Eye of the Shoal By Helen Scales: A Fishwatcher's Guide to Life, the Ocean and Everything
From All-Creatures.org Book, CD and Video Review Guide

Author: Helen Scales

Publisher:  Bloomsbury Sigma

Eye of the Shoal
Eye of the Shoal By Helen Scales: A Fishwatcher's Guide to Life, the Ocean and Everything
Available at GoodReads.com
ISBN-10: 1472936841
ISBN-13: 9781472936820

Interviewed by Marc Bekoff - Why Fishes Matter: Their Rich Cognitive and Emotional Lives

"I wanted this book to extol the biological wonders of fish, showing them to be animals deserving of our attention and compassion... The book is my attempt to reveal fishes in their full glory, among them animals that shout with colors, some that dance, and cheat (and say sorry afterwards), they can live for centuries or pack in a lifetime to a few short months, they can swim across entire ocean basins and back again without ever getting lost."
óHelen Scales

Marc Bekoff: I recently read a fascinating book by award-winning marine biologist, author, and documentary maker Dr. Helen Scales called Eye of the Shoal: A Fishwatcher's Guide to Life, the Ocean and Everything.1,2 The ambitious title caught my eye, and I wasn't disappointedóDr. Scales's book is an encyclopedic and easy read about the highly evolved cognitive and emotional lives of these diverse sentient beings, who display different personalities and clearly feel pain. Indeed, the book covers an amazing number of topics about what happens beneath the surface and lives up to what the New York Times calls, ďA sprawling, ambitious underwater journey studded with fascinating tidbits.Ē

I was thrilled Dr. Scales could take the time to answer a few questions about her landmark book. Here's what she had to say.

Why did you write Eye of the Shoal?

I wrote the book as a celebration of the extraordinary and, I think, a profoundly underappreciated group of animals, the fishes. They lead remarkable lives beneath the waterline, which most people donít get to see, and instead, they think of fish simply as food. The book is my attempt to reveal fishes in their full glory, among them animals that shout with colors, some that dance and cheat (and say sorry afterward). They can live for centuries or pack in a lifetime to a few short months; they can swim across entire ocean basins and back again without ever getting lost.

Ultimately, I hope the book will encourage readers to think again about these animals, and the seas and freshwaters they inhabit.

I also hope to inspire readers to become fish watchers. Thereís a lot to be gained from this pastime: Peacefully watching fish in a public aquarium has proven health benefits, lowering heart rate and blood pressure. Wild fish watching is even better; peer into a pond or a lake and contemplate those mesmerizing swimming movements, gaze into tide pools, or jump right in and take a look at whatís beneath the waterline. I guarantee it will do you a lot of good.

How does your book relate to your background and general areas of interest?

By training, Iím an ichthyologist. I studied marine science and my Ph.D. research took me to Borneo, where I studied the love lives of a big, beautiful, highly endangered fish species called the humphead wrasse. In the book, I write about my experiences searching for them on a remote island in the South China Sea.

Interwoven with my academic interest in fish life is my love of being in the oceans. Iíve been scuba diving since I was 16 and later trained as a freediver, and Iíve spent hundreds of hours underwater watching fish (and if Iím honest, doing my best to be one). Itís one of my very favorite things to do.

Who is your intended audience?

The book holds obvious appeal to people who are already fascinated by the oceans and freshwaters (especially scuba divers and snorkelers, including of the armchair variety), and I also aimed the book at readers with a general curiosity in the living world and in humanityís relationship with other animals.

What are some of the topics you weave into your piece, and what are some of your major messages?

The book explores many of the facets that make fish life unique, including a suite of survival tricks that are seen nowhere else among the vertebrates. For instance, hundreds of species have evolved the ability to glow in the dark. Fish are also the only animals that can produce electric shocks to hunt and defend themselves, and there are more venomous species of fish than there are snakes. Among tens of thousands of species, fish have a lot to tell us about the possibilities of life on Earth.

Fish also hold a lot of surprising secrets that arenít obvious until you spend time observing them in the wild. Fish talk to each other; they listen and sing. They perform amazing feats of coordination as they swim in seething shoals that seem to have a mind of their own, but are really the combined force of so many individual, quick-minded animals all striving to survive.

