Thinking about sea monsters recently – I know; I’m a geek – the barracuda somehow came to mind. As witnessed by the picture above (from csudh.edu), they are a pretty scary looking fish. They have a reputation for vicious attacks on divers in temperate and tropical waters such as the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico and the Great Barrier Reef so I’m thinking, perfect! There has got to be a piratical connection here. Well there is, but it’s hardly the one I imagined going in.
As it turns out, the barracuda is a relatively docile fish that is more likely to give other fish trouble than to attack a human or any other mammal. The cases of bites by barracudas are literally too infrequent to document, and most occur when the fish has been caught, usually on a line, and is being handled before it actually expires. Great, I’m thinking; some sea monster.
Continuing the research despite this disappointing turn of events, I find out perhaps a little more than I wanted to know. It seems that barracuda were caught and eaten in the 17th, 18th and early 19th century by freebooters in the waters previously mentioned. Also on the line and then on the menu were many types of grouper, particularly Nassau grouper which is very common not only in the Bahamas but in all the waters of the West Indies, and amberjack. As it turns out these fish, regardless of how they are caught or cooked, are the leading cause of a nasty and potentially fatal poisoning, particularly in the Caribbean.
Ciguatera is the type of poisoning in question and in modern times it is fatal to approximately 7% of those infected. The poisoning is caused by eating the cooked flesh of a fish that is infected and, though what exactly makes a fish turn ciguaterous is unknown, scientists believe the culprit may be a toxic blue-green algae that is passed up through the eating cycle of the fish.
Symptoms sound horrible on the page and can begin immediately after a meal or up to 30 hours later. A person’s lips, tongue and throat may begin to tingle, much as they do with poisoning related to eating puffer fish. Dull and nonspecific muscle aches will set in that increase to such a degree that the person may be unable to stand or walk. Abdominal cramps and nausea followed by vomiting and diarrhea will occur. Other possible symptoms include the feeling that one’s teeth are loose in their sockets, temperature reversal meaning either a high fever or a sudden drop in internal body temperature, and temporary blindness.
Since even today there is no way to tell if a fish carries the poison and the fish that are the usual suspects in such cases can many times be perfectly safe to eat, it is not hard to imagine that ciguatera – or its treatment – probably killed off more than one seaman in the great age of sail. With popular treatments like bleeding, blistering and purging being applied, it is easy to imagine that only the heartiest sailor would survive the poison and the cure. And the likelihood of being infected again would be high, unless a man actually developed a tolerance to the poison which is not unheard of.
Currently, warnings are posted about ciguatera in areas where it is common. Listen, mates, lets just be safe out there. Good advice is always wise to follow: