Sea Lions and a Flying Fish to the Face

By Patrick Cooney, Certified Fisheries Scientist

Just as my head emerged from the water’s surface, “WHACK!”.  My ears rang with a sharp noise as I tried to make sense of what had just struck me across the face at the tail end my first night Scuba dive.

The Channel Islands, often called the Galapagos of North America, lie just off the coast of southern California.  Large groups of California Sea Lions and Elephant Seals breed and raise young on these eight isolated islands.  A rich abundance of food in conjunction with a lack of mainland predators make the islands an ideal location for these aquatic mammals.  In this region, interactions between sea lions and Scuba divers are not uncommon.

Attracted by the glow of our bright dive lights, four sea lions gathered near us and played like dogs.  They swam between our legs, opened and closed their mouths as we removed our regulators and did the same, and rolled over in mirroring fashion.  The sea lions, far more at home in this aquatic environment than us land walkers, appeared and disappeared with ease in and out of the inky black edges that our torches created.

As the dive came to an end and we completed our safety stop, the sea lions quickly disappeared, as if they knew play time was over.  However, as quickly as they disappeared, they reappeared with an encore performance to be remembered.  The sea lions darted around us like torpedoes with air bubble trails tracing their tracks.  The sea lions were obviously chasing something, but we were unaware of what it could be.

Like ascending through a bubble curtain, I hit the surface of the water, and “WHACK!”.  As I shook off the cobwebs from the sharp blow to the face, and made the “I’m Okay” signal to the boat, I caught a glimpse of what had hit me so hard.

An unusual looking fish lay on the surface in front of me convulsing from the shock of having hit my rather large head.

While we had played with the sea lions, a school of flying fish must have been attracted to our dive lights.  This was an unfortunate turn of events for the flying fish, because it is a well known fact that sea lions love to eat flying fish.

To avoid predation from predators that lie below, flying fish have a uniquely adapted ability to reach incredible velocities under water (up to 37 miles per hour), then leap out of water and “fly” in the air.  The two pectoral fins on either side of their bodies act as wings, and the caudal, or tail fin, acts as a rudder, helping to steer and propel the fish.  One such flight, or glide, was recorded at over 1, 300 feet…a quarter of a mile!

My glimpse of the flying fish was short lived.  Just as a dog taking a treat, one of the four sea lions snatched the fish from in front of me, using the fish’s unfortunate collision with my head to its own advantage.

Next time you are out on the ocean, keep an eye on the water as your boat breaks through the chop.  Flying Fish are common around the globe in central latitudes, and will take to the air if they feel threatened by the hull of your boat.  Just be sure they don’t hit you in the face.

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