Monday, May 1, 2000
aiming for humans
A couple of weeks ago, this paper ran a brief story
about a 16-year-old Florida snorkeler, Stephanie Mittler, who was speared
in the neck by a needle-nosed houndfish.
It was a close call, the wire service story said, but
the girl would recover.
Since then, I have received several email letters about
this incident. One was from a friend of the victim who wrote that
Stephanie, on spring break from her Tampa school, was standing in
chest-high water when she was hit.
Several aspects of this story intrigued me. First, what
the heck is a houndfish?
The newspaper article said that houndfish are related
to needlefish. After some searching, however, I learned that houndfish ARE
needlefish, just by another name. In Australia, people know these fish as
longtoms and here in Hawaii, they are sometimes called stick fish.
Whatever you call them, these fish have the potential
to be living lances. Needlefish are able to spring from the water and soar
over the surface at more than 30 mph for nearly a quarter-mile.
Christopher Columbus was labeled a liar when he described these
astonishing leaping fish to the royal court of Spain.
It's no surprise that needlefish get around above water
so well; they are close relatives of flying fish or malolo.
A major difference between the two, and the one that
concerns humans the most, is the shape of their snouts.
Malolo are blunt-nosed with small mouths. Needlefish,
however, have long, narrow snouts. It is their sharply pointed mouths that
can cause trouble for them and for people with the bad luck to get in
And that brings me to another interesting part of
Stephanie's story. Her accident happened during the day, but needlefish
are usually considered a nighttime hazard.
The theory is that lights from boats alarm or attract
the fish, causing them to take fateful leaps into anyone or anything in
This may be true sometimes, but needlefish also
puncture people in broad daylight. According to current worldwide records,
more needlefish injuries occurred in the daytime than at night.
Two windsurfers, a body surfer, a canoe paddler, a dawn
fisherman and now a snorkeler all suffered serious needlefish injuries
during the day.
This makes sense since the ability of these fish to fly
through the air is a method of avoiding underwater predators. If a
needlefish is being pursued, it will take to the air day or night to save
its life. And if a human is in the way during such an event, it's just bad
It's the fish's bad luck, too. A needlefish rarely
survives a collision with a human.
Despite the attention a needlefish accident gets,
piercings are not common and are not a reason to stay out of the ocean.
The number of needlefish clashes with people is
minuscule, considering the millions of snorkelers, surfers, swimmers and
fishers in the ocean every day.
In the rare event you do come into contact with a
needlefish, here's what to do:
Don't try to
remove a needlefish beak from the flesh. If the fish is still attached
to its embedded beak, cut it off and go to an emergency room.
Don't ignore a needlefish
puncture even if it seems trivial. In Israel, doctors found a 1-inch
piece of needlefish beak in a woman's neck one month after the incident.
They removed it and she recovered.
If you see needlefish while
snorkeling, don't panic -- these fish never try to poke people. Give
them some space and keep going.