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June 2013    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 28, No. 6   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Barracudas’ Nasty Bites

not only hands -- feet and faces, too

from the June, 2013 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

The diver-biting barracuda stories keep coming to us. Last year, we posted a couple of first-person stories about divers who got their hands bit by barracudas in popular Caribbean dive sites, such as Belize and Cozumel. Recent encounters have gotten worse.

In Negril, Jamaica, Rick Brine from Prince George, B.C. was in the middle of a three-week trip in April to celebrate his retirement. He was 10 minutes into his second dive when he saw a large barracuda with its mouth wide open, darting back and forth in the water. "It came close enough to me that I saw its eyes," Brine told the Prince George Citizen. "We all turned around and watched it veer off. "

Minutes later, while Brine was at 50 feet, the barracuda attacked him, sinking its inch-long teeth into the back of Brine's head and cheek. "It felt like a baseball bat hitting my left temple and I thought, 'what the heck is that?' It knocked my regulator out and my mask was gone. I had a big pain on the back of my head. I found my regulator and got it back on my mouth and I was pretty sure I was bleeding. I saw all this green water around me and I couldn't figure out what it was. I yelled out my divemaster's name, hoping he would hear me, and he turned around. When I yelled his name again, I lost my regulator again and started holding my breath, but I know you're not supposed to hold your breath."

All Brine could think about was getting to the surface. "I knew I was bleeding, so I thought I'll either bleed out or do risk getting the bends and get the hell up there. I remember being out of air, and the surface was still another 10 or 15 feet, and I was thinking, 'Damn, I didn't make it.' All of a sudden I saw the emergency regulator and put it in my mouth and shot right up to the surface."

Bleeding profusely from head and cheek, Brine and the divemaster swam to shore and walked through the resort restaurant to the medical clinic. It took a half-hour for the bleeding to stop, then Brine was transported by ambulance to a hospital. He estimates the fish's mouth was about 10 inches wide. The upper jaw bit the back of his head and left four grooves from where the teeth raked his scalp. The lower jaw caught his cheek in a ripping motion, which left a gash shaped like the letter K. The wounds in both areas each required 12 stitches to close. The doctor found a tiny tooth fragment in one of the cuts. After losing about two liters of blood, Brine was about to leave the hospital but developed a stomachache and fainted. He spent another five hours in the emergency ward hooked up to an IV. He wanted to head back home but the doctor asked him to stay in Jamaica another week.

While Alex Thomson (Scarborough, UK) did not have a barracuda encounter while diving, he did so between dives, while enjoying the beach at Cancun with his family in early May. "We were on the beach of the Iberostar Paraiso Maya hotel, standing in three to four feet of water. My wife was holding my 11-yearold son, and he had his feet out behind her. She felt something tug her backwards, and when my son screamed, she looked round and saw a big silver fish and a pool of blood. When she screamed for help, I was on the sand and didn't realize what was happening. A lifeguard was pulling him out of the water, and I felt like my heart had been ripped out when I saw his right foot. The barracuda had bit through a toe bone and two tendons, and damaged two more tendons. He was in surgery for three hours and has about 60 stitches and a eight-inch-long steel pin through his foot. We couldn't fly home as planned because he needs to be kept on IV because of the exposed fracture and risk of infection. I've seen many barracuda in the Red Sea, Indian Ocean and the Caribbean, but never dreamed for a minute that this could happen in such shallow water."

Barracuda have a reputation as fierce predatory fish, but unprovoked attacks on divers are extremely rare. They have been known to follow snorkelers or divers but usually will not attack. What makes them so unpredictable is the randomness of these incidents, especially in clear water. Divers have been attacked when carrying speared fish, splashing around or while wearing flashy jewelry, but neither Brine nor Thomson's son were doing either. The lesson is, I suppose, while most divers have come to see barracuda as benign fish and don't give much thought to their potential threat, the smart diver will be wary. After all, with sharks disappearing, the barracuda is at the top of the food chain in warm waters.

- - Vanessa Richardson

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