Triggerfish in Borneo

When Triggerfish Bite: Dive Dispatches from Borneo

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Early on in my scuba days Until recently, I was most afraid of a shark taking a chunk out of my arm while splashing around haphazardly underwater. Little did I know, it’s the small guys you need to watch out for.

What to do when a triggerfish bites you while scuba diving (and other underwater tales from Malaysian Borneo).

Borneo is most visited by divers as its east coast entities in the Celebes Sea are said to be home to some of the best diving in the world. I will say that the marine life around Mataking Island was some of the most incredible we’ve experienced. I’ll also say that Sipadan itself is wildly overrated—a case of a destination suffering from its own popularity. Only 140 permits are allotted a day for divers who want to explore the uninhabited isle. That may not seem like a lot, but the island is so small and all the boats tend to visit the same sites at the same time, so it wasn’t out of the ordinary to look down and see more divers than you did fish. Both SVV and I found it a huge disappointment.

But that’s neither here nor there.

While we were on our third and final dive on the first of two days we dived Sipadan, I was floating casually atop a coral bed for my safety stop. For those of you not educated in the world of diving, every time you surface for a dive, you stop at 15 feet for three minutes to avoid lung expansion injuries. Many times as you do this, you continue to swim around at the shallow depth to maximize your dive time and try to continue to spot creatures among the coral.

I was doing just that when out of nowhere, something grabbed me by the ankle. I thought it was SVV trying to get my attention to show me another octopus or something equally as cool. I flipped over and saw a pesky little fish coming right at me and swimming at my fins. That’s odd, I thought. And so I kicked myself away from him and thought nothing more of it.

What to do when a triggerfish bites you while scuba diving (and other underwater tales from Malaysian Borneo).

It wasn’t until I finally surfaced that my leg started to throb something awful. SVV came out of the water behind me and exclaimed, “DUDE! Did you see that triggerfish trying to punk you? That was some crazy stuff!” I finally put two and two together: It wasn’t SVV who had grabbed me, but said triggerfish. My leg continued to sting beneath the wetsuit.

The divemasters we dived with that day spoke little English. When we got back on the boat, I tried to explain to them my plight. They looked at me and blinked stupidly. Apparently, a visual would better convey my point. So I pulled off my wetsuit to reveal this:

What to do when a triggerfish bites you while scuba diving (and other underwater tales from Malaysian Borneo).

That little jerk had punctured through both a 5mm wetsuit, double layered over a dive booty. All I have to say is it’s a darn good thing I chose that day of all days to wear a long suit; the other dives, I’d been going in either a shortie or nothing at all. Lesson learned: Neoprene saves limbs. The wound was an odd one: It was bloody under the skin but had a rubbery layer on top. In the coming weeks, it got extremely infected and took nearly two months to heal.

The funny thing about the triggerfish is that it looks like a perfectly nice animal, awash in a rainbow of colors. (See below for a very cloudy shot of two such fish.) Looks can be deceiving. His beak is made to cut through bone, and I later learned that triggerfish are mighty territorial and if you happen to drift into their conical sphere, you might not make it back out unscathed. This also happened to my friend Terry while she was diving in Papua New Guinea. Same fish, same attack, same injured limb. I repeat: Those little jerks.

What to do when a triggerfish bites you while scuba diving (and other underwater tales from Malaysian Borneo).

I guess I was just lucky he—or rather, she, as we deduced it was a mama guarding her turf—let me off easily. She could have very well not taken mercy on me and snapped my Achilles tendon into pieces instead.

Sharks no longer make me flinch, but you better believe every time I see a triggerfish, I swim out of its zone as quickly as my fins will carry me. At least I have a permanent reminder of my honeymoon, in the form of a quarter-sized scar. At least there’s that.

  • October 20, 2010

    You might remember that triggerfish also EAT rocks. In that, they devour chunks of coral for food. Methinks that baby-mama fishy did indeed hold back in her bite!

  • October 20, 2010

    Triggerfish are delicious with butter and capers.

  • October 20, 2010

    I didn’t get bitten, but I hit my foot on coral in Mexico and it took out a sizable chunk that took almost a year to heal completely. I still have a funky shiny scar. My friend got stung by a stingray and still has a wound to prove it. Something about those underwater creatures release toxins in your skin. No fun.

  • October 20, 2010

    Um, OW! Glad you are OK.

