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Flying Fish.
By Tom Demerly.

Author’s Note: It’s been a long winter in Michigan. I hope this story provides a view of a warmer place and helps you through these final days of winter.

The bow of our dive boat severs the surface of a blown-glass sea between the islands of Bonaire and Klein Bonaire. We’re carving through the Caribbean on the way to Andrea II, a dive site just off shore in 50 feet of water.

Sunlight ricochets off our crystalline wake that heals quickly into smooth water behind us. The equatorial sun casts shadows on the reef below in 50 feet of transparent water. Columns of sunlight in submerged seizures support the surface. We are not so much floating as we are flying on the wild sea. The line between air and water is difficult to distinguish except at the far horizons that are as distant as our concerns.

I have never been so far from home, even at a greater distance. The floatation of our boat isn’t the only buoyancy here, there is buoyancy of spirit. It is transportation from the world filled with cement and business and gray things. It is the point at which, in the Wizard of Oz, the film changes from black and white to color, a moment cemented into the fabric of the soul that sharpens one’s sense of perfection. A jewel set in the metal casing of life.

Our passage makes a hissing sound just above the hum of the outboard. It’s punctuated by an odd splash. The sound a projectile makes leaving the water. I turn my head to see what made it.

It is a land of fantasy found in children’s books by Maurice Sendak and Theodor Geisel, the man called Dr. Seuss. Sendak filled his master work “Where the Wild Things Are” with improbable creatures evolved in fantasy after a long sea journey on a dream lit night. Dr. Seuss made a mockery of reality by proposing fish that walked and birds that swam and bugs that talked presided over by odd humanoids clad in fur with pear shaped torsos who chattered in gibberish rhymes.

Gliding on this ocean planet we meet the first of Sendak and Seuss’s living characters. It flashed silver, like the sea itself, as it burst from the clear below up into the air where it began… to fly as fast as our motor boat with wild turns and twists. The aerobatics were hypoxic as I watched with breath caught in my throat from the impossibility of it all. And then, when the demonstration was made, it simply folded its big, delicate wings back against its torpedo body and shot downward piercing the surface with a submarine contrail of bubbles.

I realized I had been holding my breath and inhaled.

It shot up again, leveling off and spreading its wide wing-fins that balanced it aloft a cushion of ground effect air just above the surface. This time it easily outdistanced our boat, passing us and then splashing down into the thick, cool sea after an impossibly long flight.

I saw it clearly, like a page from Sendak or Seuss, a flying fish with a plastered smile and surprised eyes, big and round and alert. It climbed from the water and accelerated on the invisible pillow of air between its wing-fins and the water below, angling slightly nose down to pick up even more speed like a helicopter taking off. It flew faster still, trimming its wings to maintain level flight, much further than I thought possible for a large fish. Like the previous sortie the termination of its flight was by choice instead of physics as it simply folded its wings and darted into the bright liquid, immediately reverting to long, fast undulations and decelerating to its submarine role.

The sailfin flying fish, Parexocoetus Brachypterus is a flight of fantasy. I’d seen it in books and Jacques Cousteau documentaries but never imagined its impact in person. Such a thing in reality is impossible. It pays to be reminded that sometimes the very definition of reality is its dependence on impossibility. I read later that the sailfin flying fish leaves the water to escape predators like swordfish and tuna. The flying fish I saw was nowhere near these animals. It was simply flying. Practice perhaps, but if I were a sailfin flying fish, I would fly all the time.

I’ve often considered the swimming of fish and the flight of birds. In our clumsy attempts to swim we have to come to grips with the fact that we are poorly adapted for swimming and that our means of ambulation through the water is an ungainly and disjointed affair that requires a lot of work and results in little speed. Fact: A hippopotamus swims faster than Ian Thorpe.

The majority of fish swim with a motion known as “lateral undulation”. There are a few exceptions such as flounder, flatfish and rays. It is an elegant means of passage through a dense and unforgiving medium. Lateral undulation requires little effort and is tremendously efficient. If you have ever touched a large fish as it swam you noticed they are firmly muscled along their flanks, but have almost no musculature on their back and stomachs.

People, on the other hand, have a full compliment of muscles and joints that can cycle through many axis to perform varied activities such as grasping (the opposable thumb), walking, bending, climbing, running and even a rudimentary version of swimming. We can bend, twist, stretch, reach and stride. You’ll never see a fish in a yoga class.

When I swim I remember this relaxed economy of motion a fish uses. Fish don’t swim through the water; they swim around it. We simply plough through, leaving a messy wake and making a bunch of noise.

I was struck a bit dumb by seeing the flying fish, such an enormously gifted creature: It could fly and swim. Given those capabilities our ability to walk and grasp are rather boring. Our species is distinguished by the opposable thumb and the large brain, two things that continuously get us into trouble. We’re always scheming and reaching for something. The flying fish cannot grasp so it does not. It must lead a life of incredible freedom.

