Pilot Fish: All you Need to Know

The pilot fish is a type of carnivorous fish that belongs to the trevally or horse mackerel family (Carangidae). It is widely distributed and can be found in warm or tropical open seas.

You may be familiar with these fish from the famous book, Moby Dick, where the author refers to them swimming alongside one of the whaling ships. Read on to learn more about these fascinating fish.

pilot fish diagram

Quick Facts

  • It shares s symbiotic relationship with sharks, particularly the ocean whitetip shark. They follow these sharks around for protection and in return they eat parasites off the sharks and thus keep them healthy.
  • These little creatures are known to swim into the mouths of sharks just to eat the bits of food left over in their teeth!
  • Sailors often say that pilotfish act like close friends, to the point where if a ship catches a shark, its pilotfish companions will follow the ship! Some have even reported that these fish have followed their ships for six weeks!

Habitat

Young pilot fish often congregate around jellyfish and other floating debris, while older fish associate with sharks, rays, and sea turtles. The reason for this is because younger fish feed on ectoparasites of the host species, as well as any leftovers in the area.

Pilot fish have a tendency to follow ships for long distances. One was even found all the way in County Cork, Ireland. Many have also been sighted on the shores of England. Because of their fondness for ships, ancient people believed that these fish would help navigate a ship to its desired destination.

pilot fish and sharks
Swimming with Sharks

Appearance

The pilot fish’s typical coloration is a dark blue or blackish-silver, though their belly tends to be lighter. They are also known to have a variations of color depending on excitement. For example, when excited, their dark bars will disappear and their body will turn silvery white with three broad blue patches along its back.

It is characterized by its five to seven distinctive dark-colored bands across its body. It can grow up to 60–70 cm in length.

Eating

Although they are edible and said to taste good, it is rarely available for consumption since they are difficult to catch. If you do happen to catch be prepared for on helluva fight. It can be out of control when hooked on a fish line.

Pilot Fish and Sharks

Pilot fish can usually be seen next to sharks, but they have a preference for being near oceanic whitetips. The benefits work both ways in this arrangement. The pilot fish is safe from predators and the shark doesn’t have to worry about parasites.

Sailors often talked about how pilot fish and sharks shared a companionship. There were even stories of these fish following ships that captured “their” shark for up to six weeks, showing signs of sadness in the absence of the shark.

Although it is debated how often this happens, sharks almost never eat these fish. In fact, sometimes the smaller fish are seen swimming into the shark’s mouth to clean away any food particles that may be stuck in their teeth.

shark and pilot fish
Shark and Pilot Fish Symbiotic Relationship

In a Poem by Herman Melville

They have nothing of harm to dread,

But liquidly glide on his ghastly flank

Or before his Gorgonian head;

Or lurk in the port of serrated teeth

In white triple tiers of glittering gates,

And there find a haven when peril ‘s abroad,

An asylum in jaws of the Fates!

FAQ