For most fish, a flight through the air means they’re about to become lunch for an eagle or heron. Not for flying fish, though – well, not always, anyway. Though they can fall victim to birds of prey, they’re also more than capable of flying all on their own.
At first glance, flying fish more closely resemble miniature dragons than typical sea creatures. Though their flight isn’t quite the same as that of birds, they can remain airborne for an impressive 1,300 horizontal feet, ripping through the air at 35 mph as they glide up for four feet above the glittering surface of the water below.
On a recent outing at sea, marine biology grad student and “professional dolphin nerd” Liah McPherson caught such a sight off the coast of O’ahu, Hawaii, sharing the incredible video with Nature is Metal.
“Flying fish have large pectoral fins that allow them to glide away from ocean-bound danger at a moment’s notice,” Nature is Metal wrote. “As long as they can gather enough underwater speed (roughly 35mph – 56km/h) to break out of the surf and into the air, flying fish can travel up to 1300ft (396m) in one attempt!”
“Once up, they are vulnerable to attack by opportunistic avian predators,” they continued. “But that doesn’t seem to stop them from taking to the sky whenever the water gets too ‘hot.'”
How Do Flying Fish Fly?
Though no one knows for sure, scientists believe that flying fish developed the gift of flight through the millennia to escape from the many predators prowling the depths.
Using their modified pectoral fins, the small fish propel themselves out of the water before gliding through the air, their rigid fins allowing them to remain above the surface with their wing-like quality. Interestingly, when flying fish are below the surface, they hold their pectoral fins flat at their sides to prevent drag in the water. Some species have wing-like pelvic fins as well, giving them the appearance of an aquatic dragon fly.
In total, there are 40 different species of flying fish, each with its own unique set of characteristics. In general, however, they’re between seven and twelve inches in length with bluish-grey bodies.
Bursting through the surface of the ocean into the open air does put flying fish at risk for bird attacks, but birds are the least of their worries. Their main predators include marlin, tuna, swordfish, and mackerel – all sea-dwelling creatures.
Meanwhile, thanks to their relatively small size, flying fish feed on much smaller prey. Their main source of food comes from plankton, bacteria, and other minuscule marine life.