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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Sea’s Speediest Swimmer

Air Date: Week of
A juvenile Sailfish (Istiophorus platypterus)(Photo: George Burgess)

Fishermen and scientists alike are astounded by the sailfish. Its powerful muscles, athletic out-of-water leaps, and otherworldly beauty are not the fish’s sole unique features; the sailfish also travels at record speeds. From the IEEE Spectrum Radio special “Fastest on Earth,” Ari Daniel Shapiro reports.


GELLERMAN: Catching a fish is hard enough. Catching one that swims 68 mph - well, that's a record. As part of the I-Triple E Spectrum Magazine special: “Fastest on Earth,” Ari Daniel Shapiro reports on a powerful creature that's the fastest under the sea.

SHAPIRO: Dave Kerstetter remembers the first time he saw one.

Dave Kerstetter: It was in Bermuda and the water was almost purple, it was so deep blue.

SHAPIRO: He was on a boat catching, tagging, and releasing blue marlin for research. But on this particular day in 2000, his team hooked a giant sailfish instead.

KERSTETTER: It was an electric blue; it was throwing its sail up. I was just awestruck by how pretty it was.

SHAPIRO: Sailfish are named for their dorsal fins that resemble giant sails. And if they get caught and pulled to the surface, they put on quite a show.

Scientist Dave Kerstetter of NOVA Southeastern University points to a photo of Captain Don Gurgiolo, a legendary South Florida charter captain who pioneered many of the modern fishing techniques for sailfish. (Photo: Carey McKearnan)

KERSTETTER: A fish will make short little jumps out of the water, and do these running leaps across the surface of the water. Sometimes they’ll leap up four or five feet out of the water shake their heads and their bills violently, and then duck back in the water and continue the fight.

SHAPIRO: An angler once timed a hooked sailfish pulling out his fishing line. The speed? 68 miles an hour – considered the fastest of any underwater creature.

KERSTETTER: That big large sail dorsal fin folds down, actually, within a groove alongside their back. And so they become almost bullet-like.

SHAPIRO: Kerstetter studies sailfish at NOVA Southeastern University Oceanography Center in Florida. He catches and tags them – to track their swimming and diving behavior, and to monitor their survival after being caught and released by anglers required to throw them back into the water. As for that sailfish he hooked in 2000…

KERSTETTER: It’s awfully anthropocentric to imagine a sailfish looking at you with disdain like that, but that’s definitely the sense I got.

SHAPIRO: He released the fish, and it vanished as quickly as it appeared, racing back into the dark blue depths. I’m Ari Daniel Shapiro.

GELLERMAN: Ari Daniel Shapiro’s story on the speedy sailfish comes to us from the
I-triple E-Spectrum Magazine special, “Fastest on Earth.” The publication received the 2012 National Magazine Award for general excellence.



Check out IEEE Spectrum Radio’s special report: Fastest on Earth

Nova Southeaster University Oceanographic Center


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