Experiences With The Great Barracuda

I promised this story to Joe MDO, https://www.inaturalist.org/people/349183, about an experience or two I had years ago. I'll start with the Stella Maris, Long Island, Bahamas story and add others when and if anyone wants to hear more.

In summer of '77, my wife and I went to Stella Maris with Alan Tennant, author of The Snakes of Texas, and his wife. We stayed a week or so and each day had a completely different and exciting adventure snorkeling in various place around the northern half of the island. Long Island is one of the Bahama out islands far from the gathering hordes of tourists and the wildness of the place and its beautiful waters is really beyond compare. The island is partially surrounded by deep ocean water - greater than 3000 feet deep - of Exuma Sound and the Atlantic Ocean along the east and north coast similar to'Tongue of the Ocean' which wraps around the west side of the Nassau. Long Island has a very sizable shelf of typically shallow, clear and calm water where boats seem to bob at anchor in thin air. Visibility is always excellent (well of course, I wasn't there always). In shallow or deeper water, doing a 360 degree spin gives the impression that there is no limit to how far you can see. I always reckon it was like sitting on the sofa of your living room. Inside the room it's as clear as can be and just look out the window and see as far as you are able. Of course, that's not true. Is it? But I digress. We're after Great Barracuda in this story and we got'em like it or not. Here's how that happened.

One of the excursions you take - or are offered at Stella Maris, is a trip to the coral heads off the northeastern tip of the island. The water where you're taken is about a hundred feet deep, but it's still part of the sandy shallow shelf that fringes the island. Peppered on the bottom are these large columns of stacked coral that grow towards the surface, so the coral heads can be quite close to the surface while the base may be in 90 feet of water (anyone who has been there more recently than me and wishes to dispute my story is welcome). The boat from the eastern dock at Stella Maris is a large cabin cruiser type that can carry plenty of people and gear, which it has to as this is a scuba diving trip and there are a good number of scuba divers angling to get to the bottom of these coral heads. Local Bahamian guides accompany us and they free dive to the bottom to point out interesting items and highlights. While all the divers went to the bottom, I tried to follow free diving, but truth is, you have to acclimate to the technique and I just wasn't there long enough, but venture I achieve about a third of the way down to the bottom. I was able to get down to the coral heads and poke around a bit before fleeing to the surface for air. As I had grown up on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, I had been accustomed to free diving, but that was just too many years prior to this trip.

One of the highlights of the trip is to feed the Nassau Groupers and you are given sandwiches and such in plastic bags to lure the fish close. Ha! Lure, hell, the Groupers are so used to the routine, they command the show and woe indeed is the person who is not able to pass out the treats fast enough. Before the show ends, the final participants show up for their treats: Great Barracuda. Big ones. And yes, I know my mask magnifies my surroundings and what I see, but I saw these guys from the boat as well and they were good sized. No doubt about it. And they were not aggressive. I swear. Anyway, with the end of the sandwiches, and the return of the scuba divers from the bottom, it was time for everyone to get into the boat. For some reason though, I didn't get the message and the first thing I notices was I was alone in the ocean. No one but me and the fishes. Knowing now I needed to vacate the scene, I started to the back of the boar when all of a sudden things began to hit the surface of the water and sink. The large chunks of an off color sort of creamy pinkish meat was sinking slowly around me. The guides were feeding the Barracuda their treats of fresh conch and I was in the middle of the feeding pool.

Barracuda began swishing and zooming, speeding through the water grabbing their 'prey' and it was like I was just with them. Among them. One of them? I don't think so. The place was literally swarming with Barracuda - most other fishes having disappeared, and as I neared the boat a piece of conch landed right in front of my faceplate. Interesting, I thought, and then a huge head, mouth open wide, teeth shinning, glittering, smiling lips, converged on the tid bit, mouth snapped shut, and brushed past my face. Wow, that was close! Cool, though. Yes, but then again. Deciding I'd better turn myself in, I looked up out of the water at the people on board and let them know I was still in the water. Pandamonium ensued and in no time, I was heaved aboard amid a profusion of apologies, none of which were necessary, thank you. I had one of the most memorial - but not the last encounter with the Great Barracuda! I hope everyone can have as great an experience with these toothy speedsters.

PS, I don't have any photos to share of the Great Barracuda. Yet. Oh, and the native guides who fee dived to the bottom? They could move about and stay down almost as long as the scuba tourists;-) Seriously.

