Swimming with Baracuda

Posted in Dangerous, Under the Sea on May 27th, 2009 by MadDog
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I’m getting homesick, so I’ll take a break from the On the Road category today.

Back in June of 2008 I had the golden opportunity to swim at Planet Rock near my home in Madang, Papua New Guinea among hundreds of Pickhandle Barracuda (or Blackfin Barracuda, as you please). Local names are useless for identifying fish. The taxonomic name is Sphyraena qenie.

Here is what I saw as I approached from below the circling school:

Pickhandle Barracuda (Sphyraena qenie) - coming up below the shcoolAs I approach I move around to the side so that they can see me. You don’t want to surprise them. If they can see you and get used to your presence for a minute or two, they will let you swim with them:

Pickhandle Barracuda (Sphyraena qenie) - coming around to the sideI move around just under them to get inside the circle and the slowly approach them:

Pickhandle Barracuda (Sphyraena qenie) - getting in closeNow I try to nudge my way into the stream of toothy, metre long underwater missiles. As long as I don’t spook them, I’m okay. This looks dangerous and it is  a genuine adrenaline rush, but I’ve never heard of anybody around here being harmed by these barracuda:

Pickhandle Barracuda (Sphyraena qenie) - trying to be a barracudaAnd now, my friends, I’m experiencing a joy that few have shared. I’m swimming with the barracuda! In fact, I feel very much like a barracuda:

Pickhandle Barracuda (Sphyraena qenie) - I'm a barracuda! Whoopie!I hope that you enjoyed seeing this one ten thousandth as much as I enjoyed doing it.

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Arm’s Length Friends

Posted in Under the Sea on October 21st, 2008 by MadDog
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A couple of days ago I showed you a few of my fishy friends. Today, I’ll show you the ones that cannot always be trusted. You know the kind I mean. Imagine being Tony Soprano’s next-door neighbour.

Our first unsavoury pal is the Papuan Scorpionfish (Scorpaenopsis papuensis). It is a camouflage expert. Consequently, it is very difficult to see. I’ve blurred the background in this photo to make the fish more visible. As do all the scorpionfish, it has poisonous spines in the dorsal fin. If you put your hand down on one of these fellows, you would be in a great deal of pain immediately:

Papuan Scorpionfish

Often the first thing that one will see of a scorpionfish is its eye. It is the only regular shape on the entire body and therefore stands out as if it were a traffic signal.

Here is another fish for which the sting is the thing. This is the Common Lionfish (Pterois volitans). Though the stinging apparatus is similar, you will have no trouble at all spotting this critter:

Common Lionfish

The scorpionfish and lionfish are interesting, but not very scary. Let’s move on to something more Soprano-like. This character seems peaceful enough until you start fooling around in his back yard. Meet the Giant Moray (Gymnothorax javanicus):

The Giant Moray

The menacing looking character above was in a hole near Pig Island. I spent about fifteen minutes photographing him. I never felt threatened, though maybe he did. If I would get too close, he would simply pull back into his hidey-hole. Most of the time the mouth was only moving open and shut a little as it pumped water through its gills. However, a couple of times it really showed me its teeth. Very pretty – must have a good dentist.

Getting back to sting from teeth, we have the Blue Spotted Stingray (Dasyatis kuhlii). I trapped this individual in a little cave and snapped away. I say that I trapped him, but to be honest, he could have left any time he wished. I wasn’t about to try to stop him. The eyes remind me of a goat’s eyes:

Blue Spotted Stingray

 I’ve shown you the Blue Spotted Stingray before here, and here.

Let’s have a look at a fish that has a bad reputation. While populations of Barracuda elsewhere may be obnoxious, the species in this area of the world are pussycats. Here is the Blackfin Barracuda (Sphyraena qenie):

Blackfin Barracuda

The slim, barred fish are the barracuda. The stubby football shaped fish are Bigeye Trevally. They often school together.

I have, on many occasions, finned on my back under a mob of these and gently stroked a belly or two. They will take it for a couple of seconds and then twitch away from the touch. Sometimes they come back for more. It must feel like being petted by an alien.

Last, but by no means least we have the Banded Sea Krait (Laticauda colubrine). Most people already know that it has one of the most powerful venoms on the planet. This is true. Most people also know that its mouth is too small to bite you. This is most definitely not true. Many people die every year from Sea Snake bites – mostly fishermen clearing them from their nets.

I have been very close to these snakes and never even had one seem to notice me. Here’s one at a comfortable distance:

Banded Sea Snake at a distance

And, here’s one at a somewhat less comfortable distance:

Banded Sea Snake up close and personal

The main thing to remember is that they are generally not aggressive, but simply go about their business. Part of their business, however, is breathing. That’s why you do not want to hover over one while you’re watching it. Stay to the side so that when the snake surfaces to breathe, you won’t both be frightened out of your collective wits.

And remember what your mama told you, “Don’t play with snakes and spiders.”

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