Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

105: Pacific Barracuda

The past week was a momentous one. On August 24th, the 35th anniversary of my arrival on Catalina aboard the dive boat "Golden Doubloon," I logged my 1,000th dive since leaving the Conservancy. I never logged any of my dives before then. Now that I travel internationally to work and dive, I needed something to prove my skills to dive operators in other parts of the world. Over the last 12 months I've done about 350 dives. Whew!

Another momentous event was the opportunity to dive with a school of barracuda that day as they hunted the many baitfish (mainly jack mackerel, chub mackerel and Pacific sardines) that have frequented the park as summer "visitors." It has been an interesting summer with the water warming to a reported 75 degrees at the surface. Those wise species that prefer warmer waters were able to make their appearance a little early, and seemingly in greater numbers. In the recent past it has been unusual to see barracuda schools in the park for more than a day or so, but this year they've been there for several weeks.

Our local species, the Pacific barracuda, is considered occasional in southern California waters and is normally found along the Baja coast and into the Gulf of California. They have long mouths full of teeth and the lower jaw juts slightly forward of the upper jaw. They often move their jaws which may look threatening to divers unfamiliar with them, but this behavior simply assists in moving water past their gills. In the past they reached a maximum of about four feet but today are usually 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 feet long, about the size I'm seeing in the park.

In researching this article, I discovered that males and females can be distinguished from one another in two ways. Females are larger than the males, and have black anal fins (the last fin before the tail on the bottom of a fish). They are also cuter (if you're a male... barracuda, that is). Spawning peaks between May and June, and occurs largely near shore where the resulting larvae drift as plankton for a while. Females produce 400,000 eggs or more each season depending on their size. A barracuda may live more than 12 years.

Pacific barracuda feed on the large schools of baitfish that enter our waters during summer. These include the jack mackerel which are very abundant now, as well as anchovies, sardines, chub mackerel, grunion and even squid. In turn (remember the "mutual eating society?") they are eaten by birds including bald eagles on Catalina, and sharks. In fact there was a report of a blue shark chasing the barracuda in the dive park this weekend. Of course barracuda are a popular target of sport fishermen as well. In years past it was also fished commercially as a popular food fish.

The word barracuda often stirs fear in the minds of snorkelers and divers. Our species is fairly "shy" and not likely to bite humans. The bad (and largely undeserved) reputation comes from the larger great barracuda of tropical waters. I dive with this species often when I'm in the tropics and have never had a bad encounter. They are quite curious and will follow divers on reefs. Known "attacks" are generally caused by divers who are spear fishing, feeding them or possibly by bright objects like shiny jewelry being confused for a fish.

It was amusing to read an account by divers on who reported being "stalked" by two great barracuda that were about 12 feet long. These barracuda are reported to reach about six feet in length. Most of us know that objects appear slightly larger underwater... but certainly not twice their real size! I think these divers must also have been fishermen prone to "slightly" extending their arms when talking about the size of their catch, or maybe just suffering from nitrogen narcosis!

© 2004 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 49, 10:00 AM and 5:00 PM weekdays.

School of Pacific barracuda in the dive park amidst kelp and in the open;
pair of barracuda hunting jack mackerel; great barracuda in Belize.

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material © 2004 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia