For those of you who have an airline ticket or two sitting in your Checkout, just waiting for a chance to take a holiday in the Caribbean the minute the pandemic abates, may we recommend Dominica.
It’s a relatively small island where all the cool kids go. There are no mega hotels or long stretches of beach. There are little quaint beaches, lush forest, and vibrant neighbourhoods precariously perched on stunning cliffs. It’s between Guadaloupe and Martinique with 73 000 people and presently 9 active COVID cases with ZERO community transmission. They are also well-organized for testing and quarantine. So we sailed from Antigua without a pre-test, and on arrival and day 5, we were tested at the dock, and did a 7-day quarantine
We had stocked up on food and planned a couple of boat jobs. One of the jobs was to put on our scuba gear and scrape the underside of the boat to clean off mollusks, and then we used the rest of the air in our tanks to explore the bottom of the harbour that had a scattered collection of small coral crops. Tucked into various nooks of the coral, we counted 7 lionfish.
Unlike the deliberate upset of the ecosystem of rabbits being introduced to Australia for food, or the Asian carp introduction in the Mississippi to control plankton, lionfish were accidentally introduced to the Caribbean probably via the dumping of exotic aquarium tanks into the ocean. Lionfish are beautiful, have no natural predators, and they can consume every manner of fish that exists on a reef within weeks.
So although its illegal for foreigners to spear fish in Dominica, we decided in good conscience that spear fishing lionfish was a civic duty.
Ian googled how to spear fish them without getting stung by one of their 18 spines that contain a neuromuscular toxin that has the similar chemical composition of cobra venom. His plan was to wear thick leather work gloves, spear them and then use tin snips to clip off all of their spines. This all worked well the first day and we had 5 fresh, small lionfish for dinner.
The second day, the first fish he speared was a good-sized one which he shot through the cheek (not through the brain) and threaded him along his float line, then kicked off to find another fish. Whether the still-alive lionfish swam at him, or Ian thoughtlessly just kicked off in his direction, we’ll never know. But Ian ended up catching 4 spines deep into his tendon just below his ankle.
There was no yelling at first, just an explanation through gritted teeth as he came aboard. I boiled water for heated compresses that supposedly break up the toxin, and I checked online whether there were any death-due-to-lionfish-stings (there have been none). He stripped off his wetsuit, showered off the salt water, then lay down in the cockpit as the excruciating pain set in. He started tylenol, naproxen, benadryl, whiskey, and a favourite spotify playlist. He sang along to an Alpha Blondie reggae version of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” through a clenched jaw with added explicatives–stating it was the worst pain he’s ever felt. Other divers on google reported they had pain for about 2 hours. « We’ve got this, » I reassured him. « No need to break quarantine. »
The bruising, muscle strictures, and swelling had started immediately, climbing as high as his calf muscle. I googled again death-rate-lionfish-sting…still came up as zero per cent. I assured him he wouldn’t die, and I assured him he wouldn’t lose his foot (I didn’t actually know that for sure but he needed some conviction on my part in order to muscle through the pain until the toxin wore off).
The lionfish in question was still on the line hanging off the end of the dingy. Wearing the leather work gloves, I pulled him onto the boat still alive, his unblinking saucer eyes staring at me, tracking me as I rummaged around on the boat to find something to smash his head in. We have a priest in the cockpit for this (a wooden hammer used to give the fish it’s last rights) but I used Ian’s weight belt instead and one strong stroke, the eyes stopped their swivelling. Then holding him flat, I used the tin snips to clip off all the spines that are like sheathed hypodermic needles protruding from every side of him. After that, it’s like cleaning any other fish.
Ian’s pain got worse at 4 hours, and still at 6 hours. Then at 7 hours, he got a break and fell asleep for 45 minutes only to be woken up again with excruciating pain. At 8 hours, I put out a call on the radio to the other sailboats in the anchorage explaining the situation and requesting narcotics. We got Tramadol delivered to us by our neighbour boat, and another boat offered us IV morphine if needed. I kept thinking it would be over soon. Instead it was a very long night–14 hours after the sting, the pain went down a notch but the swelling and discolouration was still significant. He still has a very ugly foot 3 weeks later (he started prednisone the next day, compression and elevation, and a green leaf poultice prescribed by the beach bush doctor, and we watched for infection). I think even if he wanted to go spear fishing, he couldn’t fit his foot into his fin.
This also got him out of hiking–of which Dominica has tonnes, each with one or more waterfalls, and some sort of hot spring. The high mountains means it rains every day and everything is lush. The market is full of local fruits and vegetables, fresh fish is available at the end of the day, and Saturday you can buy local goat, beef, or chicken. They seem to be the only island we’ve visited so far that doesn’t have to import all its food, so theoretically, they could safely sit out a zombie apocalypse if need be.
One afternoon, we visited Ian’s Canadian friends Tim and Jessica who have the most amazing place and they do Airbnb (definitely stay here if you come). They sent us off to a little known hot spring. We drove through a gravel pit, over washed out roads, and followed their instructions that once we crossed a little bridge, park then walk through the banana plantation to the river where’s there’s a little beach, then swim across the river quickly because there’s a strong current and at the base of the cliff is a little hot spring hole. There might have been some healing powers in the spring, it was the one day when Ian’s foot looked a little better.
NB: Shout out to Ben P for the consult–turns out Ben did a presentation on medical management of lionfish sting way back in PGY3 😉