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What is a Flying Fish?

Debra Durkee
Debra Durkee

Flying fish are torpedo-shaped fish that can be found throughout the tropical waters of the world all around the equator. There are more than 40 different species of flying fish, and all have the unique ability to not only break the surface of the water but to glide above it, aided by wing-like fins. They can be up to 18 inches (about 45 cm) long, and flights of up to 1,312 feet (400 meters) have been recorded.

The different species of flying fish share characteristics that allow them to surface and glide. A forked tail and long, slender body aid them in picking up speed underwater, while two or four large, wing-like pectoral fins are used to help keep them aloft. The lower lobe of the forked tail is larger, and is used like a motor when below the water to help the fish keep altitude. Young fish have mottled, variegated color patterns that become solid as they mature, and also sport a pair of whiskers that disappear as the fish approach adulthood.

Veterinarian with a puppy
Veterinarian with a puppy

Their unique mode of transport is used out of necessity. Flying fish are food for predators like swordfish, marlin, tuna, and other large fish. When being pursued by such a predator, the flying fish begins by picking up speed underwater in order to become airborne and elude its pursuer.

While swimming, it can reach speeds of up to 37 miles (60 km) per hour. When the flying fish angles itself upward, it can break the surface of the water and begin gliding with its tail still in the water. The tail works as a motor, building up additional speed before it breaks into the air.

Rather than flapping its wing-like fins like a bird, the flying fish holds its fins steady and glides in the same fashion as a flying squirrel or sugar glider. At the height of its flight, it can glide up to 4 feet (1.2 m) above the water. In a single glide, the flying fish can travel up to 655 feet (200 m). Instead of dropping back below the surface, it can dip its tail beneath the water, flap the enlarged, lower lobe, and return to the air.

Fishermen take advantage of this marine fish's combination of flight and attraction to lights. A common way to fish for these types of fish is to head out into the ocean at night, in canoes equipped with bright lights. These lights act as lures, and when the flying fishes leap out of the water to go toward the light, they are beached in the canoes.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is a flying fish?

A flying fish is a marine creature belonging to the family Exocoetidae, capable of making powerful, self-propelled leaps out of water where their long, wing-like fins enable them to glide considerable distances. This adaptation helps them escape predators. They are found in all of the major oceans, particularly in warm tropical and subtropical waters.

How do flying fish 'fly'?

Flying fish 'fly' by rapidly vibrating their tail fin while still in the water, gaining enough speed to break the surface. Once airborne, they spread their pectoral fins like wings. By continuing to beat their tail fin against the water's surface, they can extend their flight, covering distances up to 400 meters, according to some studies.

What do flying fish eat?

Flying fish primarily feed on plankton. Their diet consists of a variety of small marine organisms, including crustaceans and other tiny sea creatures. They have large eyes which help them spot food sources in the vast ocean, and their lower jaw, which protrudes forward, aids in capturing prey during their swift gliding flights.

Are flying fish the prey of other animals?

Yes, flying fish are commonly preyed upon by larger marine predators such as tuna, swordfish, and marlin. Their ability to 'fly' is actually an evolutionary response to evade these predators. Additionally, seabirds often catch flying fish mid-flight, making them a target both in the water and in the air.

How long do flying fish live?

The lifespan of flying fish is relatively short. On average, they live for about five years. Their life cycle includes rapid growth, with some species reaching maturity in just one year. Their short lifespan is balanced by their prolific breeding habits, ensuring the survival of the species despite numerous predators.

Can flying fish be found near the surface at night?

Yes, flying fish are often found near the surface at night. They are attracted to light, which is why they are commonly spotted around boats with lights on the water. Fishermen in some cultures use this behavior to their advantage, using lights to lure flying fish to the surface for capture.

Discussion Comments


I have heard of flying fish, but I didn't know much about them. I didn't know they could fly or glide as far as 655 feet in one leap as mentioned in this article. That distance is amazing. I can see how there ability to fly above the water would help them escape predators that have to remain in the water.


@Feryll - The tropical fish like mentioned in this article couldn't survive in most of the waterways in the United States. The cold waters wouldn't be ideal for them and they would most likely die if they couldn't find warmer water.

However, I think I know the fish you are talking about. They are carps that originated in China I think. These Asian carp are invasive and they do leap out of the water, but they don't actually glide long distances like the tropical flying fish.

The Asian carp are easily startled, so if a motor boat is moving through the water where the fish are swimming then the fish will often leap out of the water to escape the sound of the motor which they see as a danger.


I saw a TV show about fish that were not originally found in the U.S. The fish were pets and somehow they got released into rivers and streams. They are very invasive and they are now taking over waterways and threatening to force other native fish into extinction.

Doing the show, the fish were shown just flying around and landing on boats as the boats made their way down a river. Fish were flying all over the place and hitting the people in the boats. Does anyone know whether these are the same type of fish mentioned in this article? Has anyone seen the flying fish video I am referring to?

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      Veterinarian with a puppy