Swimming with barracuda

Follow me on Twitter. And be sure to read my blog.

Let me tell you about swimming with barracuda. Barracuda are a gorgeous fish. Their appearance is famously fearsome, they are incredibly fast, and can grow to almost 6ft. in length.

Generally speaking men have little to fear from barracuda. It is wise to be cautious when swimming with them but so long as you follow a few rules, they’ll more than likely never do anything other then stare at you. (If looks could kill though, phew.)

On October 12th of this year, I broke all of those rules.

In the waters off a very small island in the Turks and Caicos Islands, a few stone throws away from Grand Turk itself, I was snorkeling during an excursion from our Bahamas cruise. I love snorkeling. I’m a decent swimmer. So naturally I was swimming nearly all by myself a few hundred feet offshore.

That is when I was greeted by the above barracuda. We’ll refer to him as Henry. Henry was far more curious of me than I was of him, I assure you. I usually take my waterproof camera with me when I’m snorkeling and having a barracuda nice and close (about 10ft. away) was nice for the shot I got above.

I went on my way. Further out into the ocean to a nearby cluster of coral to see what I could see, as they say. Henry followed. About those rules. General rules of thumb when snorkeling – no matter where you are in the world – is to not wear anything shiny that could attract predators. You see the sides of fish are also shiny. Fish, in general, have poor eye sight. So they need to get nice and close to see if whatever is shining in the water is their food. Or, if it is a wedding ring. In my case it was my wedding ring, my watch, and my camera that attracted Henry.

Besides poor eyesight fish have a fairly good sense of smell (especially predatory fish). Five minutes before I hopped into the water to snorkel I was feeding fish-bits to sting rays. So my hands, shorts, and whatever else touched the fish-bits smelled, no doubt, of Henry’s favorite meal.

So there I was, smelling like chum, shining from every extremity, 10ft from a hungry 4-5ft. barracuda that can reach speeds of up to 28mph in the water. I’m no good at math so we’ll just say that Henry could have closed the gap between us in about as long as it takes me to blink. And that he did, a few times.

The above image isn’t a great photograph but it gives you a fairly good idea of how close Henry got to me on several occasions. In the upper-left hand side of the photo you’ll notice Henry. Unfortunately this photograph does not give a very good idea of scale but the way I figure it, Henry was slightly longer than my leg from nose to tail fin.

I know this because Henry bit my flipper. I don’t have a photo of that moment because I was screaming like a little school girl who just scrapped her knee when chasing her boyfriend around the playground. Bloody. Murder. I was screaming to our "guide" at the time because I had never had a barracuda act this way. I’ve swam with barracuda in the past and I have never, ever had an experience with one the way I did with Henry. The guide was surprised too but had little advice besides swim back to him and the others. Henry followed me, of course.

After I got back to the group, calmed down, and got my senses I was very surprised at how I reacted. I had been in situations underwater that had gotten me nervous before but never had I had trouble breathing, taking on water, looking for help, etc.

In retrospect I should have remained calm and kept about my business. Henry only nibbled on my fin once and he was probably seeing if I was actually some fish he wanted to eat. I smelled and shined like one. I can’t blame him. He didn’t act aggressively towards me after that. Maybe if he had gotten a bit of flesh from my hand or leg it would have been a different story though.

Next time I’m going to be sure I don’t have anything shiny on, I’m not going to smell like fish, and I’m going to do my best to remain calm. Yeah right.