Field of Science

Book Review: The Amazing World of Flyingfish, by Steve N. G. Howell

In June of last year, I was standing on the deck of a ferry in Taiwan, headed for the island of Lüdao (commonly known as Green Island), keeping an eye out for any interesting sights. I was particularly intrigued by the seabirds that I kept seeing flying away from the ferry. For some time, I couldn't make out exactly what kind of bird they were: they were small, and flew very quickly. Most oddly, they never seemed to rise very far above the water; I kept waiting for one to get higher so that I could get a better idea of its shape, but every time I tried to keep an eye on one individual, it would seem to disappear, as if it had re-entered the water. Eventually, understanding dawned: what I was seeing were not birds at all, but flying fish.

Flyingfish (Exocoetidae) are prominent members of the pelagic ecosystem in tropical waters. For some tropical seabirds (actual birds this time, such as boobies or frigatebirds), they are among the primary source of food. Steve Howell, author of The Amazing World of Flyingfish (Princeton University Press, who were kind enough to send me a review copy), put together a guide to flyingfish after travelling from New Zealand to Australia on the Spirit of Enderby as part of a cruise that was primarily supposed to be for bird-watching. But, as Howell explains, "birds tend to be few in the blue equatorial waters (remember, it's a desert, even though it's full of water), and attention sooner or later shifts to flyingfish".

The Amazing World of Flyingfish is not a large book: all up, it barely makes it over 50 pages. But almost every one of those pages is adorned with spectacular photographs that capture the grace and variety of flyingfish. The images chosen work wonders in expressing the liveliness of their subjects. My favourite image technically doesn't even show the fish at all: on p. 16, a triptych of photographs showing the process of re-entering the water shows first the fish in flight, then closing its fins as it approaches the water's surface, and then simply the splash as it disappears below. The text, geared towards a younger or a lay audience, provides a general overview of flyingfish, with chapters given self-explanatory titles such as, "What is a flyingfish?", "How big are they?", "How do they fly?"

And yet, I also found Howell's book frustrating. The numerous different flyingfish varieties depicted are labelled with vernacular names largely of his own creation, such as Atlantic patchwing, sargassum midget, Pacific necromancer. Zoological names are, for the most part, not provided. As Howell explains, most field guides to marine fish are written for biologists or fisherman, and are oriented around identifying a specimen after it has been caught, often relying on features (such as scale counts) that are not discernible in photographs of live individuals. As a result, the identity of most of Howell's 'field varieties' remains uncertain. But then, in another section of the book, we are told that one juvenile morph "was examined genetically and proved to be a young Atlantic Necromancer" (capitalisation Howell's), implying that the zoological identity of this species, at least, is known.

As Howell points out, "there remains an unfilled niche for a field guide that portrays flyingfish as observers see them in the air". Howell has produced an attractive and engaging introduction to the world of flyingfish, and it should provide an inspiration to fill that niche.


  1. Thanks for the review, Christopher. It's a pity that this interesting-sounding book seems to be something of a missed opportunity. There certainly is a place for a field guide to flying fish, but such a guide should still follow certain field guide conventions in order to be truly useful. For one thing, it should not avoid using scientific names. Or invent vernacular names that are utterly nonsensical. (A necromancer communicates with the dead. How does that have any relevance whatsoever to the biology of a flyingfish?)

  2. 'Necromancer' was presumably chosen to refer to the blackish fins of that variety. Personally, I also found the names a bit annoyingly twee, but I'm sure that there are many people who would disagree with me.

  3. I am guessing that the one on the cover is Cypselurus poecilopterus but only because of the painted wings.


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