Even if you are not an ocean enthusiast and prefer the terrestrial world for your recreational endeavors, you will surely have had encounters with the lionfish, either through beautiful underwater photos or videos featuring this lavishly decorated fish. Or, maybe you’ve had some lionfish ceviche & tacos while on holiday in the Caribbean. Lionfish are always a popular topic of conversation on our tours. Their extravagant plumage makes them a stunningly beautiful fish to encounter on snorkels, and their amenable demeanor makes them quite easy to photograph, particularly compared to other shy reef fish. All that being said, lionfish oftentimes get a bad reputation as a lot of fear is built up around them on account of their poisonous barbs. Also, in certain parts of the world, they are an invasive species and have played a very significant role in the population decline of many different species of fish on account of them being proficient hunters of juvenile fish. So, to dispel any misguided fears of the lionfish and to correct some misunderstood facts about the lionfish’s natural habitat, here are some quick notes about the lionfish.
- Lionfish can be found in a vast array of marine ecosystems ranging from depths of 0-1,000 feet, mangroves, sea grass, mucky areas, coral reefs, and artificial structures. Basically, if it’s in warmer tropical waters, it’s a potential home for lionfish.
You won’t see lionfish as frequently in their native habitat as their population is in balance. Many guests come to Indonesia or other parts of Asia where the lionfish originate from and are surprised to see so few lionfish. On average, we find a couple each snorkel, depending on the site, but for those that have only snorkeled in the Caribbean where lionfish are prolific, this fact comes as a bit of a shock. The lionfish population in the Indo-Pacific are kept in check by their natural predators, like frogfish, moray eels, groupers, sharks, and an assortment of other larger fish.
There are a lot of different theories about how the lionfish was introduced into the Caribbean Ocean, and likely it’s a mixture of them as there have been a lot of different parties dealing in lionfish in that region, Florida in particular. It should come as no surprise that lionfish have been a very popular fish in the aquarium fish trade. With so many lionfish in people’s houses, it’s very possible that one or two found their way into the waters off of Florida (one of the world’s biggest hubs for aquarium fish), either on purpose or by accident. Regardless of how they were introduced, they have made themselves very comfortable in the Caribbean and Atlantic Oceans and have bred a dynasty that has had a serious impact on other reef fish. Even though the Caribbean hosts many of the same predators to the lionfish as the Indo-Pacific does, the should be predatory sharks, eels, and other larger fish just don’t know to eat the lionfish as they are not an inherent part of their diet. As a result, lionfish appear in large numbers cruising the reefs unencumbered with worries of being eaten by anything.
Those magnificent wings that lionfish sport are actually poisonous barbs with a bit of decorative frill. Yes, if you get hit by one it will no doubt hurt for a bit and could be potentially quite serious if you got a particularly strong dose, however, lionfish don’t go ‘attacking’ people. No, they can’t shoot their spikes at you either like anti-aircraft missiles. These poisonous spines aren’t used for hunting, they are simply used as a defense against predators. I’ve been working in the dive and snorkeling industry since 2009 with over 4,000 dives and a similar amount of snorkels and I’ve never had a guest or heard about anyone else’s guests who has been stung by a lionfish. Let’s say for argument’s sake that you did want to go touch a lionfish, of course, we would never do this, but let’s just say you did. As soon as you put your hand out to touch it the lionfish would either dart away from your hand or keep an equidistant space between itself and your hand like two magnets with the same charge trying to touch each other.
- As lionfish are an invasive species to the Caribbean and Atlantic oceans, snorkelers and divers will actively shoot them on their dives or snorkels with spears. As I understand it, it’s a drop in the bucket, but every little bit helps. You can make civice out of them, but most often the dead fish is left on the reef for sharks and other fish to feed on. Do not be surprised if the local snorkel guides on our Belize Snorkeling Safaris have a little sling pole and spear a lionfish from time to time.