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Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#496: Move Over, Blanche... You've Got Company

I have many nocturnal activities that I love doing during summer. No, despite what you may think, that is unfortunately not one of them... at least one that I actually do. I don't think you'll have to give it much further thought to realize that night diving is one of them. I'll write about that later this summer. Another dates back to my days of consulting for the Santa Catalina Island Company (SCICo) on their tour operations. Nearly 30 years ago I was asked to write a new reference manual for the Inland Motor Tour. Once completed, that led to the authoring of 10 more SCICo tour manuals.

Back then I had the island's first laptop computer. It wasn't a Mac or an IBM compatible. It ran an ancient operating system known as CP/M. The laptop had as much memory (a whopping 64K!) as my desktop Kaypro that also ran CP/M, but it lacked both a hard drive and a floppy drive. Without such moving parts, battery life was an astounding 7-8 hours and I could sit out all day at Descanso Beach pounding away at the keyboard as I researched and wrote these manuals (without benefit of the Internet I might add). Ron Doutt initially questioned whether I could work efficiently in that setting, but Packy Offield assured him I'd get a lot more done out there than I would sitting at home in front of a computer. Thousands of pages later, Ron was more than convinced!

In those days I spent a lot of time riding the SCICo tour buses and boats. Of course the Phoenix was a favorite whether it be for a glassbottom boat trip or a Sunset Buffet Cruise. My other favorite was the Blanche W cruising out to "Seal" (actually sea lion) Rock, but especially on the nocturnal flying fish trips. It was always a thrill to see these fish take to the skies to avoid predators... or just the boat. You know... the old "fish that fly and birds that swim" thing. Later trips on the Blanche were made even more fun as I got to know the woman it was named after, Ada Blanche Wrigley Schreiner. Although we occasionally disagreed on Conservancy issues when I was a vice president there, she was always a gracious lady. And I learned a few stories about my great aunt, Minnie Bushing Halas (wife of Chicago Bears owner and NFL co-founder George Halas), who had the box next to the Wrigleys at Chicago's Wrigley Field.

Sadly, it's been a while since I've worked with the SCICo and taken trips on the Blanche W. When John King stopped me on the street earlier this summer and invited me to take a flying fish trip on their new boat, the Cattalac, that night; I was eager to get on board and see what the new vessel was like. John and Karen are well known for their fishing charters (Afishinado) and store on Front Street. I walked down to the Pleasure Pier at 8:00 PM so I could get some video of the new boat approaching the float. Once aboard, I was truly impressed. One thing that immediately struck me was that passengers could walk around the entire vessel, remaining inside the comfortable cabin, heading out towards the bow or stern, and even walking up to the top deck. It was definitely a social experience as well as an educational one. We saw plenty of fish and John's commentary was "spot on" about their natural history. That trip converted me into a true "Afishinado" of this new vessel. The venerable Blanche W. now has company in our waters.

As your marine biological columnist, I would be remiss if I didn't write about the flying fish themselves. Whichever boat you head out on, that is what you are looking for! There may be up to 100 different species of flying fish throughout tropical and subtropical seas. I was surprised to find in researching this column that both the common name, California flying fish, and scientific name Cypselurus californicus, have been changed. According to the fishiest of regional authorities, and former Cousteau associate Dr. Milton Love, it is now known as the smallhead flying fish Cheilopogon pinnatibarbatus. Whatever you call it, ours is one of the largest known with wingspans of about a foot and a half... no competition for a 747, but they get the job done. They grow to lengths that equal that.

Flying fish are pelagic (open water) species that live in the upper 3-6 ft of the water column. Therefore surface water temperatures are very important in determining their distribution. As waters warm in late spring and summer, our species moves northward into our waters from the more balmy regions off Baja California. They are seldom seen in the colder waters north of Pt. Conception. As they move north, they are followed by predators including billfish, tuna and bonito which join our local sea lions in feasting on them. Living near the surface, the fish would be easy prey and many of their predators swim much faster than the flying fish which reach 15-40 mph.

