Sphyraena barracuda (Edwards in Catesby, 1771)
A curious great barracuda passes within inches of my camera as I hang at a safety decompression stop above the wreck of the Papoose. The small fish are juvenile jacks, possible young amberjacks. 30-45 feet deep, off the coast of North Carolina.
Like sharks, some species of barracuda are reputed to be dangerous to swimmers. They are scavengers, and may mistake snorkelers and divers for large predators, following them in hopes of eating the remains of their prey. Swimmers have been reported being bitten by barracuda, but such incidents are rare and possibly caused by poor visibility. Barracuda generally avoid muddy shallows, so attacks in surf zones are more likely to be by small sharks. Barracudas may mistake things that glint and shine for prey. An incident of a barracuda jumping out of water and injuring a kayaker has been reported, but a marine biologist at the University of Florida said the type of wound inflicted appeared to be more consistent with damage caused by caused by a houndfish (Tylosurus crocodilus). I can tell you from firsthand experience that houndfish are prone to be very aggressive, and since they are similarly long, cylindrically shaped, and silver, the houndfish is easily mistaken for a barracude by a novice observer.
Handfeeding or touching large barracuda is unwise. They should not be habituated to associate humans with food, as this poses a danger both to people and to the fish, who becomes a nuisance and will ultimately be destroyed as a result. Spearfishing around barracudas can also be dangerous, as they are skilled raiders and opportunists. Diamond rings, dangling earrings, and other shiny objects have been known to catch their attention and resemble prey to them. Caution should be taken when swimming near barracude by covering or removing such items. Attacks on humans are rare, typically the result of mistaken identity or missed effort at raiding a speared fish from a sling. Such attacks are usually solitary and the effort is not repeated. However, barracuda have powerful jaws and large teeth, so serious damage can be inflicted with a single strike. While serious, attacks are almost never lethal, but can result in deep lacerations or the loss of some tissue.
© Joseph W. Dougherty, MD. All rights reserved.