Marine Species: Flying Fish

It’s always a treat to see a flying fish while on a dive boat. But how much do you know about these remarkable little creatures?

With over 60 species classed within the Exocoetidae family, flying fish are one of the ocean’s most prolific, yet most unique, inhabitants. Despite their name, these fish do not actually fly by flapping their fins. Rather, they propel themselves out of the ocean to skim its surface and glide above it. Their retractable fins and tail thrusts allow them to soar for hundreds of feet across the water’s surface.  

How (and why) do they fly? 

Flying fish are quite small, only reaching a maximum length of around 18 inches (46 cm). The are a favorite target for hunting swordfish and other large predators. In the truest sense of the expression, they’ve chosen flight over fight when it comes to escaping their pursuers. Underwater, they whip their tails into a frenzy and their streamlined, torpedo-like shape allows them to generate enough speed underwater to break the water’s surface. Then, they spread their long wing-like pectoral fins and tilt them upward, much like a bird. The fish slaps the water with its tail to keep on gliding above the water, safe from the hungry swordfish below.

Many species have two wings, where only the pectoral fins fold in and out. Others, such as those in California waters, are four-winged. These larger sub-species retract both the pectoral and pelvic fins for flight.

How long can a flying fish glide?

While observers have documented flying fish with glide times of up to 45 seconds, the species is very rarely recorded. Anecdotal stories have flying fish landing on the decks of ships, implying that they can reach considerable heights, especially when catching up-drafts from the leading edges of waves.

Furthermore, many individuals have been clocked exceeding even the fastest marine crafts, reaching velocities of over 35 miles per hour (70 km per hour). These speeds, combined with up-drafts, mean the fish can soar as high as 1,500 feet (500 m) into the air.

Where can you find flying fish? 

Flying fish are abundant in most of the world’s oceans, particularly in subtropical waters where plankton blooms, which they eat, are most bountiful.

Flying fish are not protected in the world’s oceans, perhaps because they are not commercially harvested. Many cultures consider flying fish a delicacy, particularly across Asia. In the Caribbean, Bahamians consider the flying fish the symbol of the country. The fish even graces the country’s coins and many other forms of artwork.