Ocean Watch

Susan Scott

Friday, April 25, 2003

fish’s ferocity

In Maui waters last week, a 10- to 15-foot-long marlin accidentally speared a whale researcher who was videotaping the fish's struggle with a pod of about 30 false killer whales. Fortunately, the fish was able to extract itself from the man, who survived a shoulder injury.

Of course, no one stuck around to find out if the whales killed the marlin or if it got away, but the fight could have gone either way. These two species are formidable predators and fierce fighters.

False killer whales actually are big dolphins, with males growing to about 16 feet long. These whales are almost all black except for a swath of gray on their chest and bellies. They don't much resemble their larger namesakes, the killer whales, or orcas.

Common in offshore Hawaiian waters, false killer whales roam the world's tropical and temperate oceans in groups ranging from six individuals to several hundred. When the pod comes upon the main food of squid, tuna or mahimahi, they work together to herd and catch the prey. And apparently, if opportunity knocks, false killer whales also take on big billfish.

Billfish and a'u are two general names for marlins, sailfish, spearfish and swordfish. Each of these fish has an extended, pointed upper jaw that's longer than the lower.

All billfish are fast-swimming carnivores that speed through schools of squid and tuna, slashing their bills back and forth as they go. This motion stuns or injures the prey, which the billfish then circles back to eat.

Sometimes billfish skewer their prey. Swordfish have occasionally rammed ships and boats with their bills, usually killing themselves in the process.

Hawaii's waters host six species of billfish ranging in size from 50 to nearly 2,000 pounds. All are highly prized gamefish.

When caught on a hook, a billfish fights like it hunts, flailing its head back and forth. As the angler hauls the fish alongside a boat or onto a deck, this slashing motion sometimes punctures and cuts people in the vicinity.

Injuries can be dramatic. In 1995 a billfish punctured the thigh of a sport fisherman still strapped to his chair. Several years earlier, a marlin speared a Honolulu sport fisherman in the lung. The angler had the fish close to the boat, ready to land, when it rose up, striking his chest. The man survived.

In the mid-1980s, a billfish stabbed a Kona fisherman under the chin, through his jaw and right eye. He lost the eye but lived.

Billfish caught by longliner fishing boats are usually dead when workers pull the fish aboard. One such Hawaii angler, however, died in 1996 when a swordfish "came alive," puncturing the man's right eye with its bill.

In the early 1980s, researchers on Hawaii's remote Kure atoll found a Boston Whaler washed ashore with a marlin spike through the hull and into one of the seats. The operator was never found.

Researchers believe the waters off the Big Island's Kona Coast are spawning sites for some billfish.

I think that camera-toting researcher was lucky in two ways: First, he survived a marlin puncture, hopefully with no permanent damage; and second, he got to see a marlin tangle with a pod of false killer whales. For all his pain, I sure hope he got good footage.

Marine science writer Susan Scott can be reached at


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