DIVE DRY WITH DR. BILL #479: CALIFORNIA OR PACIFIC BARRACUDA
I am often amused at the perception of non-divers regarding the dangers of being submerged with certain marine critters. Frequently I hear that "I'm afraid of what lurks below the surface... something is going to get me" when a non-diver explains why they won't take up the sport. Now truly there are certain species with which close contact might wisely be avoided. I immediately think of the tiger shark, bull shark and deadly box jellies.
One fish people fear irrationally is the barracuda. One look at the numerous sharp teeth on most species evokes visions of arms and legs being chomped on... or even off. The great barracuda, Sphyraena barracuda
, found in tropical and subtropical waters world-wide is usually the one that conjures up such thoughts because of its relatively large size. They may be over six feet long and weigh up to 110 pounds. I've dived with them in several places around the world and incurred not a single scratch. If you want my opinion, of the 20-some species world-wide the most dangerous barracuda I know of was made by Plymouth and caused more injuries than any of the piscine species... and even death on the freeways of "Lost" Angeles! Recently, the Mexican barracuda (Sphyraena ensis
) has begun appearing in the waters between Oceanside and San Diego.
The barracuda most commonly encountered in southern California waters is the much smaller and somewhat timid Pacific or California barracuda, Sphyraena argentea
. Their bodies are long, slender and almost cylindrical with small scales covering it. The back may be brownish or iridescent blue in color and the sides silvery. They have two small, widely separated dorsal fins and a forked caudal or tail fin. A series of faint, oblique bars are sometimes evident above the thin, dark lateral line. The largest Pacific barracuda taken by anglers were about four feet long but they may have reached a foot longer prior to intense fisheries. Today ones greater than three feet are rarely seen, although local instructor Tim Mitchell recently reported seeing one at least five feet long in the dive park.
This species is rarely seen north of Pt. Conception, but has been sighted on occasion as far north as Kodiak Island and Prince William Sound in Alaska during warm water episodes. Its range extends to the tip of Baja California, into the southern Sea of Cortez and some have reported it as far south as Panama. Pacific barracuda make well-defined migrations north from Baja into southern California during late spring and summer with most returning in late fall as our waters cool. The older I get, the more spending the winter in tropical waters appeals to me... endless summer. Habitat preferences for the barracuda are generally nearshore around kelp or rocky reefs above 60 feet. For me, I prefer a lounge on a sandy beach with a Bohemia and bikinis nearby.
Some scientists believe the pelvic and anal fins differ in color on males and females. However, they seem to disagree on whether they are yellow or edged in black; or tan to gray versus black respectively. Whatever the case, I'm sure the barracuda can tell the difference. Males mature at about two years and females a year later. Adults normally travel alone or in small groups. However, several years ago in the Casino Point Dive Park, buddy Scott Patterson and I filmed a HUGE school numbering perhaps 500 or more. My assumption was that this large school formed for the purpose of mating rather than munching, since so many barracuda would quickly exhaust the local food supply!
Spawning occurs from April to September and possibly into November with the peak from May through July. Individual fish probably spawn more than once each year. Initially, a newly mature female may produce a mere 50,000 eggs but once they reach full size that may increase to half a million! The eggs are fertilized externally, and drift with the currents hatching there into small larvae. Because they usually spawn nearshore, the larvae are rarely found more than 30 miles offshore. A one year old is about 14" long, doubling in size by age four or five and reaching full size in about eleven years.
Barries, as they are known by some, are voracious munchers and hunt using the keen eyesight afforded by their relatively large eyes. Prey includes anchovies, sardines, young Pacific and jack mackerel, grunion and squid. When several hunt together, they may herd their prey into shallow water. Initially they move slowly toward their prey, stalking it almost like a cat. Then they burst forward and snap their jaws to grab a mouthful. They have actually been clocked at 27 mph, far slower than the Plymouth barracuda. Undoubtedly that's because the fish were in a "school" zone (get it?). In turn barracuda are preyed upon by bald eagles. Not much will "eat" a Plymouth barracuda... especially not my 1988 Toyota Tercel!
California barracuda are a popular target for anglers. A century ago they were a favored food fish. Due to their schooling behavior, purse seiners targeted them heavily in the 1900s. Long-time Catalina angler Bill Hill has told me about the barracuda he used to catch in the 1920s and 1930s to sell to our local fish market. Dr. Milton love reports that during the 1957-58 El Nino they were so abundant off SoCal that it was difficult to catch anything else! Maybe even I would have had some luck back then. Due to the extensive commercial fishery, their numbers in SoCal declined substantially by the 1940s. Thanks to regulations imposed by the California Department of Fish and Game, they have rebounded to near record levels.
Image caption: Solitary Pacific barracuda, small school of barracuda out to munch; huge school mating (?), Plymouth barracuda in its natural habitat.