It seemed like we hit the jackpot. We were anchored in a bay we nicknamed ‘Manta Ray Bay,’ since a group of manta rays seemed to appear as we arrived and hovered around us eating plankton for days. We didn’t want to leave. We were surrounded by everything we ever dreamed cruising could be. The fishing was incredible, we swam with the mantas all day, and we had a perfect view of the sunset every night. We’d set out in the dingy and, within 20 minutes, be headed back to start cooking up the large snappers and groupers we’d caught for lunch.
One night, Seanna began crying her leg hurt her. We didn’t quite believe her since she kept changing which leg hurt and the location of the pain. We thought it was a tactic for her to get to sleep in our bed, since it’s something she gets to do on passages. Little did we know it was not a ploy but rather the beginning of our tropical reef torture.
We had contracted ciguatera, an illness caused by a toxin found in some tropical fish that inhabit waters near coral reefs.
All of our symptoms varied. Seanna suffered the least since she ate the least. Merric, on the other hand, LOVES fish and ate about as much as Paul did. The next morning, after being up all night dealing with Merric’s nightmares, I could barely stand for more than 5 minutes without having to sit down. I hadn’t even the energy to get milk from the fridge. Wow, I really overdid yesterday’s beach exercises I thought at first, but when Paul complained of the same issues we knew something was wrong. I remember drinking my coffee with an eerie sensation in my mouth. The coffee wasn’t hot but not quite cold.
The most significant (or common) symptoms are temperature reversals and muscle aches. The illness usually begins with gastrointestinal symptoms, but the toxin chiefly acts on the nervous system. So while the nausea and vomiting will usually subside in a few days, neurological symptoms may linger for weeks to months and, some people even report for years.
The toxin is found in algae blooms that blanket coral reefs. The alga is eaten by small fish, which in turn are eaten by carnivorous fish like grouper, snapper, barracuda, hogfish and kingfish. Those fish, particularly the larger ones, can then accumulate enough of the toxin – it doesn’t take much – to make humans sick when they in turn eat those fish.
Meanwhile, people with ciguatera seem to do better if they avoid alcohol, fish of any kind, as well as caffeine, chocolate and nuts. No one really knows why those products seem to aggravate the condition. We used Ibuprofen to ease the pain in our muscles and Benadryl to help with the itchy palms and feet. But really, the only cure is time.
Prevention is the best defense. The toxin does not affect taste of the fish, is not the result of improper food storage or preparation and cannot be killed by cooking.
The key to avoiding ciguatera is before you eat or serve a particular fish, first ask a local. We have stuck with pelagic fish afterwards since we didn’t want to take the chance of catching ciguatera again. Of the four of us, Merric suffered the worse. Even two years after the incident he was still pursued by nightmares we couldn’t shake him out of. The toxin can stay in your body, just continue to build up and make a second episode that much more intense.
It was a hard lesson we learned and if I can help out one family avoid this syndrome I will be happy. We later learned that one of our good friends had anchored in the same bay a month before and experienced the same distinctly unpleasant fate. Worse, they even had a visiting guest on board. This is why being in touch and passing the word is so very important.
The toxic fish we encountered were in Tahuata, Marquesas, a small island located just south of Hiva Oa.