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Fish Out Of Water
by [?]

There is also a certain curious tropical American carp which, though it hardly deserves to be considered in the strictest sense as a fish out of water, yet manages to fall nearly half-way under that peculiar category, for it always swims with its head partly above the surface and partly below. But the funniest thing in this queer arrangement is the fact that one half of each eye is out in the air and the other half is beneath in the water. Accordingly, the eye is divided horizontally by a dark strip into two distinct and unlike portions, the upper one of which has a pupil adapted to vision in the air alone, while the lower is adapted to seeing in the water only. The fish, in fact, always swims with its eye half out of the water, and it can see as well on dry land as in its native ocean. Its name is Anableps, but in all probability it does not wish the fact to be generally known.

The flying fish are fish out of water in a somewhat different and more transitory sense. Their aerial excursions are brief and rapid; they can only fly a very little way, and have soon to take once more for safety to their own more natural and permanent element. More than forty kinds of the family are known, in appearance very much like English herrings, but with the front fins expanded and modified into veritable wings. It is fashionable nowadays among naturalists to assert that the flying fish don’t fly; that they merely jump horizontally out of the water with a powerful impulse, and fall again as soon as the force of the first impetus is entirely spent. When men endeavour to persuade you to such folly, believe them not. For my own part, I have seen the flying fish fly–deliberately fly, and flutter, and rise again, and change the direction of their flight in mid-air, exactly after the fashion of a big dragonfly. If the other people who have watched them haven’t succeeded in seeing them fly, that is their own fault, or at least their own misfortune; perhaps their eyes weren’t quick enough to catch the rapid, though to me perfectly recognisable, hovering and fluttering of the gauze-like wings; but I have seen them myself, and I maintain that on such a question one piece of positive evidence is a great deal better than a hundred negative. The testimony of all the witnesses who didn’t see the murder committed is as nothing compared with the single testimony of the one man who really did see it. And in this case I have met with many other quick observers who fully agreed with me, against the weight of scientific opinion, that they have seen the flying fish really fly with their own eyes, and no mistake about it. The German professors, indeed, all think otherwise; but then the German professors all wear green spectacles, which are the outward and visible sign of ‘blinded eyesight poring over miserable books.’ The unsophisticated vision of the noble British seaman is unanimously with me on the matter of the reality of the fishes’ flight.

Another group of very interesting fish out of water are the flying gurnards, common enough in the Mediterranean and the tropical Atlantic. They are much heavier and bigger creatures than the true flying fish of the herring type, being often a foot and a half long, and their wings are much larger in proportion, though not, I think, really so powerful as those of their pretty little silvery rivals. All the flying fish fly only of necessity, not from choice. They leave the water when pursued by their enemies, or when frightened by the rapid approach of a big steamer. So swiftly do they fly, however, that they can far outstrip a ship going at the rate of ten knots an hour; and I have often watched one keep ahead of a great Pacific liner under full steam for many minutes together in quick successive flights of three or four hundred feet each. Oddly enough, they can fly further against the wind than before it–a fact acknowledged even by the spectacled Germans themselves, and very hard indeed to reconcile with the orthodox belief that they are not flying at all, but only jumping. I don’t know whether the flying gurnards are good eating or not; but the silvery flying fish are caught for market (sad desecration of the poetry of nature!) in the Windward Islands, and when nicely fried in egg and bread-crumb are really quite as good for practical purposes as smelts or whiting or any other prosaic European substitute.

On the whole, it will be clear, I think, to the impartial reader from this rapid survey that the helplessness and awkwardness of a fish out of water has been much exaggerated by the thoughtless generalisation of unscientific humanity. Granting, for argument’s sake, that most fish prefer the water, as a matter of abstract predilection, to the dry land, it must be admitted per contra that many fish cut a much better figure on terra firma than most of their critics themselves would cut in mid-ocean. There are fish that wriggle across country intrepidly with the dexterity and agility of the most accomplished snakes; there are fish that walk about on open sand-banks, semi-erect on two legs, as easily as lizards; there are fish that hop and skip on tail and fins in a manner that the celebrated jumping frog himself might have observed with envy; and there are fish that fly through the air of heaven with a grace and swiftness that would put to shame innumerable species among their feathered competitors. Nay, there are even fish, like some kinds of eels and the African mud-fish, that scarcely live in the water at all, but merely frequent wet and marshy places, where they lie snugly in the soft ooze and damp earth that line the bottom. If I have only succeeded, therefore, in relieving the mind of one sensitive and retiring fish from the absurd obloquy cast upon its appearance when it ventures away for awhile from its proper element, then, in the pathetic and prophetic words borrowed from a thousand uncut prefaces, this work will not, I trust, have been written in vain.