Are Barracudas a Danger to Snorkelers?

barracuda snorkeling danger

When people think of dangerous marine life they might encounter while snorkeling, they often think of sharks. However, what they are more likely to encounter are barracudas.

Though barracudas are significantly smaller than sharks, they are no less intimidating. Like sharks, they have rows of razor sharp teeth. They might appear to be creepily motionless in the water, and then all of a sudden they can spring to life and swim up to 25-30 mph.

The really nerve-wracking part is that they seem to like to follow humans. Sometimes more than one will be on our trail. Are they on the hunt, waiting for the right moment to tear us to shreds with their razor sharp teeth?

Thankfully, barracuda are harmless to humans. If you happen to see barracuda following you, they are just curious about us. Being hunters and scavengers, they might see us as large predators that will leave behind food scraps for them to gobble up, even though we are just trying to see some nice sights while snorkeling.

Depending on where you’re snorkeling, such as a popular tourist area where barracuda are frequently in contact with humans, they can be very bold and might swim right up to you. Instead of freaking out, enjoy this as part of the snorkeling experience – the barracuda are part of the view.

In this article, we will dispel common misconceptions snorkelers have about barracuda, talk a little bit more about what the barracuda might be thinking, and explain why it’s generally safe to snorkel with barracudas.

Why are barracuda following you?

It can be hard to tell what a barracuda is thinking, especially when you look into their pitch black, lifeless eyes. However, we have a good idea of what’s probably going through their minds.

You look like a food provider

We wanted to avoid the phrasing “source of food” because it sounds like you are the food. But what we mean is that you might be a potential provider of food.

For starters, if the barracuda has been around people a lot, it’s likely that some people have fed it before and now it associates humans with free food.

Unfortunately, feeding wild animals seems like a nice thing to do, but it’s actually dangerous for all involved. Now, the barracuda will be emboldened and will approach humans who may not necessarily feel comfortable with a barracuda following them.

This can lead to a dangerous encounter where the human panics or attacks, which can cause the barracuda to attack in self defense.

Another similar reason they might follow you is that a barracuda might see you as a large predator. Barracuda can obviously hunt by themselves thanks to their rows of sharp teeth, but they won’t pass up an opportunity to scavenge either.

Since humans are large enough creatures, the barracuda might think you are an apex predator of some kind. You might hunt fish and leave behind food bits that they can easily mooch off of with no effort on their part.

Once they realize that you’re kind of boring and haven’t killed any fish, they will eventually leave you alone.

You’re wearing something shiny

If you’re snorkeling with a tour company, as a safety precaution, they will tell you to remove any shiny objects from your person while snorkeling.

You might be wearing jewelry like a wedding ring, earrings, bracelet, or other such reflective object. Shiny things in the water attract the attention of predators, barracuda and sharks included.

When the object reflects the sunlight, it can fool predators into thinking these are the shiny scales of small fish – easy prey for a predator.

Even if what you’re wearing is designed to be worn underwater, such as a dive watch or dive computer, you should cover it up under your wetsuit or rash guard sleeve until you need to use it.

This is especially good advice if the water visibility is poor. Barracuda generally have good eyesight, but under these conditions, they might not see that you’re a large human and might attack you thinking you’re their usual prey.

You smell like fish

Many marine predators rely on other senses to track prey, in situations where sight cannot be relied on, they might rely on smell.

If you have been handling fish before you went snorkeling, for example if you’ve been fishing, handled fish, or cooked fish, then you might smell unbearably irresistible to a marine predator.

In a similar vein, if you are a spearfisher with a net full of your catches for the day, then you will surely be followed by sharks and barracuda.

To avoid getting mistaken for a fish, do your snorkeling before you BBQ the catch of the day. That way, there is no confusion as to whether you’re a snorkeling human or a barracuda’s next tasty meal.

Common barracuda myths

In this section, we want to dispel the most common barracuda myths and misconceptions. While it’s good to be cautious, we feel that some of these myths can leave snorkelers on edge and can prevent an enjoyable snorkeling experience if they are constantly worrying about them.

Barracuda are a threat to humans

Cold, dead eyes? Check. Rows of razor sharp teeth? Check. Predator? Check. Barracuda have these similarities in common with sharks, which could easily kill a human in one bite.

Though barracuda are a lot smaller than sharks, they are still very intimidating, especially if there is a group of them. However, much like sharks, the data does not align with their scary image.

I could not find exact numbers of barracuda attacks online (as opposed to shark attacks, which is astonishingly low by the way). However the consensus is that barracuda attacks on humans are extremely rare. One website claimed there were only 25 barracuda attacks in the last century, though that seems a little low to me and I question where they got that number from.

Whatever the case, the chance of getting attacked is “rare”, however it’s not zero. Perhaps that is not a satisfying answer for you. Unfortunately, no one can fully predict what a wild animal will do.

Researchers theorized that in all cases of a barracuda attack on humans, the human was either provoking the barracuda or wearing a shiny object somewhere.

Spearos are the most likely to get into fights with literally any other marine predator because they are carrying a net full of food that predators want to eat.

Barracuda will chomp on any shiny object it sees

This persistent myth makes it seem like any and all shiny objects in the ocean will get attacked by a barracuda.

While it’s still a good safety precaution to remove or cover up any shiny objects, you don’t need to panic if you realize that you forgot to take off your wedding ring.

First, barracuda have eyes. If they can clearly see that you’re a large human, they are not going to bite you.

The problem is when you are snorkeling when the water visibility isn’t the greatest. Then, the murkiness of the water might obscure the fact that you’re a human, and a barracuda might mistake you for a fish then.

Typically, barracuda prey on grunts, grouper, jacks, small tuna, anchovies, snapper, and other fishes that are silver and shiny. However, they will think twice before attacking another creature much larger than it.

Barracuda are poisonous if consumed

This myth has a hint of truth in it. While you probably shouldn’t eat barracuda, they are not inherently poisonous fish.

As with any tropical reef fish, eating barracuda carries a risk of contracting Ciguatera poisoning. This poison is caused by specific plankton that produce the poison, which have then been consumed by a larger fish. At some point, the poison can make its way to a barracuda.

Unfortunately, due to human pollution, the chances of ingesting a poisonous fish has only increased. Perhaps some small marine creature has ingested some of the pollutants we dumped into the water, which got consumed by bigger fish, and so on all the way up the food chain. A barracuda will fit somewhere in that chain.

So even though barracuda are not inherently poisonous, you don’t want to take a risk and eat one that ends up being poisonous.

Parting words

While we wouldn’t classify any predator with sharp teeth as “safe”, there are enough reasons to not be fearful of barracuda when snorkeling.

Barracuda are more scavengers than hunters, they are much smaller than you, and they are mostly just curious about you if they happen to be following you around.

Plus, barracuda aren’t everywhere, won’t attack unless provoked, and they probably won’t even approach you if you are with a group of snorkelers.

Even if you do get attacked, unlike shark attacks which often result in death or loss of a limb, barracuda are much smaller and only seem to cause lacerations rather than fatal wounds.

By following the tips provided above to avoid barracuda attacks, such as removing shiny objects, not handling fish beforehand, and not provoking them by reaching out to them or swatting at them, then they will mind their own business.

Despite how scary they look, barracuda will not attack you on sight, and you will most likely be okay if you encounter one even if you’re snorkeling alone.

Photo credit: Aquaimages, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons