Tiger of the Sea

Barracudas are perhaps one of the most feared marine creatures for those who don’t spend a lot of time in the water, but those who do, crave underwater encounters with these misunderstood creatures. Many divers might agree that their appearance could be frightening at first– with a set of fang-like teeth, it’s no wonder barracuda are considered brutal predators.

Are they really as dangerous as they are perceived to be? Despite their appearance and predatory success, reports of attacks on humans are extremely rare. In fact, barracudas are more famous for being photographic models than as fearsome creatures. It’s said that a divers dream is to be in the middle of a whirlpool of barracudas as they continuously circle around and around. This can be one of the most memorable experiences in a diver’s life.

Barracuda is a large species of fish found in the warmer, coastal regions of the world’s oceans where there is an abundance of food. There are more than 26 different species of barracuda that range in size from less than 20 inches to nearly 6 1/2 ft in length.   Although they can be found in the deep ocean, they prefer coastal habitats along the continental shelves and coral reefs.

Despite some differences in size and color between barracuda species, they have several similar characteristics as well: an elongated appearance, pointed head with powerful jaws, rows of sharp fang-like teeth, 2 separated dorsal fins and a forked tail fin, grey/silver on top fading into white on the belly with whitish tips on their dark violet caudal fins, black spots on the lower sides of its body, 18 to 25 dark bars present on the upper side of each fish, and 2 dark bars or tips, 1 on the lower and upper fin. Like most fish, barracuda do not have eyelids. If you see one moving very slowly, it is possible that they are actually asleep. However when asleep, they are still alert for danger- so try not to disturb them because they could accidentally attack you! Barracuda usually can reach up to about 5 – 6 feet long and can weigh around 110 lbs. The age of a barracuda can be measured from the number of rings produced each year in its scales. Barracudas can live up to 14 years.

The barracuda is known to be an aggressive, dominant predator, and often relies on the “surprise tactic” in order to catch its prey. Barracudas can swim over 25 mph in short bursts- they do this to overtake prey that may be trying to swim away. Because their bodies are long and slender, they can easily sneak through the reefs while hunting. Having the lower jaw jut out slightly and unequally sized fang-like teeth has earned them the nickname ‘Tiger of the Sea’.

Silver barracuda in Key West

The barracuda is an opportunistic predator- they feed only on other animals in surrounding water. Because barracudas grow to be very large sized fish, they have few natural predators aside form sharks, killer whales, larger barracuda, giant tuna, and dolphin. They often camouflage near sea grass to ambush unsuspecting prey, and move quickly (over 25 mph) through the corals reefs in search for food. They primarily feed on smaller fish such as: snapper, grunts, mullets and bream.

There is not a lot of information on  the reproduction of the barracuda, but what we do know is this: female barracuda are spawn during the spring. She will release her eggs into the water which are then fertilized externally. It is believed that barracuda spawning happens between April and September. Throughout the breeding season, females spawn a few times, releasing about 5,000 to 300,000 of eggs each time. Like most other fish, barracuda leaves fertilized eggs floating in the open waters until they hatch. Soon after hatching, the larvae will settle in shallow waters where vegetation offers both protection and food to the larvae until they grow into juveniles. When they reach maturity, they move to deeper waters with reefs and remain there for the rest of their lives. Males mature sexually within the first 3 years of their lives, but females take about 4 years.

Adult barracudas are considered to be solitary when it comes to hunting while most juveniles tend to gather in large schools (sometimes in numbers up to hundreds or even thousands). Schooling offers the juveniles protection from predators- safety in numbers. When a predator attacks a school, the school then forms a spinning vortex, preventing any single barracuda to be fixed upon as prey. A large school means sharing smaller portions of food, but it comes with the benefits of protection and food detection.

Barracuda have poor eyesight, and are very attracted to reflective, metallic objects- they will think they are spotting silver fish, which is what they most commonly eat. Remember to avoid wearing earrings or other jewelry while swimming in cloudy water.

Barracuda can be eaten either as steak or fillet, smoked or used in soups. BUT, scientific reports have shown their flesh to contain high mercury and cadmium levels which has been linked to ciguatera cases.

*Ciguatera is a kind of food poisoning. The toxins come species of algae, which are eaten by marine fish in the tropical/subtropical waters. These toxins build up naturally in the bodies of fish, which eventually will be hunted by other predators where it becomes more concentrated. Ciguatera is passed on to humans by direct consumption of fish meat.

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