One evening during a systematic study of sharks in a lagoon near Tahiti, an extraordinary creature undulated near—a needlefish a metre long, as silver as a salmon. It turned its head first one way, then the other, to gaze at me from each huge eye, and did not approach.
Whereas the beaks of the common needlefish were needle-sized and shaped, this one's mouth was similarly pointed, but 15 cm long and lined with large, sharp, interlocking teeth. As I crumbled some bits of food for the ever present lagoon fish, it accelerated forward to take a morsel and the small fish shot away, creating a dazzling, submarine firework exploding in silence. When it opened its pointed mouth to take a morsel it revealed a throat nearly the same diameter as its body--it was well equipped to catch and swallow large prey. It had two parallel scars on its right side.
It was not listed in my reference book and some time passed before I was able to identify it as a crocodile needlefish (Tylosurus crocodilus). The information warned that the fish was very dangerous and would attack swimmers for no reason. Crocodile needlefish were said to kill more people in the country than the sharks, a fact that was kept secret for the sake of tourism.
This was truly a bad fish.
The crocodile needlefish came again near the end of the following shark session, always staying at least four metres away, which was fine with me. I found its appearance alarming, and had more than enough to cope with already with the dozens of sharks, the demanding multitudes of fish, and the sneaky eels. After a few weeks it stopped coming, though from time to time I would see the enormous needlefish hunting in the current that flowed across the border of the lagoon.
Then, when five months had passed, one evening the familiar silvery shadow drifted into view, half hidden in the surface shimmer, tail sweeping gently, turning first one eye toward me, then the other. The striking fish seemed to remember me very well, and hovered down-current watching, occasionally accelerating briefly to snap up a crumb. Slowly it came closer, always looking intently, and while I fed the fish, it sometimes zoomed right up to me to snap up a morsel, frightening everyone around it.
The crocodile needlefish visited regularly for a few months. Due to its size and solitary habits, I felt it was likely an older individual that spent more time in the lagoon than most fish of its species. Due to certain aspects of its behaviour, I felt that it was a female.
Then poachers strung nets along two hundred metres of the lagoon's border, all along the region where the crocodile needlefish habitually hunted, a region used as a highway by big fish and sharks. As weeks passed while I tried to get the illegal net removed, I feared that she had been killed. Truckloads of illegal fish were hauled from the nets daily, and it became clear that there was no policing of illegal fishing practices on the island, which was swiftly being fished out. Anyone who wanted to profit was free to loot as they wished.
But a few weeks after the nets were taken down, the crocodile needlefish again came drifting through the ruffled waves, wriggling a little bit to move forward with head turned to watch me with one eye, then gliding and turning to look with the other eye while wriggling again. In this way she came forward and finally the scars on her side came into view.
For the first time, she came right up to me, looking, then circled around my head. Her special attentions seemed to have been triggered by our meeting after such a long time, and ever after that moment, she behaved as if we were friends.
Friendship from a killer fish
While I watched the sharks and took notes, she circled behind and beside me. Sometimes I got her a piece of food from my kayak, and she waited, watching as if she understood exactly what I was doing as I raised my hand above the surface to toss it to her. Then she targeted the morsel where it broke through the surface. Once in a while, I toured around the area to see if any shy sharks were lurking down-current, and each time she stayed at my side like a pet dog.
Time passed, and she joined me at each session. When she arrived, she would swim past my eyes to attract my attention. Once I had looked at her, she would disappear behind me, knowing that I would soon go to the kayak and give her a treat. If, for some reason, the sharks were so fascinating that she had to wait, she would begin circling my head, sometimes sweeping closely by my face. It was her spontaneous way of getting my attention, and she knew when she had it.
Occasionally I threw chunks of food to the sharks, and she clearly wanted to get one, but she would dip down only so far after a falling morsel, then retreat behind me. I could see her indecision about going deeper. She roamed more freely when none were present. It was no surprise that she was afraid of the sharks—they could so easily bite her in two. She never circulated above the sharks in the site, and during periods of tension among them she often had to wait, and always stayed behind me, circling me from time to time.
When I went to the kayak she stayed so close that I could just waft her treat into her mouth. Each time I reached in and looked back at her, she would be waiting, poised in the deep green torrent, her huge eyes fixed on me. I would extend a chunk toward her on my hand, and when I let it drift, she came and swallowed it.
When the current was very strong, I would throw her the pieces and she would target them and carry them away up-current to eat. Though my arm was above the surface as I threw her the morsel, she read my body language accurately, and darted forward in the right direction at the right moment, as if she could tell where it would plunge through the surface, just from my movements.
She was as responsive as a pet bird, yet she was a wild fish, and her appropriate behaviour with respect to our companionship had come naturally to her.
What fish are really like
As divers, gazing out on the submarine world, we often find that the reality we are faced with fails to correspond with what we have heard and been taught. This is largely due to the way traditional concepts on the subject of fish have been dominated by fisheries 'science,' which denies their true qualities and significance. For example, denying all evidence to the contrary, fisheries science continues to insist that fish are incapable of feeling pain. (For more information, click HERE).
The dominance of fishermen's stories in society has resulted in the public accepting the extremely cruel way they are treated. Sadly, most people have only seen fish on fishing hooks and in fish markets or used to decorate aquariums, so have had no chance to get to know one.
Yet their complex behaviour reveals that they could not possibly be as simple-minded as fisheries dogma claims. That is why sharing stories about the real nature of fish is an important step in changing public perceptions of them.