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