Posted by: Tommy | July 1, 2011

Attack of the Titan Triggerfish! or The Day Anna Should Have Stayed in Bed

The thing we were most excited about in Thailand was the diving.  The south of Thailand has some of the best diving in the world and we planned to take advantage.
As a bonus, Mojo, our dive instructor from Egypt, had moved to Thailand and had Mustafa, another of our favorite divemasters from Dahab, visiting him.  We didn’t have any particular place to dive in mind for Thailand, so when Mojo told us he was working on Koh Tao and that it was amazing, it made up our minds.

We arrived, exhausted, on a Monday and checked in.  We found Mojo almost immediately – but he was teaching an Open Water course and wouldn’t be able to take us out.  Instead, he introduced us to Paul, who was the senior diver at the shop, as far as I could tell.  Mojo promised we’d be in good hands with Paul, so we signed up for the next morning’s dives.

After having such an amazing experience in Dahab, we’ve had a run of less-amazing dive experiences.  Mozambique was really, really expensive and the visibility wasn’t great.  The Philippines was cheap, but the diving was mediocre (I’ve heard from too many people that it’s great to think it’s always mediocre, but it was mediocre when we were there) and we didn’t have enough time to do as much diving there as we would have liked.  So I was really excited after the first day – there were thousands of fish, huge schools of barracuda and we even sat for 15 minutes watching a Hawksbill sea turtle during one dive on the first day.

Hawksbill Turtle - not our photo

On our second morning of diving, there were only 4 divers on the boat, plus staff.  Anna, Nick (older Brit) and I would be diving with Paul.  Another guy was alone taking his Open Water course, so his instructor, Cara, was there as well.  The system for getting to and from the dive boat (all Koh Tao dives are boat dives – you take a large dive boat out to the reef and use that as your base) is to load up a small longtail boat that can reach the shore.  It drives you out to the dive boat – where it gets scary.  On this particular morning, the water was quite choppy, so the longtail was bouncing all over the place.  Luckily, I’d taken a Dramamine (sea sickness tablet).

To get into the dive boat, you wait until the longtail is at the top of a wave and rises like an elevator until you can simply step out onto the dive boat’s platform.  We all did that, successfully (though it was frightening), and headed out to the first dive site – Green Rock.  During the pre-dive briefing, Paul told us that we might see triggerfish.  Titan triggerfish are aggressive, territorial fish with giant teeth.  He explained what to do if a triggerfish attacked us (what?) – their territory is cone-shaped, with the bottom being small and getting wider the shallower you get.  His best advice was, “get behind me and let me deal with it”.

Diving briefs are always 90% safety information, so we weren’t too alarmed, though in our limited experience we’d never had someone warn us so precisely about getting attacked by something underwater.  But sure enough, 10 minutes in, Paul made the triggerfish sign to us and motioned for us to get behind him.  And so we watched for 3 or 4 minutes as he fended off a 3 ft., toothy triggerfish as we all swam hard to escape the cone.  It never came after me, but it was only 10 feet away – I’ve never been so freaked out while diving.  My heart was racing, I didn’t know where to go but I knew that if it came after me I was screwed.

The menacing Titan Triggerfish

But we got out of the cone ok (it chased Nick for a bit, but mostly Paul played rodeo clown for us and we got away).  We continued on our dive, enjoying the swim-throughs (small underwater caves and overhanging reefs that you swim through).  Paul was leading, with Nick behind him, then Anna and then me bringing up the rear.  Paul went through a longish swim through, followed by Nick.  When Anna went, her spare mouthpiece snagged on a piece of coral, pulling it from her wetsuit.  She stopped to put it back in place – and when she looked up, Paul and Nick were gone.  I was behind her, just coming through the cave and I hadn’t seen them either.

We signed back and forth, trying to decide what to do.  There’s an established procedure for losing your dive buddy – you wait for 1 minute, then slowly ascend to the surface.  But we hadn’t lost our buddy – we lost everyone else.  I told Anna to stay put, then ventured out to the end of the next crevice to see if I could see them anywhere.  From there, I could see that they had either turned right or left, but I couldn’t be sure which.  I motioned for Anna to join me – they’d definitely had to come that direction, so we could safely move up that far.  She was hesitant, but I insisted.  This is one of the times I wish we could speak underwater – it turns out she was correctly hesitant, but for a reason I hadn’t considered.

