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Updated: May 26, 2019

This is a short article I wrote for Compass News Features while I was living in Jordan and working on my MSc in the Red Sea. I drew the original illustration but this one was redone by an artist . It was published in a few newspapers. It was based on the original article from Swara Magazine, Defence and Deception on the Reef too and as you can seem original illustration there, as you will see from the snorkeler, I am no artist!

Western holiday-makers who head for tropical locations and explore coral reefs often do not realise that nature has provided the inhabitants of such exotic aquatic paradises with deadly weapons to deter intrusive tourists.

By BRIAN MAUDSLEY Compass News Features

Dangerous denizens of the coral reefs: the more stars, the greater the danger to humans.

1. Stonefish *** 2. Stingray ** 3. Lionfish ** 4. Portuguese Man o'War **

5. Poison urchin ** 6. Barbel eel ** 7. Cone shell *** 8. Fire coral * 9. Moray eel *

10. Barracuda * 11. Black tip reef shark *

12. Puffer fish *** (when eaten) 13. Crown of thorns starfish *

14. Fire coral * 15. Diadema sea urchin *

MAHIS, Jordan -- The holiday rush is on from Europe and North America, with thousands heading for the Mediterranean and tropical destinations in the Caribbean, Africa, the Indian Ocean and South-East Asia. Many will take time to explore coral reefs, diving underwater perhaps for close-up views of schools of exotic fish, normally seen only in picture books or in aquariums at home. They may not know it, but they are entering a world of chemical warfare, deadly weapons and deceit.

Even people living near coral reefs often are unaware of all the dangers that can lurk in paradise. Nature has given the creatures of the coral world a wide array of weapons for survival. Some can kill humans. Most of the weapons are defensive, and the closest to an "ultimate deterrent" is carried by the stonefish, Synaceia verrocusa. The stonefish feeds by waiting immobile on the seabed for smaller fish to swim by. It lunges quickly, engulfing prey in its huge mouth. It is able to do this because of its remarkable camouflage -- it is covered with greenish, greyish and brownish warts, often overgrown by algae. It looks repulsive, but the disguise is so effective the stonefish is almost impossible to spot, even in an aquarium. The fish lives in shallows, and rarely moves -- even when touched accidentally by a human foot. Instead, it raises 13 needle-sharp spines on its back. The spines are capable of piercing the sole of a trainer. They enter the flesh and inject a devastating poison. The pain usually is so intense the victim may scream and writhe in agony. This may be followed by delirium, unconsciousness, paralysis and cardiac arrest. Death is likely if the dose is high. Many hospitals in affected areas keep supplies of an antivenin, but the stonefish victim must be taken for treatment immediately.

If this is impossible, some relief may be obtained by immersing the affected limb in water as hot as the victim can bear. This appears to break down the poison -- but medical aid must always be sought. For safety against the deadly fish, reef explorers should wear stout shoes and swim over areas of coral rubble wherever possible. The most common reef poisoner is the stingray, Taeniura lymma. It always lives in sandy areas, and when stepped upon whips up its long twin-barbed tail to inject a poison. This rarely causes death, but the symptoms can be as painful as stonefish poisoning. However, you may remember that the famous TV personality, the ‘Crocodile Hunter’, Steve Irwin, died in this way in 2006 when he was stung in the heart by an eight-foot ray off Queensland. Again, hot water may work, but hospital treatment must be sought. Unless disturbed, stingrays are shy and docile creatures, spending most of their time grubbing in sand and mud for shellfish and worms. They often lie in water only a few inches deep but are difficult to spot in cloudy water. Shuffling the feet along the seabed usually scares them away. Other reef fish have internal poisons. The most dangerous is the puffer. Humans who eat it experience a floating sensation, followed by numbness and paralysis. Death occurs in about 60 percent of cases. In some parts of Japan, puffer fish is considered a delicacy. It must be prepared by a special fugu chef, trained to remove all the tetrodotoxin poison from the fish.

Another potentially lethal reef creature is the poison urchin, but as in the case of the stonefish, stout shoes will give protection. Painful poisoning also can result from contact with cone shell, Portuguese man o'war (jellyfish), lionfish, barbel eel, fire coral, moray eel, crown of thorns starfish, and the diadem sea urchin, the latter distinguished from the poison urchin by its long black spines. More than 400 species of reef fish have been reported to cause the relatively common ciguatera poisoning, which results in death in about 12 percent of cases. Most of these fish normally are edible, but after eating certain algae can become poisonous to humans.

Shark attacks are dramatic and newsworthy, but rare. Sharks are drawn by movement and blood, and those in most danger are often spear-fishing enthusiasts who hang bleeding and dying fish around their waists. To escape sharks, it is essential to move away swiftly but without panic. Most dangers in paradise can be avoided with a little common sense, and exploring a coral reef generally is as safe as walking in a tropical garden. For most vacationers, probably the biggest danger is sunburn

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