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Fishness, by Rosaleen Love

by Rosaleen Love

The day heats up. The surface of the water lies cool, calm, and inviting. I slide in. Fishes soon find me: two diamond-shaped trevally of the reef shallows. If I am lucky, I’ll see the gobi and the shrimp keeping house together underneath a rock in this sandy prelude to the reef. The gobi is a tiny sandy-colored fish that shares its burrow with the alpheid shrimp. The shrimp does most of the housework, digging the sand out with its claws and generally keeping the entrance hole clear. The snorkeller has an excellent view from a yard above. The small shrimp works hard in the face of waters always ready to swirl the sand around and back again. Keeping watch, the fish guards the shrimp from harm. When the shrimp sees the gobi turn tail and dive back into the burrow, it too dodges back to safety. The fish darts in and out, dodging the busy shrimp. It is a thoroughly companionable relationship.

The first underwater experience gives both less and more than television documentaries promise. Colorful corals, hugely magnified, big fishes, sharks, even the hated crown-of-thorns starfish already exist in memory and so in anticipation. Real corals seem muted in color, and smaller, because the polyps are retracted and mostly invisible in daytime. The surprise is the fishes. Hundreds of tiny damselfishes dart around in shoals, finning their swift way through sunlit waters. Azure damsel fishes, only an inch or so in length, capture all possible shades of blue in one sleek swift body. They sweep around the intruder and onward, keeping to the path the school is collectively traveling.

The first experience is both strange and familiar from underwater film. The best simulation of being under the sea has come, for me, with the experience of the 1999 Imax 3-D movie Into the Deep. The viewer relaxes into the theater armchair, wearing a visor headset that helps create the 3-D image. Fronds of Californian kelp forest materialize in the cinema and float toward the viewer and beyond. A shark cruises out of the blue into the cinema and noses up to the headset wearer. Imax 3-D conveys the underwater world with a heightened reality. If I went into the Californian kelp forest, I know I’d not see a fraction of this beauty. I’d be just one person, not a team of expert photographers selecting their best shots.

Reefscape: Reflections on the Great Barrier Reef, by Rosaleen LoveYet still the cinema simulation misses something, even though now with 3-D technology it may attain near-perfection. In the reef experience, in actually “being there,” the multiple aspects of yearning collide with sheer physicality. The heady mind-body mix stimulates the sense of wonder to overload. Sensory information is fed to the swimmer from all directions—up, down, sideways—differently from on land. Smell and taste become irrelevant, or at the very least, the taste of plastic in the mouth is mercifully diminished. Though divers hear the disconcerting sound of their own breathing, magnified, the sense of hearing is dulled for people but not for fishes. We hear through our ears; they sense sound three ways, through their air-filled swim bladders, their unique “lateral line” sensory systems, and otoliths (earstones). Weird, too, is the sense of touch underwater. Warm water flows over exposed skin and creates a liquid cocoon, a personal comfort zone that flows along with the swimmer. Otherwise it’s look, don’t touch: so many jagged rocks to cut the skin, so many poisonous spines out there to jab.

It is the visual that overwhelms. The fact that sight is restricted to the field of view of the mask adds to the effect. What is that just outside the field of vision? Is it bigger than me? As I observe this corner of this world, what is observing me? Beyond each rock and crevice new marvels are revealed; possible terrors are concealed. Other lives are lived in this other dimension of existence in a manner totally alien to our own. Normally we are their predators—we eat them; but we are the strangers here. Some of them are bigger than us. The teeth of sharks are magnificently adapted to catching, holding, and biting prey. The sense of wonder is also a sense of wonder at being alive in a place where so many dangers lurk.

“Fishness” is a word coined by Jeremy Tager of the North Queensland Conservation Council, as he makes the empathic leap to wonder what it is like to be a fish. He is forced to conclude that “understanding the nature of fishness may exceed the limitations of the human imagination, creativity, and empathy.”1  The quantum leap is to imagine a consciousness with different states of awareness. How might fishes experience tides and currents, night and day, territory, food, reproduction, and death? How might they experience the reef, and how might their experience be different if reef corals grow from shipwrecks or from piles of old tires with which artificial reefs are now being created?

