Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Great Barracuda, Unseen Predator


 Barracudas, the fish named by early American Spaniards for their long jagged teeth, can grow to six feet in Tobago waters. They often shadow scuba divers, chasing and charging into their bubbles. Silent and stealthy underwater, they are fierce and solitary predators, contributing to healthy coral reefs. Here’s the tale of an encounter with a barracuda 35 years ago. This feature was first published in the Tobago Newsday on Thursday, April 13.

 
Battery of barracuda: young fish grow on nearshore reefs, mangroves and in seagrasses. Photo courtesy The Ocean Agency, XL Catlin Seaview Survey

On Holy Thursday 1982, a young couple came to Tobago to camp for the Easter weekend. They chose a quiet beach on the Atlantic side. The Studley Park beach runs alongside the Windward Road in the shelter of the Fort Granby cliff; it is accessible but not frequented; it seemed ideal for peace and solitude.  Settling in for the evening, they set up a small tent.

Just after sunrise, they woke and headed into the sea.

Annamaria remembers, “I was swimming in about five feet of water when I felt a tug. I called out to Rikhi, who was further out, and told him ‘shark’! He turned to the open sea to locate what he thought I saw. When he turned back to me, I was surrounded by bloody water. He swam back and dragged me to the beach.”

Rikhi continues,  “I saw a young guy walking on the beach with two girls, and shouted to him for help.”
Rikhi and Annamaria Ganase are looking for the man who helped them at Studley Park beach in 1982

Annamaria, “I could not feel my leg soon after the bite and I told Rikhi that my leg was gone. He said that my leg was still there but told me not to look at it. He tied a tourniquet around my leg using my wrap and a piece of stick he found on the beach. He bundled me in the back seat of the car and asked the guy to drive us to the nearest hospital. This guy was in a panic and bawling 'Oh my God, oh my God.' He drove like a mad man and Rikhi had to ask him to slow down. It took about 20 mins to the nearest hospital.

“At the Emergency entrance to Mt St George hospital, I was manhandled out of the back seat and onto a stretcher. I was still in my skimpy bathing suit with sand all over me. The nurse asked me what happened, and I told her that a fish bit me while I was in the sea.  She told me, ‘you know you not supposed to bathe on Good Friday because you will turn into a fish.’

“The bite was like a razor cut, not jagged at the edges. It exposed the bone with the teeth marks on the bone. I had cuts on my heel and toes. We think my whole foot was in his mouth.”

Annamaria spent that weekend in the Tobago hospital and took a flight to Trinidad on Sunday. The path to recovering the use of her foot was long and uncertain, only survivable through the persistence of her parents and doctors. “The doctor informed my parents that I had a 50/50 chance of losing my leg from below the knee. The first week after the operation I was in terrible pain and given morphine. I stayed in the hospital for six weeks and had to use crutches for six months after.  I had to do physiotherapy and electrotherapy for a couple of months once the cast was off. I am lucky I did not lose my leg.”

On subsequent trips to Tobago, Rikhi and Annamaria have been looking for their good Samaritan. Rikhi says, “He drove us to the hospital. He remained with the car outside the hospital until I came out around 3 pm. While waiting he cleaned the car seats of all the blood and sand. I drove back to the beach with him and he left while I packed up the tent. We never got his name. Several years later we stopped at some houses along the road near the beach and asked whether anyone remembered him. No one had any information. We are looking again, though 35 years have passed: he was maybe 18 to 22 years; about 5’ 7", very slim, brown skin.” 

News of the attack was posted on a blackboard in the fishing village where the fishermen speculated that it was a barracuda that attacked. That area on the Atlantic coast is known to be a feeding ground for barracuda. 

“My silver anklet was on the other leg. It was one big barracuda that bit me,” says Annamaria.

According to the UWI Life Sciences site, the Great barracuda (Sphyraena barracuda) can grow to two metres and weigh 10 to 40 kg. They occur in tropical to sub-tropical seas and around Trinidad and Tobago.  Juveniles hide on coral reefs, in seagrasses and mangroves. As adults, they are lone hunters. They are carnivorous and opportunistic predators, feeding in the day just after sunrise or just before sunset in shallow water.

According to the Florida Museum of Natural History website, “Inquisitive, sight-oriented fish, barracudas sometimes exhibit the unnerving habit of trailing snorkelers and divers.” On the occasion when a barracuda perceives a shiny object as the glint of a fish, it will attack with a quick strike.

As we flock to the beaches this weekend, let’s take some necessary precautions to be safe. Know where you are swimming. Remove shiny accessories, jewellery and ornaments from your person. Take back everything you bring to the beach, bottles, bags and food wrappers.

Help Rikhi and Annamaria Ganase find the young man who came to their assistance in Tobago 35 years ago. He was young at the time – maybe 18 to 22 years – slim build, average height. They are hoping that he remembers the incident and they want to know if he is still in Tobago. The good Samaritan, or anyone knowing him, can contact the Tobago Newsday office at Shirvan Mall.


Adult barracudas tend to be solitary hunters, feeding mainly in shallow waters. Photo courtesy The Ocean Agency, XL Catlin Seaview Survey

  
REFERENCES:
https://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/fish/discover/species-profiles/sphyraena-barracuda

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