How dangerous are barracudas?

November 1998

Judging by their appearance and size, barracudas certainly can look very intimidating. The barracuda’s reputation as a denizen of the sea goes as far back as the 17th century, when it was thought that the great barracuda of the Antilles had a hunger for human flesh and a poisonous bite with which to satisfy its needs. As is the case with many other animals, we humans actually pose a greater threat to the barracuda in the way of habitat destruction and pollution than it ever could to us.

The great barracuda has a ferocious reputation, but most divers and snorkelers who have routinely encountered them say they are usually very placid. Nonetheless, it pays to exercise caution and common sense when in the vicinity of this fish.

The great barracuda, Sphyraena barracuda, ranges in size from 18 inches to about six feet long. It is easily recognized by its torpedo shape and lower jaw which juts out past the upper part of its mouth. This pronounced underbite, with razor sharp teeth often visible, gives the barracuda a very menacing look indeed.

As one of the ocean’s top predators, barracudas are well equipped to cause serious injury. Despite that fact, barracudas and divers frequently share the water without incident in many of the world’s best known SCUBA and snorkeling spots.

Divers are well advised to use common sense and exercise caution when a barracuda is encountered. Unlike many species of fish, the barracuda can be very curious and has been known to follow divers. Still, confirmed, unprovoked attacks on humans are rare. Divers who have gotten into trouble with barracudas usually have been spearfishing and have found themselves in a conflict over who gets to keep the quarry.

Getting attacked by a barracuda while at the beach is improbable since the surf zone is not its primary habitat. A few isolated cases of near-shore barracuda bites do exist, however. According to University of Georgia researcher Shane Patterson, most documented barracuda attacks have involved swimmers splashing excessively, or swimming when visibility is reduced because of unclear water or lack of light (at dusk). Under these conditions, it may be easy for the predator to mistake human movement for food.

Depending on habitat, adult barracudas feed on a wide variety of smaller fish, including mullet, snapper, herrings and sardines, small groupers and even small tuna. Even though its swimming speed is estimated as fast as 27 miles per hour, the barracuda is an accomplished lurker. It has mastered the art of “how not to be seen” and it relies on its stealth for catching its meals. The barracuda often appears to hang in the open water, moving ever so slowly and effortlessly so as to become almost unnoticeable.

The great barracuda can be found in the Atlantic as far north as Massachusetts and south in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. It drifts around reefs and other habitats, either alone or in small groups. The numerous wrecks off North Carolina’s coast make perfect hangouts for barracudas.