Sep 192012

The titan triggerfish is well known to those who dive and snorkel the tropical waters of the Pacific and Indian oceans.  It’s dramatic coloring, relatively large size (30 inches/75 cm) and cartoon-like eyes render it a very attractive subject for underwater photographers.

Titan Triggerfish, Maldives

But is it safe to photograph this species?  Do you dare get too close?  Is it true that the titan triggerfish attacks divers and snorkelers, or is this only a myth?

It’s not a myth.  However, that shouldn’t stop you from enjoying the water.  The truth is that some male titan triggerfish in certain regions, and during certain seasons, have a tendency to charge at and/or bite divers and snorkelers who unknowingly enter their “territory”.  The “territory” is generally a cone shaped area directly above their nest (which is usually found in the sand close to and around coral).  The widest part of the cone shaped area/territory is at the surface.

Titan Triggerfish, Rangiroa – Photo by Mr. Reeftraveler

Sometimes the fish will simply make a quick charge at the diver or snorkeler to “evict” them from the nesting territory.  In other instances the fish may bite the diver or snorkeler as they are trying to flee.  But most of the time, a titan triggerfish will ignore a diver or snorkeler.

My what large teeth you have

Mr. Reeftraveler was bitten by an aggressive titan triggerfish several years ago.  Here is his account of the story.

“It was a beautiful day of diving on the Great Barrier Reef’s Ribbon Reefs near the Cod Hole.  As I was swimming amongst the colorful variety of sponges, coral and invertebrates, I suddenly felt a stabbing pain in my calf and knew it wasn’t simply a nip from a curious damselfish or a hungry sergeant major.  I turned around and was surprised to see a large titan triggerfish, doral fin erect, readying itself for another charge at my leg. Upon first glimpse of the wound, I could see the distinct tooth marks from the googlie-eyed fish, and I quickly slapped my hand over the open wound and began to swim away towards the direction of the boat.  I swam slowly upward to avoid an uncontrolled ascent.  Not wanting to leave well enough alone, the fish followed and nipped at my fins as he angrily escorted me away from what I then assumed was his nesting area.  After 30 or 40 feet, the triggerfish zoomed away back towards its nest,  and I was able to continue safely back to the boat to have the wound cleaned.  It was later that I learned that the titan triggerfish protects its nest in a cone-shaped pattern, and that if I had descended instead of swimming upward I would have been out of its protective zone far sooner.”

Titan Triggerfish, Maldives

So what should you do if you see a titan triggerfish?  Should you immediately flee the area, or should you stay and watch this beautiful creature (photographers need not answer – I already know your response)?

Titan Triggerfish, Fakarava – Photo by Mr. Reeftraveler

Most of the time, the fish will ignore you.  Watch the fish from a distance for a minute or two and look for signs of agitation (including an erect dorsal fin or charging or darting).  If the fish seems ambivalent about your presence, go ahead and take photos.  It’s best to stay at the same depth as the fish and as far away as possible (while still close enough to get a good shot).  The Maldivian titan triggerfish shots that I took above were from a distance of about 4 feet.  If you find yourself face to face with an aggressive titan triggerfish, remember to swim away horizontally at the same depth.  This is the quickest way to exit its territory.  And while swimming away, swim backwards while keeping your eyes on the fish and point your fins toward the fish.  If it decides to bite, let it take a chunk from your fin instead of your leg.

Two Titans, Maldives

Have you ever seen a titan triggerfish?  Ever been bitten?  Did you think this was a myth? Let’s hear your stories…

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  28 Responses to “The Titan Triggerfish – Does it Really Bite Divers and Snorkelers?”

  1. Literally had this happen to me today in Mamanuca Islands, Fiji. Snorkelling with my boyfriend and friend. Saw a fish that looks like the ones above, stuck between my friends fins. Thought it was scared and caught up in the flippers. I remember thinking “silly fish, just swim away”. A few minutes later I felt something hit my flipper and I turned around to see that sme fish (with another behind it watching on) it charged at me a couple of times and I freaked out and swam away. After a few metres I turned around to see where it was and it was still following me! I’ve been telling everyone all day I was bullied by a fish and they thought I was crazy! I’m so glad I saw this article!!

  2. Uh. Yeah I have, both during dive. And being grilled on an open fire on the beach– they shot it with a harpoon. It’s colloquially known as sea chicken where I’m from. On account that the flesh doesn’t fall apart like usual fish, but is a bit tough. Seriously like chicken.

  3. I was on the Big Island of Hawaii recently to celebrate 35 years of marriage. We stopped at a popular snorkeling spot in Kailua Kona, I can’t remember the name of it, but not too far from the airport. As I was snorkeling, looking at all the colorful fish, this small fish charged at me. It took me by surprise since I’ve never seen a small fish have such an attitude, and I’d never seen a fish do that. I stood up to look for my husband and next thing I knew was feeling a bite to my shin. A lady nearby saw and told me that it was a nesting triggerfish. The bite didn’t break skin, but it did feel somewhat painful for awhile. There was also a red spot where it bit me.
    Thanks for the post. Next time I’ll know what to do to get out of the nesting area. 🙄

  4. I got attached by one of these yesterday, out snorkelling in the Maldives on the house reef close to our water bungalow. I was minding my own business when I felt a nip at my ankle. Turned to see a large triggerfish rushing toward me again, very aggressively. Kicked my fins as hard as I could – mainly in panic! – to scare it off and get away, but it was not deterred and flew at me several times, taking a good few nips at my ankle and drawing blood in two places. I felt a bit stupid but was really quite scared by this and have been very cautious snorkelling today.