While much of the book explores the amazing biology of fishes, it also includes a series of fish tales. These are my retellings of traditional stories from around the world, all involving fish as key characters. These demonstrate the close ties between people and fish, which have manifested in many ways; fish are sometimes imagined as lucky and smart companions or malevolent beasts with the power to control earthquakes and storms. My favorite is the original version of the tale of Cinderella, in which instead of a fairy godmother, she has a goldfish!

How does your book differ from others that are concerned with some of the same general topics?

I made the deliberate choice not to write a great deal about overfishing and the other threats to marine life, partly as I think this is something other books already do well. I touch on the problems fish face, but I wanted this book to extol the biological wonders of fish, showing them to be animals deserving of our attention and compassion.

In particular, I focus on the cognitive abilities of fish, which have been underestimated for so long. The misguided attitude towards fish is summed up in the lingering myth that goldfish have seven-second memories (or is it five?), and in the idea that fish canít feel pain. I delve into the fishís mind and find out what scientists are still learning about their complex, nuanced lives.

My hope is that raising awareness about the remarkable lives of fish will help prime people to care more about these animals and their plight in the wild.

Are you hopeful that things will change for the better as people learn about the cognitive and emotional lives of fishes and how we are wiping out these amazing beings?

I am cautiously optimistic that things are going in the right direction. Slowly attitudes are shifting, and fish are being gradually embraced within the circle of animals that people tend to care about. The psychological dividing line between the water and land, between them and us, will, I hope, become less and less important.

But Iím quite sure it will take a good deal of time still to for enough people to push for the change we need in the way fishes and their natural habitats are treated.

What are some of your current projects?

Iím just putting the finishing touches to the manuscript for my next book, The Brilliant Abyss, about life in the deep sea (due out in 2021). Weíre living through a golden age of deep-sea exploration, but at the same time, the deep sea is under greater threat than ever from human activities. The book examines this uneasy balance between exploring and exploiting this realm thatís full of hidden marvels and is vital for the health of the entire planet.

My first book for young readers will also be published in 2021. The Great Barrier Reef is a large-format picture book with beautiful illustrations to accompany my text. Itís about the science of Australiaís great reef, the history of how it formed, the people who have lived there and explored it, and naturally, I turn an eye to the future and consider the grave threats to the worldís largest barrier reef.


You can read more about the amazing cognitive and emotional lives of fishes in these books and essays:

  • Balcombe, Jonathan. What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins. Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017.
  • Bekoff, Marc. Pollution Affects the Personality and Cognition of Fishes.
  • _____. A Tribute to Dr. Victoria Braithwaite and Sentient Fishes.
  • _____. Manta Ray Fishes Make Friendsóand It's Not Very Surprising.
  • _____. It's Time to Stop Pretending Fishes Don't Feel Pain.
  • _____. Fish Determine Social Status Using Advanced Cognitive Skills.
  • _____. Fish Feel Pain: Let's Get Over it and Do Something About It.
  • _____. Fish Smarts: Why Fish Are More Than Just Streams of Protein.
  • _____. Fish Are Sentient and Emotional Beings and Clearly Feel Pain.
  • _____. Fish Use Referential Gesture to Communicate During Hunting.
  • _____. "Do fish feel pain?" redux: An interview with the author who shows of course they do.
  • _____. Do fishes feel pain? Yes they do, science tells us. In her book titled Do fish feel pain?, renowned scientist, Victoria Braithwaite writes, "I have argued that there is as much evidence that fish feel pain and suffer as there is for birds and mammals--and more than there is for human neonates and preterm babies." (page 153).
  • _____. Aquatic animals, cognitive ethology, and ethics: questions about sentience and other troubling issues that lurk in turbid water. Diseases of Aquatic Organisms. 2007.

About the Author:

Dr Helen Scales is a marine biologist, author and documentary maker. When sheís not on or under the waves, she writes and talks about the connections between people, science and the living world, the oceans in particular. Among her BBC radio documentaries she has explored the dream of living underwater and searched for the perfect wave, and she presents the podcast Earth Unscrewed which explores innovative ways of solving environmental problems. Her books include the bestseller Spirals in Time which was picked as book of the year by The Economist, Nature, The Times, and The Guardian. Her stories of the oceans appear in magazines and newspapers including National Geographic Magazine, The Guardian and New Scientist. Helen teaches at Cambridge University and is scientific advisor to charity Sea Changers which helps to safeguard British seas. Her BBC documentaries are Making Waves and The Life Subaquatic. She lives part of the year in Cambridge, UK and the rest by the sea in the far west of France.

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