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At the end of a family day on the water at Coral Cove Park in Jupiter, 7-year-old Asher Murzynski was wading through knee-deep water, his paddleboard in tow.
The Murzynski family frequents that area of the water, either paddleboarding or on their boat each Sunday, Asher’s mom, Amanda Murzynski said. What was gearing up to be the end of a typical weekend for them quickly turned into a rush to the hospital with a makeshift tourniquet made from a beach towel wrapped around Asher’s leg.
As Asher approached the shore, he felt a bite and cried out. When his father, Mike Murzynski, lifted his son out of the water, he wasn’t sure what bit him. His parents only saw blood and immediately rushed him to the hospital in their car, not waiting to call fire rescue or police.
His mom initially thought Asher was bitten by a shark. It wasn’t until doctors at Jupiter Medical Center Pediatrics looked at the bite marks that she learned it was a barracuda, she said. Doctors told her that the narrow imprint of the mouth and the teeth marks were tell-tale signs.
“‘What are the odds?’” Amanda Murzynski said she asked doctors. “And they’re like, Go play the lottery. Those kinds of odds.”
James Wood, who has a PhD in marine biology and is the owner of Coral Sea Aquariums in West Palm Beach, said reports of barracuda bites are “really, really rare.”
Despite their intimidating appearance, barracudas aren’t exceptionally aggressive fish. The 5- to 6-foot-long fish can mistake any shiny or fast-moving object in the water for a lure and can swim after their prey at over 25 mph.
“They’re bullet-shaped, they’re fast, they’re streamlined,” Wood said. “But they’re not aggressive, but they might make a mistake.”
It is common for divers to see schools of barracuda or swim alongside them, Wood said. They are also found in waters only a few feet deep. Baby barracuda seek shelter in mangrove roots while the larger ones swim the shallow waters nearby.
“They kind of have a reputation, but it’s mostly based on looks,” Wood said. “It’s got a big mouth of teeth and they’ll follow you around when you’re diving or snorkeling, and sometimes people get a little spooked out by that. It’s a predator fish with a big old mouthful full of teeth.”
Jeff Nelson, a dive instructor at Force-E Scuba Center in Riviera Beach, said in his 30 years of professional diving experience, he has never had an aggressive encounter with barracuda, having swam through large schools of them before.
“They will follow people,” Nelson said. “They’re like a dog.”
Nelson said he has seen them lurk near people spearfishing, waiting to take a bite off the spear.
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“They’re more skittish than anything. They look and they watch. They’re just waiting to see for any fish to come by,” Nelson said.
The Murzynskis, themselves certified divers, have had encounters with barracuda. Amanda Murzynski said she had only seen them docilely swim alongside her.
The family still plans to spend Sundays in the water, although Amanda Murzynski said they will all be more aware in the waters where people frequently swim, paddleboard and kayak.
Some 18 stitches later, Asher is home and taking antibiotics for the bite. His mom said he hasn’t let Sunday’s encounter discourage him.
She said she was impressed by how Asher has handled the experience. After the bite, Asher told his mom: “I was in his home, not the other way around.”
“I love his message,” she said. “That’s really pretty astute for a 7-year-old.”