One path to imaginative understanding lies in the walk through the Great Barrier Reef Aquarium in Townsville. It was there that I met my one true invertebrate love and we got some empathy going—at least I got it going. I don’t think it was reciprocated, but, hey, you’ve got to start somewhere. It was a red-lipped stromb of the family Strombidae, a small marine mollusk that carries a bright orange and white shell on its back. It sat with its plump foot pressed firmly against the glass side of the tank at the entrance of the aquarium. It was totally blissed out, this stromb. Eye-stalks, foot, and siphon were stretched out of its shell to the limit, all systems go, eyes swiveling, siphon vacuuming, foot lurching from side to side. What caused this moment of joy was a strip of green algae in a hard-to-get-at corner of the tank. Tucked in behind a fat aeration tube was some green growth its human minders couldn’t reach to clean. This was a stromb in which the hunter’s spirit had not been dimmed by the soft life.

Ours was a relationship made possible by modern aquarium technology. If I’d gone out on the reef with a portable glass tray, the kind reef photographers use, and with the patience to sit and watch, I might have seen some of this. But I’d have missed the stromb’s passionate mission for algae. Out on the reef I’d have been unhappy about picking up a stromb because of its close resemblance to the lethal cone shell. The cone shell has modified teeth, like small poison-loaded harpoons, which it shoots out if disturbed. It kills its prey, including humans, fast. At the aquarium there’s a cautionary motto they teach the children: “If it’s a cone, leave it alone.” They have harmless strombs in the children’s touch tank with an instructor hovering over to say: “Don’t do this when you’re alone.”

The two eyes of the stromb stand at the end of long stalks and swivel in contrary motion. While one tiny blue eye is on the watch for the next best slurp, the other eye checks up on its back, or its sides, or underneath, a good idea if you live in a place where predators may strike from any direction. This stromb was not to know it lives in a predator-free tank. Staff don’t want the exhibits to eat each other. There is even a notch in the lip of the stromb’s shell so that the right eye gets as much room to move as the left. Watching the stromb, I couldn’t tell what was more important to it, the sight or smell of the algae, but however it knew, it knew what it wanted and was single minded about getting it.

The aquarium is inspired by the human desire to linger in curiosity, and not only enjoy the beauty of the creatures but also to sustain the pleasure they evoke. An otherwise fleeting moment of underwater delight is thus artificially maintained and experienced anew daily. What may usually be seen only with difficulty or not at all becomes widely accessible. I am privileged to get to see this stromb, here on this artificial reef to which live corals are attached, where the fishes are maintained in good health by technologies that use algae for water purification and by the artificial separation of predator and prey.

I was delighted by its delight in food, its opportunism, its mastery of every appendage of its body, all the humanlike attributes I could relate to. Empathy must start somewhere. There is also the question of getting to know what you are by what you are not. Humans do not wave their snouts around sucking algae, but I can see some of the advantages.

In the aquarium, guides tell fond stories about the fishes, the sharks, and the turtle, and they give them names. The green turtle is Lucky; the leopard shark is Leo; the potato cod is Humphrey. The huge Queensland groper is Dom, after the aquarist who trapped it. Dom is also short for Dominator, as this fish definitely dominates the predator tank. Dom has its territory near the surface, where it languidly floats with the occasional waft of its tail while keeping a sleepy eye on things. At feeding time the guides tell stories about the predators’ personalities. Lucky, the green turtle, is very curious. He rushes to get a fish at feeding time, even though green turtles normally eat sea grass. “No one ever told him,” someone comments. Lucky is lucky because he’s the one in a hundred turtles that survives to adulthood. Recently the predator tank has been reefscaped so that it simulates the Yongala shipwreck. The aquarium staff recount how curious the predators were about the changes the divers were introducing into their tank. Lucky kept putting his nose into the replica of the ship’s safe, left on the tank floor as it was found at sea.

