Barracuda attacks on humans, including completely unprovoked ones, are far more common than recognized. After an unprovoked barracuda attack amputated my left little finger and the side of my hand in Cozumel, DAN saved my life. No diver should be without DAN coverage!
I was on a dive boat in Cozumel run by one of the largest and oldest dive shops there. I’m not identifying them at the request of the owner, who does not want bad publicity driving off business. Although he had no blame whatsoever for the incident, he proved to be a real friend in need and his staff’s immediate action wrapping the wound and getting me immediately to shore saved me from much worse consequences. It was August 6, 2004. I had just done a deep dive filming the ecology of the Palancar wall with my long time Panamanian colleague Gabriel Despaigne and we were on one hour surface interval in waters about 20 feet deep at San Francisco. My 13 year old daughter, Marina, who was about to do her open water qualifying dive just after the surface interval, wanted to snorkel beforehand, so we jumped right into the water to see the shallow reef from above while everyone else had lunch.
We soon saw a very large barracuda, 5-6 feet long, lying on the bottom. We stayed above it for about 10 minutes watching it. It never moved, but was certainly aware of us. What was really unusual about this barracuda, other than its size, was that the back was a very distinctive and unusual pale creamy yellow color, something I had never seen before. I’ve since made many enquiries and while some juvenile barracuda, especially populations in the Gulf of Thailand, have yellow tailfins, no one has ever reported an adult with yellow coloration. Jack Randall, the world’s top expert on coral reef fish and an old family friend, said he had never seen or heard of one. This barracuda did not even twitch, and after a while we go bored and headed on to see more of the reef.
I noticed that my daughter had drifted about 10 or 15 feet away, and started to swim towards her. At that point there was stunning blow to my hand, but I never saw what hit me. It struck me that I must have hit a boat with my hand even though there was none near by, as the dive boat had drifted away while we were watching the barracuda. I lifted my hand out of the water and blood was pouring from it. My daughter said it was the barracuda that had attacked me. We began yelling as loud as we could, but the boat was about a quarter of a mile away; everybody was having lunch, and it took a long time- seemingly forever, before they took notice. I was afraid that the blood in the water would attract another attack and held my hand as high out of the water as I could. I never saw the finger again and imagine the barracuda ate it or spat it out when it turned out not to be fishy enough.
I never saw the attack, but Marina, who was facing me saw the entire thing. She said that the barracuda charged me from the bottom with its mouth open and that we both disappeared in a cloud of bubbles. She saw the barracuda charge me two more times in very rapid succession, each time seeing me vanish in cloud of bubbles, but I am certain that it only bit me once. She thought that the barracuda seemed to pass right through me and was sure I was dead. I don’t think anyone else in the world has ever witnessed such an attack on a human. Barracudas often have a stereotypical triple strike behavior. People seeing barracudas attack fish often see the barracuda first bite right through the middle of large fish, then lunge twice more to gobble down the head and tail. So perhaps the three strikes Marina saw was just pure instinct.
It was only when I was on the boat that I realized that it was not just a bite wound, my little finger and the side of my hand were completely gone, and the bone stuck out of raw flesh. It barely hurt, perhaps because barracuda teeth are so sharp that they deliver very clean cuts. My daughter was crying because the wound looked so ugly and she realized I would be handicapped for the rest of my life. I tried to console her as the crew bandaged my hand, saying it was nothing, just one of those things and I would be fine.
The dive boat, having a full load of paying customers for the next dive, arranged for me to be taken to shore by a small boat, where my daughter and I walked to the road and had to hitch hike to get to town. The dive shop gave me the directions to the DAN Center in Cozumel. The DAN emergency staff member on duty immediately recognized me; I had dived with him years before and advised him on possible research topics for pursuing an advanced degree in marine biology. I was in the hands of trusted friends who did all they could.
They immediately got to me to the emergency room where they injected me with a local anesthetic, pulled off the bandage, and very carefully cleaned the wound and sterilized it with hydrogen peroxide. I had to spend that night in the hospital on intravenous antibiotics, and by dawn the next morning DAN had sent a special plane with trained staff to evacuate me (and my daughter) to Miami for surgery.
