Balicasag Predators on the lookout for you!

OF ALL the fish in the sea, you might think that the shark is the one feared by most people: it certainly has the right reputation of being a killer but, as a general rule, it is not the fish that is most avoided in the Visayas: that reputation belongs to the barracuda.

Although there are millions of barracudas in the waters of the Philippines, there are few reports of attacks by them: you are far more likely to be attacked by the goldfish-sized clownfish while taking a leisurely snorkel in shallow waters than a marauding crazed bunch of barracudas.

The trouble is, the barracuda does not really deserve its reputation: it only looks fierce because its’ mouth contains dozens of needle-sharp teeth which look menacing to humans: true, they can and do cause a lot of damage to other fish and could probably bite off a finger or three if they decided to turn against humans who visit their realm, but in general they are as wary and frightened of you as you are of them.

The biggest trouble is, there are so many of them at the same time and they look like a pack of wolves out for a thrill when you bump into a wall of them – in this case the thrill seemingly being you. If you happen to dive around Balicasag Island off Alona Beach on Panglao, be prepared to be scared out of your wits: barracudas love the place and have decided to take up permanent residence all year round.

There they swim not in schools of a dozen or so but in their hundreds: sometimes the sea in front of you seems as if it is blocked by a wall of barred barracudas daring you to swim into their jaws…so swim into them, and the wall will part to allow you inside the enclave…but it will be closed behind you as if they have just clanged the cell door shut.

Hey: no problem! Enjoy yourself! These are only juvenile barracudas learning all they need to know to get through life, even if they do all look two or three feet long and seem as if they could tear off an arm or a leg just to play with: that’s why they all at to school together. It’s the teachers and their mummies and daddies that you really want to watch out for!

The adults are more than a bit bigger and seek out their own independent territory as soon as they grow up and leave school: that is when they become more predatory and seem to pose a threat to humans…and this is really because they have an insatiable curiosity about anyone in their world…and that includes you when you dip into their habitat.

Some of the adult barracudas which inhabit the waters of the Philippines can grow up to six feet long, although there are seventeen other related and smaller species in the rest of the world.

What makes our ‘big boys’ seem frightening is their habit of picking off snorkellers and divers and then swimming in ever tightening fast circles around them as they investigate: it makes it seem as if they are eyeing you up as a lunchtime snack. And snack they do sometimes: divers have lost fingers containing glittering rings as well as flashy watches and had a nip or two taken out of legs during the escape routine, so it is reported.

Around Balicasag there are also a few strangers in the shoals: one of them is an albino barracuda which seems to swim in the middle of the gang; another is a white-headed fish while a third is completely yellow, or golden, and seems to be herded into the center of the school as if it is being protected as a king of the brood.

Why there are these strangers in the shoals has never been reliably accounted for, with speculations that it may be the effect of global warming or pollution: close investigation may reveal the truth, but until then everything is simply speculation.

These unusual sightings have been recorded on film by divers working for geographic television channels in other countries, so we might find out a bit more about them in future programmes on National Geographic, the BBC or Animal Planet.

What we do know about them is that the shoaling varieties are considered good eating fish even in the Philippines – especially as kinnilaw – and that they have a soft white meat which melts in the mouth: that means they are not as invincible as they think and we can always get the ultimate revenge!

The only problem with predators is that they are only part of the food chain of the world and recently there have been reports of heavy metals found in fish, and whatever they eat is what is ultimately ingested by us, the top food predator…maybe we should leave them alone if we value our own lives!