People commonly think animals are like themselves and describe what animals do in stories that support these interpretations. This is anthropomorphism and is considered a trap for students of animal behavior, to assume that animals have the same kinds of feelings as people. Yet somehow it happens that we do attribute to animals motives similar to our own, and indeed we are perfectly prepared to extend these notions to fishes. Telling stories about fishes is an activity long practiced by fishermen, who will attribute intentions such as cunning or curiosity to their fishes. The shark is associated with evil, man-eating intentions. Now, possibly serving the interests of reef tourism, visitors are encouraged to regard at least some sharks, the black-and-white-tipped reef sharks, as creatures that just want to be left alone—they have this virtue, where once they had that vice. Anthropomorphism, in telling stories about animals, is neither right nor wrong in itself; it is just something people do. It is one path along with others to a partial understanding. Watchers of whales, dolphins, and dugongs also give names to these large mammals, while assuming they do not name us in return. (The guides hadn’t named the stromb. What seems appropriate for large animals would seem silly for a mollusk.)

The aquarium is a reminder of the complexity of modern life, especially the technology it takes to maintain nature artificially. The aquarium visitor also marvels at the machinery that sustains the spectacle. In the Great Barrier Reef Aquarium, an “algal scrubber,” a machine for maintaining water quality, is on show beside the children’s touch pool. Water from the aquarium tanks is pumped over the top of rafts of brown algae, which feed on the nutrients in the water and help clean it naturally, as they would out on the reef. The stromb in the high-tech tank is like the human in the high-tech city—the survival of both depends more and more on technological expertise. The aquarium tank recycles air, water, and some food, just as a sustainable development incorporating recycling is called for on a larger human scale. A machine that uses algae to clean water harnesses natural processes toward an end that benefits algae, fishes, and humans.

Map of the Great Barrier Reef area
Map of the Great Barrier Reef area. Click map for larger image.
Courtesy Reefscape and Joseph Henry Books.

I like to walk around the aquarium and marvel at how clever engineers and marine biologists are to create and maintain a corner of perfection and to make it so accessible. Relationships between humans, nature, and technology are changing with great rapidity. New things become possible, calling old assumptions—such as the reef always being there, for exploitation—into question. The aquarium makes it possible for the viewer to appreciate fish behavior and perhaps grow fond of it, as fondness has grown for the exploits and “character” of the domestic dog and cat. Add in the technology of the movie camera and time-lapse photography and the hitherto private lives of fishes are exposed and magnified for us in all their drama.

When the first large marine aquarium was built in nineteenth-century Britain in Brighton, the science journal Nature published gossip about the new aquarium’s residents. The two porpoises were settling in nicely, but, alas, the new octopus ventured too far out of its nest of oyster shells and got eaten by the spotted dogfish.2  The policy of separating predator from prey must have had to be worked out by trial and error. Apart from the inherent tragedy of this aspect of the fishy condition, it gets expensive when the inhabitants eat each other. Today, Nature is the most prestigious and austere of all learned scientific journals. Gossip about fishes never rates a mention.

The stromb and I were at the still small center of a web of significance spun between nature and technology, nature and culture, humans and the rest of the organic world. Of the two of us, I was the only one in the position to know it. Our relationship spun out into all the connections, past, present, and future, between people and the place from which the stromb had come, the Great Barrier Reef of Australia. The aquarium is its home as the result of decisions made about conservation of reef resources, tourism, and public education. The reef itself was its home as a result of shifting continents, migrating corals, the coming and the goings of the last Ice Age. Eons of geological and biological activity led to this one chance encounter, of one human with one blissed-out stromb caught in the act of siphoning algae.

With the invention of scuba gear, marine biologists now hover above their subjects and observe the rhythms of their lives. The fish has the advantage on the diver. The diver must carry air and control buoyancy artificially. The diver has a restricted field of vision, hears few sounds other than bubbles and breathing, and tastes and smells nothing. The diver feels a sense of wonder and assumes the fish does not. The fish, on the other hand, balances easily in the water by means of an internal float of gas. Its body is sleek and streamlined, with muscles especially adapted to give a good forward push in water. Fish eyes project and allow a wide field of peripheral vision, with depth perception possible above, below, and in front. The diver sees only in front and must turn to see what lurks elsewhere.

As fishes school, they move together as if choreographed with a dancer’s sense of unity and grace. Their lateral-line sensory system reads signals way beyond the limitations of the human senses, detecting currents and changes in currents and pressure. For fishes there is no such thing as the silence of the deep. At night the reef buzzes with the noise of shrimps.3  As the diver observes the fish, the fish senses the diver. The fish has the advantage—as long as the diver comes in peace, unarmed.

