Crew Blog | Craig Thomas: Flying Fish

Craig ThomasWritten by Craig Thomas

At dawn this morning we sighted the volcanic peak of Lombok Island, our first land fall in Indonesia. Nice navigating Jenna, Bali is close.

The sun rises over Lombok island.

The sun rises over Lombok island.

The events of last evening inspired me to write about a fish I saw in the Ashmore Lagoon, the ʻAha or needlefish.

During the day we saw schools of small malolo (flying fish) taking flight around the canoe. As dusk fell, they could no longer see Hōkūleʻa and came flying aboard. Four of us were hit – I was doing the dishes and was very surprised to be thumped in the back. These blunt nosed 6” fish give a wallop but arenʻt dangerous unless they hit your face. All of us are fine. During the night we relaunched about 10 malolo but this morning found about half a dozen more dried out on the deck.


Had we been struck by malolo’s distant cousin ʻaha instead, the results would’ve been serious. Both types of fish launch themselves into the air at about 38 mph, but malolo are blunt nosed, winged gliders whereas ʻaha are needle-nosed javelins up to three feet long. The bluish/silver fish launch themselves when startled and penetrate deeply enough to kill if they strike a vital area. Even when they hit an extremity and the entry wound looks small, the injury can be serious and usually requires local surgery to remove the jaw which breaks off deep in the cut.

These fish are common in Hawaiʻi; Nainoa, our captain of this leg, has been hit in the shoulder and both knees while paddling after dusk. A night fisherman on Kauaʻi was killed. Risk is much lower during daylight although a windsurfer on Maui sustained a serious knee injury from an ʻaha. Worldwide fatality rates are unknown but likely exceeds that from sharks. 

First aid is managing bleeding, usually direct pressure is sufficient. After stabilizing the patient, even apparently minor wounds need to be explored for beak/jaw fragments. Once the victim arrives at an ER, imaging can help find retained fragments. As with all ocean related wound thorough cleaning and close observation for signs of infection is essential.

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