If, as Henry Ward Beecher observed, “It is not the going out of port, but the coming in, that determines the success of the voyage,” then we have one failed fish.

A few weeks back, Anita Hotchkiss was strolling a beach along the Island’s south shore at Quansoo when she saw a small shiny object in the sand. Upon closer inspection, she realized that she found a unique and uncommon fish that unfortunately didn’t make it into port alive. 

The small fish was round and flat, approximately one-half inch long, with some coloring around the eye. Although they searched field guides and online resources, the Hotchkisses remained stumped as to the identity of this expired specimen.

They reached out to Dr. Mark Hahn and Joel Llopiz of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute for help in identifying their little fish. It turns out that they found a juvenile butterflyfish. 

Mr. Llopiz explains that this species is a tropical fish and likely was “an expatriate that caught a ride in the Gulf Stream.” He goes on, “Good chance it was spawned in the Florida Keys (or, somewhat less likely, the Bahamas or Bermuda). We often get these coral reef fishes in the summer up here, and they’ll survive for a while around some sort of structure and then die when the water temps drop again.” 

The range of butterflyfish is generally the western Atlantic Ocean, from North Carolina to Brazil. However, they have been known to periodically get brought up the coast on the Gulf Stream, and have been occasionally found as far as Canada. 

There are only about 13 species of butterflyfish in the Atlantic, and the scientists believed the one Anita found was a spotfin butterflyfish, also known as a butterbun, school mistress or katy.

The spotfin butterflyfish is a member of the Chaetodontidae family, known for their row of brush-like teeth. As coral reef dwellers, they have an elongated nose that will root around in the rock crevasses for food. Hunting mostly during the day, they have a few tricks up their sleeve to help them survive.

Besides being colorful and having a pattern that rivals the beauty and intricacy of butterflies (thus the name), butterflyfish have an eyespot or stripe on their flank that matches the one on their head to confuse predators. Hungry enemies don’t know which way is up and which side to strike — helping them beat their attackers.

Another adaptation helps them breed successfully. Butterflyfish can mate for life and want to assure the survival of as many of their offspring as possible. To that end, the female releases her eggs at dusk when visibility in the water is low, giving them a head start for survival. Butterflyfish live up to seven years in the wild, but can survive up to 10 years in captivity, making them a popular fish for the aquarium trade.

The fish that Anita found was likely a juvenile, but clearly one with a bit of wanderlust. For some, including this butterflyfish, such a journey is the whole point of life: as Elizabeth Gilbert wrote in Eat, Pray, Love: “To travel is worth any cost or sacrifice.”

Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown, and author of Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature.