Triggerfish: The New Jaws

By Beth Alexander

As divers we’ve all seen Jaws and heard the many stories and myths surrounding the great white shark, but it seems as though a new scary creature swims amongst us…the triggerfish.

Wherever we have dived or worked worldwide, we’ve probably listened to, or even conducted, a briefing about triggerfish on a dive site, and how they may attack while defending their nests. But are these creatures really that scary or just widely misunderstood?

Known scientifically as Balistidae, there are over 40 different kinds of triggerfish, some of which can grow up to 3 feet (1 meter) long. They are popularly known as triggerfish due to a spiny dorsal fin, which the fish raises like a trigger when feeling threatened. Normally solitary creatures, they are bottom dwellers and prefer to inhabit shallow waters along coral reefs, which is why divers and snorkelers so frequently encounter them. And although sometimes it may seem that they like to take a nibble of out of a diver or snorkeler, they actually prefer to feed on crustaceans, hard coral and algae. They can dig out prey by flapping away debris with their fins or by sandblasting it away with water squirted from their mouths; with large, sharp teeth and a strong jaw, very few crustaceans can withstand a triggerfish bite.

But why are these fish so aggressive, and how have they earned a reputation for attacking divers? Although it may seem that they’re causing trouble for fun, triggerfish are actually very territorial creatures and are just acting defensively, protecting their nests. A triggerfish’s territory extends in a cone shape, upwards from its nest to the surface, so swimming upwards can put a diver further into its territory, making the fish even more aggressive. The correct action to take when confronted by a triggerfish is to swim horizontally away from the nest, or if too close, use your fins as a barrier between yourself and the fish — and try not to look too scared in front of the other divers.

So, although triggerfish are not widely known as diver’s best friends, with their infamous nasty attitude and aggressive behavior, they are actually only acting in self-defense from the large, oddly shaped bubble-blowing creatures that have happened upon their nests. Next time you encounter a triggerfish on a dive, just remember the situation is easy to handle given the correct approach, and learn to swim horizontally away from its jaws.

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