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Fish tales fly in face of logic, but pass 'em on

July 22, 1993

Recent news stories have exposed another harrowing menace to tourists. Giant rogue barracudas are leaping from the sea to mangle unsuspecting boaters, then flopping back into the water to resume their diabolical stalk.

Could it be true!

The first attack happened July 9 in Islamorada. A 46-year-old Tampa woman was badly lacerated after a barracuda rocketed from the depths of Florida Bay and knocked her to the deck of a houseboat.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the fish was probably jumping, as barracudas often do, in an attempt to rid itself of an angler's hook. That somewhat pertinent possibility escaped mention in the first news accounts, which depicted the incident as a bizarre and premeditated assault.

Best of all, the length of the deranged barracuda was soberly reported as eight feetthe supernatural equivalent of, say, a 90-pound squirrel.

By the time this newspaper delved into the fish story, it was too late to stem the hype. The barracuda's victim had granted an exclusive interview to ABC's Good Morning America, so an entire breakfasting nation got to hear the terrifying tale and view the actual sutures.

For those of us who have devoted our lives to scaring people away from Florida, it was a magic moment.

In the past, periodic creature attackssharks, gators, snakes, etc.rated attention mainly from breathless local TV anchors and junky tabloid shows. But this was the big time! This was a legitimate network program embracing the legend of the mutant barracuda and beaming it into millions of households. You can't put a price on that kind of publicity.

And almost immediately the phones began to jangle with reports of other horrifying attacks. An Alabama man, fishing in Bradenton, was said to have incurred minor wounds when struck by a leaping 'cuda. A wire-service account quoted a "shark expert" in Gainesville as saying the incident was "an amazing fluke. I've never even heard of [barracudas] jumping out of the water."

Not in Gainesville, anyway.

The fact is, barracudas are adroit jumpers, especially in pursuit of bait fish. The theory that they would utilize this talent to terrorize tourists is intriguing, but far-fetched. Seasoned fishermen and charter captains crack up at the notion of a killer 'cuda, stealthily circling a boatload of pink-skinned visitors who peer innocently into the brine, adjusting their rented snorkels for that first, fateful dive ...

Yet I would urge native Floridians not to rush forward and punch holes in such a valuable myth. If people choose to believe that a primordial genetic code has gone haywire, and that a normally indifferent ocean species has turned savagely against humans (particularly those visiting from out-of-town), then by all means let them believe it.

To intervene with dull facts would only squander a prime opportunity. The appetite for weird Florida news is obviously so insatiable that the national media is ready to jump on any story, no matter how flimsy. We must ride the momentum, and keep the barracuda panic alive. Keep the calls and letters coming.

It's been years since Jaws was a hit, but lots of people still carry a phobia about sharks. The 'cuda scare has even greater potential because the "attacks" occur out of the water.

No one would be safe from flying barracudas. A splash, a gleam of silverand suddenly a volleyballer on South Beach is scalped, mid-spike. Two lovers, minced beyond recognition during a midnight stroll on the jetty. A tawny young rollerblader, brutally truncated while skating along a seawall.

Would it ever end? For God's sake, somebody do something. Somebody call Spielberg.

Tourist crime not too bad (just ignore facts) February 28, 1993 | Kick Ass: Selected Columns of Carl Hiaasen | Crime coverage based on how far tourist traveled January 16, 1994