The crew tied off the dive boat on the mooring ball at Pleasure Reef located off Islamorada in the Florida Keys.
I stepped off the dive boat into the water, spun around and the mate handed me my camera.
While slowly sinking to the bottom, I went through my underwater camera routine — strobes on and aligned, spotting light on, camera on with proper setting.
Out of the corner of my eye appeared two gray shadows.
I didn’t give it much thought. There have only been one or two confirmed shark attacks in the Keys, I didn’t have anything that looked like barracuda food, and I was not sticking my hand in a hole where a moray eel might mistake it for a fish.
Then, the two shadows, with jaws open, wheeled around and made a bee line for my oversized wide-angel lens camera port. The fish weren’t very big, about 12 to 14 inches, but they certainly had issues with the camera.
Frank Sinatra, known for his problems with photographers, would have just turned 100 this year. Maybe the fish were channeling his ghost.
I thought, “cool, maybe I can get a shot or two of them closing on the camera.”
A shot or two turned into 20 minutes of fish assaults. Sometimes the fish would double-team me with one taking on the camera and another nibbling on my arm or shoulder. No big deal, “My 3mm wet suit should work like armor,” entered my mind.
But even though the fish had large incisor teeth, I survived with my dignity and wetsuit intact.
My assailants were a pair of gray triggerfish.
I grew tired of the game and explored the rest of the reef, which is like a big fish-filled aquarium.
When I kicked back underwater to the dive boat, the fish came at me again. “Did I offend you in a previous life?” I whispered into the mouthpiece of my scuba regulator.
The triggerfish might have been guarding their nest. It seemed a bit late in the year for this, as they are known to build their nest during July through September or after the water temperature reaches 70 degrees.
The gray triggerfish was originally named in 1788 by the German naturalist Johann Friedrich Gmelin who labled it “Balistes carolinensis.”
English language names for the fish include gray triggerfish, grey triggerfish, filefish, leatherjacket, pig-faced, trigger-fish, triggerfish, common triggerfish, and turbot.
Gray triggerfish inhabit nearshore and offshore locations, in reefs, edges and hard bottom locations in waters up to 300 feet in depth.
In the West Atlantic, they range from Nova Scotia to Argentina. In the Eastern Atlantic, they can be found from the United Kingdom south to Angola.
Gray triggerfish weigh up to 13 pounds and grow to approximately 30 inches. The Florida state record is 12 pounds 7 ounces for a fish caught near Pensacola on July 15, 2001.
Biologists estimate that gray triggerfish live 13 years, with females growing larger and living longer than males.
The gray triggerfish has a tough leathery skin and two dorsal (back) fins. It gets its name from the first dorsal fin that has three spines, which can be locked into an erect position for use as predator defense and as an anchoring device.
An adult gray triggerfish is light gray to olive-gray to yellowish-brown. It has the ability to slightly change its coloration to match surroundings.
Juvenile gray triggerfish are yellowish with small violet dots.
The gray triggerfish feeds during daylight hours on shrimp, crabs, sea urchins, sand dollars, sea stars, sea cucumbers and bivalve mollusks.
They are clever hunters. During one study, gray triggerfish were seen in a vertical position a few inches above the bottom “blowing” a stream of water downward where sand dollars might be living below in the sand.
If a triggerfish was successful in exposing a sand dollar, it darted in and, grabbing the sand dollar with its teeth, lifted and dropped the sand dollar until it landed upside down with its soft underside exposed.
The trigger fish, still vertical, then crushed the center of sand dollar with its jaws and consumed a tasty meal. Triggerfish also locate and eat sea urchins in a similar manner.
Mating between males and females is largely random with no long-term pair bonding.
Females, depending on size, lay between 50,000 and 100,000 eggs. Eggs that survive predation from fish such as wrasses and red snappers hatch within 48 to 55 hours.
After hatching, juveniles leave the hollow nest scooped out of the sand and head to the surface to live in sargassum (a type of floating seaweed). More young triggerfish survive when there are higher levels of sargassum, which provides them shelter and food such as algae, hydroids and barnacles.
Tuna, dolphin fish, marlin, sailfish and sharks prey upon juvenile gray triggerfish. Amberjack, grouper and sharks prey upon adults.
Gray triggerfish are caught for commercial and recreational purposes. It is considered a good eating fish, and its meat is cooked in different ways, smoked and dried with salt.
Divers spear gray triggerfish and recreational anglers commonly catch the fish using squid or cut bait. Gray triggerfish are notorious bait stealers and often frustrate anglers who are targeting larger snapper and grouper.
The gray triggerfish is highly prized as a show fish in public aquariums.
The World Conservation Union (a global union of states, governmental agencies, and non-governmental organizations in a partnership that assesses the conservation status of species) does not consider the gray triggerfish to be vulnerable or threatened.
It might be a good idea to inquire about local ciguatera poisoning (a foodborne illness caused by eating certain reef fish that is contaminated with a toxin) in the area where you catch gray triggerfish because they are known to be carriers of the poison.
A new NOAA study, published in the Journal Ecological Modeling, forecasts an increase in ciguatera fish poisoning in the Gulf of Mexico and the U.S. Southeast Atlantic coast with predicted rising global ocean temperatures because of climate change. (See: http://theterramarproject.org/thedailycatch/ciguatera-fish-poisoning-to-increase-as-oceans-warm/)
In November 2015, the Florida Wildlife Commission approved new size and catch limits for gray triggerfish. For more on the new regulations see: http://myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/recreational/triggerfish/
I returned to Pleasure Reef two days after my gray triggerfish encounter. The triggerfish didn’t show up. Instead, a large green moray eel came out of its hole in the reef and swam between my legs a few times, rubbing them as he went through them.
You never know who you are going to see while diving in the Florida Keys.