Recently when I was down in one of my favorite shore stomping grounds, I came across a rather peculiar looking fish at the end of my dive as I was heading in to shore during mini bugfest season and the 2012 Bugfest by the Sea. I spotted this creature, the flying gurnard after I was clear of the beach in the shallow sandy area closer to shore. I have seen the flying gurnard a few times before while shore diving in LBTS but had it confused with a scorpion or stonefish as they have some pectoral fins that spread out.
This fish ispart of a small group from the family Dactylopteridae (or Cephalacanthidae) and the order Dactylopteriformes (sometimes placed in Scorpaeniformes).
These creatures appear to walk on little scorpion like legs which are actually the pectoral fins that spread out and make them appear to fly through the water. They are covered with bony plates on their body and have a single dorsal fin on the top of their necks. Quite creepy and scary looking. The one I saw was a little over a foot. Apparently they can grow to 20 inches.
This fish is a bottom dweller preying on smaller fishes and crustaceans but occasionally to get from one place to another or when they are being harassed they will spread out these large pectoral fins and glide away.
The body is slightly elongated and his head has a pretty distinct bluntness about it. The mouth is located low and it has very small jaw teeth. The spiny part of the dorsal fin has up to 5 spines, the first 2 of which are separate from the others, and connected to each other only by a narrow membrane between the spine bases. The soft portion of the dorsal fin has 8 rays. The pectoral fin has a long and nearly horizontal base, extending as far as the base of the caudal fin in adults. It is separated into two parts: a short anterior one with 6 rays, and a large posterior one with 26-30 rays. The rays in each part are interconnected by membranes. The anal fin has 6 rays, and the pelvic fins have one spine and 4 rays. When they are folded up it looks like little legs when they move. The one I saw was a dull grayyellow color.
What is spectacular about this fish and surprising once you get over the shock of the little legs, is each pectoral fin shows some white spots on the inner parts of the fin, and a pattern of bright blue and light blue spots and lines, which parallel the fin margins, on the rest of the fin. When at rest the small anterior parts of the pectoral fins are usually fanned out, but the large posterior portions are folded flat against the sides giving it the little leg feature. It is often seen ‘walking’ along the bottom on its pelvic fins, using its pelvic spines to move rubble and to probe for food. When alarmed it unfolds it large pectoral fins into magnificent ‘wings’ and glides away. A close approach is not difficult when done from above.
Good luck coming up on this guy without him scooting away quick. Very wary of divers. I stumbled upon this one so not sure quite how you get them from above unless it is on accident.