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It happened to me

IHTM Triggerfish attack

Forget about sharks – for Jim Hancock, a clash with titan triggerfish was far more intimidating

When you say that you are a diver to the uninitiated, sooner or later, you will be asked the question: ‘Aren’t you afraid of the sharks?’ To which I now reply: ‘No. I’m much more afraid of triggerfish!’ Cue curious expressions…

I worked on liveaboards in the Maldives for five years, first as a resident marine biologist and later in management. I was showing two colleagues a site they’d not dived before, called Visna Finolhu in Vaavu Atoll. We had dropped outside the atoll on an incoming tide and followed the outer reef until we came to the channel mouth. Having spent an extended time below 20m, we gradually ascended and allowed ourselves to be sucked down the middle of the channel, where we intended to do our safety stop.

The only flaw in our plan was that it was mid-September and a full moon – what I now know to be nesting time for titan triggerfish. And they love the sandy bed of a remote channel. We had ascended to 6m and were enjoying the rollercoaster of a two-to three-knot current. Then we spotted a titan triggerfish nest ahead. Swimming off to one side of the oncoming nest, with me the farthest downstream, we were at first amused to see a territorial charge from this titan. But smiles turned to frowns when we noticed another nest coming up, with another fish near it. And another next to that. And another. We were about to be swept through the largest concentration of titan triggerfish nests I had ever seen, in a channel so narrow that we could not escape them. And, we still had two minutes left to serve on the safety stop! 

Battle commenced. First, we used our drifting fins to keep body parts out of the line of attack, but soon there were angry fish downstream, and those we’d passed over were having another crack at us from behind. I was the first to get munched. Seeing a titan rushing up, I put my hands up to block my assailant’s path, but was shocked to see it flash past, and I felt a searing pain in my neck. A blur later, and the top of my head hurt too. The other divers were staring at me, and it was only when blood drifted into my field of vision that I knew the fish had got its teeth into me. 

Still with a minute to go, we backed ourselves mid-water against one wall of the channel, to limit the angles we could be attacked from. But the triggerfish continued to attack! Looking around at my colleagues, I had at least a moment to enjoy what looked like a scene from a second-rate kung-fu movie, with kicks and fists flying in slow-mo in all directions. What really tickled me, though, was seeing that one of my colleagues had brought out his collapsible snorkel and was busy wielding it, nunchuck style, at incoming titans. I could almost hear the ‘Hiyaaaah…!’ But enough was enough, and we struck for the surface, screaming for the boat the second we surfaced.

The liveaboard’s doctor declared my bite was ‘a good one’, with two vampire-like puncture wounds. I also had a lump on the top of my head. My colleagues had some well-chewed fins, and one had a bite on the thigh.

I knew the site well, but had not seen titan triggerfish there before in such numbers – and never knew they nested in groups like this. I have since been told that nesting titans defend their patch in a ‘cone of tolerance’ – at the sea bed, they only defend a small area near their nest, but their territory widens in mid-water and at the surface. Our best bet would have been to go to down one side of the channel, get as low as possible to the sea bed and simply drift until we passed the nesting area. Isn’t hindsight a wonderful thing? 

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