Beware of titan ballista! (Thailand, February 2006)
Beware of titan ballista! (Thailand, February 2006)

Beware of the ballista!

  Indonesia: Bali - July 2008

Dear English-speaking readers, this page is an automatic translation made from a post originally written in French. My apologies for any strange sentences and funny mistakes that may have been generated during the process. If you are reading French, click on the French flag below to access the original and correct text: 

Everyone is afraid of sharks. This is silly. It's rare that a shark eats man (when the opposite is not the case). In fact, there are much more dangerous for divers: the mustached triggerfish or olive triggerfish, also called titan triggerfish.

A fast and sometimes aggressive fish

Anyone who's ever felt its teeth will remember it forever...

The triggerfish is a fairly large fish (50 to 75 cm long), very fast. It is called trigger-fish in English, because of its caudal fin which is pointed like a trigger when it goes into action.

Titan triggerfish
A titan triggerfish surrounded by small reef fish.

It is one of the few fish that divers can fear attacks ... with, of course, the fierce clownfish !!!


Admire below the teeth of the beast... And the little cleaning shrimp, perched fearlessly on the tip of its "nose"!

The triggerfish leaves the small shrimp cleaners to rest on his jaws with sharp teeth. (Malaysia, Perhentian Islands, July 2006)
The triggerfish leaves the small shrimp cleaners to rest on his jaws with sharp teeth. (Malaysia, Perhentian Islands, July 2006)

This photo is dated my 2006 trip to the Perhentian Islands, Malaysia. A well behaved ballista like that, the time of the passage to his "cleaning station", it's not so frequent...

Video: the ballista's meal

Below, shot at Bali in July 2008a short video of the beast, biting the reef to pieces:

Stay away from the "nest".

In fact, it is aggressive after the mating and egg-laying season, when it guards the nest. If approached too closely, the titan triggerfish (usually a female) will attack to chase you out of its territory and will not hesitate to bite with its ugly big rabbit teeth to convince you to run away. And he swims fast, the bugger...

It is therefore better to go around the area, as the triggerfish defines its territory from the bottom to the surface.

Beware of titan ballista! (Thailand, February 2006)
Beware of titan ballista! (Thailand, February 2006)

The area that the ballista considers its territory is inverted cone or funnel shape (tip starting at the nest). The frequent mistake of divers is to take distance from the top, whereas it is enough to move away by staying at the same depth, preferably facing the beast: one swims vigorously backwards, calmly presenting the fins to it. Thus, if it takes the urge to bite something, it will be the plastic of the fins, rather than the fat of the calf or a finger.

Most of the other triggerfish species that can be found in tropical waters, such as the friendly clown triggerfish, with its white spotted livery, are not aggressive like the titan triggerfish.

Clown triggerfish. (Thailand, February 2006)
Clown triggerfish. (Thailand, February 2006)

It has already happened to me several times during my dives in South-East Asia, to be charged by an angry triggerfish... It is not always easy to spot a nest, which appears as a small crater in the coral debris of the substratum. The first attack is surprising and a bit scary. But the following times, we know what to expect from the behaviour of this fish, and we rush to flee as quickly as possible!


In Koh Tao, in ThailandThe titanic triggerfish have become particularly aggressive because of the high concentration of divers, who disturb them every day. A few years ago, a triggerfish was even nicknamed "Tyson" by local diving instructors. The fish had apparently bitten into a customer's ear... (like boxer Mike Tyson during a fight in 1997, which has since become famous because of this "incident").


Update. But it's not only tropical waters... The triggerfish is rampant as far as France, in the Mediterranean! Attacks and bites attributed to a common triggerfish have been reported by bathers in July 2020. Read → Holidaymakers bitten by a mysterious fish in the Mediterranean Sea: the marine animal has finally been identified


  Indonesia: Bali - July 2008

  Between Two Journeys

  Malaysia: Peninsula and Borneo - July 2006

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  1. Dear Corinne,

    Marie-Angel is not around a computer during the next week, I manage the blog during this course time.

    Now, not knowing if it accepts the links embedded in a comment, I disapproved of your comment linking to this article. It is not erased, just waiting for moderation in the admin. If she wants she'll be able to post it when she gets back.

    Thank you for your understanding.


  2. No worries, Roman!

    The "link" you're talking about is not a real comment, in fact, but just a "pingback" or "automatic trackback", generated by itself as soon as you link to another blog.

    I for my part disabled this feature on Little Bubbles Elsewhere, because it hampers the discussion between users, I think, to have these false comments with excerpts from a blog that has made a link to mine ...

    So no problem for you to turn this automatic "pingback", which has no other interest for Marie-Angel than to report that I made a link to A World Elsewhere. (I think she should delete them usually, because this is not the first time she and I are posting articles published in each other's blog).


  3. I love the sound of the tag when he eats corals, it always amuses me. But indeed I keep my distance even if the ballista does not scare me. Always be wary of appearances.
    You make me want to dive there all right now.

  4. Still, he does not look mean this colorful fish and everything, and everything ...
    Me, it's the moray eels that scare me !!!!!!

  5. @ Denis: The sound of the triggerfish eating the corals? "Scronch-scronch-scronch-scronch..." 😆 But I won't try to get close to it to catch that funny noise next time! And if he doesn't scare me either, the triggerfish, I'm like you, I don't trust him. We don't have time to see what's coming, which he's already bitten. It's obvious.