Experiences, part II

So this second experiences with Great Barracuda is probably my first as an adult and not part of an earlier family experience of living on the Gulf of Mexico in Biloxi, Mississippi. This experience happened out of the water with me as an observer and not participant in the diving that went on in the Gulf of Mexico where this experience took place. I got a summer job one year during my college years working offshore Louisiana for Brown and Root, the oilfield equipment and support company. My job was as a welder's helper on a Pipelay barge which is an ocean going barge towed by ocean going tugboats. The tugboats pull the barge along as five sections of oil field pipe are welded on board and then lowered to the bottom linking oil drilling platforms with pump stations and at the like. The barge is a free floating affair that is in every way ship except it has no self propulsion, hence it rocks and rolls like you would expect. From my earliest memories of steaming back from Japan on an Army transport ship in the late '40s, I felt right at home above and below decks waiting my shift's turn, or turning in afterwards. Rockabbyebaby rings true. But I digress.

Often after my noon to midnight shift I would go up on deck, find a secluded spot on the railing and sit and watch the sea, the waves, and the play of the barge's lights upon the water as we rose and fell with the waves. As it turns out, just like on land, sea creatures in myriad forms are attracted to the lights cast by the barge and as these lights have to match the power of sunlight to give working men vision to weld and seal the pipeline before its 150 foot plunge to the bottom of this portion of offshore, I got to take in the scene with an emphasis on nature instead of industry. As this was summer, the water around us abound in warm water and tropical species of fishes, many of which were pelagic instead of coastal and shallow water types. Oh, and the water was crystal clear so peering into the depths was not a problem and in fact, I never did stop thinking of a way to get into that water. Alas, it did not come to pass.

It did do so for the professional divers and it was they who had the actual personal experiences with the local Barracuda, which were numerous. The reason for that was simple: Flying fish. Out here offshore the Atchafalaya River and Bay was the motherlode of fishes and out on the blue water, the motherlode of flying fish. Flying fish are large sardine like fish, silvery and deep blue on top and like sardines, are tasty to lots of other fish, hence their need to escape. They have evolved the ability to glide thanks to their long airfoil shaped pectoral fins which extends their leaps from the waters to many meters from where they leaped to escape a predator. Their flights are spectacular and it is not uncommon to see numerous individuals flying at the same time. Around the pipelay barge, Flying fish congregated, especially at night in the bright lights. And that's where my second story comes in; a bit about that in a moment.

One of the functions of the pipelay barge is to make the pipe connections to oil wells (heads) and such, all of which are underwater, on the bottom to be exact, because the pipe and the well heads have to meet up and the pipelines lie solidly on the bottom of the Gulf. It is the responsibility of the professional divers to make the actual connections there and have their own welding abilities, etc, all of which takes place as they dive to their job sites. They were paid many times more than I was, and for good reason, one of which is the dangers they face. While the Great Barracuda is usually content to chasing tasty Flying Fishes, sometimes they get unruly and on one occasion this happened. One of our divers who was already vexed over the difficulties he was having connecting two parts of the pipeline surfaced to shout for a speargun. He said he was being harassed by a Barracuda and wanted some protection with him or he would not go back down. A speargun was produced and back down he went. The barracuda was not heard from again.

But my own experience happened at night and what I learned was that Barracuda are smart. Hell, probably all fish are smart (so many teach people how to feed them), but I had the opportunity to see another cunning Barracuda in action. This was at night on the dark side of the barge where I was, but the water around my location was lit by our lights so I could see the action clearly. What I saw was several schools of Flying fish being herded by Barracuda into the light of our barge. Both species played cat and mouse with the Flying fish moving constantly forward of the Barracuda. Once the big predators got too near, the Flying fish leaped out of the water and flew a distance away, but still around the lights, so the pattern would just repeat itself until...One large Barracuda herded his school of Flying fish ever closer to the side of our shell living quarters and after feigning an attack made his prey flush right into the steel side of our barge, knocking themselves senseless, floating on the surface and easy meal for the enterprising Barracuda. Watching and observing during the 40 some odd days I was on the water allowed me to see much of the offshore life of the Gulf of Mexico I had longed to see. From daylight sightings of mating sharks, to a stupendous night-time surface display of a beautiful Sailfish right in front of me were some of the other highlights of my toil. I wouldn't have traded them for anything, but one thing I knew at the end of my voyage. I would never go back to the oilfields to make a living. And I didn't.

