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Good Reads  Marine & Freshwater Biology  Fishes  Fishes: General

Eye of the Shoal A Fish-Watcher's Guide to Life, the Ocean and Everything

Nature Writing
By: Helen Scales(Author), Aaron John Gregory(Illustrator)
320 pages, b/w illustrations
Eye of the Shoal successfully shows that fish are much more fascinating than you ever imagined.
Eye of the Shoal
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  • Eye of the Shoal ISBN: 9781472936820 Paperback Apr 2020 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 5 days
  • Eye of the Shoal ISBN: 9781472936844 Hardback May 2018 Out of Print #236524
Selected version: £11.99
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About this book

Seventy per cent of the earth's surface is covered by water. This vast aquatic realm is inhabited by a multitude of strange creatures and reigning supreme among them are the fish.

There are giants that live for centuries and thumb-sized tiddlers that survive only weeks; they can be pancake-flat or inflatable balloons; they can shout with colours or hide in plain sight, cheat and dance, remember and say sorry; some rarely budge while others travel the globe restlessly. And yet the mesmerising and complex lives of fish remain largely underrated and unseen, living hidden beneath the waterline, out of sight and out of mind.

Helen Scales is our guide on an underwater journey, as we fathom the depths and watch these animals going about the glorious business of being fish. As well as the fish, we meet devoted fishwatchers past and present, from voodoo zombie potion hunters and scientists who taught fish how to walk to nonagenarian explorers of the deep sea.

Woven throughout are vignettes of Helen's own aquatic explorations, from eerie nighttime dives with glowing fish and up-close encounters with giant manta rays, to floating in the middle of a swirling shoal being watched by thousands of inquisitive eyes.

As well as being a rich and entertaining read, Eye of the Shoal will inspire readers to think again about these animals and the seas they inhabit, and to go out and appreciate the wonders of fish, whether through the glass walls of an aquarium or, better still, by gazing into the fishes' wild world and swimming through it.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Successfully shows that fish are fascinating
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 14 Nov 2019 Written for Paperback

    Helen Scales is a marine biologist, diver, and surfer, and is no stranger to writing good books. I have previously read Poseidon’s Steed from her hand. The book after that, Spirals in Time, received critical praise in the press and was shortlisted for the Royal Society of Biology book prize. Here, Scales turns her attention to fish. Is this another page-turner waiting to be recognised?

    Fish have a bit of a PR problem, being considered cold and slippery, living in a world we can only access with great effort, and more often praised for their taste than for anything else. Having studied the sex life of a fish species for five years I’m a bit of an outlier myself, but most people are thoroughly unaware just how rich and multi-faceted the lives of fish are. Blue Planet II did a good job recently of (again) showing us this, but even if you have seen that, Scales has plenty of surprises in store.

    Eye of the Shoal starts off giving a short history of ichthyology, the science of fish studies, and then walks us through the evolutionary tree to introduce the twelve main groups. Say “fish”, and most people will picture a teleost, the evolutionary youngest and most diverse group, making up some 96% of the roughly 30,000 currently known fish species. But there are eleven others. Scales then spends seven chapters on a particular aspect of their biology or ecology, richly mixing it with personal anecdotes of diving trips and research she has done.

    Scales covers the dazzling colours of fish and their function, the bioluminescence so often seen in deep-sea species, shoaling and schooling behaviour, eating and hunting, toxic fish, prehistoric fish, and fish vocalisations. Each chapter shows some of the marvellous aspects of their biology, from dragonfish communicating on private channels in the deep sea using red light, damselfishes tending to seaweed gardens, toxic fish all independently evolving the same mutations to be immune to their own poison, to the many ways in which fish can vocalise. There are famous textbook examples that will be familiar to fish biologists, such as the Trinidadian guppies that Losos discussed in Improbable Destinies and the Lake Victoria cichlids, popularised in Darwin’s Dreampond, but also bizarre cases such as the now-extinct shark genus Helicoprion that had a spiral-toothed jaw looking like a circular saw blade, which recently got a book-length treatment in Resurrecting the Shark. Fittingly, Scales ends the book with a chapter what all these findings mean for how we treat and think about fish, touching on that contentious debate on whether or not they feel pain. For the record, she and many other scientists think they do, and I would say the reasons why make perfect sense.

