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January 1997 Vol. 12, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Beware of Frightened Sailfish

from the January, 1997 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

It was a beautiful afternoon with clear skies and calm seas. We had already completed two good dives that morning and were motoring south when someone on board cried out, "Dolphins!" In the distance I saw a line of splashes. The "dolphins" soon turned out to be a pod of false killer whales on a hunt -- chasing sailfish.

For a human to witness such a pursuit is rare. In cruise director Mark Strickland's and divemaster Suzanne Strickland's nine years on the Fantasea, they had seen false killer whales hunting sailfish only once before. In that incident, the predators, after chasing their prey past the boat, later returned and presented Suzanne a trophy -- the pectoral fin of a sailfish.

Even rarer is to see such a battle under water. As a marine wildlife photographer, I regularly jump into the water to photograph large animals. Safety rarely becomes an issue; usually I can't even get close enough to take a photo, much less put myself in peril.

This time was different. I went into the water, moved cautiously into position, and waited with my camera. I was deliberately putting myself in harm's way, in a life-and-death struggle between animals that could injure or kill me in less than a shutter snap.

Suddenly, from the deep blue, one of the sailfish shot toward me, pursued closely by a false killer whale. Normally they would have shied away from me, but these creatures seemed oblivious to my presence. I snapped away at the terrified sailfish. His eyes were glazed over; he was in shock, spent, his movements erratic, not at all graceful. He was lunch, and he knew it.

Mustering all his remaining energy, the sailfish barely managed to evade the open mouth of the killer that was toying with him. I wondered what it would be like to see, first hand, his pursuer rip a chunk out of him. He turned sharply, just in front of me. I snapped a picture, looked at the long bill, and suddenly wondered: did the sailfish regard me as another threat?

I didn't get a chance to find out. I was ordered to leave the water. On the other side of the boat, other humans were involved in their own lifeand- death struggle. A woman in our group had slipped into the water to watch and take pictures. One of the sailfish must have felt threatened by her; he turned and charged. She could do little but ball up to protect her torso. The sailfish's bill entered the underside of her calf, went all the way through her leg, and penetrated her abdomen, perforating her colon.

Now we were in a race against the clock to get her to a hospital before peritonitis set in. Thanks to the quick actions of Mark and Suzanne and their crew, as well as the Fantasea's owner, we were able to get her to the hospital in Phuket in time for emergency surgery. She has since completely recovered, with just a few scars and a hell of a story to show for her ordeal.

For a sailfish to attack a human is almost unheard of. One scientist has documented 49 past instances of billfish bumping or impaling boats or other objects, but only one attack upon a human -- and that was probably a case of mistaken identity. But the lesson remains: animals in the wild are unpredictable and, when threatened, capable of almost anything. To enter their environment is to court the unexpected.

Chris Huss is a marine wildlife photographer based in Seattle. He leads dive photo trips all over the world and continues to jump into the water among dangerous creatures in hopes of being able to photograph them and write about the experience later. Interested in jumping in with him? Call 206-364-5080 for trip information.

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