There are around 40 different species of flying fish located in oceans around the world. It is believed that these species evolved over 66 million years ago, and that they developed the ability to ‘fly’ to aid in escaping from predators. These predators include other sea creatures such as marlin, swordfish, tuna and mackerel. Their other main predator is man, as a food source. The Japanese are particularly fond of them, as they use their eggs in several sushi dishes.
As their name suggests, flying fish have either one set of wings or two. Their slender bodies are shaped rather like a torpedo, which enables them to move through the water quickly. They can vary in size depending on which species they belong to, but they are typically between 7 and 12 inches in length. The male fish are much bigger than the females, and can be up to 3 times larger.
The color of the upper side of the flying fish is a grey-blue hue, and the belly of the fish is a gray-silver color. The tail is forked at the end, with the lower part being longer than the upper part of the tail. To help with speed of movement through the water, the fins of the fish close together. These fins are the ‘wings’ and some species have a second set of pelvic fins that also operate as wings.
Another feature of some species of flying fish is a pronounced lower jaw. This means the bottom jaw sticks out further than the upper jaw. An added advantage of this is the ability to scoop food through the mouth just under the surface of the water.
Flying fish tend to swim in large groups, and they live on plankton, very small sea creatures and bacteria. This fascinating fish can reach a speed of up to 37 miles per hour just before leaping out of the water and spreading its wings. They have been known to fly up to 4 feet upwards in the air, and can ‘fly’ or glide a staggering 655 feet before they plunge back beneath the surface of the water. This incredible speed combined with the ability to fly helps to protect the fish from many underwater predators. Remarkably, these fish have been known to land on the deck of ships, which means they are reaching heights far above the average, at about 20 feet.
When the fish launches itself out of the water, it beats it’s tail in the water up to 70 times per second, and as it breaks through the surface, the spreading of the pectoral fins enables it to glide through the air. When the momentum of the glide starts to slow down, the fish can just touch the surface of the water and repel itself back into the air for a second flight. Normally the glide will last around 20 seconds, but a flight lasting 45 seconds was recorded by a Japanese film crew back in 2008, which to date is the longest flight on record for these fish.
The flying fish does most of its feeding at night, which unfortunately can be dangerous if there are fishermen about. This is because the flying fish is very attracted to light, and fishermen have utilized this fact by using lights to entice the fish towards their boats and nets. Also, because the fish swim in groups, the fishermen are likely to catch large amounts at once.
The flying fish can be found in oceans all over the world, and are particularly fond of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Ocean because of their tropical and subtropical temperatures. They can be found in abundant numbers in the waters around Barbados, which was once known as ‘the land of the flying fish’.
When the ocean currents are at their weakest, the mating season of the flying fish begins. This can take place in either autumn or spring depending on what ocean the fish is residing in. During this time the groups can become tremendously large, as the fish gather to mate. It has been noted that up to a million fish can make up a group during the mating period.
Once mated, the female lays their eggs in large numbers just near the water surface. Usually the eggs are attached to an object such as debris that is floating close to the surface. When the young fish hatch, the whiskers near their mouths look very similar to fine underwater plants, which helps to protect them during the first days of their lives. These whiskers disappear as the fish age. In the wild, the average lifespan of the flying fish is approximately 5 years.
Culture and Barbados
The national fish of Barbados is the flying fish, and they even appear on a coin. The fish were known to migrate from the warm waters surrounding Barbados to the outflows of the Orinoco River in Venezuela. The flying fish is so important to Barbados that it features in numerous artworks, statues, and also as a hologram on the national passport.
At this point in time, there are no listings of the flying fish on endangered species lists. They are still fairly abundant, and some countries are working to protect the supply and lifespan of the flying fish. In fact, laws have been put in place around the island nations near Barbados to ensure the flying fish is not over fished and depleted.
As well as being a delicacy in Taiwan, the flying fish is also revered and is the subject of numerous festivals and rituals each year. The Taiwanese believe that their island is the true home of the flying fish, and one species in particular is considered a gift from heaven. In fact, their calendar is organized around the different migration patterns of the flying fish.
Apart from other sea creatures and man being a risk to the survival of the flying fish, the increase in tourism in many places also poses a serious risk. This is due to the number of boats and ships that are used to carry tourists around, and the pollution associated with the engines of the boats. On a positive note though, with so many more people visiting these areas, more of the flying fish are seen and noticed, increasing the awareness and popularity of this beautiful and incredibly clever fish.