Longtime followers of The Simpsons will likely recall episode number 11 from the show’s second season, in which Homer consumes a poisonous fugu fish in a sushi restaurant and is then told he has just 24 hours left to live. The episode, titled One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish, ended up ranking as the highest-rated television show the week it aired back in January 1991.
The episode’s premise, of course, involved the dangers associated with ingesting tetrodotoxin when consuming certain varieties of fish that produce this neurotoxin. Fish like the pufferfish and ocean sunfish produce this substance in various organs and other parts of their bodies, and the effects of consuming these potentially deadly fish have been known since ancient times.
Surprisingly, pufferfish is still a coveted dish in certain parts of the world, particularly in Japan where it is considered a delicacy. Due to the unique chemical properties of the fish, eating fugu filets can produce tingling sensations within the mouth, as well as purported feelings of euphoria. This, despite a nearly 60% mortality rate historically associated with fugu poisoning in Japan.
While the potentially lethal effects of such fish are fairly well known, less widely recognized is the fact that certain other fish species possess an even stranger chemical potential: the ability to cause psychedelic hallucinations.
One species of Mediterranean sea bream, the Sarpa salpa, which are sometimes found in the waters around other coastal European countries, was known to early Arabic writers as “the fish that makes dreams,” and likely for very good reason. When consumed, this fish is reportedly able to produce powerful hallucinations, sometimes lasting for several days.
While the hallucinatory experiences these fish produce have been compared to the effects of an LSD trip, pharmacologists think it is more likely that the effect they have on humans who consume them is more like a deliriant, natural forms of which can cause sickness and intoxication that may produce hallucinations. Such had been the experience of two men in 2006 who said they ate these fish, and thereafter experienced hallucinations that lasted for several days.
Sarpa salpa is not alone as far as fish that may be able to cause vivid hallucinations. The Kyphosus genus, otherwise known as sea chub, are also capable of inducing hallucinatory experiences in those who consume them, as are certain fish around Reunion Island (the location associated with some of the only physical evidence suggestive of the whereabouts of the still missing MH 370 aircraft). Siganus spinus, the intoxicating inhabitant of Reunion Island’s coastal waters, is known locally as “the fish that inebriates,” and based on its reputation as a hallucinatory variety of fish, apparently for fairly good reason. Similarly, Hawaiians know a variety of fish local to the islands as “the chief of ghosts” for the powerful hallucinations it can induce.
Strangely, although the potentially fatal neurotoxins present in pufferfish and other varieties are known, the components in certain varieties of fish that can induce hallucinatory experiences are not as well understood. Theories about the source of the hallucinations include the diets of these particular kinds of fish, and whether the accumulation of certain toxins within their flesh over time, as a result, could be the source.
However, it may also be the case that certain kinds of dietary sources consumed by these fish could be producing more than mere toxins that begin to be stored within their flesh over time. In a novel theory proposed by anthropologist Christian Ratsch, some of these fish may naturally synthesize DMT, a powerful hallucinogenic tryptamine found in many varieties of plants, and even in low levels within ourselves.
Almost as mysterious as the effects of psychedelics on the mind are the remaining questions about the source of the hallucinations these curious ocean denizens seem to be capable of producing. Capable of producing visionary experiences that National Geographic photographer Joe Roberts likened to “pure science fiction” when he ate one of the fish in 1960, these curious psychedelic fish remain one of the most unusual sources of hallucinatory experiences found anywhere in the natural world.