The surgeon came quickly to inspect the wound. He was Dr. Eduardo Gonzalez-Hernandez, a Mexican, from the Miami Hand Center, whom I can unreservedly recommend. He immediately opened the bandages, expecting that the wound had become infected and that he would have to do an operation first just to clean the wound out before he could get down to surgery. But to his astonishment the DAN doctors in Cozumel had done such a great job and DAN had evacuated me so quickly that the wound was completely sterile. However, a very tricky and unusual operation followed. My little finger was gone and I had come within about a millimeter of losing the next finger as well. By an astonishing stroke of luck the bite had just missed the tendon so I was able to move all remaining fingers as normally as possible in the circumstances. But cuts from the outer teeth (Barracudas have a couple rows of teeth) running the whole length of that finger showed that had it gotten me an inch or so further over I would have lost all my fingers. The nerve to that finger had been severed, so I had lost all feeling of touch in that finger, but it gradually recovered over the following years as the nerves re-grew.
The surgery involved several steps. First he cut out a piece of skin from my left forearm large enough to cover the wound on the hand, and then tunneled this skin with all the nerves and blood vessels attached underneath the skin to site. This was done so that it would heal as fast as possible. This operation is so rare that my surgeon wanted to write an article on it in a surgical journal, and while I was undergoing physical therapy at Mass General Hospital they would bring surgical students doing rounds over to look at my hand, because they had never seen an operation like that. He then cut a piece of skin off my left thigh and used that to cover the skin removed from my forearm. So now I have a patch of brown skin with hair on my palm, and my thigh skin is on my forearm, so I’m built upside down! But I have full use of the hand, and most people don’t even notice that I’m digitally impaired.
I was exceptionally lucky for giving a barracuda the finger: I healed completely and suffered no real trauma from the attack other than lost work time from being a hospital patient for the first time in my life. I got right back to work as quickly as possible, and saw barracudas on my next dive in Cozumel as soon as I could get back into the water to complete the aborted project. Despite losing a finger, my typing speed is as fast as always, to my surprise.
But my poor daughter suffered for years, blaming herself for the accident (she felt we would not have gone snorkeling in the surface interval if she had not specifically asked to). Although she missed her certification dive (she has since completed it), she is now getting degrees in Environmental Science from a top university (Brandeis), setting up chemical management programs in New England schools with the US Environmental Protection Agency, and has set up children’s education programs to bring masks, fins and snorkels to very poor fishing communities in Panama and the Philippines where the kids swim like fish but are too poor to have masks and see and learn about what surrounds them. It is important to realize that the worst psychological impacts are not necessarily to those actually injured!
What of the barracuda who attacked me? This barracuda is very well known to local divers, as it has frequented the same nearby reefs for many years. Photos of it sent to me a couple years later by a colleague working on sponges do not show any yellow color on its back. This barracuda has a long history of being menacing or aggressive towards divers. One friend of mine, a Mexican dive operator in Cozumel who must remain anonymous for reasons explained below, told me that he was once diving with a customer, an underwater photographer from New York, and the same barracuda twice swam at her for no reason (she was lying still on the bottom composing macro shots) and butted her full force with his head, but luckily with his mouth closed, so he caused a bruise, not a cut. I have never heard of such behavior described elsewhere.
After the incident the local divers joked that this barracuda had a signed contract on me from the Cozumel Marine Park. I first came to Cozumel in the late 90s with photos of the reef from 1968, and sought out the oldest divers, who were in the photos I brought back. they could identify every location, even if mislabeled on the captions, and tell me which of the corals, sponges, and gorgonians shown were still alive. I have the world’s largest collection of coral reef photos from the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s (my grandfather and father were pretty much the only people in the world doing that in those days), so documenting long term change in coral reefs is one of my specialties. As a result the local divers asked me to explain to them why their reefs were deteriorating.
About a year before the barracuda attack the local divers complained that some reefs were being smothered with algae for the first time. I know the nutrient ecology of the coral reef algae very well from a lifetime of observations, and am one of the few people who knows how to read their spatial distribution and abundance to pinpoint nutrient sources. I was very quickly able to find the source of the nutrients as coming from a captive dolphin pen inside the marine park. Masses of algae typical of sewage outfalls covered the down current side of the enclosure, and were killing coral reefs up to a kilometer down current, but were completely absent from areas just up-current of the dolphin enclosure. I made a documentary film showing the impacts there, at another dolphinarium in Isla Mujeres, Mexico, and at the Turtle Farm in Grand Cayman, to point out that if such small and local sources could produce such impacts, that of human sewage was vastly worse. You can see the film at:
The response of the Marine Park was immediate. It seemed that they preferred to “shoot the messenger” and would rather protect coral killers than protect corals. They denied there was any problem, told the press that I knew nothing about corals or algae or water quality (all issues on which I have many scientific publications) and that I was some sort of trouble maker trying to destroy their tourist industry. The head of the Cancun Isla Mujeres National Marine Park told me that I was not allowed to discuss my observations as this was “a political matter, not a scientific one”. When I insisted that there was a real problem that needed to be addressed, they cancelled all my projects restoring coral reefs in the marine parks that had run for around 7 years.
