pacific electric eel

Nothing to Fear but the Lack of Fear

I wrote awhile back that it was quite odd to interact with the animals in the Galapagos because they were completely fearless of natural predators. There are no wolves, bears, or other carnivorous mammals, so why would birds, turtles, or sea lions be afraid of me? It suggests a wonderful utopian nature built without primal fear.

But outside of the Galapagos, predators are everywhere. And so squirrels in Central Park scurry away, birds keep their distance, and deer stand at watch with their nervous gaze, ready for flight in an instant. That’s the natural state of things.

I guess that’s why I should be more suspicious of animals that don’t fear me. This week I went scuba diving off the Channel Islands in California. It was the last dive of the trip. As Matt, Rob, our divemaster, and I all descended down the anchor line in our dry suits, we noticed an odd looking ray near the bottom. It has the body of a ray, flounderish, and round, like an odd alien craft. About two and half feet in diameter, it was hovering and undulating just above the sand, its little membrane covered eyes almost hidden. It also has the tail of a shark, making it look like a strange mutant of a creature, further suggesting its antiquity and rarity, and of course making it even more interesting to explore and interact with.

The animal was calm at our approach and I floated towards it with small, slow kicks that were designed not to agitate the sand and cloud the waters. Within seconds I was face to face with it, both of us hovering inches above the sand. Rob and Matt watched as I came face to face with it. A diver took photos. All of a sudden it flipped vertically and I was confronted with its fishy, white underbelly, and 8 inch mouth with small sharp teeth. It went towards my face, and I flipped backward in instinctual defense. It was like the incubator animal in Alien, and it immediately jarred me. Not that this little thing could hurt me, or so I thought. So I relaxed and re-approached. Almost immediately it laid back on down on the sand and so did I, and it came up to me and rubbed by my neoprene covered hand. After another minute, it scooted off.

As I got back on the boat and we all reveled in my experience, the captain chuckled at our giddiness and my bravado. He began by describing the animal to the tee, including the blue gray body and spots and then proceeded to inform me that it was the pacific electric ray, an animal capable of discharging a kilowatt in 45 volt bursts, or roughly twice the current of an electric breaker. The captain knew someone who had been attacked by one, who had wrapped its underside around the head, and delivered the stunning charge. The 6’4, 300 pound behemoth described it as being hit in the head with a bat.

The official word from the Florida Museum of Natural History is that:

Divers are warned to avoid contact with the ray, as the shock of 45 volts or more is powerful enough to knock down an adult human. The Pacific electric ray is very confrontational and if harassed, will swim directly at divers. There are no confirmed mortalities from this ray, but there are some unexplained scuba fatalities in which this ray might have played a part.

If a great white or tiger shark takes too much interest in you, they say you should swim towards it, not away from it, indicating a lack of fear. In the wild, that will scare an animal, because it doesn’t know what you are and what your confidence indicates. Next time, perhaps I should take the same advice when an animal seems so unafraid of me …