Helen Scales is your guide to the ocean (and everything) in her latest book

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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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Samantha Weinberg’s Incredible Story About an Ancient Fish Rediscovered

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A thrilling scientific adventure about the world’s obsession with an elusive fish once thought extinct: Samantha Weinberg’s A Fish Caught in Time (2000) is simply captivating. If you have read Emily Voigt’s The Dragon Behind the Glass (2016) and enjoyed learning about a fascinating fish called the arowana, then you will love this historical look at the coelacanth (see-la-kanth). Voigt and Weinberg’s stories may be about obsessions with coveted fish, but the similarities end there. While Voigt approaches her story with the smart, analytical skepticism of a journalist, Weinberg indulges readers in an emotional tale ripe with adventure, romance, and awe-inspiring science. Her story will reel you in – hook, line, and sinker.

A Fish Caught in Time is a beautiful historical account of the rediscovery of the coelacanth, an ancient species of fish that was originally known only by its fossils. Weinberg opens her tale by sharing the startling discovery of the first living coelacanth by a young museum curator Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, who spotted it aboard a trawler’s deck among other specimens he had brought her. Weinberg seamlessly weaves science into her storytelling, wrapping her readers up in her tale of scientists and fishermen desperately searching for a live coelacanth. She lets her readers learn alongside scientists as they make thrilling discoveries and observations of a fish they once believed to be extinct. Weinberg captures the drama that unfolds as the scientific world becomes obsessed with the coelacanth, endangering the fish in their hunt for the perfect specimen.nWeinberg takes us through the lives of those who were touched by the quest for the fish. The way Voigt describes how enthusiasts (and herself) became obsessed with finding a rare arowana in the wild is quite similar to Weinberg’s description of ichthyologists growing obsessed with their quest for a specimen.

Check out this super-cute illustrated history of the coelacanth, a living fossil, produced by TedEd:

Sprinkled with old black-and-white photographs, Weinberg text is lively and entertaining and filled with sobering wisdom. She is not afraid to address the issue of sexism in science during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a problem raised when scientists questioned why the Latimeria chalumnae was named after Latimer, a female scientist without a professional background. Even more controversial was the idea that the coelacanth was a missing link in the evolutionary chain: an editorial from the Manchester Guardian read “The theory of apartheid and the superiority of White over Black would take a nasty blow if…it could be shown that the common ancestor [of men] is the Coelacanth, a mere fish.” In addition to that controversy, the idea of paying native fishermen to catch coelacanths for scientists raised ethical questions.

Weinberg does not tread lightly over the controversial subjects that arise throughout her text. She dives into the history of the Comoros, an archipelago off the east coast of Africa, where many coelacanth have been found. She truthfully presents the effects of the rise of the coelacanth on Comoran culture and its influence. She describes how their society is organized and how the coelacanth benefited poor fishermen and shook the foundation of their social structure. What I liked best of all was Weinberg’s personal narrative spent aboard a Comoran fishing boat, witnessing firsthand the nighttime fishing tradition of the Comoran fishermen.

Weinberg’s book is a treasure trove of good stories that weave together the history of the coelacanth and its influence on the world.

Journalist Emily Voigt on her Quest for the World’s Most Coveted Fish

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You won’t need to like fish to enjoy Emily Voigt’s illuminating look into the competitive – and dangerous – world of The Dragon Behind the Glass: A True Story of Power, Obsession, and the World’s Most Coveted Fish. 

Voigt’s book reads like a spy novel. Her fast-paced storytelling sweeps you into a whirlwind adventure around the globe in her quest to find the wild Asian arowana, a rare and captivating fish. What begins as a journalist’s fascination with the world’s most expensive aquarium fish turns into a story seeped in nostalgia for the age of scientific exploration.

It’s easy to see why her book received the National Association of Science Writers’ Science in Society Journalism Award in 2017. Her story takes you first into the underground world of the illegal exotic animal trade in the United States, then off to meet the fish-obsessed elite in Asia, and to eventually linger among the fishermen living along the Amazon. Voigt shows us society through a fishbowl lens, altering the way we perceive our natural world and ourselves.

The Dragon Behind the Glass is the ultimate tale of scientific colonialism, an unofficial term used to explain how early explorers set out with an “in the name of science” mentality to describe, and thereby conquer, the natural world. Discoveries and subsequent naming of species became more competitive as the world progressed towards the twentieth century. Although experts have estimates, it is unclear how many species are still left to be discovered in our world today. Ichthyology is fortunate enough to be a field where there are still many discoveries yet to be made: in 2012, UNESCO reported that an average of 2,000 fish are being discovered each year.

Halfway through her book, Voigt pulls you in with the thrill of the chase. Enthused with the possibility of helping a notorious ichthyologist describe a possible new species of arowana, distinguishable by unique script-like markings on its scales, she sets out to obtain him a specimen from the wild. While many books tend to flatline in the middle, Voigt’s constant and relentless pursuit of one fish (or fish expert) after another keeps the reader engaged and makes for a quick, effortless read. By the middle, you feel like you’ve left the spy thriller behind and are now having a good conversation over dinner with the author.

Voigt’s ability to almost nonchalantly describe her incredibly dangerous and ridiculous escapades is both humorous and humble. She could have exaggerated the world of wealthy arowana owners and glorified the eccentric men who spend thousands of dollars on, well, fish. But she approaches every scene in her story with the skepticism and curiosity of an experienced journalist. Although this is her first book, it was recognized as a Best Science Book of the Year by Library Journal. 

It’s unusual for me to have no complaints about a book. Often there are minor details that bother me, remaining questions nagging my mind, or a general dislike for the author in the worst cases. But Emily Voigt delivers nothing but the best, and I liked her writing enough to hope she’ll bring us more books in the future. She’s raw and honest, which makes for a good storyteller. She admits the times it feels like she’s on a wild goose chase. The captive arowana fish do little to enchant her, despite writing an entire book about the species.

The Dragon Behind the Glass is an illuminating look into a topic many of us never knew existed. You’ll find yourself thinking about fish a little too much by the time you close the book.