||How Dangerous are
23 November 1998
Judging by their appearance and size, some
barracudas certainly can look very intimidating. The barracudas
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. PHOTO CREDIT: Paul Humann
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 oceans 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 worlds 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
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
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 Carolinas
coast make perfect hangouts for barracudas.
The Aquariums are located at Fort Fisher, Pine Knoll Shores,
and Roanoke Island and are administered by the North Carolina
Department of Environment and Natural Resources. For more
information on the Aquariums, call 1/800-832-FISH.