Posted by: Carol | April 29, 2009

A Big Fish Tale with an Unhappy Ending

2009 South Pacific

cbparker_d3_20090429_penrhynuwb-074Rod unpacked his speargun and has started shooting our dinner. He’s a really good spearfisherman, free-diving down and
hitting his target almost every time, with an aim good enough to hit even a small fish in the ideal spot just behind the head near the gills. I follow closely towing the dinghy, because when a fish is speared it is paramount to get it up and out of the water as quickly as possible before the sharks arrive. They know the sound of the spear hitting rock and come around quickly to investigate. If they have a chance to grab the fish on the end of the spear and take off with it, most likely the diver will lose his entire speargun as well as his fish.

We’ve gone on several spearfishing expeditions and another scenic snorkel through a shallow pass. This afternoon Rod decided his goal was to shoot a really big fish, so we went back to Takuua Passage for the hunt. He warned me it might be a long time scouting out a big enough fish, but I swear we had no more than paddled fifty feet when he submerged, took aim, and nailed an enormous red snapper – probably a 30 pounder. He reeled it in quickly and hauled it into the dinghy – by the time it was clear of the water 4 or 5 black tip reef sharks had shown up, and a big gray shark cruised in as well. Gray sharks are the real thing, unlike the benign black tips – big, fast and predatory. It’s a thrill to see one, but not too close!

cbparker_d3_20090429_penrhynuwb-055We took Rod’s catch to shore for cleaning and filleting and the obligatory trophy photo – then back to Raven to serve up red snapper for dinner.

And this is where our happy adventures take a turn for the worse! By the middle of the night I was definitely feeling under the weather – and by morning comparing notes it turns out we were all sick – poisoned by our big fish! There is a kind of fish poisoning called Ciguatera. Ciguatoxin concentrates up the food chain as small reef fish consume toxin producing tiny organisms, and larger reef fish eat the smaller reef fish. The largest predatory fish (including big red snappers) concentrate the toxin even more. Ciguatera is present in some South Pacific environments, absent in others. Rod had quizzed the locals and they had indicated it was not a problem here – obviously not the case! And of course our big fish, top of the food chain and therefore with the strongest concentration of toxin, tipped us all over the edge.

Symptoms start out with severe gastrointestinal upset, followed by (quoting from our Marine Medicine book) “itching, chills, numbness and tingling of the hands, feet, lips and tongue, burning in the throat, fatigue, debilitating weakness, muscle and joint aches, and a variety of odd symptoms that may appear after a delay of several days and last for months. The most distinctive symptom is the reversal of hot and cold temperature perception: a cold beverage may feel like it is burning the lips and tongue, and a warm breeze may be chilling.” I can definitely vouch for the majority of those symptoms – the temperature sensation is quite weird and picking up a can of cold diet coke feels like I have grabbed a chunk of dry ice in my hand!

We all were affected in varying degrees and with varying symptoms. Mike’s symptoms were very slight – probably because he didn’t finish eating his snapper at dinner. Rod’s are the worst as he suffered through a bout of Ciguatera several years ago – today (Sunday) five days later he is still not feeling up to par. I felt really crummy for about 36 hours, but pretty reasonable thereafter (at least in comparison!) although I’m still drinking my water at room temperature. Geraldine says she has sworn off fish for the rest of her life (hard to do when you live on an island in the Philippines!).

So all our extracurricular activities have been curtailed as we hang out on the boat recovering – napping, reading, doing a few minimal chores, and generally taking it easy. We have plans to move Raven back to Omoka at the other end of the lagoon tomorrow (Monday) in preparation for departing for our next destination, Suwarrow. Rumor has it that the semiannual supply boat is due into port Tuesday! If so we hope to buy diesel as we don’t have enough left to finish our trip – we may have to (horror of horrors) actually sail at the mercy of the winds! If all goes according to plan, we’ll leave Penrhyn Wednesday morning. This next passage is about 400 miles, so should take us about 48 hours if all goes to plan. Last we heard, Suwarrow really is an uninhabited atoll, although perhaps with a caretaker, perhaps not.


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