But far from merely joking about the barracuda having a contract from the Marine Park, I later learned that the local divers actually blamed the Marine Park for the attack itself. It is against Mexican Federal law to feed any animals in the Marine Parks, however local divers said that the management of the Marine Park would habitually take important visitors out in boats to this site and throw meat to the very same barracuda that attacked me, in order to impress their guests. That is to say, this is a barracuda that had been habituated to food handouts from the very people supposed to prevent that from happening. But they all said that if they were asked they would be forced to lie, because if they told the truth they would immediately lose their licenses to operate. As a side note, many or most of the dolphins had been imported from the Solomon Islands, in clear violation of another Mexican Federal law banning the introduction of any exotic species into National Marine Parks. But these laws were ignored because of the large revenues the marine parks get from licensing their waters to captive dolphin operators.
Every shark attack makes headline news around the world, but no barracuda attack ever does, largely because they are widely claimed never to happen. Mine did not even make the local newspapers in Cozumel, despite the fact that they are desperate for anything to publish, and the word of what had happened immediately circulated through all the many dive shops in what is the world’s number one dive destination.
I have swum with barracudas all my life (I’ve been swimming in reefs all over the world since I could walk and have dived with tanks for 54 years). I have never been afraid of them, and until my own attack I was one of those who adamantly maintained that there were no known unprovoked barracuda attacks. When I was a small boy in Jamaica they were much more abundant than now (people systematically over-fish them even though they it gives them ciguatera), and they would swim with my brothers and me almost every time we snorkeled in the reef. I’ve always known that there could be no protection against them if they chose to attack you. When they go after a fish there is just a flash and a whirring noise because they move so fast you can’t actually see the attack, just the remnants of the fish head and tail floating afterwards and a barracuda gulping the center part down. They would swim alongside me, maintaining a fixed distance. If you stopped, they stopped. What I always found amazing is that one would be swimming along on one side of you, there would be a sudden flash, the barracuda instantly vanished, and suddenly it was swimming along at the same distance on the OTHER side of you! Sometimes they would do this several times, as if for fun or just to let you know that you had no hope whatsoever of avoiding them if they wanted to get you. But they never did, so I respected them and never tried to menace or provoke them.
After my attack I received close to a hundred personal descriptions of unprovoked attacks and near attacks by barracudas. Almost all of these were on a computer that was fried when a power transformer in my neighborhood exploded, and although I paid a fortune to save data on the hard drive, these are on a pile of discs that I am not sure I can access. These do not include attacks on spearfishermen, who are hundreds of times more likely to be attacked by barracudas (or sharks) going after their catch on the end of their spear, or that they are holding in their hand, or towing on a string. Or people who spear barracudas and miss them or make a glancing blow, and it turns on them. One spearfisherman I know in Port Antonio, Jamaica, named Georgie, was bitten three times by barracudas in separate incidents, but he was holding a dying fish every time. I have never even tried to kill a fish in my life; I prefer to watch them alive underwater.
Nor does the other usual “explanation”, glittery jewelry or watches, apply in my case. I have never had a piece of jewelry in my life, and my watch was entirely black, with the scratched glass face pointing upward. I have had many descriptions sent to me of people who were bitten around glittery necklaces, bracelets, finger rings, and mask reflections, or of barracudas that charged these objects and suddenly stopped just short of biting, sometimes only an inch or so away. I personally know two people, one a hotel employee in the Maldives, and the other a submarine engineer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who jumped in the water and were immediately bitten by barracudas. Perhaps it was the splash and light reflecting off the bubbles. The WHOI Engineer, who is nameless here to preserve his dignity, jumped straight back into the boat with a tiny foot long barracuda hanging from his butt, and still has the hole to prove it, but is reluctant to show it!
