The black and white feathery stripes of the lionfish flutter tantalisingly just slightly out of reach inside a hole in the rocks at Thirteen Trees dive site on the west side of Grand Cayman.
I have my yellow spear in my hand, its rubber wrist band pulled tight to the top of the spear by my thumb as I ready it for release. I take aim, urged on by dive master Jeff Varga, with whom I’ve practised shooting the spear on land, but my attention is suddenly drawn to more stripes just inside the crevice. As I glance at those, the beady-eyed lionfish, in a flash of sudden speed, disappears into the interior of the narrow cave.
OK, so I’ve lost this one, but maybe I can still get the one I saw out of the corner of my eye at the entrance, but on closer inspection, this wasn’t another lionfish – it’s a red banded coral shrimp. You don’t want to spear one of those.
It’s a busy little crevice. As well as the lionfish and the shrimp, it’s also home to a large spiny lobster, which is furiously waving its antennae at me and the other divers.
A little earlier, it had also been home to another lionfish, but my fellow would-be lionfish culler, Stacy Frank, officially dropped the “would-be” part of her title by spearing her first lionfish in the site, which incidentally also turned out to be the largest lionfish caught on our dive.
She made it look easy, but admits her heart was beating fast as she lined up the shot. After all, hunting gets the adrenalin flowing.
I’d been on lionfish culls before and already have a Marine Conservation Board-endorsed lionfish culling licence, but that was from the days when divers could only legally catch lionfish with nets. I’ve never actually caught or killed a lionfish as I’ve usually been either a spotter or photographer on culling dives.
But, today, it was all going to change. I had a spear and I was a mission to hunt the invasive species that are plaguing reefs throughout the Caribbean and consuming huge quantities of juvenile reef fish. While Jeff drew divers’ attention to a little drum fish among the coral, I swam away, peering hard into nooks and crannies amid the reef, looking for my quarry.
Fortunately for any lionfish in the vicinity, we didn’t find any more on that dive. After my two lionfish culling training dives, I still hadn’t managed to spear a single one. Jeff, on the other hand, had nabbed five and Stacy had caught her giant.
To become a certified PADI lionfish hunter, one needs to undergo classroom work, followed by two dives. The novice hunters take turns carrying the trident spears and a large solid plastic tube nicknamed the “Stuff and Go”, into which speared lionfish are placed during the dive. The Department of Environment also trains divers to hunt and kill lionfish.
Stacy, Veronica Platt and I had spent the morning poolside at Comfort Suites, taking part in the classroom part of our PADI Lionfish Tracker Distinctive Specialty certification. There, our instructor Jeff from Ambassador Divers educated us of the physiology of lionfish, their prevalence throughout the region, how quickly they’re growing and breeding in the local waters (much faster than in their native area of the Pacific Ocean due to a lack of predators and their abundant diet here), and, of course, the best way to kill them.
Stacy is a founding member of the Lionfish University, along with her brother, photographer Courtney Platt, and Hollywood screenwriter Jim Hart.
On our two dives, Courtney was taking photos for Lionfish University, so us divers posed for the camera underwater, careful to ensure the still venomous spine of the dead lionfish don’t get too close. Jeff has drilled into us the importance of keeping the fish as far away from our bodies as we can, advising the other divers to stay about 10 feet away from a diver who is going in for the kill or who has speared one of the fish.
A lionfish can deliver a nasty sting and as part of the course, divers learn the wide variety of ailments a single sting can bring on. These include nausea, headache, swelling at the puncture site, extreme pain, vomiting and breathing difficulties. The most effective treatment, if stung, is to soak the affected area in hot water as quickly as possible.
Stacy informs us that it was this long list of potential effects from a lionfish sting that first got writer Jim Hart interested in writing a script for a movie about lionfish. That film idea mutated into what has become the Lionfish University as he figured his efforts in collating information about lionfish could be more useful in the real world than on the big screen.
The Lionfish University has launched a website on which it shares information and resources relating to the infestation of the lionfish. It aims to bring together divers throughout the region and globally so that strong community efforts can be utilised to battle this threat to the reefs. It also works on collecting the latest information available about lionfish so it can arm its members with as much knowledge as possible.
When we’re done with our dives, we bring our catch – six lionfish in all – back to shore. It’s not a huge haul – some dive boats come back with many, many more than that – but we’ve got two good-sized ones and a few small ones, and they’re all bound for the kitchen at Stingers at Comfort Suites.
There, chef Jhony Candia carefully cuts the spines off the fish with scissors and scrapes the scales off, before filleting each one. He’s going to use the larger fillets to make cerviche and use the smaller ones for soup.
Despite their venomous nature, only the spines of the fish carry any venom. The flesh is safe to eat and is quite delicious. A number of restaurants in Cayman serve up lionfish to their customers, including Stingers, Tukka, Michael’s Genuine, Guy Harvey’s and Rum Point.