I have chosen to set the scene on the island where I currently work; Medhufinolhu – North Malé Atoll (commonly known as Reethi Rah Resort – “beautiful island”)
Imagine your first moment in the tropics you arrive at sunset to the blue lagoon where the dozing sun paints a pink hue all over… the white sand is turning a greyish-pink colour. You leave your luggage in the bungalow, and stroll down to water’s edge, and let the shallow water up to your hips lap up against you and soothe those aching thighs after a long flight… you flop down into the warm water, and soak up the remainders of the afternoon sun, and experience your first rays since the winter. You lie back, floating, mesmerised… you decide to go and get a beer from the welcoming fridge in your bungalow. You stand up, without looking down, and see that you have floated towards some small unsuspecting coral blocks. You step to the side to avoid stepping on the rock, and experience an excruciating pain…. You lift your foot to find punctured skin, swelling, your limbs are on fire. You look beneath you and see nothing, but a few small coral mounds… that beer is going to need to change to a scotch to be able to bear the pain.
You have most likely stepped on a Scorpion fish. Scorpion fish (Scorpaenidae) are not only found in the depths of the reef system. They hang out in shallow lagoons, and particularly, you can find juveniles around the protected area of docks or small coral mounds. The common scorpion fish found in the Maldives are the Devil Scorpionfish (Scorpaenopsis diabolus) and the Leafy Scorpionfish (Taenianotus triacanthus). However, the Scorpionfish family is enormous. It includes Lionfishes and the dreaded stonefish. You will hear the name stonefish and scorpionfish used simultaneously but actually they are different animals. The stonefish (Sycanceia verrucosa), (see picture) has a different shape and it’s mouth is upturned. Lionfish and scorpionfish are often termed interchangeably, so to be pedantic fish nerd, you could refer to the Latin names so you don’t make a mistake. What will be unmistakeable is the unbelievable hot shooting pain that you will feel. You will start to feel anxiety, stiffness, aching, and perhaps paralysis. Jaw paralysis and paralysis of the eyelids are quite common.
The camouflage of toxic sea creatures is incredible. Being that most of them are ambush predators, their camouflage is the essence of their disguise. Stonefish and Scorpionfish are often so well blended in with the environment that they are hard to distinguish. I found that Scorpionfish were more blatant ly exposed than Stonefish, they were often perched in full view on top of coral mounds, while blending in with their surroundings, to an observant diver they were easy to find. Why so “conspicuous”? Because they can afford to be! If you ever watch fish behaviour you will see that other marine life stay clear and are very wary of other poisonous fish…
I have seen divers pick up Scorpionfish from the underside and show them to other divers… this is an accident waiting to happen. The spines of a Scorpionfish are difficult to remove from the skin and are extremely painful. Appreciate the beauty of these animals but the number one rule is DON’T TOUCH!
If you encounter someone who has just been stung by a Scorpionfish, take the following action. Wash the area with SALT WATER. This goes for any marine life injury regarding stings. Remove any spines at the site of the wound, and soak the wound in water as hot as the person can bear for 30 to 90 minutes. Call the local doctor in the area and ask advice. You may need to take the person to a hospital, and especially you should watch for the following: gastrointestinal symptoms (nausea, vomiting, diarrhea), respiratorial symptoms (shortness of breath), blood pressure, heart rate, and check for reactions by the nervous system; fainting, delirium, seizures and paralysis. If you are qualified to administer a tetanus immunization to the patient do so.
To avoid unexpected traumas like the scenario above on your holidays, shuffle your feet while walking in lagoons (hidden stingrays) and don’t walk near any coral blocks. Wear diving shoes if you are uncertain (but don’t use them to walk on reefs!)
The stonefish has a row of 13 (how unlucky) venomous spines. Each one is encased in a sheath containing bulging venom glands. Interestingly enough, the stonefish does not actually shoot venom or barbs. It is the victim himself that causes the injury, as downward pressure on the spines pushes back the sheath, and pressurised glands shoots venom upwards with force, going up the surface of the spine in small grooves, right into the deepest part of the wound. You may experience temporary paralysis and there have even been some fatalities. The treatment is exactly the same as above; however, a person injured by a stonefish must receive immediate medical attention.
•Brusca, R.C., and Brusca, G.J. 1990. Invertebrates. Sinauer Associates Inc. Sunderland. Massachusetts.
•Covacevich, J., Davie, P. and Pearn, J. (editors). 1987. Toxic Plants and animals; a guide for Australia. Queensland Museum. Brisbane.
•Edmonds, C. 1989. Dangerous marine creatures. Reed Books Pty Ltd. Sydney.