Posted on 06 de julho de 2019, 03:17 AM by billarbon billarbon


Wow, that sounds terrifying but it's nice to hear you didn't get clobbered! Stella Maris sounds incredible! I hope to visit one day, I had never heard of the "Tongue of the Ocean...." 3,000 feet! It was also reassuring to me that the barracuda still managed to avoid you despite the feeding frenzy taking place. They are very scary looking but the logic (not to be confused with the shaky voice in the back of our mind) with most big predators in the water is that they are not interested in us. I'm ready for the second story whenever you are :-)

Publicado por joemdo quase 5 anos antes

A little editing. I should have looked at the map before I wrote TOTO (Tongue of the Ocean) instead of Exuma Sound, which is what wraps around Long Island on the north. TOTO flows around Nassau and back down to the east side of Andros Islands. The drop off is just offshore and very impressive, but in our snorkeling, we stayed on the coral reefs where the colors and the fish we were interested in seeing lived:-)

Check out the map for water depth here:


Publicado por billarbon quase 5 anos antes

Okay, I see what you mean. That's still very impressive! I've never been more interested in going to the Bahamas. Living in Miami has made me a bit disinterested in going to places in the Caribbean with beaches since I've felt satisfied with the beaches and reefs here but looking at that bathymetric map and thinking about how different the fish and other marine animals must be because of how unique it is compared to Miami really makes me want to go exploring over there. Long Island and many of those other islands off to the east also look so wild! I might go to Cuba this summer which should at least be pretty different from my home but I will keep the Bahamas in mind as well!

Publicado por joemdo quase 5 anos antes

I believe Cuba has similar cays on the northern edge of the island opposite the Bahamas. In a way, just another tongue of ocean separating them and with similar characteristics. Plus the Cuban channel (Florida Straights I believe it's called) has a magic of its own as it is the Gulf Stream, but wholly tropical in character. Very large oceanic sharks, etc. Whatever the case and which ever destination you choose, you may just want to go native from the time you arrive, so be prepared. A new life awaits you and it ain't Hawaii. Let others do that. You have a lifetime of islands at your doorstep. I envy you:-) Besides, you have a great paradise there without stepping a foot off the great state of Florida. If only you could persuade all those people to move away.

Publicado por billarbon quase 5 anos antes

Awesome addition to the story, Bill! Get the flying fish to knock themselves out and then they're easy to eat... good thinking, cudas! You had me a little worried earlier on in the story but I'm glad it didn't involve any cuda/human interaction :-). I wonder how much of that sea life is still out there today... I always wonder the same about the sea life of Florida and how much more abundant everything probably was a hundred years ago and how much less abundant everything will probably be as time goes on. Hopefully not that much less abundant :-/

Publicado por joemdo quase 5 anos antes

Thanks for the comments. Except for the diver, there was no one else involved. OTOH, as you know, when you're in the water with 'cudas, they are not threatening. In fact, as your own photos show, schools of Barracuda show very little interest in people. Similarly, when I was in the Bahamian waters while Barracudas were being tossed conch into the water around me, I never felt threatened or afraid, but found the view of the fishes' behavior fascinating and fear was not what I felt. I know you know from your own personal experience that you share that sentiment. And it's that sentiment that compels you to go back into the amazing waters available to you near where you live. How lucky you are to have such a rich environment to live in. Thanks for the great job you do showing us that very special place.

As far as the health of the offshore environment of Louisiana, of course there are many species that live and have lived offshore for generations. Many, if not most of those are also members of the Gulf Stream of which your environment, too, is part so I think it likely that the numbers of individuals and the numbers of species you encounter in your experiences reflect similar numbers off the Louisiana coast. That does not indicate, however, that the impacts of the oil/gas industry is benign. If fact, I believe it to be the opposite, just that the Gulf is so vast that oil spills and other incidents seem - and only seem - to be local in impact. In fact the ill effects of mineral and resource extraction in the Gulf of Mexico has a global impact. Only those who wish to see such events as incidental and insignificant cling to the view that oil and toxic chemical spills are harmless. The well known dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico off the Louisiana coast are the most obvious signs that human behavior negatively impacts living ecosystems. The concomitant effects stemming from the development of these zones has to be appreciated.

Publicado por billarbon quase 5 anos antes

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