Swimming with Barracuda

A Fish Story

I had a "fish adventure" in Rincon, Puerto Rico last week while I was snorkeling.....a classic kook job on my part. The surf went flat for a few days, really flat. No wind, no waves, incoming tide just bubbling up on the sandy beach. I needed entertainment and a little exercise, so I hit Tres Palmas for a nice leisurely dive. I lumped around in the shallows for half an hour playing tag with a cute little sea turtle. He tried to swim fast enough to just keep ahead of me, but with a little burst of kick I could catch up and stroke his back. He wasn't the slightest bit afraid and I got the impression that I wasn't his first pesty diver.

On the way back, I swam out to the edge of the reef where the water drops off to 20 meters or so. That's the zone to see anything big that happens to be cruising the coastline. I've seen big dorado out there, and even a tarpon or two. That day however I was befriended by a five foot long barracuda (Sphyraena)1 . We met about 20 feet down as I was ascending from a deep dive and he was ambling along the wall of the reef. We were suddenly and unexpectedly face to face, the Northgoing Zax meets the Southgoing Zax coming to a dead stop and rising slowly towards the surface together.

Now, as everyone knows, barracuda have a bad reputation among divers for being a little testy at times. They sometimes form groups called batteries and are known to attack fish as large as themselves in unpredictable lunging strikes. They can swim almost 90 klicks per hour and they have teeth that you don't want to see pointed at you.

But a single barracuda in clear water staring down a grouchy old man like me is likely to just give it a pass in favor of a less stressful lunch. So I wasn't afraid, mostly just curious and a little jazzed at the opportunity to snap a cool pic with my sweet little waterproof digital camera. When I got to the surface, he was still a few meters up current from me, just hanging out and hovering. I powered up the camera and started breathing for a long deep dive. I reckoned I'd chase that rascal if I had to, just get that pic!

The other thing that everyone knows about barracuda, is that they are really attracted to shiny metal objects. Fishermen often use a silver metal spoon lure when they fish for barracuda, and divers are warned against shiny stainless steel diving watches or large diamond rings when they are around. I'm a prudent diver and I made a point of looking down to check my crappy old Timex Expedition wrist watch. No problem there, just olive drab plastic and a nylon band. My wedding band is gold and old, just like me. Check, check. As I sucked in an enormous breath and headed down to party with my new pal, I felt  a vague twinge of apprehension prickle my neck.

That barracuda was just sitting there about four meters below me, watching and waiting, plotting his next move. I kicked right up to him and hoisted my camera right in his face. My shiny....little....silver....camera, positioned a foot or so away from his pointy snout. Bad idea. Serious error in judgment. Total kook job. I clicked off a pic before I even realized what was going down and luckily it was a total beauty. The head of the barracuda filled the whole frame of the camera, and just as I snapped, he opened his long narrow jaw exposing the most wicked set of pointy snaggly fangs I've ever seen up close. Like some computer generated dinosaur fishy in Avatar. It was a good thing that the first pic was such a perfect set up because I wasn't going to get a chance for a second one.

About the time I wrapped my dim wits around the fact that I was dangling a shiny metal lure in front of a hungry and irritable-looking barracuda, he closed his mouth again and I got an almost telepathic premonition that I was being hunted. I thought about dropping the camera, but it was tied to my wrist so I held it out to my side and slowly moved it around my back as I started rising to the surface. The fish didn't take his eye off me for a second and he was positioned below me to strike and any spot from my belly to my head, especially with one arm locked behind me.

I think it's the adrenalin that can cause time to slow down when you are in a particularly intense situation. I've felt it while surfing, and I was certainly feeling it at that moment. The brief seconds that it took for me to bob to the surface and slowly begin to put some distance between myself and those teeth passed very slowly. I was able to swim away toward the shallows of the reef, while still watching him beneath me. He kept facing me, opening and closing his jaw, considering his options. Finally, in an astonishing burst of speed he was gone, to the bottom of the ledge and then off into the deep blue. Poof.

I don't think I was really in any danger, and it woulda been worth it anyway as a great fish story. The whole experience happened so quickly and intensely that I needed a few minutes just to get a bead on it. I forgot to even review the pictures until I was already back in the car, ready to head home. Whew, close call. So it goes.

Oh yeah, you're prolly wondering about that picture aren't you? Thinking of those Icthyosaurus dino choppers poised to lunge and rip the proverbial pound of your soft juicy flesh? Well, I hate to disappoint you but the damned shot was out of focus and the lighting was bad and I didn't think to set the camera's underwater presets... So it goes. I've included it though just so you won't think I'm pulling your leg.

Saludos y pesetas, y tiempo para gustarlo,




1 More on the fearsome Cuda:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barracuda