Team Flying Fish

Waking hard from a late-afternoon nap I have to force myself out of the bunk and up to the deck where shipmates are gathering for the night dive. While halfheartedly tugging at my wetsuit sleeve, I overhear dive guides Claire and Yann discussing flying fish that had just drifted past our Indonesian liveaboard, presently anchored in a current-swept channel somewhere north of Ceram, an island in the Maluku archipelago. This is a chance I’ve waited for ever since I saw a stunning image of a tiny flying fish photographed by Keri Wilk. As Keri’s story goes, he went over the side still naked from the shower while screaming for his brother, Kris, to bring his camera and mask.

“Where are they now?” I ask the guides excitedly.

“A dozen or more passed in a float of debris 10 minutes ago,” Claire answers as she glances down at the water streaming along Paradise Dancer‘s port side. Yann steps up on a bench. “There, you can still see it,” he says, pointing toward a bank of boards and palm fronds fading into the distance.

“Is there any way we can get in with them?” I ask.

Two goldish-orange pharao flying fish

“See Wendy,” Claire suggests. “She’s getting the boat ready for the night dive. I believe the other skiff is off fishing.”

Wendy is so accommodating and busy I hate to burden her with such a troublesome request. Besides, it’s almost dark, and every passing minute carries the flying fish farther away. I make my plea short, almost apologetically. Wendy simply nods. Resigned to a lost opportunity, I shuffle back to the bench, finish dressing and join the others in the companionway waiting to board the night-diving boat secured to a water-level platform below.

Unexpectedly, the other skiff roars into view. My spirits soar, then falter when it hits me: Wendy radioed my friends, Jim and Tim, back from their fishing trip on my behalf. But I don’t sulk for long; even at a distance I can see the fishermen beaming like kids with lollipops. As the boat pulls alongside, the pair hoist a monstrous wahoo to a round of cheers and chants of “sashimi!”

As calm as a saint, Wendy skillfully choreographs the converging chaos, coaxing the jubilant fishermen to one side to pose for photos with their catch as Charlie and the engineer swab the blood-drenched bottom of the returning boat and Yann passes tanks and my camera over the gunnels. In the other boat, the night divers troop down the steps, take their places and depart right on schedule.

Minutes later, Yann, Charlie, the engineer and I push free to chase flying fish in the night. As we race off with the current, Yann explains our unconventional mission to the two young men who, born to the hunt, switch their sights from hulking, 4-foot wahoo to 2-inch juvenile flying fish.

By the time our beams pick up the slick, the liveaboard’s lights are faint dots in the distance. But search as we might, we can’t find our fish. After a second and then a third pass through the debris field, we follow the current to a smaller patch. There, among the leaves, beer cans and candy wrappers, we spot what appears to be a silver butterfly floating beneath the surface.

With a splash I’m over the side, straining to locate the fish among the trash. “Here, here, here,” the crew yells, waving their beams hard to my left. I spin, dodging plastic bags and scraps of wood, but it’s difficult to pinpoint anything with my eyes at water level.

“No – here!” they repeat, dancing their lights several feet in front of my face. Switching tactics I snap off my light, drop below the slick and glide toward the underwater glow. And there it is, the size of a silver dollar, floating just beneath the surface with its wing-shaped pectoral fins spread like a pinned moth in a science project.

Not knowing how the fish will react, I hold my breath and inch forward, focusing as I go. Just as I’m ready to pull the trigger the image vanishes from my viewfinder. I glance about in dismay. Thankfully, it darts only a few feet, but relocating the fish seems to take an eternity. In a moment of insight, Yann slips into the water where he is able to keep his hand light continuously trained on the erratic target. This time I drop deeper and approach from below. It works! I’m able to grab a shot or two before the fish flits away.

Flush with confidence, we’re primed for the hunt to continue. Yann and I cling to the gunnel rope as Charlie slowly maneuvers us through the slick. The engineer, standing in the bow, scans the inky surface with his torch, which eventually spotlights a second, slightly larger, species. Angled from below, Yann’s beam paints a golden reflection of the delicate creature against the surface. I back off several body lengths to catch my breath and allow the water’s surface to settle into an opaque, ripple-free sheen. I take my shot.

Back aboard the Paradise Dancer an hour or so later, after viewing the night’s Photoshop-filtered images with high fives and proud smiles, Yann, Charlie, the engineer, Claire, Wendy and I bask in an aura of teamwork-engendered success as we share a bottle of wine and a platter of ultra-fresh sashimi.

© Alert Diver — Q4 Fall 2011