It came from the depths, circling ever-closer, undeterred in it’s relentless pursuit. Then, the animal seemed to single my son Nash from the group, perhaps because he was the youngest, and therefore the easiest victim. The animal came closer; Nash fought back, parrying every advance with an outthrust arm or a flailing fin kick. The battle raged for three long minutes, man against beast, each vying for position and control… then our safety stop was over and we left the pesky remora behind.
By age 14, Nash had more than 70 dives in the logbook, including a shark feed, several wrecks and numerous night dives. None of which prepared him for his first encounter with a persistent remora. Back on the boat, he told me he’d first though it was “some weird kind of miniature shark” then he recognized the unmistakable sucker disk on the top of the fish’s head.
“Were you scared of it,” I asked. “Not really,” he said, ” At first I wasn’t sure if it would try to bite, or if it would hurt if it sucked on to me. Then it just got annoying.”
Dive in tropical waters long enough and you’ll eventually have an encounter with a free-swimming shark sucker, aka a remora. There are actually eight separate species in this family of aquatic hitch-hikers and moochers, but they all have the same MO: latch on to something larger and hang on for a free ride, and a free meal of scraps or feces. Yep, some of them go for the bits that their hosts have “pre digested.”
Like sharks, remoras have no swim bladder, so they must either hang on for the ride, or when traveling solo, keep swimming to maintain depth and control. They are actually fairly good swimmers, but prefer to let someone else do the work. I’ve often thought of these suck-ups on as the aquatic equivalent of a movie star’s entourage. They don’t do their hosts any real harm, but neither do they provide any benefit.
When a remora decides that a scuba diver is a suitable candidate for attachment, the results can be quite comical. Often, no amount of dodging of swatting on the part of the diver will deter the sucker from its goal of latching onto a tank or torso.
Not as common, and possibly less entertaining for the diver, are the cases when a hungry remora mistakes a flopping bit of pale flesh for a meal. Though they lack sharp teeth, remoras can deliver a painful nip, and in soft fleshy areas such as elbows or earlobes, might even draw a bit of blood. I found one account on an Internet forum where a diver described such an attack, and have heard a few similar tales from divers over the years. In reality, however, such nips are rare, and are usually more like a peck from a parrot than the more aggressive bites I’ve earned by trying to hand feed small grouper or yellowtail snapper.
Attachment is a far more likely outcome of a remora encounter. Evolution has turned this fish’s forward dorsal fin into a suction plate, and once these suckers are engaged, it takes some effort to pull the freeloader off. The suckers don’t cause real pain when they attach to bare skin, but removal is a bit like pulling off a piece of duct tape.
In the course of my web surfing, I did read about one interesting trick used by native fishermen around the world. After catching a remora, they will tie a line to its tail and release the fish. The remora swims off and finds a large fish or turtle to latch on to. By pulling gently, the fisherman can then reel in the catch.
Most divers find remoras to be mild to moderately annoying, like a persistent horse fly, but others welcome interaction.For example, I ran across this You Tube video of a diver who allowed a remora to nip at his hair in what was called an “incredible encounter.”
Me, I’ll probably just keep shooing them away when they come looking for a free ride.