  • October 20, 2010

    We did our dive certification in Malaysia (Perhentian Islands), and on every dive, we were warned to be aware of triggerfish. Apparently, in many areas where they live, they’re not aggressive, but for some reason in the waters near Malaysia, they are very territorial. In other places we’ve dived, we’ve gotten odd looks when we have asked if we should be wary of the triggerfish.

  • October 20, 2010

    I like the idea of eating them instead of them eating me.

  • October 20, 2010

    Wow! That was by turns horrifying and fascinating, like a nature show. I had NO idea they did that.

  • October 20, 2010

    Yes! I had a very similar incident (but not as dangerous) with a parrot fish! It bite me on the toe with it’s strong little beak/teeth, whatever they are, and cut my toe open. I was told by the boat crew that because my toenails were painted and shiny that they are a attracted to that and can mistake it for food. I’m glad you’re ok!

  • October 20, 2010

    Holy hell! That looks painful! You’re so hardcore!

  • October 20, 2010

    Owwwwwww dude. That looks painful!

  • October 21, 2010

    We also learned to dive in Malaysia and got warned constantly about the triggerfish. And of course, as the only two newbies in the group, an evil triggerfish mama singled us out and tried to attack my face just as our scuba instructor turned a corner around the reef! It was my first open water dive so I freaked out and swam up–the complete wrong reaction to a triggerfish! Luckily, despite multiple attempts on the 2 of us, the fish only got away with my fin (yup, she bit into the fins frequently and eventually mine fell off) and no other injuries were sustained. We did lose our diving instructor though, which is also not so pleasant on your first dive…

  • October 21, 2010

    Wow! Adding that to my list of things to be wary of and to think I was all freaked out by the barracuda that stalked us in Key Largo the last time we were there. Haha.

  • October 21, 2010

    Oh noes!!! That looks and sounds painful! I am deathly afraid of sharks, but I had no idea that harmless-looking little fish could give that deep of a bite! Ouch. Glad you’re all better! I don’t like getting into oceans, so no biting stories for me! Though I did get knocked down by a cyclist in Florence–he ran right into me and then fell on top of me (his little daughter was on a seat on the bike, so she fell on me, too), and his daughter started crying, and it caused a big scene….and left a huge nasty scrape on my shin, even though I was wearing jeans. Ohhhh, travel wounds.

  • October 21, 2010

    Those little jerks, indeed. Ouch. I bet that dude is cousin of the spider that keeps squatting in my apartment and biting me.

  • October 21, 2010

    Oh my gosh, what a crazy fish bite!

    Hah! I did not sample the fried beer but I heard it was an epic fail of an idea that most people thought was disgusting. Another one I heard about was a deep fried margarita. Or chicken fried bacon. Deep fried smores… now that’s more up my alley!

  • October 22, 2010

    Ha, I went on my honeymoon at the same time as you guys. We went to Vietnam. I brought back a scar too, but not from the diving we did. From a motorbike crash and a broken foot. Have to love those permanent souvenirs.

  • October 22, 2010

    Ouch! Triggerfish are evil!! My husband was attacked by one when we were diving in Thailand and surfaced with a mask full of blood (he said the blood looked green at 25 metres) There were LOADS there, we had to keep an eye out for them and signal to each other that we’d spotted one by pulling a finger trigger. Apparently their habitat is cone shaped so if you see one don’t go up, just swim away with your fins in front of you.

  • October 23, 2010

    That fish totally tried to punk you, wtf. That looks mighty painful!!!

  • October 24, 2010

    OMG…that is IT. I am never diving. You know I almost had a nervous breakdown freaking snorkeling! I hate when fish touch me, let alone bite!

  • October 25, 2010

    I would have died.

  • October 26, 2010

    I cannot believe you got bit by a fish with a beak. Girl, you have more adventures than anyone I know!

  • October 28, 2010

    I’m so glad we didn’t do Sipadan. I’d heard it was overrated, and Indonesian Borneo is better…

    There’s a diving hand signal for triggerfish (make like you’re pointing a gun), and good operators tend to warn you when you’re likely to encounter one, and what to do if you do so — so I’m really surprised they didn’t know what was going on.

  • August 26, 2011

    Gah!! That freaked me out!!! Adding it to my list of things that freak me out in the sea. Currently, its those little jerks and sea urchins. Although, I think these win. They’re pretty and asses.

