Lionfish and sharks

Posted on July 13, 2018


In the Caribbean Lionfish are foe not friend. These zebra stripped fish are wrecking the reefs. A species that was introduced (no one quite knows how), their numbers are damaging marine ecosystems. They are highly venomous and have few predators. They are killing off endemic species by competing with their food source and they consume a high number of juvenile fish. Lionfish are native to the Pacific and Indian Ocean not the Caribbean seas.

Any self respecting diver will spearfish them in this part of the world when they have the chance. The divers at the company I was working for in the BVI (I quit) won’t do it in front of the kids on a dive; but there’s a speargun below deck that gets good use.

Yesterday I watched The Crocodile Man (TCM) in Antigua feed these pests to black tip sharks, at very close quarters, probably too close. Yup I’m back. But only passing through on my way to Barbados. “The sharks like them if you cut orf the spines first,” he told me in a thick Saffie accent. “Otherwise they cough em up, they don’t like the pain sensation from the spines,” he added. “They just need to toughen up and push past it,” he continued earnestly.

Four days earlier I worked my last day on Tortola in The British Virgin Islands. I have no regrets about taking or leaving the job earlier than I anticipated. The programme was just not what I was expecting or really what was “sold” to me. There were some internal politics, incidents and leadership issues that frustrated me. My health also took a severe knock due to poor diet and living conditions. So I cut my loses. I didn’t wanna stick out another four more weeks. I decided a road to recovery was more pressing.

The last six weeks however have given me an insight into the yachting world. I have learnt a lot, not least about myself. I have more patience with other people’s children than I expected. I loved working with them. I had an education in both rap and country music and I met some very cool and brilliant staff who were part of the land team. That I’m most grateful for.

So here I am back in Antigua, staying on TCM’s boat. It’s basic. The last six weeks have prepared me well. Ocean showers, pump toilet, tiny bed and basic stove. Yesterday he took me diving, “it’s not for sissies,” he wrote me in a text message inviting me to stay. I told myself if I couldn’t keep up, I’d bail, end the dive and wait on the boat. I’m an instructor I can look after myself, right?

I was excited to dive with him, if not a little nervous. We loaded the small power boat with our gear. He looked at my BCD and told me if I had problems getting down he’d “happily put a hole in it,”. His rudimentary harness holds just the tank. He descends on lung capacity alone and is baffled why air is needed for the jacket. “What you doing on the surface, anyway? Aren’t you diving,” he scoffed.”That thing is a liability,” he said waving his large dive knife at me, eyebrows raised and eyes wide.

The first dive we motored out just ten minutes around the reef and dropped down. He had a yellow mesh bag and a harpoon with him. I hadn’t realised we were about to go fishing. He hustles fast in the water. I pride myself on my air consumption, but in 43 minutes I had almost emptied my tank. The current was strong and it was like having a cardio workout. Each fish he spiked, he took a pair of scissors to. He cut off the venomous dorsal and pectoral fins, working fast with his gloved fingers, the blades also went along the spine. Getting pricked can result in painful swelling, nausea and in some cases breathing difficulties. Blood seeped out of the fish staining the water. I was in charge of the bag. “Great, prime target for sharks,” i thought to myself, as I kicked hard to keep up and watch 360°.

After we’d covered a fair distance and collected five big fish we headed back. “This afternoon we’ll feed them to the sharks,” he said with a glint in his eye as we wriggled onto the boat and unclipped our fins. I was not sure what to make of that comment so I stayed silent.

The ride back out was rough. The small motorboat he owns has been shipped over from South Africa. The gear goes in the middle of the boat under a raised storage-type seat. Room for just two tanks, fins and the anchor. The passenger then sits on top, straddling it sideways holding onto the mental bar on the opposite side, “relax and don’t fall orf,” he shouted at me over the buzz of engine. It felt like we were plaining as the lightweight boat lifted off the waves in mid air and came smashing down jolting us sharply. This continued for twenty five minutes.

For the second dive we anchored at The Chimney. The swells had grown. “Here,” he said thrusting a long yellow harpooned pole at me, “this is if they get too close, give them a poke on the snout and push them away. You’ll have your back to the reef so it’s easy. Kneel on the sand and watch.”

“Ok,” I answered hearing myself sound unsure. How hard can this be? I’ve already done an extreme baited, cageless shark dive in Fiji. But in that instance I was a spectator with many divers, and that gig has been running for years.

The sharks we encountered are certainly not habituated to being fed by people. They are wild, feisty, and feeding them at close quarters leaves you open to being bitten. Notice I said being bitten not eaten.

TCM checked under a ledge to make sure there were no sharks resting and signalled for me to kneel and pay attention. He tapped the pole. “Yeah yeah all right, trust me anything comes near me I will stick it hard,” I replied only in my head. There was already one stout blacktip cruising the sand patch.

Moments later I watched with both fascination and horror as he fed the shark chunks of lionfish. Then the shark circled and went straight for him. His body language was calm. His focus steely. With sharp deliberate movements he poked its snout as it opened its jaws to bite. Like a boxer taking a jab the shark shook its head and came back again and again. This happened four times, each time on the attack, before it decided it might have better luck with me.

I was ready. Knees pressing into the sand to steady myself I got ready to push the pole between me and the shark. The distance closed, just in time the shark swerved without being touched almost realising it would get jabbed from me too. My heart rate was calm. My breathing deep and steady. I was not going to send out panic signals. Then another fatter bigger black tip showed up and the two of them circled the sand patch.

TCM decided it would be safer to chop and leave the other four fish on the sand for them to hoover up. The smaller shark took the last of the big chunks and was chased in circles fiercely by the bigger shark which tried to bite it. At each flick of their tail the speed changed. I was mesmerised by their agility. It was incredible to watch this interaction. TCM had now moved back next to me as we both waited and watched to see their next move.

The visibility was good but not crystal clear. They eventually disappeared into the murk. He signalled for me to keep an eye as he turned his back and went under the ledge. After several minutes he emerged with a lobster now stuffed into the mesh bag. Dinner! Time to go.

A quick check around and we started to make our ascent, back-to-back, slowly up the anchor line.