If you live in the open ocean, there’s only one place to go when danger strikes. Up.
Thanks to a streamlined body, enlarged fins and an unevenly forked tail, flyingfish can propel themselves up to 1.2 metres (4 feet) out of the water and “glide” for 200 metres (656 ft) or more.
If you’re wondering why the pursuing tuna, mackerel or swordfish don’t just reach up and clamp them like a humpback, it’s because the power of refraction is also on their side. Barring a sunny day with completely still water, flyingfish are all but invisible as they scoot over the surface, so they’re probably known as “disappearing fish” to their predators.
But how exactly do they do this?
Every take off needs a run up, so flyingfish keep their fins pinned to their sides as they build up speed underwater, sometimes as fast as 59kmh (37 mph). They then angle themselves to the surface before launching, and once clear of the water, spread their fins and “taxi” for a short distance, their forked tails beating mini “s”es on the surface as they do so.
With enough speed they can take off, and with a quick slap of their tail in between, keep themselves airborne for a short while.
Sounds like fun, but as with most incredible feats, there is a risk or two.
Not so much the jaws of a seabird, more a miscalculation.
For one thing, boats can be both tall and wide. They can also be littered with irresistibly strange lights. Many a Pacific and Atlantic fishing crew has found disorientated flyingfish lying on deck in the morning after a failed or overly curious leap. However, we must assume they don’t taste very good, because beyond the odd survival snack, flyingfish aren’t of much interest to fisheries. Even the traditional fishermen of Rapa Nui – Easter Island – only really use them as bait.
As you might have guessed by now, I couldn’t find much information about the Easter Island flyingfish itself.
So you’ll have to bear with me as I infer most of the details from sources about the other 40 or so species flying across international waters.
There are both two and four-winged flyingfish, and the Easter Island version sits in the latter group, with its enlarged pectoral and pelvic fins. It belongs to the genus Cheilopogon, and given that it’s an incredible fish that can take flight, its Latin name is obviously based on its beard.
Juvenile flyingfish often have barbed whiskers so they can camouflage themselves as plants – so even the kids can “disappear”. This may sound daft in the open ocean, but the eggs have sticky filaments that attach them to seaweed and other floating objects, so it’s not always a desert out there.
It must be pretty effective, because the Easter Island flyingfish seems to be doing well for itself.
For 19th century navy fleet surgeon J. Linton Palmer, the sight of them near Rapa Nui was “not uncommon”, and as well as the lack of interest from fisheries, it seems to be plentiful enough for local bait. And to avoid using a magical talisman.
Easter Island’s only museum is dedicated to German missionary Father Sebastian Englert, and during his 30-year stay, he was told of a sacred Moai rock carving that had been buried for safe keeping. Initially stolen from the house of the king, it was believed that, if it was dug up and displayed, it would attract flyingfish, or Hahave. Fortunately it hasn’t been needed, and since the Easter Island flyingfish’s range overlaps with some marine protected areas, it might not be.
This all sounds dandy, until I noticed that almost all other research about the species was to do with eating plastic.
Chagnon et al.’s 2018 study found that of the 43 Easter Island flyingfish examined, 16% had ingested microplastics, possibly because they resembled its favourite food apart from other, tinier fish: plankton. So even if you don’t live anywhere near large human populations, you still get to swallow their rubbish.
Here’s hoping we come up with a talisman to attract all the plastic. Or, you know, just stop throwing it in the ocean.
Latin: Cheilopogon rapanouiensis
What? Sleek “flying” fish that can leap out of and glide over the water for short distances.
Where? Southern Pacific Ocean by New Caledonia, Fiji and Rapa Nui (Easter Island).
How big? About 30cm / 12 inches long.
Endangered? Since it’s of no interest to fisheries and lives where human populations are low, it’s considered Least Concern.
Probable motto: Wheeeeeeeee!!!!
They look awesome. Do they need my help at all?
Luckily its remote location and presumably bad/dull taste keep it out of trouble, so there are no conservation campaigns at the moment. However, even the Easter Island flyingfish isn’t immune to plastics.
Just to prove I’m not fibbing:
Boersema, Jan J. 2011. “The survival of Easter Island“. Cambridge University Press.
Chagnon, Catherine et al. 2018. “Plastic ingestion and trophic transfer between Easter Island flying fish (Cheilopogon rapanouiensis) and yellowfin tuna (Thunnus albacares) from Rapa Nui (Easter Island)” Environmental pollution 243(1): 127-133.
Collen, B. et al (Sampled Red List Index Coordinating Team). 2010. “Cheilopogon rapanouiensis . The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species” 2010: e.T155257A4758878.
Collette, Bruce B. et al. 2019. “Fishes of the western north Atlantic“. Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University.
Deslandes, Sébastien. 2015. “Easter Island’s marine reserve“. Le Monde diplomatique.
“Easter Island museum:Father Sebastian Englert Anthropological Museum“. No date. Easter Island Travel.
Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. No date. “Flying fish“. Britannica.com.
“Flying fish“. No date. National Geographic.
“Flying fish“. No date. The National Wildlife Federation.
McGrouther, Mark. 2019. “A flyingfish, Cheilopogon sp.” Australian Museum.
Oxenford, Hazel A. 2004. “Flyingfish predators, prey and research methods: Lessons learned in the eastern Caribbean“. Presentation, Centre for Resource Management and Environmental Studies (CERMES).
Palmer, J. Linton. 1870. “A Visit to Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, in 1868“.The Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London, Vol. 40 (1870): 167-181.
Parin, N.V. No date. “Exocoetidae: Flyingfishes“. FAO.
Pascualita, Sa-a. No date. “Cheilopogon rapanouiensis Parin, 1961″. Fishbase.se.
Scharpf, Christopher, and Lazara, Kenneth J. No date. “Order BELONIFORMES (Needlefishes)“.The ETYfish Project.
“Talismans of Rapa Nui“. No date. moeVarua Rapa Nui.
Vaughan, Adam. 2015. “Chile plan’s world’s biggest marine park to protect Easter Island fish stocks“. The Guardian.
Walker, Matt. 2017. “Flying fish escapes predators“. BBC Earth.
Featured image credit: Image by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).