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February 22, 2007

Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Barracuda?

In Kenya, we had a rather large crocodile take up residence outside our tent. When we asked a local how to avoid a confrontation, he said:

Don't act like an impala.

In Hawaii this past week, a tourist asked how to avoid a shark attack and received the following response:

Don't look like a seal.

This is actually very good advice. Most animal attacks, even by apex predators, are either due to either harassment or misinterpretation. Nowadays most people know that from below, surfers look a lot like seals. A person kneeling at a water hole could be mistaken for a small animal drinking. The glint of a dive knife can look a lot like fish scales.

There's a reason people say "Look big" and then back down when you come in contact with a predator. If we aren't paying attention, we might accidently act like prey, cowering or running without thinking. In almost all cases though, its best to stand your ground and then remove yourself from the situation. Having something in front of you to act as a shield helps too, whether its a backpack or a dive light.

Nowadays I live on the West Coast, where my main concern when diving is that a California Sea Otter will chew through my air hose, but when I was young and lived on the East Coast, many of my friends would go to Florida for vacations. They didn't worry about the sharks (a few thousand fatalities in the past century) or jellies (the box jellyfish kills more people than sharks, crocodiles and stonefish combined), or Portuguese Man-of-War. They worried about the barracudas.

Barracudas are an interesting group of fish with a chilling reputation that is quite undeserved. They've gotten a bad wrap for what is mostly just a face only a mother could love (incidentally, she doesn't even see her young cause they are fertilized in open water and grow up alone in estuaries). Apparently, only two fatalities can be attributed to barracuda in the past century.

On average, 100 people choke to death on ballpoint pens every year (choking only, other ballpoint pen related deaths have been omitted from this statistic). The first patent on a ballpoint pen was issued in 1888, but let's say they weren't mass produced until the 1940's after some significant improvements. Number crunch sound here. Ok, so by my math, that means you are 3500x more likely to choke on a ballpoint pen than you are to be killed by a barracuda.

Barracudas are scavengers and they are not particularly stupid. They may appear to be stalking you, but likely they think you're a bigger predator likely to find them some food. They're hanging out to snag your leftovers. Wait, that didn't sound right...

Perhaps I should have called this post Mimicking A Meal Will Get You Munched... the point is that just about all animals, even apex predators, do not enjoy eating manflesh. The only creatures I know that do are the fictional orcs in Lord of the Rings. The rest of the critters of the world will spit you out.

Posted by sorsha at February 22, 2007 4:56 PM


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