My late colleague, Don de Sylva, wrote the only book ever written on barracudas, Systematics and Life History of the Great Barracuda, published in 1970. Don told me that he had looked hard, but never heard of a case of an “unprovoked” attack, that is to say one without an “obvious” possible cause, usually spearfishermen or people swimming with glittery personal ornaments, splashing at the surface, in turbid water, or when it was almost dark. In his book chapter on barracuda attacks he lists only 29 attacks, going back to the 1600s, many or most of them told to him by his fishing buddies in Florida and the Bahamas. It is clear from the reports I have gotten that this is a severe underestimate, and that they are far more frequent than realized. See our presentation at the 2005 Association of Marine Laboratories of the Caribbean Conference in Curacao:
There is no doubt that diver’s behavior can provoke attacks. One old friend of mine from Jamaica, Phillip Motta, is a leading academic expert on reef fish behavior. He told me that he was once wiggling his fingers with his palm facing forward, and a barracuda got very excited and prepared to charge him until he realized. The barracuda attack victim just before me, Paul Herring (no kidding, but he’s no shiny little fish!) was diving at night in the Bay Islands when the group was taking a safety stop on the bottom, grouped in a circle. A large barracuda seemed fascinated by the dive master’s light shining on it, and starting getting very agitated, so the dive master switched it off. Immediately the barracuda attacked Paul’s mask face on. It was unable to bite through the glass of the mask, but it knocked him unconscious and severed arteries in his nose and forehead, although he was fortunate to be saved by his buddies, and was lucky also to have DAN coverage, but the front of his face was pushed in by the impact and he needed many operations to recover.
The most horrifying barracuda attack story I’ve heard was on such good authority that it bears repetition. It was told to me by the Dive Master at the College of the Virgin Islands Marine Laboratory. He had taken a DAN course on decompression chamber operations in St. Thomas, and the lecturers had included a standard lecture on dangerous marine organisms. They had shown photos of the usual known possible hazards like sharks, sting rays, moray eels, fire worms, long spined black sea urchins, etc., and ended with a barracuda. Then they said that the last one was just a joke to see if people were awake, there was not a single known case of an unprovoked barracuda attack, so this was not a real problem at all! At that point a medical doctor taking the course raised his hand, and excuse me, that isn’t really correct”. He then described an incident some years before in which two divers had traditionally dived at the same location every week, and would bring food to feed a large friendly barracuda that frequented the site. One day they dived at the usual location in their usual dive suits, and their finny friend was waiting for his handout, but they had forgotten to bring it. The first diver held his empty palms in front of him to indicate, “sorry big boy, no food for you today”. The barracuda bit both of his hands off. The second diver hugged his hands under his armpits to protect himself, and the barracuda bit and savaged both of his forearms so that they “looked like meat that had been through a grinder”. The person telling this story to the class ended by saying that “I was the physician who had treated them both afterwards”.
What is the lesson from all of this? Other than recommending all divers to keep their DAN coverage, I’m not really sure, in that we really have no way to predict if and when an attack will take place, only a number of possible correlative factors that may, or may not, have really been causes. Don de Sylva’s advice 40 years ago, not to swim in murky water under poor light conditions, splashing around while wearing flashy jewelry, seems the best we can do. Spearfishermen should be aware of the possibility of attack, and that the risk is their own choice. But we should NOT automatically assume that barracudas never attack without provocation, and treat them with respect. Avoidance may be the best advice, but many people do go right up to them with the traditional “knowledge” that they are harmless. The (nameless) owner of the dive boat I was diving off in Cozumel described to me in the hospital that night an incident in his early days when a Canadian diver went over the side and jumped right back out saying “There’s a huge barracuda down there!” The dive master immediately picked him up and threw him over the OTHER side of the boat, yelling “Barracudas NEVER attack people”. What makes it so unpredictable is the seeming randomness of these incidents. People swim with barracudas all the time and are not attacked. I have watched one fellow swim rapid laps in Cozumel regularly right above a large barracuda, and it ignores him totally. I am the only person known to have been attacked in Cozumel, even though, as the world’s top dive destination, the waters are full of people splashing away at all hours, with shiny jewelry on their fingers, necks, wrists, toes, ankles, navels, and other body parts, and have never been attacked, while I, with none of those attractions, was……
Thomas J. Goreau, PhD, is the president or the Global Coral Reef Alliance
A non-profit organization for protection and sustainable management of coral reefs
Coral Reef Alliance, 37 Pleasant Street, Cambridge, MA 02139, USA
E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Web site: http://www.globalcoral.org