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Eye of the Shoal

Eye of the Shoal: A Fishwatcher’s Guide to Life, the Ocean and Everything

Helen Scales
Bloomsbury Sigma
320 pp.
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The first time Helen Scales watched fish in the wild, she wasn’t expecting to be impressed. Fifteen years old and on a family holiday in California, she was more concerned with spotting a sea otter. Peering from a high bluff south of Monterey Bay, however, she was captivated by what she saw: fish of all shapes and sizes, mesmerizing, complex, and beautiful.

Today an author, marine biologist, and avid scuba diver, Scales’s latest book, Eye of the Shoal, takes readers on a discovery of the aquatic realm and its incredible ichthyological inhabitants. “How do shoaling fish avoid bumping into each other?” she asks and then sets out to answer. “How do they avoid the jaws of fast-thinking predators? How do thousands of fish species get along when they live in crowded places, like the Great Lakes of Africa and the Amazon basin? What do fish do when their water dries up?”

We journey from the depths of the oceans to shallow pools in the middle of America’s Death Valley to the frozen Antarctic oceans, all the while discussing fishes weird and wonderful. These include mighty whale sharks reaching up to 20 meters in length and tiny tiddlers measuring a mere 8 millimeters; icefish, which make their own antifreeze, and anglerfish that bioluminesce; the recently rediscovered coelacanth and the quickly evolving cichlids of the African Great Lakes.

To understand what it means to be a fish, one has to understand where they came from. In a chapter entitled “A view from the deep – introducing the fish,” Scales breaks down the fish evolutionary tree, simplifying a sometimes complex and difficult-to-understand concept in a way that is accessible to the layman, all while maintaining factual integrity.

Scales’s genuine appreciation and awe for fish are contagious. She continually entices the reader by introducing exciting aspects of fish in each chapter. “Outrageous acts of colour” discusses the multitude of color adaptations that fishes have evolved, whereas “Illuminations” dives into the depths of the oceans, discussing bioluminescence, a trait among vertebrates that is unique to fish.

Interspersed throughout are traditional tales of fishy folklore from all over the world, highlighting the deep-rooted and sometimes conflicting feelings people have toward these ocean occupants. In 16th-century Iceland, for example, the rare vatnagedda, a flaming golden flounder, was thought to protect against evil spirits and powerful ghosts and could only be caught using gold as bait while wearing a pair of gloves made of human skin. The Inuit people venerate and fear “Sedna,” a being with the body of a woman and the tail of a fish. Should the Inuit people need more animals to eat, a shaman must transform himself into a fish and swim down to Sedna so he can comb the tangles from her hair. In return, she releases more animals the people can hunt.

After reading this book, you might be inspired to immerse yourself in the nearest watery realm. While there, you’ll likely find that you are well prepared to appreciate the ichthyological inhabitants for what they are—weird, wonderful, and whimsical.

About the author

The reviewer is at the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity, Grahamstown, 6139, South Africa.