The night dive was quite an experience; as we dove through the pitch-black (with flashlights), Captain John was on the boat piping down music through an underwater speaker. It wasn't very loud, but every couple of minutes, as I was drifting through the dark and seeing the reflections of huge, shiny fish-eyes in my flashlight beam, I'd catch a distant, barely recognizable earful of a 'Barenaked Ladies' album that was popular when I was in high school. It was pretty surreal. This was mostly just a pleasure dive, so we didn't do much collecting.
Yesterday morning we pulled up our first lionfish, although we've actually been seeing them with alarming frequency.
Photo Credit: Steve Winer
I think I've seen at least one, and often more than one, every time we've gone in. They're kind of everywhere. The problem with this is that lionfish don't belong in the Bahamas; they're an invasive species. Getting into the water and seeing lots of them is not a good feeling—it'd be like walking down the street in Boston and seeing dingoes, or hyenas, or some other obviously foreign animal, just trotting around in the park, eating the local animals with impunity. Something inside you just says, "This is definitely not going to be good."
Lionfish are native to the Indo-Pacific, thousands of miles from here. Being as beautiful as they are, though, they're very popular fish for home aquariums. They were first seen in the Atlantic Ocean in 1992, and one theory is that that year Hurricane Andrew smashed somebody's home aquarium in Florida that then swept a couple of lionfish into the ocean.
The initial report of a lionfish sighting in 1992
Since then, it hasn't taken the lionfish population long to completely explode in the Atlantic. (Trip participant and long-time Aquarium volunteer Don spoke to our teen divers program earlier this year about this very problem! Read more in this SEA TURTLE post.)
A map of all reported lionfish sightings as of 2009
Basically, the Atlantic was not ready for lionfish. They reproduce multiple times a year, they're voracious eaters, they eat things as big as 1/3 of their own size, and they're covered in unbelievably venomous spines. Even though lionfish stings aren't fatal, I've heard that people who have been stung by lionfish have actually pleaded to have the affected limb amputated because the pain is so intense, even though they know it's eventually going to go away. As such, no other animal in the Atlantic seems willing to try to eat the lionfish.
For that reason, seeing them everywhere while SCUBA diving is even more disconcerting. They don't sweat you at all; they just slowly drift along, as if they know that nothing in this part of the world can mess with them. As you can imagine, this is a major problem; if left unchecked, lionfish could completely take over this ecosystem in a matter of decades. So, upon seeing one today, trip participant Don did exactly what environmental agencies recommend people start doing. He caught it, cooked it up, and we ate it. (You may remember Don from this recent post, he helped train the rest of us on collecting non-venemous fish!)
Of course, catching lionfish isn't something that you can just jump in and do. Don has been trained in lionfish collecting, and he uses special HexArmor gloves that are puncture-proof.
Don carefully collects a lionfish
Once their spines are properly removed, the lionfish are completely safe to eat. There's no risk at all. It's just like eating any other fish.
When Don was finished, Chef Matt prepared a lionfish ceviche.
And this is a 100% genuine, non-staged Sherrie reaction shot after trying it for the first time.
It really was that good, which is great news—lionfish are one fish species that we'd actually like to overfish, so an ideal situation would be that people start wanting to eat lionfish so much that fishermen begin to actively target them. Again, I can testify that they're actually really good, so next time you're at a seafood restaurant, ask them if they have any lionfish dishes. And if they don't, act kind of surprised and annoyed.
In a couple of hours we'll be docking the boat on Bimini Island and inviting the local folks aboard for a community open house, so everything is buzzing in preparation right now. It should be lots of fun—I'll talk about it more soon.
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Aquarium divers go on several daily dives to care for the animals in the Giant Ocean Tank (GOT) as well as lead expeditions to the Bahamas.