Eye contact is vital to human communication, and during my efforts to know other species, I have found that it is important to animals too, as everyone who has a pet knows. But fish?
One day on a dive we met an enormous school of yellow striped snappers, each about 25 cm long. When they drew near I became fascinated by the sight of so many so close, blocking my view of anything else, and relaxed, just looking at them. In response, hundreds of sparkling fish turned towards me, and one after another, each positioned himself in front of my face to take a deep look into my eyes for a few seconds before moving on. Then that precise position was taken by another fish. Their eyes were large and 4 cm apart, and their look was serious and intent. Fishes’ faces filled my view as they continuously moved towards me to take, one by one, the position directly in front of my eyes from which they could return my gaze.
This went on for a very long time and would have continued indefinitely, it seems, had my husband not come into the cloud of fish to see what we were doing.
This experience forever changed my considerations of what fish are really like, for it was the first clue they gave me of their inner lives. On other occasions I found that if I stopped moving and relaxed, fish would come over to look at me. Then, on finding me looking intently back, they would come close and look into my eyes. I never had an opaque school of many hundreds of fish around me again, but every time I tried, some fish came. One small, brown grouper with purple spots was so interested that it kept coming to look into my eyes even after I was swimming away.
The fish were not looking to see if I had food, because they came to my mask; when fish are looking for food they look around one's hands.
Joe Hutto, an ethologist who was accepted into a flock of mule deer, wrote about one of the alpha males he knew:
“Babe became not just the biggest deer you ever saw but, more important, the most powerful creature who ever cared to look behind your eyes in a startling effort to make contact with you. ... Babe would meet you straight on, face to face—eye to eye—and make an effort to know not what you were, but who you were. By merely wielding those most powerful but gentle eyes, he would knock you and all your preconceived notions about human superiority and animal consciousness to their knees.”
This description seemed to catch the essence of what those fish were doing, too.
Once, after one of the shark sessions, a Javanese moray eel—one of the large species—appeared in the grotto to my left while I gave some crumbs to the fish who had gathered. I was scraping the meat off the frame of a saumon des dieux , while hundreds of fish hung in a multi-species cloud around me. It was quite dark and I was concentrating on whether the squirrel fish were able to eat the pieces that I was freeing for them, if the needlefish were getting enough, making sure that the crocodile needlefish was getting her share, and watching the 2m moray eel in the hole, whose smiling jaws were a few centimetres from my left hand. He had a big heavy head and I angled my body away from him.
Once in a while, he retreated, and the space filled with groupers and squirrel fish, all waiting for crumbs to come their way. So I would whip into action and do my best to free up a few more bits of food for them, pushing larger chunks deeper for the groupers, whose purple bodies were covered with stars that shone in that dim light.
The giant moray eel reappeared, then, and I watched him. He watched me too. Our faces were close together, nearly at the same level. There was a palpable eye contact, and I began to wonder what was in his mind. Then he moved forward, his eyes fixed on mine, and gently took his side of the frame of the saumon des dieux . He began to pull it ever so slowly, without breaking eye contact with me, as if he was asserting his wishes, but respectfully. It was as if he were asking if he could have it, the whole thing, and waiting to see my response. It was about 35 cm square. I let go of it and he carried it gracefully into the grotto.
Sharks cannot meet our gaze in the same way because their eyes are positioned on the sides of their heads. Yet when I met my sharks (by kayak), and slid underwater, I would be surrounded by my three dozen favourites, and one after another they would glide up to my face in what was evidently a greeting gesture, and look closely into my eyes, sometimes turning their heads first one way, then the other, to do it. They, as well as the fish, sought out eye contact as if they were looking for something in that intimate exchange.
Yet it is counter-intuitive that such a connection can form at all between two species so far removed from each other in evolutionary time, as if the consciousness that joins us transcends the species barriers.
What this means in terms of the spirits behind those eyes, remains a great mystery.
(c) Ila France Porcher
March 28, 2020