I was enjoying a leisurely dive with my kids Jessica and Alexander at Tarpon Alley on Grand Cayman’s north wall, composing some lovely shots of the massed bodies of tarpon, when suddenly all the tarpon tensed and moved aside.
I looked to my left, and held my exhalation as a huge, 40 pound barracuda lazily swam through the mass of tarpon which parted like two gleaming walls of beaten metal. It went on through them passing just a few feet in front of me without seemingly noticing the smaller tarpon.
I was so mesmerised I forgot to take the shot! Jessica’s eyes were wide with excitement! Not because the barracuda was dangerous, it just dwarfed the 20 pound tarpon that frequent the coral canyons at Tarpon Alley.
Back in the boat, Jessica said “That was the biggest barracuda I have ever seen Dad!” My reply was that she had forgotten about “Charlie” the biggest we had ever seen at 50 pounds, which hung out in a reef near Walker’s Cay in the Bahamas.
Charlie became very conditioned to divers over the years, and would let the daughter of the dive master there, Brittany Adkinson, hang on for a ride like a dolphin. This huge barracuda would also guide divers through the silverside-filled coral grottos in the reefs near Walker’s. An amazing experience for all who had preconceived ideas about how dangerous barracudas can be.
Charlie was shot and killed in the marine park at Walker’s Cay a few years ago by a local island spear fisherman. For the friendliest barracuda on record, human treachery was its downfall.
There are 20 species of barracuda in tropical waters around the planet, of which the great barracuda is the largest. The IGFA all tackle world record is 85 pounds, but the largest recorded specimen was 106 pounds. Can you imagine meeting that guy on a dive!
Large specimens are rare, and most of those caught in the Caribbean do not reach 40 pounds. The majority of barracudas that we see on dives here in the Cayman Islands are in the five to 15 pound size range.
The great barracuda is long, slim-bodied and has a pointed head, with a jutting lower jaw, full of canine teeth that give it a ferocious look. Their second dorsal fin and anal fin are set far back on their body, effectively giving them another tail, enabling them to accelerate very rapidly.
They are tremendous fish to paint. They play the part of the reef bully, but are handsome at the same time, with gorgeous metallic hues, punctuated by irregular black blotches, that are striking from a distance. They can change colour by adopting a mottled or banded colour scheme when waiting motionless near the bottom or beside structure. Their large eye and menacing look tell the story of a successful reef predator.
Young individuals up to about three pounds usually live close to shore in the shallow water, and are found in coastal lagoons, harbours and mangroves flats. Growth rates are fast, but little is known about reproduction in this species. Large adults may occur farther offshore along the reef edges and even out in the open ocean. They are aggressive carnivorous fish, and are an underrated game fish. Larger barracudas are usually caught by anglers trolling along reef drop-offs on heavy tackle targeting other species such as wahoo and tuna.
However when specifically sought on the inshore flats by anglers in shallow water, also looking for bonefish and permit, the great barracuda can be a spectacular game fish making swift runs and frequent jumps.
When I go wahoo fishing around the island, barracudas are sometimes caught. When I lived in Jamaica, I used to eat every barracuda I caught, as they are one of the best fish to eat, having moist white flesh. However, since I came to Cayman, I enjoy seeing barracudas on the reef and taking photos of them, so I let them all go.
The locals consider me crazy, but they forget that people travel long distances to visit and dive in the Cayman Islands, and a close photographic encounter with a barracuda can turn a good dive into a great dive.
People who eat barracuda and other large reef fish do run the risk of ciguatera poisoning. The symptoms are varied usually include gastrointestinal and neurological disorders, which can last for weeks and sometimes years. There is no effective treatment for ciguatera poisoning.
However there is a very low incidence of fish poisoning from eating barracuda in Jamaica and the Cayman Islands. Part of the reason is that they are regularly consumed, so big ones over 15 pounds are rare compared to the Bahamas for example.
Ciguatera toxins are produced by dinoflagellates which herbivorous fish consume. These fish are then eaten by large predatory reef fish, such as grouper, amberjack and barracuda, which appear to be unharmed by the toxin. Because the toxins are lipid-soluble, they accumulate through the food chain.
The toxin may be more concentrated in the head, viscera and roe.
Ciguatoxin-containing fish may be highly localised and islands may have some reefs where the fish are inedible, and other reefs where the fish are unaffected. No open ocean fish, such as wahoo, tuna and dolphin have been found to carry ciguatoxin.
Ciguatoxins are odourless, colourless, tasteless, and unaffected by cooking or freezing; therefore persons living or travelling to areas where ciguatera toxin is endemic should follow these general precautions;
- Avoid consuming large predatory reef fish, especially barracuda.
- Avoid eating the head, viscera or roe of any reef fish.
- Avoid eating fish from areas with known ciguatera toxins.
In the Caribbean there are many beliefs about how a poisonous barracuda can be identified, by its size, the colour of its teeth, rigidity of its scales, or by putting some of its meat on an ant’s nest, or its flesh turning a silver coin black. My grandfather used to give the head to his cook to make “fish tea”, and if she was around the following day, he would have the barracuda steamed for lunch! Very brave of him!
The dubious food value of the barracuda in no way detracts from its game qualities.
The message of this story is that if you are in doubt, then release the barracuda alive. Nowadays there are dehooking devices available, such as the ARC dehooker, that enable you to release a barracuda or any fish, without taking it out of the water or risking injury to one self.
As an ardent diver, I look forward to the next barracuda encounter. I put their predictable curiosity towards swimmers and divers, to good use by capturing head shots and close-ups as they come by to check you out. Frequently they are accompanied by a group of bar jacks, or as we experienced at Tarpon Alley, they hang out around the tarpon and schools of horse-eye jacks.
It is our collective responsibility to conserve the marine environment and maintain the biodiversity of the planet.
Fish responsibly, dive safely.
Guy Harvey PhD.www.guyharveyart.com