Karri Larson was kayaking among the idyllic mangrove islands offshore of Big Pine Key late Sunday afternoon when the peaceful nature outing turned into a sea-and-air rescue for her life.
The reason: a jumping fish.
A skinny, four-foot long marine creature -- most likely a species of needlefish known as a houndfish -- jumped out of water shallow enough for a child to walk in.
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The fish's long, pointed snout punctured Larson's back and collapsed a lung, said Bobby Dube, spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Larson, 46 of Cudjoe Key, was rescued at sea Sunday evening by two volunteer firefighters and a paramedic who rushed her to Dolphin Marina.
``She was scared. We were all scared,'' said volunteer firefighter Kevin Freestone, who used two of his towboat company's boats to respond. ``She was in a very bad way. She was in a lot of pain and her breathing was weak.''
A waiting helicopter airlifted Larson nearly 100 miles to Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. She was in serious but stable condition in the intensive care unit on Monday, a hospital spokesman said.
``Nobody knows right now what in the ocean caused this,'' Dube said.
While the original culprit was believed to be a barracuda, which also are long and skinny, a marine expert at the University of Florida said the type of wound Larson sustained appears more likely to have been caused by a houndfish -- which can grow to five feet.
``That long snout would be a reasonably good weapon, like an arrow, if it jumped out of the water,'' said George Burgess, UF's director of the Florida Program for Shark Research. And houndfish, the largest type of needlefish, jump with regularity when they are spooked, Burgess said.
``They live on the surface. A lot of critters like to eat them, like sharks, barracudas or mackerel. They are a reasonable snack, so part of their escape strategy is to get out of the water.''
While houndfish injuring humans is ``fluky,'' Burgess said, it is not unprecedented.
Dr. Steven Smith of Marathon recalled treating a patient in the 1980s who was ``speared in the thigh'' by a houndfish while wading in the flats to fish.
``He essentially had an injury to the deep veins in his thigh, causing a major blood clot,'' Smith said.
In 2000, a 17-year-old girl was snorkeling off Big Pine Key when she was struck by a jumping houndfish. Its bill broke off in her neck, just missing her carotid artery. She lived to tell about the tale after emergency surgery at Fishermen's Hospital in Marathon.
Another incident involving a houndfish and human occurred more than a decade ago in the Dry Tortugas, about 70 miles west of Key West.
A graduate student was diving at night for a project and the light of a glow stick tied to the top of his air tank apparently attracted the fish, which slammed into the side of his head. The graduate student lived.
A fisherman in Malaysia was not so lucky in 1999. He was killed when a houndfish stabbed him through the lung.
On Sunday, Larson had no idea she would be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
She was with a companion in a two-person kayak in an area on the gulf side of the Florida Keys that locals call the back country.
``It was a picture-perfect Sunday afternoon, with herons walking around,'' Freestone said. ``Nobody was around. It was just a peaceful place to be.''
That changed when the fish, most likely spooked by the kayak's paddles or a marine predator, leaped into the air and hit Larson.
The other kayaker called for help about 5:15 p.m.
``They were about three or four miles north in the back country, but didn't have GPS and didn't know their exact location,'' Freestone said.
Using stakes as landmarks, Freestone located them about 5:50 p.m.
``It was low, low, low tide,'' he said. ``I trimmed the engines up real high and told the paramedic I would be able to get him in, but I wasn't sure if I could get the boat out.''
While many people are fearful of sharks and other creatures in the ocean, most who enjoy boating, fishing, diving and kayaking in the sea are not concerned about getting hurt by flying fish, Burgess said.
In 2008, a Michigan woman was riding in a 20-foot boat in waters off of Marathon when a spotted eagle ray jumped out of the water, striking her with such force that she hit her head and died of blunt force trauma.
``There are risks with aquatic recreation,'' Burgess said. ``It's a foreign world and there is wildlife out there. Once in a while there is a freak accident.''