Diving the Philippines: The Painful, Disabling Sting of a Lionfish
(An extract of an Article by David McQuire Published in Undercurrent)
It is a typical night dive in the Philippiens. In the beam of our lights, the reef swarms with life. Swimming along the shallow reef are several lionfish, with long white venomous spines. A strong current ebbs west, and we kick sideways downslope in search of pygmy seahorses and pipefish. Carefully avoiding the lionfish, my dive buddy, a local guide named Peri, drops down the sloped surface of a dive site named Basketballs. Peri stops at 90 feet in search of the sea fans that host the pygmy seahorses, and I drop down below him, shining my light on the bottom. I am careful to settle onto a spot clear of coral or lionfish which at night are out on the reef. Their aggression toward divers has been well documented, and I have already experienced fish swimming aggressively towards me, displaying their spines.
The red lionfish is a venomous coral reef fish. This species is native to the Indo-Pacific region. In the Philippines the fish are common, but if care is practiced, they are not a significant hazard. I find a pair of pipefish fish to film, and my attention narrows to the video camera controls and the dance before me. The pipefish wrap themselves around each other and I shift in the sand to get a new angle, when suddenly I feel a sharp stabbing pain in my leg. Flashing my light down, I see a large red lionfish scurrying away, spines outstretched. The pain is immediate and intense, and, understanding the effects of the venom, I rapidly close up my camera and search for my buddy. In humans, lionfish venom can cause systemic effects such as vomiting, fever and sweating. In some cases, it has been lethal. The effect of the venom weakens the force of muscular contractions), and increases the heart rate.
At 100 feet underwater at night in a three-knot current and carrying 60 pounds of camera equipment, I feel my heart racing. I am healthy and not worried about heart problems, but this is serious. No spines protrude through my 3mm wetsuit, but my leg is already painful to the touch. I see the light of my buddy and I circle my light to signal distress, but Peri is absorbed with collecting.
I must kick back up slope, complete my safety stops and try not to lose ground in the strong ebb. I signal that I am surfacing and don’t wait for a response. As the pain moves down my leg, I’m concerned about losing muscle strength and ankle control. With a large video camera housing, lights and a weighted tripod, the kick upstream is formidable, and I’m sucking air hard. I ascend kicking parallel to the shoreline to surface as close to the canoe as possible. With potential loss of muscular control of my right leg, I don’t want to surface downstream of the canoe and be unable to reach the boat.
Kicking towards the surface, the burning increases, and I make my safety stop moving up current where I can see the lights of the boat. I feel the loss of power in my right leg and loss of flexion in my ankle. The exertion and pain have caused me to use more air than normal, and my tank is nearing the reserve. Over increasingly painful minutes, I surface and hand up my gear. It’s a long wait for the rest of the team, and an even longer ride back to the field station where I receive treatment from an emergency doctor volunteering his time for the expedition.
I have problems walking on my affected leg, and have lost some muscular control of the right leg. The typical treatment is to apply a hot pad soaked in water, but the delay means the venom has spread throughout my leg, from my toes to my hip. The doctor settles me in and does what he can, which includes hydration and the heat treatment. By now, touching the affected area is painful, the heat pad is excruciating, and I have lost sensation in my toes. The doctor administers an analgesic, and continues to apply hot pads, which I can barely endure. An hour after the sting, my entire leg is burning and my hip, knee and ankle joints are painful. The discomfort causes me to shift and fidget. The intense pain lasts for another few hours, and ultimately subsides to a dull throb.
It takes me a week to get over the sensitivity in the region. After one month, a red raised welt remains at the site of the sting where the four spines had entered. Next time, I dive in these waters I will definitely keep my eyes peeled for lionfish.