by Natalie Novak
I was six or seven the first time I snorkeled in Akumal Bay. I went out on a boat with my father and I remember the first time I saw that sleek fish. It was as long as I was, with its mouth full of pointy teeth slowly opening and closing. I swam quickly over to my father and said, "Daddy, Daddy, is that a shark?" And he calmly said, "No, honey, that is not a shark." But I could hear the tension in his voice and I remember that he steered me slowly away from the scary fish.
After we got back in the boat, I asked my father again if we had seen a shark, and he replied, "That was not a shark, Natty ... that was a barracuda." I remember the way he said it, and I remember thinking that a barracuda must be a pretty serious thing to make my father swim the other way.
Barracudas look scary, but they are not mean or aggressive. They are, however, curious. They often seem to hang around and stare. After some time diving with them, I discovered why.
Often small, silver fish take cover around a big fish. It is common to see large grouper and even barracuda with a school of small jacks around them. The jacks stay too close to their fish for it to build up the speed it needs to catch them, and other fish are unlikely to strike the small fish so close to a big predator, except for the barracuda.
So, when a barracuda is watching you, most of the time it is not really interested in you; it is looking for something small and shiny, like fish, around you. I have seen divemasters make barracuda strike by dropping their knives into the sand. This is a mean trick, releasing the knife point-down, causing it to spin and shine. The shine attracts the barracuda, which expects a fish and instead strikes against the blade of the knife.
However, in thousands of dives, I have never seen an unprovoked barracuda strike a snorkeler or diver. I wear medium-sized silver earrings and the first stage of my regulator is silver and shiny, and yet I have never had a problem with barracuda. I do advise against wearing anything that looks like a fishing lure while snorkeling, swimming or scuba diving. Fishermen do catch barracuda regularly with fishing lures. I also have seen divemasters lure barracuda by waving their hands quickly, and this does not seem like a good idea. If you do not want the attention of a barracuda, keep your fingers and hands to yourself when swimming around it.
Akumal Bay has a barracuda who has been around for as long as I can remember. Some friends of mine have named it Barry and it has brought joy and amazement to those of us who have been lucky enough to hang out with it over the years.
Dive & Snorkel Tip: If you spot a barracuda in the water, do not panic or move quickly. Quick movements will draw its attention. So do shiny things, so if you are wearing something shiny, cover it up. The best thing to do is cross your arms (with your fingers in your armpits) and ignore it or slowly swim away.
They are curious creatures, but they do not want to eat you, so if you are not waving your fingers around or doing anything they find interesting, they will lose interest and go away. They are amazing, streamlined creatures. They are not malicious or mean. Enjoy them. Barry is beautiful.
Dive with Natalie & Ivan