In late 1946 I was an enthusiastic young ensign just out of school, and this was my first venture out into the Atlantic from the naval base at Norfolk, Va. My ship was the USS Donner (LSD 20), at 450 feet in length and over 4,000 tons, one of the largest in our amphibious fleet.
On this bright, clear morning I was serving as junior officer of the deck on our conning station 65 feet above the water. As we made our way out from Hampton Roads into the ocean, I noticed a group of marine mammals playing in the bow wake of our ship. I turned to the officer of the deck, and asked,“Lieutenant, do you see those porpoises?”
Without turning, he snarled, “Dolphins.”
That gruff response kept me quiet for an hour or so but, when I noticed dozens of fish sailing up out of the water as we approached the Gulf Stream, I couldn’t resist calling the deck officer’s attention to this sight so strange to me.
This time his answer was a bit more involved. “Rising,” he carefully enunciated, “that’s enough about cetaceans and exocoetidae. We’re in a major shipping lane and need to focus on approaching vessels. Now go below and get us some coffee.”
That was my odd introduction to marine life. I had to resort to a dictionary that evening to identify the meaning of cetaceans (the order of whales, dolphins and porpoises) and exocoetidae (the family of flyingfish). This old salt was clearly putting me in my place not just in terms of naval behavior but in natural history information as well.
On a later voyage to the Caribbean, one of our sailors somehow captured a flyingfish and showed it to me. Its body was a tube like the cardboard center of paper toweling about 10 inches long. And, when the sailor spread the fins that serve as its wings, the forewings (pectoral fins) also spread about 10 inches and the rear wings (pelvic fins) about 8. Some species have only forewings.
When I asked the sailor if he was going to release the fish, he sputtered, “Are you kidding? This is going to the galley.” Indeed, I now learn that flyingfish are an excellent food. In fact, the annual catch worldwide is said to be in thousands of tons. Their eggs also serve as a popular feature of Japanese sushi.
I was reminded of those episodes when I came upon a delightful little book titled “The Amazing World of Flyingfish” by Steve Howell. It answers many questions about these interesting fish and I base the remainder of this column on his text.
First off, Howell insists that flyingfish is one word.
How does this fish fly? It doesn’t if by flying you mean pumping its wings like a bird or bat. The author suggests a better name for them would be sailingfish.
They first get up speed swimming a few inches under the water surface.
Then, according to Howell, “To generate the initial thrust to power flight it appears that the fish bends its body to nearly 90 degrees and then ‘snaps’ back into a straightened shape, as do hunting pikes or barracudas to generate a short-term but powerful thrust. This initial thrust is enhanced by tail movement, which continues as a fish breaks the surface and uses its tail as a propeller, whipping it quickly from side to side to achieve maximum speeds of over 40 mph.”
Flyingfish normally fly only a few feet above the waves, but in strong winds, which are quite common at sea, they can rise to about 50 feet. An upper limit for glide length is about that of a football field. I wonder if our Office of Naval Research might be designing a flying torpedo based on these characteristics.
Why have flyingfish developed this ability? Although they sometimes appear to fly simply for pleasure, more likely flight is a defense against underwater predators. Unfortunately for them, there are many airborne predators as well. All kinds of sea birds are on the lookout for them, so this may be one more case of out of the frying pan into the fire.
Modern biologists describe about 70 species of flyingfish. A dozen of them are found along the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf coasts.