MIDDLEBURG, Fla. — When Hurricane Irma hit the First Coast region in September of 2017, Joel Irish estimates that Black Creek, which runs behind his home, rose about 24 feet above its typical level.
Joel and his wife Laura had a menagerie of pets to think about – three dogs, a cat, hens, and a manmade miniature pond containing a turtle and 17 koi fish.
“Part of our prep was to put a net over my koi pond,” Laura told First Coast News two weeks after Irma’s wrath.
But the net didn’t work; the turtle and all 17 koi fish floated away forever. All but one, that is.
Against inexplicable odds, one of the koi – which Laura had named Dreamsicle because of its orange-and-white colorings – was found a few days after the storm in a neighbor’s swimming pool. But this neighbor wasn’t next door, it was a home at least one-third of a mile away. It was also at a higher elevation and, separated from the Irishes’ home almost entirely by thick woods. In this rural part of Middleburg, it’s hard to imagine the fish surviving, let alone being found.
“It’s pretty incredible that the fish ended up there, to begin with,” Joel considered in a much more recent interview. “Out in front of here is all swampland with water that it could have ended up in,” he continued, gesturing in one direction. “Could have ended up in Black Creek,” he also reckoned. “Ended up in a swimming pool about a half a mile away, which is pretty astonishing.”
Sharri and Josh Pruitt made the discovery in the midst of tallying the heavy toll Irma took on their home.
“The guy that did our roof inspection – he was up there, and he was like ‘You guys know you have a koi in your pool?!’,” Sharri said.
In a cruel irony, as Dreamsicle nestled itself in, the Pruitts were displaced from their home for 15 months.
“The water got up six feet in our garage, three feet throughout the house,” Sharri recalled.
As it would turn out, finding the fish – as unlikely as that was – proved much easier than actually retrieving it and bringing it home.
“We had somebody in the water, trying to get it with a pool net,” Laura Irish narrated in 2017. “We had somebody cast netting.”
“I think that went on about a month or more, of trying to capture it,” her husband recalled more recently.
The Irishes' even had a team of student researchers visit from the University of Florida. But it was all to no avail. Dreamsicle cloistered itself almost exclusively to the deep end of the in-ground pool, in water as opaque as any natural pond. Any time it could be coaxed to the less turbid shallow end, the fish eluded the grasp of anyone who tried to grab it. The pool couldn’t be safely drained because of concern about pressure from a subterranean artesian well, leaving only the rod-and-reel method.
“I wasn’t a fan of that [idea],” Joel said. “I used to fish, growing up, and I would never have been able to lived down if we’d have hooked [the fish] and it swallowed the hook and it died that way.”
As weeks turned to months, and with the Pruitts’ hands full with raising young children in a trailer while fixing their home, there was little to do.
“Laura would go over and throw food in the pool, and then after a while, it was kind of like, ‘Well, we hadn’t seen it in quite some time’,” Joel described.
Even the Pruitts – who saw at least one snake in the pool – was unsure after a while.
“We were feeding [the fish] and then it just didn’t show up anymore,” Sharri said, “and so we didn’t know if maybe it didn’t make it.”
But, 26 months after Irma and about a year after the Pruitts were able to move back into their home, they were finally able to safely empty their swimming pool.
Lo and behold, Dreamsicle was still alive and well.
“I guess there was one bream and there and several tadpoles, so we don’t know what he thrived on,” Joel Irish surmised, “but he managed to make it two years in a pool.”
That gender reference – “he” – was yet another twist in a crazy fish tale: when Laura had named the fish Dreamsicle, she had assumed her precious koi was female.
“The pond guy recognized it was a male,” Joel explained, “so it’s since been renamed, Nemo!”
As in “Finding Nemo”.
In a swimming pool drained to ankle depth, finding – and netting – Nemo wasn’t so hard.
“The guy was able to scoop it up with a bucket and put it right in there, and I called Mr. Irish right away,” Sharri said.
And although the Artist Formerly Known as Dreamsicle needed a quarantine period in the Laura and Joel’s hot tub – yet another bit of comedy added to irony on top of impossible odds – is now back in his home pond, surrounded by a dozen or more new fishy friends.
“Immediately he was part of the gang!” Joel said.
Like a new family to Nemo, and an ordeal that brought two families closer together.
“This kind of makes you guys in-laws, though,” I posited in my interview with Joel Irish.
“It does now,” he volleyed, “we had shared custody for about two years!”
Sharri Pruitt agreed with a laugh.
“We have owned the same baby," she said.