    @ PhilippeB: Funny creature, the ballista... Certainly. But more because of its morals, because it's still a fairly common fish. As for its weight, no idea. The bigger ones are quite big, up to 80-90 cm long, I'd say. Must be a few good kilos. I wonder if you can eat it, the triggerfish? 😯 Happy New Year too! 🙂

    @ Helen: Yes, I do! The meanest fish is him. Moray eels are wise and shy ladies by comparison. They're not spoiled by nature with their patibular mouths, but they're not the kind that run up to you and bite you. Just don't wave a finger in front of them. They're intrigued, they think it's something to eat that passes... 😡

  6. Well, ok, thanks for the info: if I meet a triggerfish while swimming in the lake...(That's right, it's so hot right now....... 😕 ) I'll be careful!!
    Biz! 8)

  7. 😕 Ch'tite question: I'm desperately looking for info on "the mating season" or "nesting" for the titanic ballista ...

    I met some great people who came say "cuckoo", while I was "slightly" scared - it made the guide laugh. Gentiles, see players ...

    If there is a fish that scares me, it's titan ballista (and blue stripes ...)

    So I'm looking for info grosso modo qd these bestiolles are horny ... No way to find the info (it depends on the seas, no doubt - I seek pr maldives). What is the news?

    @PhilippeB: Apparently, yes. The triggerfish is eaten - second-hand info ...

  8. @ Jon: No idea about the "season" of love ballista, if only there is one. I think it must depend on corners, and climates ... Basic precaution, in doubt: keep your distance, observing the behavior of the beast.

  9. @Corinne: Yes, it is eaten in Thailand anyway, I just saw one in the fish section of Carrefour Rama 4 in Bangkok. Indeed these teeth are quite impressive ......

  10. @ PhilippeB: Noooooo !!! Not possible! Baliste at Carrefour? !!! Amazing ... Thank you for going on the field to check this amazing info. I'll have an emotional thought for ballista, the next time I'll meet one ...

  11. Hello Corinne,

    Yes I confirm, the ballista titan is very aggressive, we were attacked for more than 5 minutes in Bunaken (Manado, Indonesia) ... Usually, to move away a little showing the fins is enough, but he did not give up until we were far enough, 10-15 meters ... The following week, a diver was even bitten severely 3 times by the same ballista titan.

    I also confirm that many ballists eat themselves! I saw some on a market in the Philippines. He cut it into pieces without the skin, and washed with water. Why? Mystery.

    Have a good day.

  12. Thank you for your testimony, JF23. Not very reassuring ... Enough to encourage everyone to be cautious when a ballista emerges! Brrr.

  13. Hello,
    In Lembeh, a guide was pulled off a (small) fingertip by a big puffer fish. He attacked it like that, for no apparent reason. He was furious because he is probably the only diver to be bitten by this debonair species.
    JF23, It seems to me that the skin and entrails of the triggerfish contain toxins. In addition, the skin is thick, almost like leather.
    Corinne, I love this blog. Congratulations.

  14. @ Phylos: A finger puffer!!!! 😯
    Oh dear ! I'm going to be suspicious now. The last time I approached a puffer, I was not too worried. I stayed long minutes under his nose to flash, closer and closer. He let himself be nicely. Well, well I'll know that we should not trust the apparent placidity of puffers (for the uninitiated: balloon fish) ...

    Otherwise, I did not know that the ballista contained poisons. I imagine that to eat it, it is better to know how to prepare it properly ...

    Finally, thanks for the compliments! I will try to continue in the same vein!

  15. March 2010 and I'm coming back from Maldives.
    At each dive "mask fins tuba", I found these ballista titan a malicious look. Corner looks, how to swim "not Catholic". In short, they did not inspire me.
    And then, we wanted to make a beautiful picture by attracting fish with a little bread (not good ...). Suddenly, a violent attack by the triggerfish: the rapid escape in reverse, on about fifteen meters, immediately imposed itself, with muscular defense thanks to the fins. There were three of us, he attacked us one after the other. No bobo, but beautiful fears.
    Morality: it is better not to irritate the ballista on the one hand and not to drag in its zone when one perceives it on the other hand.

  16. @Georges: Yes, the triggerfish is a territorial fish, and when it defends the area where there is its nest, it can be very aggressive. He is quick and quick, it is better to go away when he goes on the attack, and to present him the fins. Where I am, at the moment, in Pulau Weh (Sumatra, Indonesia), the balistes are peaceful, we are not yet at the time when they make their nest, but I always watch them out of the corner of the eye.

    1. Hello

      I live in Reunion, St Pierre, and I regularly walk the lagoon apnea, without fins.

      There are picasso ballista in abundance, and I have noticed several times a pair of ballista titans.

      The picasso triggerfish started to become aggressive at the end of October, and they will probably be aggressive at least until February, according to my experience as well as testimonials collected.
      As for the titans, the ones I saw were about 30 cm, and were not (yet) aggressive.

      The good thing about picassos is that they do not bite right away, they first make a first charge of intimidation.
      On the other hand, it is true that the more people in the water, the more they seem exhausted and charge further.

      Yours sincerely 8)

  17. We met several people last February on Koh Tao Nuanyuang. We stayed for 3 days on the island and in the evening when all the tourists were leaving the site was for us. I called with my daughter the fish guitar because it has the volume. He broke the corals with his teeth. He did not pursue us happily but they are relatively close to the shore ... I concluded that we were very lucky .. to see them without being attacked.