Years earlier, at another island in the Caribbean a friend of mine, Doug Stern, showed me a contraption you stuck both feet into that was supposed to enable you to swim like a dolphin. It was a “monofin” made of carbon fiber laminated to a pair of rubber boots that were molded together. Doug put this thing on and swam through the water with a grace and speed previously unimagined for any member of our phylum. My eyes got big. I instantly had visions of this monofin propelling me underwater at fish like speeds. Given some practice, I could hurl my body clear of the water like a dolphin riding the bow pressure wave of a ship. Absolute genius. When I saw the monofin I instantly pictured myself racing through the water with the dolphins at the bow of a ship, riding the pressure wave along with them. Being intelligent creatures they would think, “What great fun! This fellow has joined us for a fast swim at the front of this boat! He’s quite clever with his monofin…” I would emulate their moves and leap clear of the water exactly like them. Some time later I did get an opportunity to swim with the dolphins. I grasped the fin of one and it towed me through the water at alarming speed. My bathing suit wound up around my ankles. It was much less graceful than I imagined.

I put Doug’s monofin on and realized I couldn’t walk down the beach to get into the water. It suddenly felt a bit like a Houdini escape act with both feet being shackled together. No worries, it would be better in the water. I waded out to waist deep water and nearly drown myself trying to get the huge thing on. When I did it seemed to be pulling me under rather than transforming me into a sleek, whale-like being that floated without effort and slipped through the water at dolphin like speed. I took one enormous paddle, mimicking the movement of a humpback whale’s flukes. I pulled myself under, somehow actually managing to swim slightly backward. The fin itself didn’t bestow fish-like powers on me. I eventually got the thing working fairly well after swallowing quite a bit of saltwater but I was still quite a ways from performing as a human-porpoise at Seaworld or swimming with the dolphins at the front of a ship. Apparently the fact that my ankles are adapted to walking rather than propelling a giant fin was my undoing. So, unlike the flying fish who is master of both air and sea, I was unable to adapt a mastery of both sea and land even with the aid of carbon fiber technology. I gave the monofin back to Doug somewhat deflated by the experience.

The flying fish resurfaced off our bow, this time conducting a low altitude, maximum performance flight demonstration. The fish swept its wings back partially, accelerating and levitating along on the boundary layer of air sandwiched over the surface of the water and under its wings. Its silver scales reminded me of the aluminum skin of a fast airplane.

In the 1960’s a spy satellite over the Caspian Sea recorded images of a mysterious craft. It was enormous, nearly 100 meters long and the color of the flying fish. The sequences of images suggested it was traveling across the surface at incredible speed, four times that of any known surface vessel of its size. It also left no wake. No known vessel existed in any naval flotilla and no known aircraft had ever been seen like this, let alone able to fly at such improbably high speed so low. Embarrassed by the fact that they had few answers for what it was in the photos, the CIA said nothing about the sightings. After the fall of the Soviet Union video was made available of a craft interchangeably referenced as the “Cm-5” and the “Orlyonok A 90”. It was an “Ekranoplane”, a mammoth sub-aircraft that wafted just above the surface of the water flying in the ground effect used by the flying fish. The 300 foot long Ekranoplane was designed to carry 1000 Soviet Marines at over 250 m.p.h. over the waves and then to glide at ultra-low altitude up onto the beach to deliver them at dizzying speed ready for combat. Apparently, I’m not the only one so enamored by the flying fish. The Ekranoplane earned the nickname “Monster of the Caspian Sea”. Few people actually saw it, but video exists on YouTube if you search on “Monster of the Caspian Sea”. The Soviets shelved the project when they went broke and communism fell.

The fish banked left, cutting wildly in front of the bow. Banking so tight and turning so hard it rapidly bled off air speed and its now vertical wings spilled lift. I swear it glanced at me just before its wings slapped to its sides and it incised the surface again like a hypodermic needle and simply disappeared.

Wow.

I thought a lot about the flying fish and I’m not exactly certain why. Perhaps it was because the idea of it all seemed so utterly improbable. I had heard of flying fish, of course, but I hadn’t featured that they flew so well and so playfully with an apparent reverence for the activity. I think the little fish was showing off, or perhaps trying to understand why we, as an “advanced” species, were so encumbered by our slow, heavy boat and all our gear. Given the fact that its brain is likely the size of a Grape Nut it was none of that, and I wonder if the flying fish even appreciated how graceful and spectacular its abilities are.

A few moments later our dive boat was moored and I was flopping over the side with 30 pounds of clumsy gear that granted me a temporary passage to the world of the flying fish, but without the ease of being able to glide above the surface at breakneck speed any time I wanted to.

I’m looking forward to seeing the flying fish again.


 

© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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