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Website home>Newsletters>April 2009>Diving with Firefish

Dive The World Newsletter

Diving with Lion Fish

The lionfish is one of the most popular subjects for underwater photographers and with very good reason.

Its entire body is distinctively striped and it has a series of spines and flowing fins, which flare in a flamboyantly spectacular warning display when threatened.

The characteristic markings of the lionfish make it one of the first fish that tropical divers come to identify and to fear.

Lionfish Fact Sheet

Family name: Scorpaenidae
Order name: Scorpaeniformes
Common name: Lionfishes, turkeyfishes and firefishes
Scientific name: Pteroision percula

Distinguishing Features

The dorsal, anal and pelvic fins of the lionfish are the venomous ones whereas the pectoral and caudal fins contain no spine and are safe to touch, although we wouldn't actually recommend it.

Envenomation symptoms include a sharp pain, tingling, sweating, blistering and throbbing. The subject may also experience nausea, headache, abdominal pain temporary paralysis of limbs and in worst case scenarios heart failure, pulmonary edema and loss of consciousness. Professional medical aid should be sought immediately in all cases.

Behaviour & Feeding Habits

As you might expect, lionfish are fearsome predators. They hunt mostly at night, eating almost any crustacean or fish they can find. At sunrise, they retreat to their shadowy domiciles among the overhangs, rocks and corals.

They often corner prey using their splayed fins which limit escape (and hide tail movement) and then use a fast gulp to swallow it whole, much like the gulping attack of a frogfish.

Another method they use is to linger below the surface devouring fish that have jumped out of the water to avoid another predator.


Physical changes herald business-time for the lionfish. The male grows darker and their stripes less visible and females indicate the ripeness of their eggs by becoming paler with some areas taking on a silvery white hue.

Fertilisation takes place at the surface where the female trembles her pectoral fins, and the pair sink and rise several times until she spawns between 4,000 and 30,000 eggs which he then fertilizes.

Life Cycle

After between 25 and 40 days the lion fish larvae sink from the surface and begin to add bulk quickly.

They normally live between 5 and 15 years although the vast majority perish very early in life.


The young are often cannibalised by fellow lionfish although once they reach maturity they have little to fear.

Sharks may consume them since they are known to eat other venomous creatures. In the Red Sea, devil firefish are preyed on by cornetfish, a pattern possibly repeated elsewhere.


Lionfish prefers calm waters protected from current. They lurk in darker, calmer parts of reef and wrecks, where they hover still with their head titled slightly down.

They are also known to frequent in bays, harbours and estuaries.

Ecological Considerations

Lionfish populations are healthy and their distribution is growing.

Arguably the greatest threat posed by man is the threat of a life of captivity. They are popular in the aquarium trade.

Dive Sites

You can find lion fish at all of our diving destinations, including: Thailand, Malaysia, the Red Sea, the Maldives, Australia, Indonesia, Fiji and Burma.

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