When The Fish Fight Back
By Kelly Hayes-Raitt
Ko Tao is one of those idyllic islands off the southeast coast of Thailand that boasts hillsides so lush, beaches so powdery and scuba diving so magical that it’s almost a travel brochure cliché. What the brochures conveniently fail to mention is how unwelcoming the natives can be: During a recent scuba dive, I was attacked – by a triggerfish.
The size of a large raccoon, triggerfish are flamboyantly beautiful and commandingly imposing; and, as I learned, naturally territorial. The dive masters had warned us that the triggers at the site where we’d be diving are particularly aggressive. They’re one of the few fish that raise their young. Most other females lay and leave their eggs waiting for the males to come along and … do whatever it is they do with no obvious concern for calling the next morning. The little young’uns then become wards of the state and make their way the best they can. Triggers, though, nest and create little trigger tykes in need of protection.
So, there I was, swimming along in my own little bliss, while the dive master swam about 20 feet ahead of me. “Visibility is perfect,” I thought when suddenly from the perimeter of my vision a huge fish charged for the dive master like an NFL linebacker with a score to settle. I thought the finned monstrosity was going to actually broadside her and roll her over. Instead, it tugged on her fin so hard, she turned around thinking it was me trying to get her attention.
Then, the fish turned a sharp 90º and charged at me! I exhaled deeply and dropped about three feet. The fish flew over me, overshooting about ten feet. While I was wallowing in my underwater self-congratulatory bliss for having reacted so quickly, the fish U-turned to come back at me! It was like one of those late-night cable horror movies: Attack of the Killer Trigger Fish. As taught, I rolled onto my back and flexed my fins perpendicular to the relentless fish, creating a couple of hot pink stop signs. Papa Trigger came back within inches of me before veering off. Meanwhile, I was back-paddling frantically, swimming on my back, fins up, looking like a bloated, ungainly manatee, not daring to take my eyes off the testosterony fish.
I thought I was cleared, and then the fish came at me again! Trust me, I was moving; I had no desire to challenge its turf. It was like being chased by some West Virginian farmer with more shells in his shotgun than teeth in his head after I had accidentally wandering onto some remote corner of his grungy field.
One of the other dive masters joined me, and I guess the now outnumbered trigger “territorialist” decided he’d taught me enough of a lesson and went back to tending to the next generation of “ichthyterrorists.”
(Ed. Note: When not telling fish stories, Kelly Hayes-Raitt finishes her journalistic memoir Living Large In Limbo: How I Found Myself Among the World’s Forgotten about her work in the Middle East with Iraqi and Palestinian refugees. A popular college lecturer, she blogs at www.LivingLargeInLimbo.com.)