    Scales is enamoured by fish, and she effortlessly transports readers to their underwater world. Though thoroughly grounded in recent scientific work, she doles out the science lightly – whether it’s the intricacies of electroreception in fish, the physics of their vision, or the finer details of their hearing. Mixed in is a healthy dose of work by scientific pioneers and their discoveries. I knew Konrad Lorenz for his work on goslings, but I never knew he had an enormous aquarium built at his house and spent the last few years of his life observing fish behaviour. I was similarly not familiar with the long and distinguished career of Eugenie Clarke who studied sharks and pufferfish, amongst many others. Finally, each chapter ends with a short traditional tale or myth from various cultures around the globe in which fish feature prominently.

    If all of this wasn’t enough to hold your attention, the book is lovingly produced. From the illustrated endpapers to the beautiful drawings that preface each chapter (with an appendix identifying the fish shown), this book does its best on all levels to convince you that fish are worthy of our attention. Many people will never venture underwater, but this absorbing book is the next best thing.
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Helen Scales is a marine biologist based in Cambridge. Her doctorate involved searching for giant, endangered fish in Borneo; she's also tagged sharks in California, and once spent a year cataloguing all the marine life she could find surrounding a hundred islands in the Andaman Sea. Helen regularly appears on BBC Radio 4, Sky News and the BBC World Service, and has presented documentaries on topics such as whether people will ever live underwater, the science of surfing and the intricacies of sharks' minds. She is scientific advisor to the charity Sea Changers, a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and a tutor at the University of Cambridge. Her previous book Spirals in Time was BBC Radio 4's Book of the Week, a number one smash on Amazon and a Guardian bestseller

Nature Writing
By: Helen Scales(Author), Aaron John Gregory(Illustrator)
320 pages, b/w illustrations
Eye of the Shoal successfully shows that fish are much more fascinating than you ever imagined.
Media reviews

 "Scales's genuine appreciation and awe for fish are contagious. She continually entices the reader by introducing exciting aspects of fish in each chapter."

"A delightful book that provides a welcome invitation to enter the amazing world of fish."
New Scientist

"An engaging and informative bouillabaisse."
The Economist

"A sprawling, ambitious underwater journey studded with fascinating tidbits."
New York Times Book Review

"This aquarium of a book is an eloquent reminder of how remarkable [fish] are."
Natural History

"Enthralling and thought-provoking"

"Helen Scales invites us to dive below the waterline as she reveals the hidden but glorious lives of fish going about their rather fascinating business."

"Eye of the Shoal is a book brimming with wonders. Shimmering colors, otherworldly abilities, and compelling dramas flood every page, as the masterful Helen Scales brings us eye-to-eye with the world of fishes – creatures who are at once thrillingly strange and startlingly ubiquitous. Whether you snorkel or scuba, whether you meet fish in a tank or on TV, this book is new portal to see our blue planet with new eyes, one that will make you love our world and its creatures all the more."
– Sy Montgomery, author of The Soul of an Octopus

"Eye of the Shoal is like a beautiful glass bottomed boat that reveals this mysterious realm with joyful passion and perfect clarity. You couldn't have a more knowledgable guide on board than Helen."
– Dallas Campbell, science broadcaster and author

"Eye of the Shoal is an absorbing account of the least understood area of our planet. Helen brings the depths to life, not only with wondrous accounts from her extensive travels, but also by introducing us to some magnificently improbable characters (both human and piscine), and by astonishing us with mind-blowing facts on every page."
– James Harkin, QI's Head Elf and presenter on the award-winning podcast No Such Thing as a Fish

"This fantastic and timely book will change your perspective on your pet goldfish, a fishmonger's window display, a darting flash of silver glimpsed from a boat and the colourful world of a coral reef. A must-read for anyone interested in life on Earth."
– Helen Czerski, physicist, oceanographer and author of Storm in a Teacup

"If you already love fish wherever they swim, you'll be astonished by so many new discoveries in these pages. If you don't love fish – you surely will.'"
– Carl Safina, author of The View From Lazy Point and Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel

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