I climb back on the boat, disappointed. But just as I peel off my wetsuit, someone starts shouting. “Get in the water! Get in the water now!”
I grab my fins and someone else’s mask, jump off the side of the boat and almost land on a whale shark the size of a school bus. His dappled gray back is just inches from my nose, and I can see that the spots, which I expected to be white, are actually a delicate pale yellow. Definitely worth the sleep deprivation, I think, as the shark returns to the inky depths.
The opportunity to swim with whale sharks may become increasingly rare, as overfishing in Asia landed them on the World Conservation Union’s “vulnerable” to extinction list in 2000. Human competition for snapper and other game fish, which the whale sharks eat as spawn, may further deplete the sharks’ numbers, scientists say.
If humans can start using our appetite for seafood for good, by avoiding overfished species and eating invasive ones, we can help whale sharks and the other colorful reef fish that make Belize diving such a spectacular experience. So when Gio invites me to join him on a lionfish hunt, I say yes.
‘The lion slayer’
It’s my third day in Belize, and I’m speeding toward a lionfish stronghold called South Water Caye. I woke up early, set on spearing a lionfish and saving thousands of juvenile reef fish from untimely deaths, but my lionfish-hunting resolve wanes as Gio shows me his scars.
“Here’s where the spine went all the way through my hand,” Gio says, pointing to the slack skin between his thumb and forefinger. “I got stung twice here,” he adds, as he shows me a white mark on his knuckle.
While rarely fatal, lionfish stings are intensely painful. “It’s two hours of the worst pain I’ve ever felt,” Gio says.
I turn over the stumpy, blunt spear in my hands as Gio gives me further instruction. If you skewer a lionfish through the side, he might swim up the spear and stab your hand. “Try to hit them right between the eyes,” he says.
As I step off the dive boat, I consider my list of reasons for backing out of the lionfish hunt: poor vision, bad hand-eye coordination, a dislike of intense pain, an overdeveloped sense of empathy that keeps me from squishing even roaches. However, as a member of the most invasive species of all, I decide that it’s my duty to at least try to spear a lion.
The reef comes into view, and it’s not long before I spot my prey, his hiding place given away by a single feathery fin. Ready, aim, fire! The fish and I are equally surprised when I sink a spear right in the center of his zebra-striped head.
My courage tapped, I hand my spear to Gio, who removes the fish and adds it to a string. The day’s kills, about a half-dozen fish, trail behind us like a balloon as we swim toward the boat. We pass a pair of fairy basslets, one of the lionfish’s favorite snacks. “You’re welcome,” I tell them, telepathically.
Back at the dock, Gio cleans my fish, and I take it to the chef at my hotel. “Can you cook this?” I ask. It’s not uncommon for guests to bring their own fish to dinner, the cook says, but my lionfish is a first.
That night, other diners are intrigued by my special order. “What does it taste like?” asks a fellow diver. I take a nibble of the flaky, pale flesh and admit that I’ve been a vegetarian since age 6.
Since I have no idea what fish is supposed to taste like, I divvy up the fillet and share it with anyone who wants to try. “It’s good,” says a dark-haired woman at the bar. “It’s light, but it has some toothiness to it, like swordfish.”
For the remainder of my vacation, I do nothing braver than rescue a drowning drink-umbrella from the swimming pool. Still, whenever I venture into the hotel restaurant, diners and waiters hail me as “the lion slayer.”
If the critters ever show up in the Potomac, they’d better watch out. Forget about the fillets; I’m in it for the glory.
Dingfelder is a travel, humor and science writer. Follow her on Twitter at @SadieDing.