by Gary Carlson
The Lionfish Invasion continues, and we continue to hunt them, kill them, and eat them. They are a quite tasty alternative protein source!
To the credit of the Lionfish Hunters around the West End area of Roatan, we are seeing less of these predators at our regular dive excursion sites. Although seeing less is good, the downside is that the Lionfish are getting smarter.
First arriving on Roatan's reef in 2009, in three years we were holding Lionfish Bar-B-Ques and contests. It turns out they were easy to kill. Being ambush predators their natural modus operandi would be to hover, often in groups, over coral heads slowly corralling the juvenile reef fish, their primary prey. Totally ignoring approaching divers, perhaps over confident with their poisonous spines as protection, they could be speared one at a time while the others continued their hunts.
Unfortunately, no one is a perfect shot every time, and some were shot at and missed or near missed. The fish that survived these maulings obviously have the fact that scuba divers are dangerous to them firmly imprinted in their survival memory. Now we often see them in the distance swimming to hiding spots in the reef when they see us, or perhaps hear the bubbles.
A full grown Lionfish with all its fins displayed is about the size of a basketball, but folding their spines back against their bodies they can squirm into any of a multitude of small holes that are present in coral reefs. I have taken most of my hunting out to an area that doesn't get dived/dove much, and where the Lionfish aren't such smarty pants.
Approaching a Lionfish they will normally slowly turn their back to you and getting the most of their poisonous spines pointed your direction. Turning slightly side to side to keep an eye on you, they make for a difficult headshot, and you have to take what you can get. If you happen to miss or one shakes itself off of the spear, they beeline for the reef looking for a hole to hide in.
Where I hunt now is more of a large flat plateau than a vertical reef, and it is covered with white sand hosting a forest of giant barrel sponges. There are not a lot of holes for the Lionfish to hide, which makes for good hunting, but they are not without their tricks. Some hide in the barrel sponges (the record is 4 in one sponge!) others hide where ever they can, sometimes wedging themselves into the grooves on the sides of these monsters, and I swear some of them can change their color as camouflage! With the terrain as it is, if you miss or one shakes off you can usually find them and finish the job. Usually.
I speared a Lionfish a few days ago, that was about average size, that started shaking frantically to get off the end of my spear. Following the fish up to try to keep it on the spear, I was about fifteen feet off the bottom when the fish finally shook off. Swimming frantically the fish swerved around, went over my shoulder and headed down. I spun around in the water column looking all over the bottom to see where it got to, and it has disappeared!
While I am looking for the fish and wondering where it could have gone because there just wasn't a lot of hiding spots for it nearby, I looked over at my oft diving partner Mickey Charteris, and he is holding up both hands palms toward me in the universal "Don't f-ing move" hand sign!
I don't. Mickey swims over and takes my spear outta my hand and swims around behind me. By now I have figured that the injured Lionfish looking desperately for a place to hide, chose me! I'm hanging there in 80 feet of water with a poisonous pincushion, possibly with an attitude, hiding in my life support system, but my trusted dive buddy is in back of me with my razor sharp spear surely working devilishly to remedy this situation, when...FLASH! (Just between us, those photographers can push you to the edge sometimes).
Now I feel some tugging on my BCD, there is the feeling of things moving around back there, when Mickey swims around in front of me his eyes and the point of the spear following something going past my throat. There was a sense of relief as he slightly shook his head, and worked his way around behind me, and then back to the front. Pointing the spear along side my head, he shot, and like a magician pulled a Lionfish out from behind my ear!
I guess that lionfish was in my BCD, swam through my hoses, under my chin, and behind my tank before a shot could be taken. It's in the freezer now waiting to be smoked!