The World of Flying Fish
One of the most unusual species of fish in the ocean is the Exocoetidae, of flying fish. This animal is unlike any other fish in that it is able to literally fly through the air. In certain parts of the world, the flying fish is a special part of the culture through heritage, providing food, and through culture.
The flying fish generally grows up to 18 inches in maturity and never weighs more than two pounds. The modern flying fish is thought to have evolved some 66 million years ago according to fossils. There are 40 known species of flying fish in the world. The ability to fly is thought to have evolved from the need to escape predators in the sea. Swordfish, Tuna, and Marlin are known to feed on flying fish.
The flying fish has unusually large pectoral fins and a forked tail. To launch itself into the air, the fish angles itself at a trajectory to reach the surface, beating its tail up to 70 times per second. As it breaks the surface of the water, it spreads its large pectoral fins and glides. As it loses momentum, it puts its fins down and re-enters the water. Sometimes it can just touch the surface of the water and regain altitude for another glide. The typical length of the flight is about 150 feet and lasts 15-20 seconds. In 2008, a Japanese film crew just happened to catch a flying fish catch flight for 45 seconds which is the longest recorded flight. Flying fish have been reported found on decks of ships which indicate that they are capable of reaching altitudes of up to 20 feet. Most flights are typically four to five feet in height.
Flying fish are found in all oceans but are especially common in warmer, tropical climates. They feed on smaller fish and plankton. While their numbers are not known, they are thought to be relatively common and without risk of extinction. They are attracted to light, which is why they are found at the surfaces of the water. This also is a downfall as they are easily caught by fishing nets. Flying fish are heavily fished in Asia and are a delicacy in Taiwan and Japanese cuisine.
Because of the unusual flying characteristics, the flying fish is revered in several cultures all over the world. The island of Barbados is known as “the land of the flying fish.” At one time, flying fish were very common here because of an unusual amount of plankton in the waters here. Until recently, when boats from other nearby islands began trade with Barbados, they were a staple of society. But as more boats came to the island, overfishing occurred and the flying fish were pushed farther out into the ocean. Today, there are laws in place that protect the flying fish from being overfished as island nations near Barbados respect and honor an agreement to allow enough fish to survive to ensure future generations of the animal. Imagery of the flying fish are found on Barbados currency, in the national seal, and on passports. And it is considered a staple of the diet in Barbados.
Similar to Barbados, Taiwan and other Asian cultures place high value on the flying fish. Not only is the fish considered a delicacy and heavily fished in Asian waters, but it is also revered in culture with festivals and celebrations. Taiwan calls their island the home of the flying fish. Each year in Spring, the fish migrate into the warmer waters of Taiwan. In March, a giant festival is held to celebrate the arrival of the fish. However, the Taiwanese culture acknowledges to species of flying fish. The first to arrive is the species Cheilopogon Unicolor. The Taiwan fishermen have a unique way to catch these fish. They will go out into the water at night in small boats similar to canoes and wave fire torches above the water. As we know, the fish are attracted to light and will take flight at the sight of the fire. And, unwittingly, they take flight into the boats where they are returned to the island to be shared in many delicacies of the region.
However, the main species of flying fish doesn’t appear until April when the Cheilopogon Cyanopterus makes its appearance in Taiwanese waters. The people believe that this species is the “soul and chief” of the flying fish and, therefore, most revered. So important is the flying fish to the Taiwan culture that even the calendar seasons revolve around the migration of the flying fish. The spring season is called ‘rajun,’ or the flying fish season. Summer and autumn are known as ‘teteka,’ or when the flying fish season ends. Winter is called ‘aminon,’ or when there are no flying fish.
There is a cluster of small islands of the main island of Taiwan where the flying fish takes an especially important role. Each season, they have a flying fish festival where the young men of the islands perform ceremonial rituals in homage to the fish. The flying fish are considered a gift from Heaven and are cooked in a special way. No salt is used while cooking the fish. Instead, they soak the fish in seawater and then hang it up to dry in the sun. Then they store the fish in special homemade containers to last during the seasons of no flying fish. Another tradition unique to this area of Taiwan is that men are only to eat one species of flying fish while the women eat another. The elderly have a third species just for them. It is stated in their culture that if an elderly person eats a species reserved for a younger man or woman, they will fall ill.
While the flying fish may be seen only as a curiosity to many, it is seen as a way of life to others. This unique fish with the ability to soar above its predators has a special place in many cultures seemingly worlds apart. As cruises become more popular as a means of vacation and travel, more people are taking notice of these little animals jumping out of the water. Take heed the next time you see one, and pay a little respect to one of nature’s most unusual gifts.