Can I scuba dive with extreme fish allergies?
February 29, 2012 8:11 PM   Subscribe

Can I go scuba diving with extreme fish allergies? So, I'm taking a scuba diving class in a pool, mostly to get over my deep water fears. Now I'm thinking about getting my open water certification but I had some concerns. I have extreme fish allergies. Meaning if a fish bites me, touches me, or stings me it could cause me to have an anaphylaxis reaction (trouble breathing). That all given, can I go diving without troubles? Will I need special gear?
posted by snow_mac to Travel & Transportation (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Are you sure that you'd have a reaction if a fish touches you? I ask because I have fairly severe fish allergies myself, but I can touch them without any sort of reaction (one bite of salmon, however, is enough to send me to the hospital).
posted by infinitywaltz at 8:25 PM on February 29, 2012

I suspect there are WAY too many variables here for us to answer this question. Unless, of course, we ARE your doctor, with a clear knowledge as to the extent of your allergies, and we know exactly where you would be diving, what time of year, under what conditions, etc, etc.....

The obvious answer is, with a wet suit and gear that leaves little, if any, flesh exposed, it would seem that the odds would be in your favor. But, given your allergies, I would hope you would have a backup plan should some type of contact occur. Now, see paragraph #1.
posted by HuronBob at 8:33 PM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Were I in your situation, I'd also be careful picking locations. Many of the popular SCUBA and skin-diving spots in Hawaii, for example, are so used to tourists feeding them with frozen peas that they'll rush right up to you, rubbing against you and sometimes even nipping at your hands, whereas the fish in cooler water diving spots in southern California (like Laguna Beach, Corona del Mar and La Jolla) are generally a bit more nervous and will let you close enough to see them but not close enough to touch them.
posted by infinitywaltz at 8:36 PM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Fish definitely can touch you when diving. I don't think it's common, but I was very memorably smacked in the face by a giant grouper diving Looe Key once. While I was obviously wearing dive gear, the sensation of fin on my cheek and jaw was distinct and there absolutely was skin to skin contact. A wet suit would not have averted this.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:39 PM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

You might want to try snorkeling first -- that way if you do have a problem, you are at least closer to the surface :).

That said, I have been scuba diving in Hawaii (Big Island, Oahu, Maui) and the Cayman Islands, and I've never had a fish touch me. If you go scuba diving or snorkeling at Hanuma Bay, you might have fish coming up to you, but I wouldn't recommend going there anyway.
posted by elmay at 8:40 PM on February 29, 2012

Fish have touched me, but rarely, and mostly in tropical spots. If you were wearing a full bodysuit, gloves, boots and hood you'd probably minimize the risks. Nonetheless this is clearly one for your doctor.
posted by whoaali at 8:42 PM on February 29, 2012

I havent ever been touched by a fish that I didn't try to in 20 dives, but being in a big school you will be touched by faeces and scales etc. It is also pretty common in places to use bait/smashed open urchins to lure fish.

It might be a life or death thing for you, so go for a dive medical. It is a standard examination of ears etc to make sure you can deal with pressure and fitness, and a standard thing. Lots of places will require it for open water certification (and it is compulsory for higher levels), and you can ask your doctor then.
posted by scodger at 10:06 PM on February 29, 2012

Will I need special gear?

An epipen in a waterproof case might be a reasonable precaution.
posted by sebastienbailard at 10:10 PM on February 29, 2012 [4 favorites]

I have been touched by little leaping fish just walking out into the waters of a bay in FL. Do you normally swim in the ocean at all? Yes, ask a doctor.
posted by mermayd at 3:33 AM on March 1, 2012

I'm a pretty experienced diver and I think that the likelihood of a fish touching you will vary enormously depending on where you dive. if you dove in say the pacific northwest in a full wet suit or a drysuit the odds are really really low.

But in a tropical place i wouldn't bet my life on it. I've been touched by fish before, and nipped by them. Plus if you do go into shock underwater i could see it getting bad really quickly. You wouldn't be able to ascend too quickly and creating out of a regulator could be difficult.
posted by SpaceWarp13 at 4:36 AM on March 1, 2012

Seconding the idea of snorkeling first, with a buddy.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:36 AM on March 1, 2012

Yeah, I don't like the sound of this. You really need a professional opinion to decide. I certified in the Northwest and when you start out, you are not graceful. Our class was out one day and everyone was kicking up a ton of silt, cause we're stupid. And I couldn't see where I was and put my face in an anemone. I also got rammed by a dogfish on a night dive. But, I was teasing him with my flashlight. I also once overinflated my vest and popped up hard under a dock - barnacles and who knows what else. I also don't like you being nervous in the water. You'd likely be nervous anyway but trying to keep away from wildlife while managing your breathing and descending/ascending doesn't sound great. You'll also be assigned a dive buddy in the course (most likely) and as your dive buddy, I want you to be present and able.

Those are my concerns. If your allergy is as you present, I really wouldn't risk it. Sorry, I don't think SCUBA is for you. Definitely try snorkeling (after discussing with your doc) if you want to be out on the water -- it's amazing!
posted by amanda at 8:18 AM on March 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Something to consider is that you are not allergic to "fish". You are allergic to some specific compound found in fish, most likely a tiny little sequence found on a single protein or family of proteins that might not even be found in all fish*. Assuming you learned about this from eating fish, it's possible that contact with the exterior of a fish, or even being bitten by a fish will cause you no effect whatsoever.

That said, deep underwater is a bad place to try and figure this out for lots of reasons.

If I were you, I'd start out by finding someone who will let you stick your hand in their goldfish bowl, see what happens, and work your way up from there. Like I said, it could be that no amount of incidental contact will cause you any adverse effect, but if that's not the case, you won't have spent any money on equipment you can't safely use and could have some antihistamines, an epipen and a cellphone with 911 on speed-dial all right there, not in a boat 100 feet above you and three miles from the beach.

*If you REALLY wanted to know, I could write you up an experimental protocol, but it would be a spendy endeavor.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 9:09 AM on March 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

I know a half dozen people with fish allergies who work as fisheries biologists, handling, dissecting, wading through piles of fish and getting covered in fish slime from trawl nets etc. None of them have a problem as long as they don't ear specific fish. Are you sure you're allergic to the outside of the fish?
posted by fshgrl at 10:14 AM on March 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Yes I am allergic to the outside of the fish. I've tested this.
posted by snow_mac at 8:59 PM on March 1, 2012

Best answer: I'm so sorry, snow_mac. I think your open water fears are valid, in your case. Take the pool course, if you're interested, it's a lot of fun. But, yeah...there's too many variables to contol in SCUBA without adding anaphylaxis to the mix. I wouldn't do it.
posted by amanda at 7:16 AM on March 2, 2012

Best answer: I've been snorkeling in 5-6 places (all tropical) and have been bitten by fish in about half of them. More curious nibbles than real bites, but I'd be nervous if contact with the outside of fish was likely to cause anaphylaxis.

I also have asthma and have to be very careful as the restricted breathing, occasional gulps of saltwater, and so on tend to set off breathing problems anyway. So underwater with a breathing apparatus is probably the last place you want to be if an anaphylactic reaction does happen.

Snorkeling is probably still OK but the buddy system and an epipen would be absolute necessities.
posted by mmoncur at 8:34 PM on March 3, 2012

Response by poster: I bought a snorkel, fins and mask. How do I sell them to maximize the amount I get back?
posted by snow_mac at 12:47 PM on March 5, 2012

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