Guest Post: “Eye of the Shoal” by Helen Scales

Helen Scales is a marine biologist, writer and diver, and in her latest book, “Eye of the Shoal”, she disputes and demystifies any romantic notions, or fears, the reader has about fish.

By Louise Kenward

 

I grew up without fear of visiting the dentist – it was the fish tank in the waiting room I enjoyed watching. The contents of that aquarium and the static little diver took me elsewhere – I regarded fish as soothing, gentle creatures.

“Eye of the Shoal” is a joy to read and a celebration of fish in all their guises. Scales takes the reader through the layers of time and place, through mass extinctions and the story of fossils, of what we have learned, how we are connected, and the evolution of our own understanding. Scales shows us that fish do not live by the rules we expect – this is another world entirely. Not even Lewis Carroll could conjure such riches.

There are fish that have adapted and evolved quickly, while others can still be recognised today as creatures that swam with the plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs of the Jurassic Seas. Reading that Manta Rays and Whale Sharks have been around for sixty million years gives a perspective to life that is hard to grasp in any other way than as a reminder that I am small and my time is fleeting.

Scales shows that for all its beauty, it can be a cruel and brutal world – at every turn disputing the fallacy of fish as simple creatures. The more unexpected truths, the more questions there are to ask, and Helen Scales answers all and more in this, her third book about the sea.

The writing is as elegant and wondrous as the fish Scales writes about. Scales’ ability to balance scientific knowledge and humour with deft strokes of grace and beauty, makes the page come to life and I feel as if I am sitting along side her on research trips.

“Eye of the Shoal” is a three dimensional exploration of life beneath the surface. As the title suggests, the reader is always in the midst of the busiest ocean communities. As close to diving as it is possible to get without leaving the shoreline, the descriptions Scales writes are so vivid I can feel the regulator in my mouth and taste the salt on my lips.

This book balances wonder and knowledge very carefully with destruction and extinction – a subtle yet persistent call to action, “Eye of the Shoal” invites the reader to consider again what we understand about our actions in our relationship with fish, their capacity for sentience and consciousness and their ability to feel pain and experience stress.

The oceans are often perceived and portrayed as places of fear and the unknown. Having overcome my own fear of open water to learn to dive a few years ago, this book was greatly anticipated. Reading it made me yearn to clamber into my wetsuit and leap off the side of a boat to go and see what new things I can now spot and recognize from these descriptions – I am especially keen to see a Sarcastic Fringehead and a Warty Seadevil.

“Eye of the Shoal”, brings us centre stage, not just with the fish, but with the how and why they have developed as they have – their abilities to change colour, change sex, to hear, sing and send messages. There are whole communities out there rivaling the complexity of those you might find on land. In describing these, Scales includes the devastation that has been caused in her own living memory – of the Humphead Wrasse she studied for her PhD, no longer there, hunted for their lips.

Scales’ carefully curated chapters are interspersed with fantastic illustrations by Aaron John Gregory and myths and legends about fish from around the world. Woven through the book they nudge at our own understanding and how we have (mis)understood the world beneath the waves throughout time – often in brutal and magical ways. The drawings and folktales bring another dimension to Scales’ writing, a whole chest of treasures from the deep.

“Eye of the Shoal” is an elegant, accessible, informative and thoroughly enjoyable account of fish of all shapes and sizes – their social lives, sex lives, eating habits and habitats.

This is a book of beauty that will make you reassess your view of fish and maybe even get you in the water to look for yourself. It shows us the oceans, seas, rivers, rocks, mangroves and mud holes inhabited by them. These enormously adaptable creatures live without boundaries or borders and edges as we experience them.

This swim through time, place and evolution creates a world of its own, within which it is easy to feel like Helen’s dive buddy, as I try to do the impossible task of not grinning like an idiot and letting water flood my mask.

eye of shoal

Published by Bloomsbury, this is the third of Scales’ books about the sea – “Poseidon’s Steed” and “Spirals of Time” precede “Eye of the Shoal” – delving in to the world of seahorses and seashells respectively. All three books are available in the sea library.

Helen Scales is a marine biologist, diver, writer, conservationist, broadcaster and speaker. She lectures at Cambridge University and is currently working on her first children’s book.

Louise Kenward is an artist, writer and diver. Living and working on the south coast of England, Louise’s practice relates to making connections with landscape and the sea – both with citizen science projects and creative ones. After a year of travelling in the footsteps of Victorian writer and collector, Annie Brassey, Louise is currently writing a book based on letters written to Annie during her journey.

You can follow Louise on Twitter @bexhill2bexhill and find out more about her work at www.louisekenward.com