Flying fish have evolved flight as a means of avoiding these fast predators. The lateral line along the side of their body senses potential danger approaching. The fish then react by swimming very fast using powerful strokes of their large tail fins. They break the surface at a slight angle, extend their pectoral and pelvic fins and glide off away from harm. These fins are greatly elongated and have well-developed fin rays that give them extra strength. Flying fish have no muscles with which to "flap" the wings, so their flight is limited to some extent. Flight speeds of up to 20 mph are well below stall speed for aircraft, but these fish are lightweight. When they do fall back towards the ocean surface, they may use the tail fin to accelerate and once again become airborne. This process, known as "dipping," may be repeated half a dozen times. Using this they may extend flight distances from a mere 50 ft to as far as 1,200 ft!

Flying fish have other defenses against predators that do not involve such prodigious bursts of energy. Like many other fish, they are countershaded with light colored bellies and dark dorsal surfaces. Their dark blue backs make it difficult for marine birds to see them against the blue of the ocean. Their light silver bellies make it harder for predatory fish or marine mammals to see them from below against the bright sky.

Our main species of flying fish has very oily flesh with lots of bones, so they are not considered fit for human consumption. Commercially they were caught for bait, but modern lures have limited the need for this in recent years. They also have a major "fragrance." One night I was paddling a double kayak with my then GF Janet to look at the stars. I heard a "whap" and smelled the odor. Before Janet could speak, I said "you were just hit by a flying fish, weren't you?" Other, smaller species of flying fish are considered taste treats in different regions. In the Philippines they are put on pizza like we use anchovies. I can just see one of ours atop a pizza from Antonios! They are eaten in the Caribbean as well, and the Japanese use the bright orange eggs in a form of sushi known as tobiko as well as in surimi (fish paste).

We know what eats them, but what do flying fish eat? If you look at one, they have tiny mouths with tiny teeth and very short jaws. Obviously they aren't chowing down on anything big... their meals are not super sized! What they do munch on is plankton, the tiny drifters in the sea. The eyes of these fish are quite large making it easier for them to locate their small prey. Interestingly, the eyes are able to see both underwater and while airborn.

During the day, Cheilopogon spends most of its time out at sea, but begins to move inshore and congregate in the late afternoon. Here, they may feed or lay their eggs. They apparently spawn near the surface at night in shallow water. If they did so over deep water, the eggs would sink to the bottom. Instead there are small, sticky threads on the eggs which allow them to attach to kelp and other things. Each female may release 500 eggs which measure about 0.1" in diameter. The eggs hatch in about two weeks.

I was deeply disturbed (even more so than usual) when I read in Dr. Milton Love's book that one of my icons, angler and conservationist Charles F. Holder (co-founder of Avalon's Tuna Club), would "catch" these fish using a rather strange method. Instead of fishing for them (I guess those tiny plankton are hard to get on a hook), In 1910 Holder wrote that "the sportsmanlike way to take them is to shoot it with a shotgun." Apparently he would sit in the front of a "fast launch" and fire away when they broke the surface ahead of the boat. He even wrote about wanting to train a dog to retrieve them. This is the same individual who got the California State legislature to declare the waters three miles out from the entire coast of our island a marine reserve prohibiting commercial fishing in 1913.

I'm sure the Native Americans of the island saw many as they paddled to and from the mainland carrying steatite bowls to trade with mainland tribes for deer meat, hides and other goods. Certainly Cabrillo and later Vizcaino were fascinated by them when they entered our waters as the earliest of European visitors. By taking a flying fish trip some night, you too can marvel at their behavior.

© 2012 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 29, 10:00 AM weekdays and on Charter Communications Cable channel 33 at 7:30 PM on Tuesdays in the Riverside/Norco area. You can also watch these episodes in iPod format on YouTube through my channel there (drbillbushing). Please help me climb out of self-imposed poverty... buy my DVD's (see this link). Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

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The venerable Blanche W. and the new Catallac; a flying fish's pectoral wings (er, fins) and the tail fin used for propulsion.

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2012 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia