CRITTER: Meet pinao the oriental flying gurnard

This very-strange-looking, 10-inch-long fish does not actually fly above the sea surface like a flying fish, but it flies underwater right above the sandy sea floor! Pinao hates to swim, but it loves to crawl. It is a bottom, sand-dwelling fish, and it has modified fins that look like fingers. As it crawls along the bottom, it scratches through the sand with its spiny fins looking for small critters to eat. It looks like a chicken scratching for food on the forest floor.

Pinao moves very slowly when feeding, and most divers go right over the top of this fish and don’t see it. They live in shallow, calm water on the sand, and the best places to see them are ‘Anini Beach lagoon on Kaua‘i and Waimea Bay in O‘ahu when the surf is flat. The head of the flying gurnard is covered in orange-colored plates, and its body is spotted to match patches of algae growing in the sand.

What is super strange about this fish is its pectoral fins that are wider than the length of its body. When pinao is alarmed it spreads out it pectoral fins, and they look like massive wings. The fins have “eye spots” to confuse predators, and the fish goes from three inches wide to 14-inches wide with its wings out. Once it spreads its wings the fish will wiggle its tail to propel it across the sandy sea floor and look like it is flying.

It is super amazing to find this fish, and once you do you will have to dive down and get super close to it before it will spread its wings.

You can see pinao in action in my movie “The World’s Guide To Hawaiian Reef Fish” up on my web at www.underwater2web. Feel free to subscribe to my marine-life educational YouTube channel at Underwater2web, as I have over 300 marine-life movies posted to view for free, and I add new movies every week. All of my movies are “kid-friendly” and are used for education about our amazing marine life here in Hawai‘i.


Terry Lilley is a marine biologist living in Hanalei. He is co-founder of Reef Guardians Hawai‘i, a nonprofit on a mission to provide education and resources to protect the coral reef. To donate to Reef Guardians Hawai‘i go to

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