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Wednesday, July 30, 2014         

OCEAN WATCH


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Beware the devastating sting of hard-to-notice scorpion fish

By Susan Scott

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My Sea of Cortez cruising guide tells me that walking across Punta el Alacran, near where I've anchored my sailboat, is a favorite pastime among cruisers. If I do the hike though, the guide warns, watch out for alacrans.

That means scorpions in Spanish, and here in the Sonoran Desert of Baja, Mexico, those curly-tailed stingers are no joke. I saw a species called the bark scorpion because it likes to hide in the loose bark of cottonwood trees. This common scorpion has venom so potent it can cause respiratory failure and death in humans. Quite a punch for a creature 1 to 2 inches long.

Even so, of more concern to me than scorpions when I'm hiking is scorpions when I'm swimming. Scorpion fish are common on these rocky reefs, and although a sting from one of these masters of camouflage isn't lethal, the pain from it can be excruciating. Just how excruciating, I came close to learning.

Not all members of the scorpion fish family are hard to see. Some show off their bright colors and long, wavy fins as a warning to back off or suffer the consequences. These are the lion fish and turkey fish, popular in the aquarium trade for their flamboyant fins that fan the water like butterfly wings. (Lion fish are sometimes called butterfly cod in Australia.) The points of those delicate-looking "wings," however, are needle-sharp and filled with venom.

The fish also uses the winglike fins to sweep the ocean floor to uncover prey, and to trap prey against rocks or coral walls.

Lion fish and turkey fish pack a wicked punch if a hand or foot gets too close to a fin spine, but at least they give notice.

It's the scorpion fish pretending to be rocks that make me jumpy. These types do such a fine job of matching their backgrounds that last week I deleted the digital pictures I took of one, thinking they were junk shots.

I took photos of that memorable individual because when I first spotted it, the fish, a foot or so long, lay not two feet from my face, giving me quite a start. My proximity, though, did not give the fish a start, fortunately, because these scorpion fish rely on ambush to eat. The nearly invisible fish lies stone-still until an unsuspecting prey passes near its mouth. Then with a lightning move, the large-mouthed scorpion fish gulps its meal whole.

Called the stone scorpion fish or Pacific spotted scorpion fish, the species here closely resembles the scorpion fish we call nohu, or titan scorpion fish, in Hawaii. Both can change the colors of their bumpy, frilled skin to match their backgrounds with amazing accuracy. Off Oahu's Halona Blowhole, I once had a fellow diver point right to a titan scorpion fish that I could not make out for minutes, even after she wrote the name on a slate.

Stings from scorpion fish in Mexican and Hawaiian waters are not lethal, as they can be in the South Pacific, but the pain they cause is legendary.

My close encounter with the scorpion fish last week was the result of trying to avoid experiencing such a sting. After a long walk ashore, I returned to the beach to swim back to my boat and discovered the tide had gone out past the sand and now rocks lined the shoreline.

Rather than wade out and risk stepping on one of the many scorpion fish I'd seen on my way in, I donned my snorkeling gear, made a lunge from the water's edge and glided right to that large, motionless scorpion fish face. Then it was me making the lightning move -- sideways.

Neither scorpions nor scorpion fish here in Baja are aggressive toward people, but accidents happen. "Watch out for alacrans" is good advice.

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Susan Scott can be reached at www.susanscott.net.






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