It’s not every day that a girl gets to go hunting lionfish.
Lionfish, if you don’t know, are those beautiful fish with long white tendrils on their back (called dorsal spines) that flutter gracefully in the water. Beautiful, but poisonous. Touch one of those spines, and you’ll suffer a very painful (possibly life-threatening) sting.
Over the years scuba diving in Los Cabos and Thailand and Egypt, I was taught – “Don’t get too close to the lionfish!”
So now I’m on a dive in the Grenadine Islands in the Caribbean, trying to stay neutrally buoyant 60 feet underwater, as I get close to a cluster of large lionfish.
I want to see our dive guide, Walter, spearing lionfish.
When I first heard Walter say before our dive, “Okay, let’s try and catch some lionfish, shall we?” I was taken aback. They’re some of the most graceful tropical reef fish. Surely we want to protect the marine life, not kill it?
As it turns out, lionfish in the Caribbean are one exception.
Native to the coral reefs of the Indo-Pacific oceans, lionfish are an invasive species in the Caribbean waters.
“They’re a pest,” says Walter.
Prized as aquarium fish, it’s thought lionfish were introduced to the Caribbean (and Atlantic waters) as a result of people emptying an aquarium or two into the sea.
The problem is that lionfish are multiplying rapidly and eating the other native tropical fish, decimating their numbers. Also, by eating juvenile parrotfish and other grazer fish, lionfish are wiping out the fish that feed on algae and help keep corals alive, so the health of the coral reefs is affected too. And lionfish have few natural predators. (Sharks don’t like them.)
The lionfish invasion in the Caribbean has unbalanced the eco-system.
It’s gotten so bad there’s even talk of using underwater killer robots to zap them!
Well, we’re going to do our tiny bit to help right this lionfish invasion.
The good news is that lionfish taste delicious. (They’re no longer poisonous within a few minutes after they die, so they’re safe to eat when cooked.)
Local fishermen are now diving and fishing for this delicacy.
“In the restaurants in Bequia, lionfish cost as much as lobster,” Walter adds.
Scuba diving in the Grenadines
We start our dive at Chatham Bay off Union Island in the Grenadines.
I’ve been sailing in the area on a luxury 60-foot catamaran.
Sharon, a fellow guest on the catamaran, is my dive buddy.
We’ve zipped away from the catamaran on a small Zodiac-style skiff with Walter (who does double duty as our catamaran captain) and Michael (who will stay on the skiff to follow our bubbles that rise up from beneath).
Walter spots our first lionfish pretty soon after we descend down to the reef. But it’s a small thing – only a few inches big. Not much to eat there! He has more luck with the next one we see.
He uses a very low-tech spear gun, which operates something like a streamlined bow-and-arrow. He hovers close, aims the tip of the spear gun about two feet away from the fish, and shoots. Then he has to struggle to get the impaled fish into a net bag strapped to his wrist, without touching the fish or accidentally brushing up against its spines.
Now that you know how seriously bad a lionfish sting is, let’s get back to Walter…
Even though he’s not wearing gloves, it still seems like it’s no contest.
The lionfish just hang in the water, without moving. They only dart away right before the thin, one-foot spear hits them.
For me, it’s hard to see them wriggling away for a minute or so in their death throes after being impaled.
Before surfacing, Walter catches a big fish. I’ve never seen one this big – it’s over a foot long (and a bit ugly in the face too). This one, I know, he’ll be happy with.
All told, he brings up three lionfish.
In the late afternoon, we transfer from our catamaran to stay a couple of nights in a beachfront villa on the island of Mayreau.
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Is this paradise? Tradewinds has a new Aqua-Terra concept (which we’re checking out). Stay a few days on a catamaran sailing the untouched Grenadine Islands in the Caribbean. Stay a few days on land at Tribu Villas on Mayreau Island. We’ll be writing about this for Islands Magazine and our travel blog — so stay tuned! And if you can’t wait, check out Trade-Winds.com in the meantime ?.
Come sunset, seated with our toes in the sand and martinis in hand, we taste Walter’s breaded and deep-fried lionfish catch. It makes up enough for several chicken-nugget-sized appie portions.
And, yes, the lionfish is tender and light-tasting. Well worth the lionfish hunting! And I can breathe easy that I’m eating an invasive fish species that should be eaten.
But I confess, I still prefer lobster.
Where are the Grenadines?
I traveled to the Grenadines courtesy of Tradewinds. But I had no idea we’d be helping with the lionfish invasion solution :-).
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Photos 4, 6 and 7 © Janice Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase | Photo 5 courtesy Tradewinds