As neat as it is to experience marine life in their natural habitats, some creatures don’t appreciate our presence in their domain and may respond with an unwelcome bite or sting. Bites specifically are a rare occurrence that most divers fortunately don’t have to deal with.
But incidents and accidents do happen, and like so many other things in diving, it’s down to education and preparedness to help avoid these situations and respond properly when they do.
Where you’re diving influences what nibblers you might meet, but common ocean biters include moray eels, triggerfish, barracudas and some species of sharks. Injury severity varies: While some animals deliver harmless nips, others can inflict a very destructive and/or painful bite, and still other bites may contain toxins or involve a risk of infection.
Moray eels are the largest eel species, and they are known to produce toxins, which can be found in their mouths. Temporary paralysis of the bitten area can occur. Eels have an impressive mouthful of fangs, and their bites can be incredibly painful because of the “pull back pattern” in which their teeth are arranged. If not cared for quickly and properly, these bites can easily become infected.
Not all sharks are known to bite humans: Shark species that may bite include the great white shark, tiger shark and bull shark. But shark encounters are a bucket list item for many divers — and they can be done safely with a few precautions. Follow your guide’s instructions and stay with your group (if applicable). And regardless of whether your encounter was planned or not, move slowly, stay calm, avoid dangling, shiny objects and never approach or chase a shark. If hunting, be sure to learn the proper procedures for doing so safely. Sharks often feed in the early morning or twilight hours — you can limit your risk by avoiding these times of day.
Triggerfish are known to be extremely aggressive during mating season and have surprisingly powerful bites. If a diver comes too close to their nests, they will attempt to chase the diver away.
With their fanglike teeth, many divers enjoy seeing barracudas up close, and these impressive fish are well known for being photogenic models. While somewhat aggressive and highly placed in the food chain, attacks on humans are rare.
Marine bites are rare and generally not life threatening. They often occur when the animal feels threatened and retaliates to protect itself or its territory. Refraining from handling or harassing animals under water goes a long way in avoiding being bitten.
Treatment of marine bites varies based on the animal that inflicted the bite, but there are a few general rules:
- Protect yourself by wearing gloves (and other PPE as necessary) when administering treatment
- Control bleeding with direct pressure
- If bleeding is severe and cannot be controlled, utilize a tourniquet
- Rinse wounds with clean water
- Do not administer any medications unless instructed to by a physician
Remember that all bites have a high potential for infection and should be evaluated by a doctor. The doctor may prescribe antibiotics to fight infection or analgesics to relieve pain.
The Bite Stuff
When diving, remember you are a visitor and it is perfectly natural for sea critters to defend their homes. The best defense is to stay aware of your surroundings and ensure animals have their space — never approach and never touch. Be particularly careful where you put your hands as something could be lurking in a rock or crevice. Gloves, wetsuits and other gear naturally act as a defense against bites and will offer your skin some protection.
Diving provides unparalleled exposure to sea critters and environments many people don’t get to see in their lifetimes. With the right precautions, you can thoroughly and safely enjoy what the underwater world has to offer.