Published June 15, 2015 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2015 Susan Scott
A swordfish recently killed angler and charter boat captain Randy Llanes in the Big Island’s Honokohau Harbor. After the fish entered the anchorage — an unusual occurrence because swordfish live far offshore, Randy jumped into the water and speared it. The fish got tangled in an anchor line and in its death throes stabbed Randy in the chest.
Being at the top of the food chain, billfish have few predators — only orcas, sharks and humans.
Marlin, spearfish, sailfish and swordfish are all members of the billfish family, 12 species that roam the deep oceans of the tropics and subtropics.
The distinctive top bill of the fish is an extension of the upper jaw. In swordfish the jawbone is flat, sharp-edged and tapers to the tip, like a sword. At about a third the length of the fish, the swordfish bill is the longest among billfish.
Swordfish grow to 15 feet, but even when small, such as the 6-foot-long Honokohau swordfish, their bills are formidable weapons.
Years ago I found a swordfish bill in an otherwise empty rental unit. The former tenants must have considered the 34-inch-long bill trash because they left it lying on the lanai with a dead potted plant. If that flowerpot had been filled with gold, though, I wouldn’t have been more thrilled. I hung the remarkable bill on my bedroom wall.
Besides its remarkable bill, the swordfish is also exceptional for having warm eyes. Special eye muscles act like tiny space heaters warming the fish’s tennis ball-size eyes and brain from 50 to 59 degrees Fahrenheit.
Swordfish spend their days hunting about a quarter-mile deep in 37-degree water. Because warm eyes capture light better than cold eyes, the heating helps the fish find and catch prey in its chilly, dark habitat.
As fish eaters, all 12 species of billfish slash their bills back and forth with tremendous strength and speed to stun and injure their prey. Once again, swordfish are exceptional because in addition to slashing, they sometimes stab a large fish that happens by.
The swordfish’s broad bill (the fish are also called broadbills in some countries) is truly swordlike, the edges sharp enough for the fish to withdraw it from a predator’s or prey’s flesh.
No one knows why a swordfish was in Honokohau Harbor, but whatever caused the powerful young fish to swim past an experienced spear-fisherman, it was an ill-fated moment. Two apex predators with comparable weapons came face to face, and both lost their lives.
Those of us who routinely enter the ocean do it for various reasons, but we all have one thing in common: We understand the risks and go anyway.
I didn’t know Randy, but as a lifelong fisherman and deep-sea charter boat skipper, he realized the danger of spearing a swordfish. Friends and family say Randy died doing what he loved.
Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean
Watch”, for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, www.staradvertiser.com
©2015 Susan Scott