The barracuda followed me for an hour. It seemed more curious than malevolent, keeping at a constant distance as I snorkeled around Walsingham Bay in Bermuda. I was studying the epibiota of submerged mangrove roots; the barracuda was studying me.
This was my research project during my college semester in Bermuda. A group of 15 marine biology majors joined our professor for two months of intensive study at the Bermuda Biological Station for Research (now called the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences). Our usual routine consisted of classes in the morning, then either laboratory or field work in the afternoon. Evenings were spent studying on the veranda or partying with locals in the pubs of St. Georges.
My main study area was Walsingham Pond, which sat secluded just inland from the Bay. The pond had originally been a cave, but at some point the roof collapsed and left a sinkhole about 40 feet at its deepest. The pond is isolated from the Bay and the adjoining Castle Harbor, but there are enough breaks in the surrounding rock to allow the pond to maintain a seawater salinity, rise and fall with the tides, and be dominated by marine organisms instead of freshwater. The bottom is often covered with Cassiopeia, the upside-down jellyfish.
The pond is surrounded by mangroves. My research target was the aerial prop roots of red mangroves (Rhizophora mangle, for those keeping score), which resemble the flying buttresses of gothic cathedrals. Most of the root remains below water except at the lowest tides, and many plants and animals grow on them. I spent many hours recording the various species – thirty-four in total.
Because the pond is enclosed it has few fish, and those are small. For comparison I also snorkeled around Walsingham Bay, an inlet opening directly into the huge Castle Harbor. Its openness means the numbers and types of animals and plants attached to the mangrove roots are much less, but it also allows bigger, more flesh-eating, types of fish to roam freely.
Hence my barracuda. This one was about 2 feet long; small by full grown standards, but with a mouthful of teeth that appeared to drool despite being underwater. I turned periodically to check his attitude, and feeling confident he would leave me alone, continued recording my study results on a waterproof tablet.
This wasn’t my first experience with a barracuda in Bermuda. A few weeks before I had been swimming with my fellow marine biology wannabes in one of our favorite coves in Whalebone Bay, about a mile west of the Biological Station. Snorkeling among the rocks and reefs guarding the Bay’s entrance one late evening, with the sun low in the sky, I came face-to-face in the roiling water with a large barracuda who seemed surprised that I wasn’t the dinner he had planned. The seconds passed like days as we stared into each other’s eyes, his razor-like teeth reflecting in my snorkeling mask. Awakening from my momentary stupor, I suddenly yelled “‘Cuda!” Yes, you can yell underwater. A moment later I was gasping for air at the surface, deciding immediately it was a good time to call it a night.
My Walsingham Bay ‘cuda was positively friendly in contrast. Almost as if he was a self-assigned guardian, no other aquatic wildlife actively searching for food bothered me. The small sharks and poisonous jellyfish left me alone as I slowly cruised around the Bay’s perimeter, my own personal barracuda keeping a watchful eye over me. And then, just as I was finishing my work for the day, my ‘cuda put on a burst of speed and swam past me out into the main harbor. I swear I saw him smile. I nodded in thanks and dragged myself back to the my waiting moped. A day well spent.
David J. Kent is the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores now. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.