An Introduction to Spearfishing…and Neurological Disease

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First, it was traveling across the island with a crippling migraine. Then, it was a black eye gracefully received while boogie boarding. Now, toxic poisoning with neurological and gastronomic effects. Excellent. First, let me tell you about a new sport Kelly has adopted with all the enthusiasm of a child who just discovered ice cream. Spearfishing.

This post was originally published in 2008. It has since been updated for accuracy of links and content. 

When I was getting my open water scuba certification, I went through a shop that also specialized in spearfishing. And after Kelly spent two consecutive afternoons of watching spear fishing videos while waiting for me (and already having a love of fishing in general), a new pastime was naturally hatched.

Spearfishing is quite an interesting sport, and a natural draw for anybody who likes fishing as well as snorkelling. It involves diving under the water with mask and fins, and basically hunting for fish with a spear. A basic spear itself is quite primitive, with three prongs with which to spear the fish, and a thick rubber band at the other end to enable the hunter to “shoot” the spear a very short distance. (If you’ve ever shot an elastic band at anybody by stretching it over your thumbs, you’re already half way there).

The skill involved is twofold: Firstly, holding your breath long enough to stalk and catch your prey is no small feat. Accomplished spear fishers can stay under water for minutes at a time, and some can dive to incredible depths. Secondly, being able to “sneak up” on fish in their own environment is akin to a shark trying to “sneak up” on us on land. It’s pretty difficult. So the challenge, along with the act of stalking and hunting (along with the opportunity to have free fish for dinner) was enough to quickly get Kelly hooked.

Kelly's spearfishing catch of the day with a three-pronged spear

Over the next few weeks, we caught and ate a number of interesting fish. Some of the tastiest and more adventurous were octopus, triggerfish, and parrotfish. But it was when Kelly came home one day with two large triggerfish and a 3-foot moray eel that he had taken spear fishing to a new level.

All the while, one of our roommates at the hostel where we were volunteering in trade for free accommodation (who is a snorkel guide) had been warning us of eating reef fish, due to some disease you can get that makes you crazy. We decided to ignore her, attributing it to her own craziness and lack of desire to eat seafood while living in the middle of the Pacific ocean (literally). We also took comfort in the number of local Hawaiians who fished in the same area as we did and looked pretty sane to us.

After eating our moray eel though, something changed. The next morning, we were decidedly feeling ill. I won’t get into the details, but let’s just say that “gastrointestinal effects” is a valid symptom. Ah – no worries. Sometimes it happens, we said to ourselves. Bad eel. (We had indeed confirmed that moray eel is edible, and in fact historically was considered to be food reserved for Hawaiian royalty, probably because it’s so bloody hard to skin).

But it was when we poured ourselves a glass of cold water, and it felt burning hot to the taste, that we thought we should examine our symptoms more closely.

Ciguatera is a form of toxic poisoning contracted by eating reef fish that feed on a certain form of bad algae. A more concentrated dose can also be consumed by eating fish that eat these reef fish – like barracuda, grouper, parrotfish, and…moray eel.


Symptoms include “gastronomic effects” (we’ll leave it at that), and “neurological effects” which include headaches, numbness, paresthesia, muscle ache, and even hallucinations. One of the additional classic symptoms is a reversal of hot/cold sensation, technically referred to as cold allodynia.

Check, check, and check.

Symptoms can be exacerbated by ingesting caffeine, nuts, alcohol, and exercising.

So that spiked coffee and peanut-butter sandwich after our run probably wasn’t a good idea. Check.

We seemed to have many of the minor symptoms (not mentioned here), as well as many of the major ones. Although we were not hallucinating. Well, I guess you never know – do ya? Maybe those pink bunnies weren’t sailing away the other day at sunset. Hmm.

So quietly and privately (for fear of our roommate finding out and saying “I told you so”), we researched what seemed to be our first tropical disease. It appears that we caught a small dose of it, since our symptoms aren’t as extreme as they can be. There isn’t any treatment for it, and in fact it is frequently mis-diagnosed as MS or chronic fatigue. It’s also fairly rare as diseases go, with about 50,000 reported cases each year.

Excellent! A RARE neurological disease! Check…

The good news is that it is not fatal, and we are sure that ours is a mild case at best. The symptoms subside within days to months, but we are always to be on guard as relapses do occur, and subsequent ingestion of toxic fish can compound the effects.

So sadly, as quickly as it started, Kelly’s spearfishing career has come to a tragic end. In fact, I categorically refuse to eat just about anything that he catches, with a spear or fishing rod now. Dammit. And I like seafood, especially the free kind.

And damn our room mate for being right. But please – don’t tell her, okay?

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6 thoughts on “An Introduction to Spearfishing…and Neurological Disease”

  1. Thanks, Nora. I’m sure I speak for all the lurkers here in saying that you are my all-time favorite source of vicarious nomadic thrills.

    Love the subtle punnery of “gastronomic” adventures causing “gastrologic” issues.

  2. I know that moray eels are quite edible, but as a lifelong fisherman in Hawaii, there are a couple of fish you are cautioned not to eat. These warnings are not obscure or esoteric – in fact, it’s far more common for consumption of an animal to be regarded by locals as safe, and regarded as unsafe by international experts.

    From youth, we’re instructed not to eat any moray, any blue spotted grouper, pufferfish, local “sardines” (aka herring), wild amberjacks, most sharks, “nightmare” goatfish, large female nenue chubs with an atypically golden hue , large barracuda, any female lobster, large conger eels. Some of these warnings are debated and some are unwarranted but the moray thing is sort of a basic one because it involves quarry that are both dangerous to pursue and eat.

    The reasons for not eating certain animals runs the gamut – and the flesh of few fish contain endogenous poisons are likely to seriously harm people when cooked and eaten. You cannot assess the suitability of any game by simply checking if it has been eaten, is eaten in other parts of the world, or is legal to take. This is not common sense – but it is part of the common sense of those who hunt. When you spend some of your leisure time killing, you really don’t have license to take it casually.

    Conspicuously absent from this post is the notion that Kelly approached our fishery disrespectfully. If he had spoken to a single person in the know about fishing in Hawaii, he would have been warned off of eating it immediately. You shouldnt have had to experience cig, but a globe trotter should be able to recognize something akin to “ugly americanism”.

    What’s confusing is that moray eels are a target for fishermen and divers – the head section of a large eel is a particularly good inshore fishing bait. (And yes, we do use gigantic baits). So Kelly may have seen people taking these eels, and guessed that they were being eaten.

    • Thank you for your feedback. This post was originally published in 2008, a long time ago when I was a newbie to travel, and Kelly was still in my life. Both are not the case any more. 😉


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