monsters and clowns and prancing horses and dancing fish--and all playing lustily on kazoos.

“We figured if we can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” said newly crowned Toadfish King Phil Frank, a cartoonist. Frank’s crowning was accompanied by the drone of kazoos--the sound that residents say best approximates the mating hum of the toadfish. He then led the costumed revelers in a parade around the dock as they kazooed to strains of “Yes, We Have No Bananas” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

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The festival started a year ago after frustrated, sleepless residents demanded to know the source of their summer torment. The noise, which some likened to the sound of B-52 bombers, usually starts after dusk and lasts for several hours, sometimes until 2 or 3 a.m. Earplugs are no help.

Residents at first advanced a number of theories about the noise, which 17-year resident Frank lampooned in his comic strip. The first was that the CIA was pumping nerve gas into the bay. The second was that a Japanese ship loaded with electric massagers sank in the bay’s waters and lost its cargo. And the third, in Frank’s words: “The Sausalito City Council was humming into storm drains with the interest of driving the houseboat owners wackier than they already were.”

A phone call to John McCosker, director of the Steinhart Aquarium, led to the discovery that the noise was not man-made. It seems that every summer sometime in June, the humming toadfish migrate to Richardson Bay and emit the humming noise during their two- to three-month mating season. The sound particularly reverberates through the cement foundations of the bay’s houseboats.

Although McCosker said the residents at first refused to believe that an 8-inch-long fish could create so much noise, he demonstrated otherwise. One evening, McCosker took a boat into the bay where the noise emanated and threw a net into the water.

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“We pulled up the net and it contained a lot of mud, some junk thrown away from a houseboat and a humming toadfish that looked quite surprised,” said McCosker, who also served as first Toadfish King.

Now that the residents are no longer skeptical, they use the toadfish’s arrival as an excuse to play kazoos, eat hot dogs and drink beer, and raise money for local environmental groups. Festival founder Suzanne Simpson said she expected about 5,000 people at this year’s celebration.

“It’s just a goof,” said resident Joe Troise of the festival. “The toadfish is the perfect thing for Sausalito. It’s eccentric, it’s peculiar, it’s off the wall.”


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