You’ve seen them from Jupiter Dive Center’s boats. Flying fish that defy gravity, traveling above the water for longer than any fish should. Then there are the fishes with names like searobin and flying gurnards—bottom dwellers with fins that unfurl like wings. They may not have the cute factor of sea turtles nor the size of sharks, but these winged and flying fish are every bit as interesting. Read on to learn more.
First things first. Despite being able to skim the water for up to 650 feet, flying fish can’t actually fly—they glide. What we perceive as flying is a defensive tactic to evade underwater predators.
To become airborne, flying fish first attain an underwater burst of speed that can reach up to 35 miles per hour. That momentum fuels the launch of their torpedo shaped bodies.
Once out of the water, they fan their fins and glide. To propel themselves further, they can flap their asymmetrical, vertically forked tails.
Escaping one predator doesn’t mean flying fish are safe—birds find them tasty, too. But to even the odds, their eyes have evolved to allow them to see both underwater and in the air.
Flying fish describes fish that “fly.” Flyingfish is the species name and there are more than a dozen species in Florida-Bahamas-Caribbean waters, but the distinctions between them are minimal. They have light-colored bodies tinted with bits of blue and lilac overlaid with distinctive dark body bands. They typically grow 6-16 inches long. Divers are more likely to see flying fish while traveling to or from their dive sites or on their surface intervals than while in the water.
You already know fish don’t have wings, yet some fish have pectoral fins that tuck up close to their body and unfurl like fans giving them a winged appearance, while others have extended pectoral fins that flap up and down like birds.
It’s easy to overlook a flying gurnard. They have blunt noses, gray to yellow-brown bodies with white spots that they can darken or lighten dramatically depending on their environment. But don’t let their dull-colored body fool you—they’re the peacocks of the “winged” fishes. When alarmed, they’ll spread their fanlike pectoral fins and reveal a pattern of vivid iridescent blue lines and dots that extend from their body to the edges of their fins. When fanned, the fin is nearly the length of the entire fish which typically ranges from 6 to 14 inches.
Divers are most likely to encounter these shy fishes in sand or coral rubble near shallow patch and fringe reefs where they move on their ventral fins and use their pectoral fins like fingers to pick through rubble while foraging. They spook easily, so go slow and if taking photographs, be ready—you’re most likely to glimpse their colors when they swim away.
Sea Robins are not quite as shy as their cousins the gurnards but they share many of the same habitats and foraging behaviors. Sea Robins have larger heads, more tapered snouts, and ribbed dorsal fins. The leopard sea robin’s body has a white to gray body color that is almost obscured by a densely spotted, reddish-brown leopard-like pattern.
The bandtail sea robin has a more mottled appearance and colors that range from gray to reddish brown. They are a vocal fish, producing sounds with their swim bladders When approached by divers, both species typically spread their pectorals and swim a short distance away.
With a name like this, you’d be forgiven for expecting a stinger for a tail, rather than wings for fins. The most common species in Florida is the spotted scorpionfish and it’s a master of disguise. Fleshy flaps of skin (called cirri) on their heads and chins, and the occasional plumes above their eyes help them go undetected. Combine that with the mottled browns of their bodies and they blend with the coral reefs they call home.
Observant divers are most likely to spy them tucked under a ledge overhang near the sand, motionless. These fish won’t move unless prodded and it’s then that divers can see the pectoral fins fan out and display variegated reddish colors with distinct white spots close to the body.
But beware; puncture wounds from the fishes’ venomous spines will cause severe pain and often a trip to the emergency room. A painful reminder why divers should never disturb or touch marine life.
From below, a manta ray’s silhouette resembles a diamond-shaped UFO as it glides above divers, gracefully flapping triangular pectoral fins that can reach an astounding 29 feet from tip to tip. Easily identifiable due to its size, it distinguishes itself from equally graceful but smaller yellow, southern, and Atlantic stingrays, with a mouth flanked by two distinctive horn-shaped lobes (called cephalic horns) that is located at the front of its head, rather than on the underside of its body.
Relative to its body size, manta rays possess the largest brain of any fish and studies have determined that some of that brain power is dedicated to learning, problem solving and communication. They are incredibly inquisitive and have been known to interact with divers—including divers from our boats. Happily, sightings in Jupiter have been on the rise—possibly due to a manta ray nursery discovered along the South Florida coast.
Divers often describe the weightlessness they experience while diving as flying through the water. It’s a privilege to share their environment. Chances are, you’ll encounter that sea turtle or shark that divers always talk about. If you’re lucky, you’ll also see something magical while on the reefs—fish with wings. Book your dive with Jupiter Dive Center today or call 561-745-7807 to reserve your seat!
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