To gain some grasp on the nature of fishness, the diver must try to think through what it must feel like to be an individual fish in some way always aware of the presence of the school. The philosopher Thomas Nagel asked a related question of a different species: What is it like to be a bat?4  After thinking the question through, he decided that he could never know what a bat felt like being a bat. He could only arrive at a conception of what it felt like being a human with an extra sense of echo location, of knowing where he was by sensing messages beamed back from surrounding obstacles. Both echolocation in bats and the lateral-line sensory system in fishes are ways of knowing the world that are alien to humans. Thomas Nagel offers no hope to Jeremy Tager in his quest to understand the nature of “fishness.” Nagel says, in the case of bat sonar, that this sense is just so different from any that humans possess that we shall never have insight into the inner life of the bat. Even though navigation devices for the blind use a device similar to echo location, this is not the same thing as having the sense embedded in one’s neurophysiological constitution.5  The day when human divers can move like fishes in underwater schools will never come.

We know that fishes have a form of 3-D sideways perception. We can probably also say of fishes, as Nagel says of bats, that we believe fishes feel some versions of pain, fear, hunger, and lust, where lust seems an appropriate term for the remarkably intense and unceasing effort devoted to courtship, acquisition, and defense of mates in most species of coral reef fishes. What seems the impossible next step, though, is to experience subjectively what it is like to be the fish or the bat. Yet we can say that fishes and bats have their own species-specific viewpoints of their world, and it could be that their world is experienced just as richly as our own. We think, though, that we humans have an edge on them, because we, uniquely, can have concepts of what the world is like. Fishes can’t imagine the earth from space.

There seems no way of erasing away the human point of view and substituting that of the fish. Yet it is worth a try, to imagine what it is like to live in a state of different sensory awareness, without the capacity for self-awareness but with a kind of school awareness. Perhaps it would be like having a sense of community without a sense of self. Anthropologists who study human communities sometimes use the word “dividual”—”individual” with the prefix “in” removed—to indicate social groups in which the sense of community is particularly strong. Fishes, as they move in schools, move as “dividuals” all. They show there are ways of living cooperatively in groups that humans might like to ponder. There was a time in the past history of humans on earth when they first learned to gather in groups around a campfire. In the future, people will gather differently together. We’re not going to end up fishes, but we may end up relating differently, and possibly better, as dividuals all.

Sometimes the impression comes most strongly, whether underwater or in the aquarium, that as I am observing this fish with interest, so this fish, in return, is observing me. In this encounter, eyeball to eyeball, who knows what the fish is thinking, as indeed, if I similarly encounter another person, I cannot read his or her mind. Peter Chermayeff, a designer of cutting-edge aquariums in the United States, goes so far as to say: “There’s something utterly primal about the direct contact. To look a fish in the eye is a spiritual experience.”6  The aquarium designer thinks of the fish as having value beyond its practical relevance to his work, as intrinsically valuable in itself. The return of the gaze means something. It acknowledges that a fish-human encounter can have a two-sided meaning. Fishes are a valuable source of protein for many of the world’s peoples, but fishes mean something more to the world than an element in a design or a good fish dinner. “Fishness” is, in itself, something many people value. The conservationist argues that “fish-kind,” in all its multiplicity of species, needs to be preserved in the world, for more than its usefulness to people as food.

My next question is: But can I bring myself to extend the benevolence that I feel toward the stromb and the fish to something a lot less nice—the crown-of-thorns starfish? The crown-of-thorns starfish has a bad reputation as a destroyer of coral reefs. It is large—dinner-plate size—and covered with mucky green-red spikes. It has the habit of extruding its stomach over living coral, sucking the polyps into its capacious gut, and moving on, leaving a bleached and lifeless skeleton behind. Outbreaks of crown-of-thorns serious enough to be called plagues have blighted the Great Barrier Reef in recent years, leaving some reefs devastated, mere shadows of their former glory. Can I feel fellowship with the crown-of-thorns, or with any creature that, in minding its own business, threatens mine?

Sea turtle.
A diver photographs a green sea turtle within the
Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

Photo by Pete Heatherwick, courtesy ReefpiX.

