As I reflect on the subject of dangerous marine animals, I remember those situations in which I felt most threatened in the sea. Was it on Maupiti Island, in the Society Islands, while drift-diving in a narrow channel, meeting more than twenty gray reef sharks, each over seven feet in length, notorious man-biters when they feel their space is invaded? Was it while diving in the Mediterranean in a region where deadly weaverfish have attacked divers with their dorsal spines? Was it in the waters of Papua New Guinea when a highly venomous sea snake fearlessly approached me? Was it in a Roatan Island cave in the Caribbean, when I rounded a corner and came face to face with the toothy grin of a large green moray? Was it on the wreck of the Rhone, in the British Virgin Islands, while feeding fish when a five-foot barracuda made a lightning-quick attack through the school of fish surrounding me to grab a morsel of food (which could just as easily been my hand)? Was it on the Island of Wuvulu, in Papua New Guinea, when I disturbed a large group of stingrays resting in a cave, causing them to stampede, and in the process risked being envenomated in the chaos of stirred up sediment and panicked fish? Was it during numerous other excursions to the South Pacific when I swam near a blue-ringed octopus and among stinging Portuguese Man-of-Wars, or when I was attacked by small biting isopods on a night dive, or bumped into fire coral?
The Cousteau Society
Honestly, none of these seemingly dramatic encounters with marine animals has taken up much of my thoughts. There is one animal, however, more than all those mentioned previously, that has consumed my attention. I know my father shares my feelings on this subject. "What is it," you might ask, "that the Cousteaus worry about most in the sea?" The answer is sea urchins, those long-spined urchins of the genus Diadema. They lurk in crevices, stand guard over coral heads, and form marauding battalions on sandy bottoms. At night they emerge en masse, making the reef a living porcupine. On night dives, I focus my attention on the position of each part of my body in relation to ledges above, surrounding coral heads, and the bottom below. A miscalculation brings instant, stabbing pain, which builds for a few minutes then maintains itself at a constant level for at least twenty minutes. During this time, I can think of little else, and want to leave the water, to get away from the ache. But I know I will feel no better aboard Calypso. There is no escape; I must simply wait and endure. Each such mistake makes me more apprehensive of the inevitable next one.
For me, the most commonly encountered dangerous marine animal is the sea urchin. However, if I included all animals, the most dangerous would be humans. No other single species has eliminated others as we have. No other species has contaminated the waters with its waste as we have. If any animal species deserves condemnation for being the most harmful to its neighbors, it is clearly Homo sapiens. What amazes me is that we have the power of conscious thought and rational decision-making, and, yet, as a species, we cannot see that we are dependent on our surroundings for our own survival and well-being. And since we have the ability to make choices, it is by now clear that we must choose to protect and wisely manage our seas, which are vital to our survival and the survival of all life on earth. We cannot afford to be the most dangerous animal in the sea.
In the life of the "Jaws" hysteria, I am relieved to see the publication of this book, Dangerous Aquatic Animals of the World: A Color Atlas, and am pleased that Dr. Bruce W. Halstead has been able to bring together the many diverse aspects of this fascinating subject. The scope of the book reflects the breadth of his knowledge. I cannot think of a person who has more experience in the field or can speak with more authority on dangerous, poisonous, and venomous marine animals. It is refreshing to see the such an emotionally charged subject can be discussed in an interesting yet rational manner.
The marine animals under discussion here are not bad or evil. Their offensive and defensive teeth, stings, venoms, and other toxins are designed to be dangerous. With an understanding of this fact, we can proceed to observe, study, and even enjoy these ingenious adaptations. Our ignorance is the greatest danger in the sea. Dr. Halstead has made a major contribution toward eliminating ignorance about some of the most fascinating animals in the sea, and, by doing so, has enabled all of us who venture on and in the sea to have a safer and more enjoyable experience.
January 6, 1991