Barracuda Behaving Badly
By Text and Photography By Geri Murphy
Barracuda are normally curious fish, relatively harmless to divers. Their ability to move at high speed sometimes makes it seem as if they materialize out of thin air and this can be quite startling to a new diver. One minute there is nothing but open water, the next, there is a Barracuda intently watching your every move.
Yet, when you attempt to approach the Barracuda, it slowly moves away, keeping a respectable distance between you and it. If pressed by the diver's steady advances, the Barracuda will generally swim away.
This is the way Barracuda normally behave but every now and then divers encounter uncharacteristic sudden and aggressive behavior. In rare cases, divers have actually been attacked by Barracuda for no logical or apparent reason.
Fortunately, Barracuda attacks on divers are not fatal but the wound can be nasty and require stitches. Such attacks are usually a total surprise, devoid of terror. The fish is not attempting to eat you, so there must be something else going on here.
What is it that turns ordinarily peaceful Barracuda into psychopaths? What drives them crazy?
TYPES OF ATTACKS
For years, I have been collecting news clippings and letters from divers describing Barracuda attacks. And, in one case, I had the unfortunate experience of witnessing an attack at close range. It is indeed a chilling experience for this fish can move at lightning speed.
Barracuda attacks on divers and other humans seem to fall into three distinct categories; 1) provoked attacks; 2) accidental bites; and 3) unprovoked attacks.
There are numerous accounts of provoked attacks where divers were wounded after spearing a Barracuda. If the shot is either a miss or a superficial wound, the Barracuda will often turn and charge the diver; inflicting considerable damage. Such attacks are a matter of self-defense.
Accidental Barracuda bites generally occur during fish feeding sessions. Barracuda are normally gentle feeders but their behavior can change when the situation becomes competitive. When this happens, the Barracuda will move at a faster, more erratic pace. Sometimes it misses the food and hits the feeder's hand. The ensuing collision can result in a nasty gash.
It is the last category of unprovoked Barracuda attacks that provides a mystery not yet solved. Divers, minding their own business, are suddenly attacked by a Barracuda; for no apparent reason. Sometimes the Barracuda will demonstrate erratic behavior prior to the attack, sometimes not. What causes this inexplicable anti-social behavior?
Before you become too alarmed, I should point out that Barracuda attacks are quite rare. According to Barracuda expert Donald de Sylva, there have been fewer than 25 positively documented Barracuda attacks on humans during the last 100 years.
The number of attacks is extremely small when compared to the hundreds of attacks by sharks and divers encounter Barracuda much more frequently than sharks.
It is not so much that Barracuda attack humans as it is the peculiar manner in which these attacks sometimes occur. A good example is the summer of 1993. During July there were four separate Barracuda attacks in as many weeks. In each case the Barracuda skyrocketed out of the water and landed in a fishing boat, where it inflicted damage on both the boat and the occupants. On July 8, a man was cut on the arm when a Barracuda leaped into his boat. On July 9, a Barracuda leaped 15 feet into the air, landing in the cabin of a houseboat; on July 13, a Barracuda jumped into a fishing boat at night; and on July 30, another Barracuda vaulted out of the sea and crashed into a charter boat's ignition key, disabling the craft.
In August of the same year, a Florida dive boat captain reported a freak attack by a psychopathic Barracuda less than four feet long. The skipper had been spearfishing earlier in the day but there was no fish or blood in the water at the time of the assault. According to his account, the crazy Barracuda charged him with its mouth wide open, violently shaking its head and swimming straight at his face. At the last moment, the 'cuda swerved and hit him in the leg.
In most cases, the Barracuda shows no sign of agitation or distress prior to the assault. In most of the documented attacks, the Barracuda makes a single strike and then disappears. Why they do it, no one can say.
'CUDAS IN HOT WATER
Scientific research on the Barracuda is relatively sparse and much of it has been focused on ciguatera; a form of food poisoning that occurs from eating Barracuda. This family of fishes accumulates a toxin in its body as a result of eating smaller fish that graze on a blue-green algae. Since this toxin is virtually undetectable and affects hundreds of fish-eating islanders each year, you can understand why the scientists are so intent on this course of study.
My curiosity led me to an old book titled Systematics and Life History of the Great Barracuda, written by Donald P. de Sylva. It was published by the University of Miami's Institute of Marine Science in October 1963. The 180 page volume contains just about all of the basic information you could ever want on the Great Barracuda, Sphyraena barracuda.
What caught my eye in this voluminous collection of data was a chart that compared the spawning season of Barracuda with the water temperature and season.
Barracuda in the Miami and Florida Keys region apparently begin spawning in March or April and stop at the end of October. Spawning seems to correspond with water temperature. Barracuda cease spawning when the water temperature drops below 78 degree F. Most spawning occurs when water temperatures reach 86 degrees F.
Farther on in the same book, de Sylva documents a number of Barracuda attacks that occurred in the 1950s and 1960s. The dates listed seem to fit the pattern, beginning in May and ending in October. Most attacks seem to occur in July and August, when water temperatures often reach their peak.
As far back as 1959, Barracuda were reported leaping into fishing boats and biting the occupants. The incredible series of 1993 boat attacks is no mere coincidence. This insane behavior has been going on for decades.
Although we have documented that Barracuda can attack humans, we are not certain why. Could it just be a simple case of mistaken identity? Did the sudden glint of a diver's wristwatch or the flash of a fin set off a primeval mechanism for such attacks? Or is this odd behavior much more complex? Could it be that the increase in water temperature triggers the urge to spawn, which in turn causes the Barracuda to defend its territory? Are these bizarre attacks the bully behavior of a 'cuda defending its turf? Aggressive demonstrations during mating season are common among many animals, both on land and in the sea.
The sea is filled with riddles that remain unsolved and Barracuda behavior is certainly one of them. Here is an area that could certainly use a lot more study. At present we have no solid answers. If someone were to ask how they could avoid a possible Barracuda attack, it would be hard to come up with a reliable answer.
The only consoling fact is that Barracuda attacks are extremely rare; one in many millions. If you encounter a Barracuda acting strangely, it would be wise to carefully retreat from the area while avoiding any jerky motions with your feet or hands.