© Copyright 2020 by Doug Sherr
I was down there installing new engines on a friend’s sport-fishing boat. Other than the bar at the Third Turtle Inn, there was not much to do at the end of the workday. One evening, a delightful young woman sat down near me and we started chatting. She had just received her scuba certification in a swimming pool in South Carolina, but was reluctant to go into the ocean because pools in South Carolina have few creatures with sharp teeth. The local dive shop wanted to charge her a rather large fee to escort her so I volunteered. The fact that she was quite pretty had no bearing on my offer.
We met after coffee the next morning and I talked her into leaving the tanks on shore. I only use air tanks when I’m working under water; snorkeling is a more natural way to explore the ocean. We eased into the water and headed out to the first reef, swimming parallel about five feet apart. There are no industries to pollute the water—visibility is one hundred and fifty feet. An extravagant palate of colors flashed as swarms of fish darted in excited swirls while some individuals nosed about lazily looking for whatever fish look for. I didn’t see any large predators. I told her we probably wouldn’t see any. As we approached the reef, I saw her waving her hand. Behind her mask her eyes were about the size of quarters. Five feet beyond her was a barracuda swimming at our pace. I’m 6-foot 7-inches long and the cuda was nearly my size; it was the biggest I’d ever seen. I waved and gave the OK sign because I didn’t have a better idea. There are times when panic is useful, but this wasn’t one of them. The cuda was just swimming with us. Its head had a few big scars. This was a guy who got into fights. Cuda can be territorial; this was its reef. After awhile it must have tired of us because it disappeared. One moment it was there and then it was gone. We continued our swim and when we got back to the bar she said that this was the most exciting day she’d ever had. Soon she returned to the States and I kept on playing mechanic. Our adventure inspired me and I started swimming regularly out to the reef and the barracuda became my regular dive buddy. One time we were rising over the outer reef when a black-tip reef shark about 5 feet long swam up right in front of us. The cuda started scissoring its jaws at the sight of the shark, which took one look and instantly u-turned disappearing quickly: There was no doubt that the barracuda was the boss of the reef. It’s nice to cruise the neighborhood with the local tough guy.
I discovered that the cuda had a four-foot comfort zone around it— if I came closer it would scissor its jaws. A quick retreat calmed it down. As long as I kept the proper distance away, the cuda and I were just dive buddies. However, occasionally it let me know who was in charge. A few times when we were swimming along the fish disappeared and would reappear twenty feet or so ahead facing me. Literally, the fish seemed to teleport itself to the new position. Years later I saw a documentary about how the barracuda could be so quick. In a controlled environment it was shown that the fish turned its body into a series of curves and then released that energy by instantly straightening which allowed it to move forward at an astonishing speed. I was happy that science verified what seemed impossible.
It was a rare treat to have a huge barracuda as a dive bubby. I figured that the fish was probably bored and I provided a diversion. Sometime into the second week of our forays I headed out from the reef into an area of flat sand bottom. There was an object sitting by itself that resembled the amphora of ancient shipping. I’m not a coral expert so I didn’t realize it was a coral and not an artifact of ancient lore. As I extended my hands to grab it the cuda flashed in front of me a few inches from my facemask. As I jerked back a Lionfish swam out from behind the coral. You definitely do not want to be stung by the diaphanous appendages of a Lionfish. My cuda buddy returned to his normal place five feet away from me. It was the only time the fish ever came near me. Did my buddy save me? Barracuda are certainly smarter than most fish, but that would be an astounding reaction to save its weird looking friend. I finished my boat job about a week later and returned to the States. I have not forgotten my barracuda buddy and the real possibility that it knowingly saved my butt. I’ve spent enough time in the “natural world” to not discount any possibility.