My encounter with this guy almost ended badly. I was snorkelling around a rocky reef off Kata Noi beach, on the Andaman Sea coast of Phuket yesterday. Specifically I was trying to photograph fish swimming and feeding in the breaking waves. This is a little tricky in that one needs to get close enough to get decent images in water full of bubbles and suspended bits of detritus, without actually ending up on the rocks themselves. My technique was to float as close as possible, then duck-dive down and grab on to a suitable bit of rock to stabilise and secure myself as the waves swept passed me (note: this was shallow, algae covered rock, not coral). The rocks in the shallows were large and smooth, so finding a handhold was not always easy. On this occasion, as I dived down, I noticed a small rounded protuberance on the flat rock below me. Not a great handhold but it would probably give me just enough purchase. As I reach out, a fraction of a second before my fingers closed around it, the ‘protuberance’ swam off down the slope. I knew immediately what it was, and realised how lucky I had just been. Though not at all aggressive, scorpionfish are among the most venomous species in the ocean. A series of sharp spines occur within their dorsal fin. These normally lie flat along their backs, but when the fish is alarmed they become erect. The spines have grooves along them that connect to venom glands. When the spines puncture the skin of an unlucky swimmer or diver this causes the sheath protecting the spines to tear, allowing venom is pumped into the tissue. When staid scientific papers describe the first symptoms as excruciating pain then you know it’s gonna hurt. Many years before I had the unfortunate experience of stepping, bare-footed, on a stonefish while I was erecting a tide gauge in shallow water (stonefish are related to scorpionfish but with a generally more potent venom). The pain I experienced over the subsequent six hours is something I never want to repeat. The initial effects (apart from pain) are usually pronounced edema as the toxins cause a major inflammatory response. More severe problems can include heart arrythmia, tissue necrosis and lung damage. The toxins are extremely complex and we are still only just starting to the underlying mechanisms.
Fortunately I avoided all this and was able to watch as the scorpionfish swam down into deeper watch. Once it had settled I dived down to get some photographs. Scorpionfish are not at all aggressive, and generally rely on their impressive camouflage to protect them. So if you approach slowly and carefully one can get quite close without disturbing them. Several scorpionfish species occur in the Andaman Sea, and identifying to species level live individuals is extremely difficult as often relies on small physical differences that are almost impossible to spot underwater. So this guy will remain Scoraenodes sp.
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