Personally, I wouldn’t eat the crown-of-thorns starfish, so we can’t even have a utilitarian food relationship. In fact, the starfish has few natural predators, except for a few large shellfishes, and that is part of its success in survival. I do not find it beautiful, though it can be made to look so by clever photography. Images of the juvenile photographed from underneath as it sticks to the bottom of a clear glass tray show a lacelike radial symmetry, which delights—until I read the caption underneath. It is very capricious, this love-hate relationship with other species.

I have to take a further step, to understand the nature of fishness not only as an individual attribute but also in relation to reef communities. Polyps exist in colonies. Reefs exist as a congregation of coexisting species, many of which eat each other. There is fishness and there is crown-of-thorn-ness and there is reef-ness. The individual fits into a web of reef life, a life that is always in a state of change. Now one set of organisms gain ascendancy, as with the coral polyps that build the reef, then others take over, and it may be those organisms that destroy. The flip-flop mechanism of dominance is neither good nor bad in itself but simply the way things are.

One way to approach the next to impossible task of imagining reefness is to begin with creatures that have a special status in human eyes, large marine mammals with which it is easy to empathize. Dwarf minke whales have not been hunted for food, being small and swift, and anyway only recently described as a species. They grow up to 25 feet long. In the winter months of the early 1990s dwarf minke whales began approaching tourist boats on the Great Barrier Reef. The whales seemed to be curious about people. Soon a north Queensland tourist venture, Undersea Explorer, brought people out to Ribbon Reefs to swim among the whales. The whales approach the people; that is the significant element in the encounter, and people feel delighted that they, in particular, are chosen.

What whales make of the encounter is unknown. It is humans who say the whales are curious. People value the whale experience. Whales turn up to see people. Can we say in turn that whales value their human experience? They can’t show us they are going though a process called evaluation, but they do seem to be showing by their behavior what they “value” or are interested in. They don’t like people diving down or swimming toward them. They like humans to behave in a controlled and more predictable way. That is why zoologist Alistair Birtles recommends that people string themselves out along a rope on the surface.7  This way the whales control the approach to the swimmers. It is probably not stretching it to say that what the dwarf minke whales are exhibiting is something like our own experience. Something odd is happening—interesting, yet not threatening, and they want to know more about what’s going on.

A similar experience of animal curiosity is reported by dugong researchers in Shark Bay in Western Australia. Normally, dugongs are shy and retreat from contact with humans, a wise move as they are often hunted for food. Yet the zoologist Paul Anderson and his colleagues reported an unusual experience as they snorkeled in the midst of a large herd of dugongs. At first the swimmers were approaching the herd from a boat at anchor. As they swam toward the dugongs, they were delighted to find that they were being met halfway. The normally shy animals were swimming toward them. The dugongs would approach, singly or mother and calf together, to circle beneath the snorkellers. The animals allowed the swimmers to dive quite close, to within a few yards. One dugong circled and was gone, to be replaced by another animal. As the scientists observed the dugongs, so they were observed in turn. After a while scientists learned to identify some individuals by their scars or their barnacle attachments.8  Whether dugongs identified some of the scientists is unknown.

In thinking about marine life it is possible to imagine a continuum running from people to dugongs to sea turtles to damselfishes to coral polyps to sea grasses, in which there is a transition from fully conscious human experience to the totally unconscious sea grass experience. Coral polyps do more than feed and reproduce. They have in place adaptations and survival mechanisms that are of value to them and to species that have evolved alongside. The coral even has a primitive system of defense of territory. When the polyps at the margins of a coral discover a competitor, the coral acts to defend itself. It projects its digestive strands, the “mesenterial filaments,” through the wall of its body into the outside world. These strands wave about in the contested space, secreting their digestive juices just as they did in the gut, and when they find the intruding polyps, they eat them—if they are from other species. They do not eat their own. When they feel under pressure from competitors, the polyps at the margins grow specialized “sweeper” tentacles with large stinging cells. These emerge at night and clean up the surrounding territory. The coral polyp defends its life and environment without knowing what it does. It is part of a continuum along which humanity lies. There is a bit of the coral polyp in us all.

