There’s something so enchanting about visiting an aquarium when you’re a child. The glass tanks rise above you, immersing you in a deep blue world of fish. From the atmospheric music to the shadows of large marine mammals sailing by beyond the glass, it’s an experience you’re not likely to forget.
I grew up in Southern California — my childhood was filled with trips to SeaWorld, where you could stand alongside wall-sized glass panes and peer into the world of beluga whales, porpoises, and orcas. My first job was at the local aquarium, where I led tours and taught visitors about sea stars, urchins, and sea cucumbers at our interactive touch pool. Many of us also have powerful memories of visiting the ocean for the first time. In the prologue of Eye of the Shoal, Helen Scales shares her memory from visiting the Southern California shore for the first time as a fifteen-year-old girl. Seeing beautiful beaches and blue water in person is an unforgettable experience.
An author, diver, and marine biologist herself, she’s the perfect guide for your reading vacation. Helen Scales is to Eye of the Shoal what Sir David Attenborough is to Planet Earth: a gentle voice introducing you to the wonders of the natural world. In the prologue, Scales’ lyrical descriptions are entertaining and imaginative, painting images in your head of the beautiful, elaborate ecosystem beneath the waves.
Early on, it’s clear that Scales is here not only to enchant you, but to educate you. She aims to convince her reader that fish are worth paying more attention to — a goal she certainly accomplishes. While I was reading on a flight to Portland, a gentleman glanced over my shoulder and inquired whether I was actually reading an entire book about fish. I laughed and explained that it was more interesting than it seemed. Since he seemed skeptical, I shared an example of how fascinating the book was: I had no idea that some fish eat pigeons! He seemed surprised — but, as I went on to explain, according to the book there is a certain catfish that has been known to leap from its pond to catch pigeons bathing their feathers a the water’s edge. The topic made for a good conversation during our flight.
My favorite science books are the ones that give me the kind of facts I could talk about with a stranger that would be interesting and entertaining to explain. Scales’ book is packed with accessible and engaging stories about the science and history behind the fishes she describes. Why are some fish bioluminescent? How come we can eat some fish, but not others? What’s the difference between a school and a shoal? How do fish communicate? Scales answers these questions and more in each chapter, such as the chaotic movement of a disorganized shoal compared to the synchronized dance of a school, and why fish do both (or neither).
Scales introduces her readers to the scientists who are working hard to improve our understanding of fish and their watery world. One of these scientists is Eugenie Clark, affectionately remembered as the Shark Lady (and who a new species of shark was recently named after). Scales discusses Clark’s ascent to fame, despite being a female scientist at a time when women struggled to break into science. The warmth and admiration with which she tells Clark’s story makes for a wonderful, inspiring read. It’s often hard not to smile while you’re turning pages, looking forward to what Scales may say next.
Scattered between chapters are short stories of fish gathered from other cultures. Scales retells traditional tales in a lively way designed to reengage the reader, perhaps asking them to consider how fish have woven themselves into history. These wry, sometimes didactic stories serve to explain why something is the way it is, illustrating how humans devised explanations for their questions about fish, such as why the flounder’s face is crooked. The stories make for short, enjoyable reading.
If there is one thing Eye of the Shoal succeeds in doing, it’s that no reader will put down the book without looking at fish in new ways — and as Scales recommends, asking the right questions. Like marine biologists, she wants her readers to gain a broader perspective on fish intelligence, to reconsider their preconceived notions, and ultimately to be more curious about creatures of the sea, or even the fish in the tank at the dentist’s office. Because when you’ve finished reading Eye of the Shoal and feel thoroughly enchanted by Helen Scales’ adventures, you will be ready to go dive in and look for fish yourself.
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