Mediterranean sand smelt
Common Name: Mediterranean sand smelt
Scientific Names: Atherina hepsetus
Description: These finger-sized (5-10cm long) silvery fish, are one of the commonest fish in shallow waters off the Maltese coast in the late autumn. At first glance it may seem impossible to tell these apart from shoals of Sprat, or Anchovies (though the latter are longer and thinner) but with a quiet approach you should be able to see a distinctive dark stripe along each flank often with another shiny line above it. See also Notes below.
Distinctive Features: Very large shoals; individuals have a very distinctive dark stripe running along the middle of each side.
Abundance: Shoals comprised of hundreds to thousands of fish. Seen at every site in the shallows in late summer.
Habitat & Behaviour: They are often found in shallow water (1-5m) near rocky reefs in huge numbers. They feed on plankton up in the water column.
Reaction to Snorkellers & Divers: Wary of snorkellers, less so of divers.
Other Notes: Whilst this is the commonest Sand smelt species, there are other species found in the Mediterranean and the actual species that form these shoals cannot be identified from the features you can see underwater; specimens would need to be collected and identified in a laboratory.
Even when snorkelling it is sometimes possible to get close enough and zoom in with your camera to take a clear photo. If this is the case you may see that Sand smelts have two dorsal (back) fins whilst Anchovy and Sprat have only one. But beware because Smelt may keep one or both fins folded down!
Text: Bob Earll
Photo: Russell & Gill Bennett
Video: Julia Jagoditsch