Ocean Watch

By Susan Scott

Monday, December 27, 1999

Run-in with ‘Puff’
costs man fingertip

LAST week, in the midst of running errands, I dropped into the emergency room of a local hospital. Several of my friends work there and I wanted to wish them happy holidays.

"Great timing, Susan," the doctor on duty said. "Go visit the patient in bed 2 and tell us what you think."

Inside the curtains I found a middle-aged man who was missing the top of his right index finger. The wound looked tidy, as if done with a scalpel. Since the doctor had numbed the digit, which stopped the bleeding, it was easy to see the unnatural right angles of the lopped off fingertip.

"What happened?" I asked. But the man spoke not a word of English.

A nurse helped.

"We had an interpreter here earlier. He says a fish bit it off."

"A fish? What kind?"

She shrugged.

"He doesn't know the word for it."

As the nurse applied bandages, the man and I communicated in sign language. The culprit fish, I learned, was at the man's house, just a few minutes drive from the hospital.

"I'll follow you home," I pantomimed.

AT the house we walked to a large white bucket with a fish tail protruding from the top. Before I could even peek inside, the man roughly dumped the contents on the grass.

And there, gasping at my feet, lay the biggest porcupine puffer fish I have ever seen in my life. Not only was this fish at least 16 or 17 inches long, it was inflated like a weird, prickly balloon.

A woman appeared from the house and the three of us knelt to look at the fish's open mouth. A white, razor-sharp ridge lined the top jaw; a matching ridge lined the bottom. The result was a miniature guillotine that looked, and obviously was, quite capable of severing fingers and toes. The dark, round eyes of the fish, however, looked innocent and terrified.

As I looked at this poor dying fish, the man and woman talked excitedly to one another. And then I heard a word that made my blood run cold: sashimi.

"No! No sashimi!" I shouted, startling the couple half out of their wits. "Poison! Fish is poison! Understand?"

They didn't seem to. Somehow, I had to convey the message that pufferfish contain tetrodotoxin, a potent nerve poison that can cause death. In Japan, specially trained people prepare this fish, called fugu, for eating, but this is still dangerous. About five people die each year in Japan from eating pufferfish; seven people have died in Hawaii.

I called the ER and we decided that I had to communicate the danger, and then, to be safe, take the fish away.

SO there on the front lawn, in a spectacle the neighbors are probably still talking about, I pantomimed eating this fish, then dying. The man looked grumpy but the woman got the message. She scooped the enormous fish into the bucket and helped me put it in my car.

The creature made loud choking noises most of the way to my house, but by the time I got it to the beach, it was quiet. I dumped it into the water. Nothing. I felt terrible. The big puffer appeared to be dead.

Seconds later, however, the fish's pectoral fins began wiggling weakly. In another moment it was swimming in circles, releasing the air it had inhaled in defense. Then, in the blink of an eye, Puff was gone.

I like to think I saved those people's lives by taking that pufferfish away, but for all I know, the guy is a fugu chef who thinks I'm a total jerk. What I do know, though, is that somewhere on the reef near my home swims a big, fat pufferfish with a man's fingertip in its stomach.

Oh, how I love living in Hawaii.

Marine science writer Susan Scott's Ocean Watch column
appears Mondays in the Star-Bulletin. Contact her at

E-mail to City Desk

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