First place that comes to mind where flying gurnards (Dactylopterus volitans) are commonly found in Malta, is the sandy sea bed at the outlet of Wied iz-Zurrieq creek, particularly during night dives.
This fish is normally seen resting on the sea bed. On closer inspection it can be seen that it is not resting its belly upon the sand, but it is actually supporting itself on its oversize pectoral fins (those fins immediately behind the gills) whose shape permits its front end to be elevated. The fins are used by the fish to ‘walk’ on the sea bed.
This walking can be done by using the finger shaped inner front end of the pectoral fins, but to do this, the fins have to be closed. This is where the flying in flying gurnard comes from – since once the pectoral fins are opened, they actually become wings or better still, wing like, since they do not function as wings would.
The flying gurnard is basically a bottom dweller, and has nothing to do with flying fish, which can do long spectacular glides above the waves. Another clue as to why flying gurnards were not ‘built’ to fly, is their heavy skeletal structure – their skulls and the front part of their bodies have a thick armour of cartilage. Flying machines are lightly built.
It is thought that flying gurnards extend their fins in order to scare off predators. These fins once opened, are startling and quite spectacular with their iridescent blue borders and blue / yellow / gold spotted patterns.
A totally unexpected reaction! A quick glance at the accompanying pictures will immediately illustrate this.
I did not know that this fish is actually able to produce sound, which has been described as resembling the cry of a baby, or even the clucking of a hen. The sound is produced by a muscle which is made to vibrate against the fish’s swim bladder. Apparently this noise facility is also made use of underwater.
Flying gurnards (called Bies or Garnaw in Maltese), feed mainly on small molluscs and crustaceans which they sift from sandy sea beds. They are commonly found in the Mediterranean, and also found in the coastal waters of the Eastern and Western Atlantic. There is another species of flying gurnard which inhabits the coastal waters of the Red Sea, Indian Ocean and Western Pacific.
Researched by Edward Vella
Cover photo by Edward Vella