Ciguatera strikes again

To the editor: Recently, you have published several letters on ciguatera (Voyagers deal with the risks of ciguatera Issue 119 Jan./Feb. 2002 and Sailors’ baffling discomfort suggests ciguatera Issue 123, July/Aug. 2002), and I wanted to include my own experience as a warning to other voyagers.

Several years ago, my wife Judie and I, with guests Gary and Patty, were sailing in the Bahamas on our Taswell 43, Pendragon. Gary caught and brought aboard a 12- to 15-pound barracuda. I warned him of the risk of ciguatera from a predator reef fish that large. He had caught and eaten large barracuda for years while cruising in the Virgin Islands and was not concerned. After cleaning the fish, Gary and Patty prepared and ate chowder with some parts and also cooked and ate fillets for lunch. Judie and I, being more cautious, did not eat any. At dinner time, both Gary and Patty felt fine, so all of us ate barracuda with our meals.

By 1:00 a.m. Patty had serious nausea and diarrhea, headache, tingling in the hands and feet, and reversal of hot and cold sensations on her tongue. Gary had the tingling and temperature reversal sensations, together with large-muscle weakness. Soon Judie and I had symptoms similar to Gary’s but less severe. Patty was the smallest of us, and as cook, had sampled and consumed the most fish.

I put out a pan-pan call on the VHF and received a response from several voyagers, including a physician who advised Gatorade to maintain fluid and electrolyte levels for Patty. He advised getting her to a hospital if she could not keep down fluids, had convulsions or lost consciousness. We moved from our anchorage to the Highbourne Cay Harbour. One of the staff at the hospital chided us for being so dumb and told us her rule for eating predator fish: “If it is longer than your forearm, it can do you harm.”

Fortunately, Patty was able to keep down some Gatorade, and we did not have to airlift her to Nassau. She and Gary both had symptoms of weakness, tingling of hands and feet, and temperature sensation reversal for more than a year. Consumption of caffeine, mayonnaise, nuts, seafood and especially alcohol exacerbated the symptoms. Judie and I recovered more quickly, but it was several months before we were no longer conscious of the symptoms.

The best idea is not to eat any large predator fish from areas with reef fish. Ciguatera is caused by a dinoflagellate that secretes a neurotoxin. Once ingested, the toxin is permanent and cumulative in fish and in humans. Large fish are dangerous because reef fish take in small amounts of the toxin from grazing on the reef, and that passes to the predator fish that eat them. Over time, enough toxin accumulates in the larger predators to be dangerous to anyone eating the flesh — especially the more fatty parts. It is also why a second or third incidence of poisoning in a person will likely be more serious than the first. The greatest dangers are from swelling of the brain in some cases and the loss of body fluids. Severe symptoms must be treated in a hospital as soon as possible.

Dale Simonson is a retired commercial real-estate broker. He and his wife Judie have voyaged in the Bahamas, Florida, Mexico, Belize and Guatemala on their 1988, cutter-rigged Taswell 43, Pendragon.

By Ocean Navigator