There is a richness in the system of the reef, in its conflict, its resolution, its states of equilibrium, and its states of chaos. The reef system recycles its nutrients and its energy. There are few nutrients on a new coral cay, but birds get busy and soon provide phosphorus and nitrogen through their guano. Zooxanthellae enter into a symbiotic relationship with corals and add their energy to its sum total. The complexity and interdependence, richness and diversity, of the reef have meaning for human lives that is intellectual, spiritual, and aesthetic. The reef also has economic, recreational, historical, and scientific value, and more recently we are coming to appreciate that it also has value by virtue of its genetic diversity.9

This richness is available in the large tropical reef aquarium in a way that it is not with a zoo. In the zoo there are no systemic connections. The animals are fed at publicized feeding times, and we take pleasure in observing the relationship between the keeper and the kept but not between the kept and the natural system. In the aquarium, apart from the artificial separation of predator from prey, it is still possible to see interspecies relationships in action. Herbivorous fishes find their own food in algae growing on fiberglass walls. Damselfishes guard their territory of branching Acropora corals, as they do in the wild, and anemone fishes maintain their symbiotic relationship with their anemone host, which guards them from predators in return for luring food fishes into its tentacles. In addition, the fishes have learned an extra thing or two about their unusual environment. They know there’s a talk show on at 10 in the morning and that a diver will appear with a squeeze bottle of marine fish flakes. They cluster around the plastic bottle in a fish cloud of color that brings deep pleasure to the viewer on the other side of the tank wall. Viewers don’t see the artifice; they are immersed in the living relationships.

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Rosaleen Love completed her Ph.D. in history and philosophy of science at the University of Melbourne and has been an academic as well as a writer and commentator on science and culture in the general media. In addition to Reefscape: Reflections on the Great Barrier Reef, her books include an anthology of Australian science writing, If Atoms Could Talk (Greenhouse Press, 1987), and two collections of short fiction with the Women's Press, Total Devotion: Machine & Other Stories (1991) and Evolution Annie (1993). Her short stories and essays have been selected for inclusion in many anthologies in Australia, Britain, and the United States. Love's works spring from an abiding interest in the history of ideas—including wrong ideas—from science to futures studies. She was an invited member of the Humanity 3000 seminar series for 1999-2000, organized by the Foundation for the Future, Seattle.
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"The Great Barrier Reef: Will It Still Be Great Next Century?" by Louise Goggin, Terrain.org article in this issue

Australian Institute of Marine Science

Science for Management of the Great Barrier Reef, Australian Institute of Marine Science

Climate Change, Coral Bleaching and the Future of the World's Coral Reefs, Greenpeace

The Global Coral Reef Alliance

How the Great Barrier Reef was formed, Australian Institute of Marine Science

Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority

National Geographic Society's Virtual World: Great Barrier Reef

reefHQ (Great Barrier Reef Aquarium)

WWF Great Barrier Reef Campaign

CRC Reef Research Centre

United Nations Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area

State of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, 1998


End Notes.

1. Jeremy Tager, "Manipulative research—the conservationist viewpoint," Autumn newsletter, Australian Coral Reef Society, no. 25, May 1997, p. 25.
Return to article > >

2. Nature, vol. 7, 16 January 1873, p. 209.
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3. Stephanie Pain, "Swimming for dear life," New Scientist, 13 September 1997, pp. 28-32.
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4. Thomas Nagel, "What is it like to be a bat?," Mortal Questions, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1979, pp. 165-180.
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5. Ibid., p. 168.
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6. Michael Menduno, "Exploring the ocean pleanet," Scientific American Quarterly, "The oceans," vol. 9, no. 3, Fall 1998, p. 107.
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7. Sustainably managing Queensland's dwarf minke whale tourism industry," CRC Reef Research Center Newsheet, James Cook University, May 1999, at
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8. P. K. Anderson, "Dugong behavior: Observations, extrapolations and speculations," in H. Marsh (ed.), The Dugong: Proceedings of a Seminar/
, Zoology Department, James Cook University, Townsville, 1979, p. 105.
Return to article > >

9. For a discussion on the idea of "richness," see Holmes Rolston, Conserving Natural Value, Columbia University Press, New York, 1994, p. 59.
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The Language of the Reef — Terrain.org Interviews Rosaleen Love

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