Let’s take a journey of imagination. We are young sooty terns somewhere on a nice warm atoll in the Pacific Ocean. The fishing is good and we’re growing up fast. Our flight feathers have come in and we’re ready to take to the air for the very first time. We’ll practice flying over the shallow lagoon in the center of our atoll. It looks nice and safe there, with calm, shallow, water.
We’re away from stressing about jobs, money, Covid-19, politics, and all the horrible things that dominate our real lives. Isn’t life grand? What could possibly go wr—
— and now we’re dead, and you can stop imagining.
Blue Planet II, from the BBC Natural History Unit, came out in 2017, but it’s as gloriously watchable as ever. It shows off all sort of wonders: coral reefs, sperm whales, gigantic schools of hunting dolphins and deep-sea fish with see-through skulls. It also shows off the giant trevally, a gigantic fish that jumps out of the sea to eat birds.
I love this scene more than is healthy. I sometimes turn on the TV just to watch this fish leap out of the water to pluck just-fledged terns from the sky. I don’t even have anything against birds or their horrible, beady little eyes, full of mistrust and malevolence. This fish is just impossibly cool.
I think this scene is so compelling because these trevallies are inverting the natural order of things. Birds eat fish, in some case famously. Their mastery of the air gives them easy and unreciprocated access to the water. In the eternal aves-pisces war, the deck is well and truly stacked. The trevally’s solution is to JUMP OUT OF THE WATER AND EAT THE WHOLE DAMN DECK.
Giant trevally are not just turning the tables on birds, however. There is at least one incident on record of these things going after people, and while they’re not in the same league as sharks in terms of the danger they pose to humans — they only grow to about 5′ long — they can still do some damage. The incident in question involved a trevally ramming a spear-fisherman and breaking three of his ribs, which sounds like self-defense to me. No jury would convict.
That’s the thing I enjoy about these fish. Sure, they’re sleek, maneuverable predators, but there are lots of those. (I don’t have a thing for e.g. barracuda.) But their refusal to acquiesce in the natural hierarchy is really quite wonderful. The giant trevally defies birds, man and presumably God. Honestly, you can only respect it.