By Peter Vankevich
Long-time fishing buddies Ned Bull and Lanier Smith, both of Kernersville, spotted an unusual fish Dec. 9 while fishing south of the airport ramp.
As they walked closer to it, it disappeared into the sand.
Sometime later, it reappeared, and Bull managed to get it on solid sand long enough to snap a picture with his cell phone. He returned it to the water, and after doing some research, he determined that is was a stargazer and contacted The Observer seeking more information.
Stargazers are thick-bodied fish with blackish-brown bodies and white spots that gradually get bigger from head to tail. These are not fish you would want to pick up as they are capable of administering an electric shock that they use to stun prey and enemies. They also have two large venomous spines on their pectoral fins.
They average 8 to 18 inches in length. Both eyes are located on the top of their flattened heads which makes them look above, hence their name.
World-wide, there are eight genera and about 50 species, and they can be found in all oceans.
In the North Carolina waters two species can be found: the northern stargazer and the southern stargazer. As their names imply, the northern stargazer has a geographic distribution up to the waters of New York. North Carolina is about the farthest north for the southern species, which occurs in the western Atlantic Ocean from North Carolina to the northern Gulf of Mexico and south to the northern coast of South America.
A good part of their lives has them buried just below the surface in the sand waiting for prey, which consist primarily of small fish and crustaceans. When it senses food is nearby, the stargazer can use a jolt of electricity to stun its prey and subsequently devour it. It also has a gigantic mouth, which, thanks to its camouflage, no prey can identify quickly enough.
Although present in North Carolina, they are usually at the bottom of the deeper waters off the coast, which is why they are so rarely seen on the island or its shallow waters as this one.
Mike Guerin, who is a a field reporter for “Louisiana Sportsman,” looked at the photo taken on a cell phone and opined that, based on the dark color, it was probably a northern stargazer.
Bull has been fishing on Ocracoke since 1961 and this is a first for him, he said.
John Ivey, one of Ocracoke’s premier watermen, echoed Bull’s opinion. Ivey has occasionally seen them drawn in nets as a bycatch, but says it is rare indeed for one to be seen off the beach.