Stay Safe by Staying Educated on Poisonous Marine Life

Complacency is Easy

When we travel and dive all over the world without incident, we tend towards complacency.  After awhile we don’t think emergencies are going to happen.  I learned yesterday how important it is to stay sharp and educated.  Because “sharp” is what I found.

After 7500 scuba dives and 24 years as a dive instructor I didn’t think that my first serious venomous fish encounter would happen 50 feet off the beach while I was simply throwing the frizbee around.

The Sting of the Scorpion Fish

poisonous marine life

the scorpion fish defense is his venomous spines. I found out firsthand the unbearable pain!

Yes, I thought about the fact that I was barefoot and noticed there were small rocks off the beach and I even thought I needed to be careful where I step, the water was stirred up and there was no visibility.  I jumped up to catch the frisbee and when I landed on my toes, I felt this incredible pain.  It felt like someone took a piece of glass and ripped it across my foot.  I hobbled ashore as the pain throbbed through my foot like nothing I had ever experienced.  When I picked up my foot and saw just a trace of blood I knew.  It was the puncture of the dreaded scorpion fish.

The poison was all I could think about.  Would it spread?  Was I allergic?  I had to act fast but I realized that with all my training, I truly didn’t know the best course of action.  I was traveling on a ship with a medical doctor so I immediately called the ship and ordered the doctor to meet me.  The doctor, while qualified, also was unsure exactly what to do.  Here I was on a Caribbean island which I consider very civilized with a doctor on board and if the poison spread quickly or I had a severe reaction I could die here.  Then I started thinking about the places that we, as divers, travel and just how remote we really are at times.  I realized I needed to be more aware and more educated.  Something fairly minor can quickly become life threatening for simple lack of knowledge.

The doctor on board instructed the nurse to look up the treatment on line.  I was getting worried.  I suggested we call a specialist so a poison control organization in the US was called.  I said, “Let’s call DAN, they specialize in marine emergencies.”

Thank you Divers Alert Network

In case you have never experienced a puncture wound and invenomation from a scorpion fish, let me tell you it is EXCRUCIATING pain for the better part of a few hours.
It is a constant throbbing pain with swelling at the affected site and a change of skin color to bright red.

I was very relieved to talk with someone at Duke University at Diver’s Alert Network.  They are extremely knowledgeable and put me at ease right away.  I first explained the habitat of the area where I was stung and asked if they could think of any other fish it could have been and they confirmed my suspicion.  Then it was explained to me that unlike a snake bite where the poison spreads quickly throughout your body, the venom of this fish stays in place at the puncture site.  The best treatment is 90 minutes with the affected area in water as hot as is tolerable.  Within 2 hours the color of my foot had turned back to normal and within about 24 hours the swelling had subsided.  I also immediately took a steroid in case of an allergic reaction and started a course of antibiotics in case of infection.  Tetanus was also updated.

In this case, I was lucky.  No infection, no allergic reaction and I was close to medical attention. Next week I head to some of the remotest parts of Indonesia for a month of diving.  Medical attention will not be so close. Vigilance and continued education on diving and marine emergencies is the key to safety while traveling and diving the world.

Stay safe out there!


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