Published December 2004
Dear Sea Scoop,
My question is about the strange looking fish in the picture attached. A dive buddy took it and couldn't identify it. They say it might be a flying fish. Do you know what it is?
– Peter Richardson, St. Petersburg, Florida
Dear Mr. Richardson,
What a wonderful picture of this animal! I had the pleasure of seeing the very same species while snorkeling along Sugar Bay in St. Thomas. The animal in the photograph is a fish called a flying gurnard (Dactylopterus volitans). It is identified by its enormous rounded wing-like pectoral fins and the brilliant, iridescent markings on them. If the flying gurnard is disturbed or threatened, it will extend its beautiful fins, and then retract them, before quickly swimming away.
Despite its common name, the flying gurnard can't really fly. But it does have a peculiar form of locomotion it will "walk" on the bottom using it fins to claw along the substrate.
Flying gurnards can grow to a length of around 12 inches (30 cm) and are generally found in tropical to warm temperate areas of both coasts of the Atlantic. They are found as far south as Brazil and as far north as the coast of North Carolina.
There are literally thousands of amazing animals found in a coral reef. They range from tiny invertebrates (an animal without a backbone) to a great big shark and everything in between. While they are beautiful and pique our curiosity, you should never touch or try to pick up a marine animal. Not only can it be dangerous for you (many marine animals – particularly ones with brilliant colors or displays – are venomous or poisonous and can make you ill, or at least very uncomfortable) it can also be dangerous for the animal. Imagine if you were sitting in your house eating dinner and a giant hand picked you up and started shaking you. You'd likely be pretty stressed out after that. Well, most sea animals are no different. You may not harm the animal when you touch it, but you could stress it to the point where it wouldn't be able to defend itself should a real predator come around after you left.
Photographer's Note: I took the photo in Roseau, Dominica, in October 2003 on a shore excursion provided by Norwegian Cruise Line during a seven-day cruise. I had been following what I thought was a puffer fish for several minutes when suddenly its fins opened up like a fan and it "flew" away. I asked the divemaster later what kind of fish this was – he said he didn't know because he'd never seen one before (which I found rather surprising).
Jersey City, NJ
For more information on Marine Fishes:
NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service
Fish ID Marine Life Books for SCUBA Diving
Have a question for about the world beneath the waves? Write it down and send it to Sea Scoop! Please remember to include your name and where you're from.
For more information on marine science in the Virgin Islands, visit the University of the Virgin Islands' Center for Marine & Environmental Studies.
Elizabeth Ban is the University of the Virgin Islands Marine Adviser for St. Thomas and St. John. She works to inform and educate citizens about ocean resources and promote coastal ecosystem health. She is based at UVI's Center for Marine and Environmental studies on the St. Thomas Campus. For more information about UVI's Marine Advisory programs, please call 340-693-1392.
Sea Scoop! #3: What is this strange fish?
Published December 2004