  5. Hi..
    I’ve only heard of stories of Trigger Fishes charged and attack divers. Never thought that its real because here in Kota Kinabalu, Borneo, they never seem to bother. They just do their thing and a lot of them Titans are here as well. Only the damsels charged and bite here.

  6. My first ever dive, yes they bite

  7. Since there has been reports of plagues of Crown of Thorns Jellyfish trashing reefs and all the naturalists wringing their hands in despair (the poor loves! ) the obvious question is ……why has nobody thought to send these funky fish over to them to clear up the excess jellyfish………….zzzzzzz

  8. They definitely do bite. I had to put a few staples in a divers head in Okinawa

  9. Hi guys, make no mistake as this is no way a myth. Whilst beautiful to look at and when spotted, even swim up to (for a picture). These Trigger fish can do damage. I was snorkelling in the Maldives with my partner, very shallow water just close enough to our overwater villa. As we were swimming back towards our villa, I spotted one of these a trigger fish. Pointed at it as a sign to my partner to take a photo. Before I knew it, I could see it swim forward on my right side. Gaining speed, it turned around, face towards my snorkel and charged at me! I was utterly petrified, in the heat of the moment as I realised it was charging me, I panicked and stood up. It took it’s first bite on my right side just under my arm pit. Thankfully my partner watched this whole thing unfold underwater, swam over to get me out of there. Before he could, it had taken another bite and wouldn’t let go. Saved after swimming to someone else’s villa. This was torment. Two distinct bite marks, redness that turned into black bruising.. And now a fear of shallow clear waters. Safe to say it has me rattled!!

  10. Hi there. I enjoyed this thread. I was in Sodwana Bay earlier this year with my girlfriend, honing our underwater photography skills in this beautiful part of the planet. mid way through one of our dives, while skirting over the reef at a depth of around 50 feet, I felt this hard tug at my fin. At first I thought I had carelessly snagged my fin on the reef and was angry at myself. The tugging was intermittent and rapid in nature – my first clue that this was a creature. As I turned to see what was up, I noticed this adult male Titan Triggerfish going ballistic at my one fin – he was really pissed off. I’m telling you, 2ft + of raging fury was pretty terrifying. I kicked out – half in panic and half in frustration….caught him square in the head too. It did nothing though and in an instant he was back at it. It wasn’t until I tried to swim away really quickly that he finally let up, turned…..and attacked my girlfriend who was behind me, witnessing the event. She bolted too – sideways and had to swim a big loop to get back to our group. I realized after reading your information, that I had in fact turned on my back to face the creature and through it all I snapped away furiously with my camera. Most pics were pretty blurred since my shutter speed was set for Macro photography at the time, but a few images turned out ok. My girlfriend and I travel the globe to dive with sharks – that’s our passion. This was the most frightened we’ve ever been in the water. I’ll take sharks any day over an angry Titan!

  11. Hello I was attack by a big one yesterday he was almost in my face but I put my finns in front of it while I was laughing and crying at the same time and trying to escape he charged at least 3 times I was in a middle of the cone, my sincere advise is if you see one just don’t stop seeing and try calmly to go away.
    Manel Ruas from lisbon

  12. I was snorkeling at Cocoa Island in the Maldives when I felt a sudden attack to my shin. I didn’t see the fish so I’m not certain what type it was. There were many triggerfish in the area. I swam
    As quickly as possible to shore. My bite was not too bad. A little bleeding and a lot of bruising. The way you describe the attack fits. It was a very strong hit to my leg. The personnel at the dive shop hadn’t seen a bite and couldn’t help me identify it.

    • Ouch, Fay! What an experience. I would guess that a titan triggerfish was the culprit. I saw many of them in the Maldives, but they didn’t bother me. I think it was not mating season at the time?

  13. NO, its not a myth. I’ve been attacked by a Titan Trigger Fish a few weeks ago in Indonesia. First he went to my Divemaster and then after me.
    It was not like attacking once and go, NO, he tried to byte me at least 3 times. They´re nesting now I suppose, since a girl has been chased as well by one in the same morning. It happened at 20meters deep + or – .
    Now I laugh at myself but at the moment I was like OH NOOOOO ahahah.
    Greetings from Lisbon,Portugal

    • Miguel, thanks for your comment! From what I understand, they continue to attack (as you described) until you are out of their cone-shaped “zone”. Glad you survived the attack :)

  14. I have seen tiger fish much closer, definitely not near its nest, it was shallow waters were we were snorkeling. I was following it for around 10 minutes, it did look at me, but didn’t seem to bother.

  15. That’s great.. your information is very informative for me… according to me some issues in swimming are…Swimming is a very technical sport and requires plenty of attention to the technique aspects of the stroke.Head position is a very individual thing, there’s no right or wrong position. Most people starting out in swimming aim to improve their body position and body roll, and develop a good catch – all of which lead to a longer freestyle stroke technique. A longer stroke is a good thing as it means that you take fewer strokes per length. Swim Smooth have loads of great information and tools to help you do this.

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