  • September 3, 2011

    That SUCKS. Once I was snorkeling in Moorea and I felt something bite my leg. I freaked out big time, and I paddled my fins like crazy to get away from what I assumed to be a shark! I got on the beach and inspected my leg. It was a tiny graze—a pin-prick, really. I’m such a wimp: I couldn’t handle a trigger fish.

  • November 22, 2011

    I don’t know how I missed this post… but OMG- worst nightmare come true (although, I too was more scared of sharks…) that little bugger thought you were lunch!! Glad to know you are okay!

  • December 11, 2011

    I have definitely been stung by Jelly Fish. In Panama we were swimming with these huge jelly fish that apparently don’t sting because they are older and have lost their ability to sting. Super fun experience. Then we go to another spot with no jellies at all…I am filming some great underwater shots when I get an electrifying shock on my chest. A little 1 inch jelly just crossed my path and was let it known!! When I got out of the water my chest had completely swollen up. Ridiculous!!

  • January 7, 2012

    It seems like the injuries I’ve seen from diving always come from animals you’d least suspect. The worst I have ever seen was when my dive buddy brushed her leg against some fire coral. She was stung all over the outside of her dive and had to call off the rest of the dives for that trip – from a sedentary animal that couldn’t even move!

    • January 8, 2012

      I used to be terrified of sharks, but they couldn’t be any less harmless! At least white tips, black tips, nurses, etc. Since this happened to me, though, I have talked to so many divers who have had a similar triggerfish injury, and it’s often the exact same place where I was bitten–on the Achilles!

  • February 6, 2013

    Oh my gosh! This same thing happened to me diving in Thailand. I also wrote a post about it! I called it “an unexpected attack,” I would have never thought to fear those harmless looking creatures.
    It wasn’t me that got bit…it was my divemaster. I still fear triggerfish like nobody’s business, though!
    P.S. Is Sipadan really overrated? Bummer!

    • February 6, 2013

      Since posting this story, so many people have told me that a triggerfish got them in Thailand, Palau or Papua New Guinea. Crazy!

      The thing about Sipadan is that there is much better diving in the area that is NOT on/around that specific island. The island is just so busy–way too many divers at the same sites. If you’re already there, you might as well dive it, but I’d suggest looking at some of the other islands nearby like Mataking, which had superb dive conditions and marine life (cuttlefish! seahorses! octopus!).

      • February 6, 2013

        Will absolutely look into Mataking. Just saw your post with the turtles…OMG! Thank you again.

  • April 22, 2013

    I’ve been on a few trips surfing to Bali, and I’ve found that any wound that you receive whilst in the water often takes ages to heal and has a very high chance of getting infected. We had these little coral creatures, I think people called them ‘lice’ and they created a cut that made a 1cm hole into you leg that kept getting infected. The best solution we found was to clean the cut and fill it with super glue…who would have though.

  • February 9, 2014

    True ! These can be quite nasty and territorial ! You have to watch out 🙂

  • August 27, 2015

    Triggerfish absolutely terrify me!!! You poor thing, at least you didn’t know their reputation when it bit you, otherwise you’d have been leaping out of the water to escape…

    • August 27, 2015

      They didn’t terrify me then, but they definitely do now! =)

  • March 30, 2017

    So your honeymoon has scared you 🙂 I stumbled across this old post as I’m headed that way soon. It was a very interesting read. I too agree it is the small ones you need to worry about. I should hopefully be diving there so I will keep an eye out on those little buggers.

  • March 19, 2018

    Same here!
    Was diving in the Maldives about 5 weeks ago now when I got attack by black triggerfish!Not even the Titan one-it bit me through my finger and I could actually hear the crunch loud under water:-))
    5 weeks on -it still hurts and the tissue is hard and pretty damaged

    • March 19, 2018

      I’m so sorry, Rea! Mine took about 8 weeks for the skin to heal, and then I was fine after that. I hope that you heal very soon!

  • June 10, 2018

    I realise I’m commenting on a really old post but I just wanted to clarify that the purpose of safety stops is not prevention of lung overexpansion! Safety stops are to allow your body to off-gas nitrogen so you don’t get the bends when you surface.

    Lung overexpansion is an entirely different thing, and happens if you inhale and hold that breath as you ascend. You prevent it simply by exhaling, or breathing normally.

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