Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#155: Barracuda Bonanza

A few weekends ago while diving in the park, I was "skunked." Not a single black sea bass sighting the entire time despite doing eight dives. Of course such times do include their benefits... far less video to edit at night and more time to enjoy Tony Baloney at Antonio's or karaoke at El Galleon. Occasional dive buddy Scott Patterson joined me on my third dive that Sunday. We finned out towards the wreck of the Sujac at about 60 feet, keeping an eye out for the elusive sea bass. What we encountered instead was something I've never seen before in Catalina waters.

That dive took me to 90 feet near the base of the Sujac. Scott was videotaping further up the hull at the large "swim through" hole. I rose to a level above him so my bubbles wouldn't interfere with his shooting. Then I happened to look up. What I saw puzzled me. It looked like an incredibly large school of baitfish... perhaps jack mackerel. It was at a depth of about 40 feet and well off the Sujac. I started to swim towards it, "abandoning" my buddy (shame on me). Sometimes my image taking makes me a very poor person to rely on and dive with... I'm so used to diving solo.

As I slowly approached the "baitfish," it was obvious that these must be "sardines" on steroids. Even through my camera viewfinder I could tell they were too large. As I drew closer and the image in my viewfinder improved, I realized I was looking at a massive school of Pacific barracuda! I consider myself lucky if I see one or two barracuda in the dive park and have never seen more than a few dozen at a time. Initially I estimated there might be 200 individuals in this school, but when I took my eyes off the viewfinder I realized it was even larger than I thought. There were easily 300 and possibly as many as 500 barracuda (my fish tales "expand" both sizes and numbers).

By this time Scott had joined me and we both had our video cameras rolling to capture this phenomenon. The school circled us making it impossible to capture them all in one frame, or even a wide pan. As we slowly approached, they kept a respectful distance from us making it difficult to get good close-up footage. I was so incredulous at this encounter that I didn't even think to zoom in on a few of them. I estimated the fish at between two and possibly four feet long (which would be the maximum reported size for this species). I couldn't tell whether they were males, females or mixed gender. It is said that the anal fins of the males are lighter in color than those of the females which are black. The females also tend to be larger in size, with most of those over 10 pounds being female.

"Barries" as they are sometimes called can be found from Alaska to southern Baja, although they are most common south of Point Conception. They are usually a schooling, open water (pelagic) fish that swims close to the surface. The young may be found in shallow waters near shore, especially in the fall. The Pacific barracuda is a migratory species. It moves into our area from Baja during the late spring and early summer as the waters here warm and baitfish return. Some fish remain in southern California throughout the winter, but most appear to return to the Baja area just like the snowbirds of the East Coast and Midwest. According to noted fish expert Dr. Milton Love, barracuda were so common during the 1957-58 El Nino that anglers had trouble catching anything else. At that time I was running around the Chicago suburbs with my "flintlock rifle" in my Davy Crockett coonskin cap and "rawhide" outfit.

Dr. Love states that spawning usually peaks from May to July but may occur from April possibly into November. Our species reproduce near-shore, which may be the reason for this huge school being close to the harbor mouth. Then again, it may be the large schools of baitfish frequenting Avalon Bay then. "Barries" like anchovies, sardines, mackerel and grunion as well as squid for a little "change of taste." Mating or munching... both good reasons for a party (of two... or a whole lot more).

Barracuda grow fairly quickly by fish standards, exceeding two feet by their fourth year and living about a dozen years when they may approach four feet. At least the parents don't have to worry about teenage barracuda racing around! However, males are sexually mature at about two and females at three years. Imagine being in the "terrible two's" AND being driven by all those hormones! A middle-aged female may produce as many as 400,000 eggs in a season. The larvae drift in ocean currents reasonably close to shore (within about 30 miles) for a pelagic species.

Fortunately for swimmers in our area, this fish does not attack humans like its larger relative, the great barracuda, in the Caribbean is reported to. Imagine 300-500 six-foot great barracuda swarming along southern California beaches. I've dived with the reputedly "aggressive" species many times in the Caribbean. Although they look "mean," I've never had a problem with them. But then I don't wear watches, jewelry or other flashy stuff in the water. Heck, I can't afford such luxuries and still fill my SCUBA tanks on a regular basis!

© 2005 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. Buy my "Munching and Mating in the Macrocystis" DVD so you can take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

Images of the "barracuda bonanza" in the dive park..

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2005 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia