August 10, 2010

Barracuda in the Mexican Caribbean

Great BarracudaThere is something quite sinister about things with teeth in the ocean. It's a consideration that is particularly keen when you're immersed in said ocean, wearing only a swimsuit and a snorkel mask. Suddenly any shape, half glimpsed from the corner of your eye, is a shark. You turn quickly and face it head on. It's a bit of coral. You try to still your thundering heart and resolve not to think of the 's' word. Then a second word creeps into your consciousness: barracuda.

The 1970s have a lot to answer for. After the global success of 'Jaws' (1975), it seemed that any company with a camera and an ocean was making a 'horror in the deep' movie. (We've already covered sharks in a previous blog.) In 1978, along came 'Barracuda'. Its opening scene had two divers devoured by a battery of barracuda. The sea around them turns red with blood. The camera follows a severed hand rising to the surface. Screams abound. Scary stuff.

It's only as the movie progresses that we discover that chemicals have been released into the ocean. Their pollutants cause aggression in everyone and everything that drinks it. Its exposure to this that has the barracuda riled to the tips of their fins. Mutant barracuda, in fact, not natural behaviour at all. But by then, who cares? All that's crept into the cultural mindset are the over-riding facts: barracuda live in the ocean; they have teeth; they will eat you. This naturally gives people pause, when they learn that the Mexican Caribbean is home to barracuda.

There was also a 1997 film called 'Barracuda', but that was a 'Misery' rip-off and didn't involve fish.

Reversing out of the theaters, it's time to look at the reality of these much maligned creatures. First of all, it's worth noting that there are 27 different species of barracuda; yet only one, the Great Barracuda, has been reported to attack humans. Yes, the Great Barracuda does live in the Mexican Caribbean.

However, these attacks are rare. Prof Donald Perrin de Sylva (University of Miami), the world's leading authority on the Great Barracuda, stated that there have been only 25 confirmed cases in the past century. They have usually got a good cause attached to them though. Either the person attacked was attempting to spear the barracuda with a harpoon at the time; or else they were swimming in murky waters, whilst wearing shiny jewelry. In short, their jewelry looked like a tasty fish and, therefore, dinner.

Right there is your big 'surviving an encounter with a barracuda' tip. Don't swim in murky waters (easy to achieve in the crystal clear Caribbean, as long as you avoid the mangrove estuaries); and ensure that you remove shiny jewelry if you want to enter such places. (If the barracuda can see you clearly, then you could be bedecked with all the Mexican gold in the country and they won't attack. They will clearly see that you're not a fish.) Also, unless you're aiming for a Darwin Award, don't attempt to harpoon them whilst standing two feet away. If you do see one, then keep calm and don't make lots of jerky movements. Just back away, carefully and precisely, so that you both can go about your day.

Most unexpected meetings are similiar to that experienced by blogger, Mellasview, in her 'What to do if you see a Barracuda in the Water':

Great Barracuda

'...seeing this spectacular predator in the water, as stiff as a board was by far the most awesome sight I saw while vacationing. It had a mysterious power to it, and was the only fish I saw that seemed to sit so still that it looked frozen. Like a hummingbird, it was quite a beautiful, yet mysterious sight to see.'

In this case, Mellasview was swimming when she noticed the Great Barracuda just three feet away. She was wearing a shiny bracelet at the time. She covered that up and backed away slowly. The Great Barracuda did not attack.

Human beings are not the prey of the Great Barracuda. They prefer fish. However, they can be intensely curious about us. Many a diver has spotted a barracuda, just lying stationary in the ocean, watching him/her. One of the major theories is that humans often equate disturbed fish, especically when the anglers are around, which is another way of saying 'buffet time!' to the barracuda. 99% of the time, they will just watch, then go away. Or watch, then swim closer to see better, then go away.

Many of the businesses in the Riviera Maya rely upon taking tourists out to sea. The snorkeling trips, the boat trips, the fishing trips, the diving trips and dozens of others, all involve taking human beings deep into barracuda territory. It's estimated that over 566,000 people have entered the Caribbean Sea, around Cancún alone, every year. Yet the local and international media remains resolutely unsaturated with barracuda attack stories. These attractions would soon close down, if the tourists were regularly bitten.

Incidentally, I should pause at this point to emphasize 'bitten'. Barracuda don't kill human beings (unless through food poisoning, after a meal of them turned out to contain ciguatera). Even the most ferocious barracuda attacks on record simply required a bit of surgery or some stitches. They move with lightning speed, take one bite, then disappear off into the ether. As soon as the victims know that it's happened, it's already over bar the hospital visit. And again, let's restate that 25 cases in 100 years (globally) statistic.

The sports fishing community often have more trouble. But it's not themselves who are the targets. It's their catch.

Barracuda will quite happily surround a fishing boat, waiting for their meal to be lured onto the hook. Then they hurry in for a feast and leave just the head for the bemused fishing folk to pose with. If it's the wily barracuda itself that's been hooked, then you get the infamous reports of it flying through the air, onto the boat, then back off into the ocean. It's simply removing the hook from its own mouth and is clever enough to know that upwards is the way to do it.

In conclusion, yes, there are barracuda here. But you're highly unlikely to be attacked by them. Happy swimming!


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