Apparently, where I was hanging out was directly over a triggerfish nesting area.  I had just convinced Anna to join me in waiting for Paul to return when we spotted it – or it spotted us.  3 feet doesn’t sound that big, maybe, but when you’re underwater a 3 ft. fish with visibly large teeth is terrifying.  And this one was set on attacking me.  It never did go after Anna – she hadn’t made it all the way into the cone and turned around as soon as she saw it.  But it went after me with a vengeance.  I tried my best to mimic Paul – keeping my fins locked in front of me, blocking the devil fish from getting to my head – and not to panic.  I wasn’t doing such a great job of that.  I forgot that when you swim backwards – a necessity, since I had to keep my fins up to block the fish – you ascend.  I should have been letting air out to keep myself moving down and out of the cone.  But I was freaking out and much more concerned with the fish than with my buoyancy issues.

Intellectually, I knew that I should be moving down – I skipped the safety stop and was probably ascending too fast, but I’m a land based mammal and the surface is certainly where I feel most comfortable.  So when I ended up there, I was secretly thrilled.  Until I looked down and saw the triggerfish below me.  But at the surface, I could no longer see it.  Once my head broke the surface, it disappeared.  On the plus side, I could see Paul.

Anna had surfaced as well, staying well clear of my battle with the fish.  The fish was circling me below the water, but had stopped attacking once I broke the surface.  So I ignored it and tried talking to Anna.  We were only halfway through the dive and could now see Paul – though descending to him would involve going back through the “Cone of Death” (probably exaggerating the danger).  She considered swimming over to Paul on the surface, hopefully getting out of the cone and then descending….and then she looked down and saw the triggerfish was now circling just below her and she panicked.  I mean – she FREAKED OUT!  She started swimming like mad for the boat.  I yelled at her, trying to get her to calm down…nope.  She made a mad dash for the boat, got there and was up and in before I could catch her.  Only then did she calm down.

10 minutes later, Paul and Nick surfaced – they’d come back to look for us and had seen our battle with the triggerfish from a distance (they wisely stayed away).  They got in the boat and we moved on to the second dive.  Anna was pretty shaken up, but decided to do the second dive when Paul assured her we’d be diving along a shelf (Triggerfish nests are in sandy, open areas) and wouldn’t be in any danger of another attack.  On that dive, we did see 5 more triggers, but all of them were a little ways away and none paid us any attention.  That didn’t keep my heart from turning into a triphammer every time we spotted one.

We finished that dive and headed back for the beach, where the day would go from bad to worse.  If anything, the sea on departure was even choppier than it had been trying to get aboard the dive boat.  When the longtail came to get us, it had to circle twice, aborting one attempt because the waves were too high.  The day before it had been choppy, but Mojo (he’s a big dude) was there, standing on the longtail and catching anyone who slipped.  But this day, there was only Paul (not a big dude) and Cara.  The longtail had a post sticking out in the middle of the front deck to grab onto, since balance is frequently a problem – using that post, Nick, the other guy and I all made it into the boat.  Cara was in the front, watching the waves and shouting instructions as we boarded – she’d say “Wait” if a wave was coming or “Go” if it was clear to step into the boat.

For some reason, as Anna was trying to board, Cara said “Go” just as we reached the top of a large wave.  Anna stepped off the boat – and we all watched as the bottom dropped out from under her.  It went in slow-motion for me, watching her legs pinwheel under her, searching for the decking, her arms grasping for the middle post but coming up about a foot short (the curse of her alligator arms).  And then she tilted over and THUNK right on the deck.  I’ve seen her fall before and she’s always ok.  But not this time – the look of pain in her eyes was unmistakable.

Luckily it was only her ankle – I thought she might have broken an arm or leg.  She toughed it out for the ride back, then we got some ice from the kitchen.  And that’s how her time in Koh Tao ended.  We moved into an A/C room and she spent the next 3 days there, watching Oprah reruns and season 2 of Chuck on our laptop.  I got up every morning at 6, went diving and returned by 11 to hang out with her in the room for the rest of the day.  Aside from my trips to get takeout sandwiches or pizza, we saw roughly 0% of Koh Tao.  After 3 days in bed, her ankle was feeling good enough to walk to the ferry, then to the train and on to Malaysia.  We’ll see how it goes.

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Responses

  1. Oh dear, that’s terrible! Every world traveler’s nightmare. I hope Anna’s ankle gets better soon.

  2. Oh no Anna. I am so proud of for going diving after the triggerfish attack. But your ankle!!! What a tough break.

  3. Guess that excitement took care of the travel doldrums. You need a T-Shirt that says you survived the triggerfish attack!

  4. OH MY GOSH…attacking fish, injury-causing waves, AND getting lost from your diving team… at the very least; stay the heck out of underwater caves!!! I nearly had a heart attack reading this blog! xoxoxo, Kita


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