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Freshwater Fish ed. by Daniel Gilpin and Dr Jenny Schmid-ArayaThe Complete Illustrated Guide to Freshwater Fish & River Creatures, Daniel Gilpin and Dr Jenny Schmid-Araya (Hermes House 2011)

Fresh-water fish are special in part because fresh water seemingly isn’t. It’s the transparent stuff that human beings drink and bathe in. It’s an everyday thing that, in most parts of the world, falls regularly from the sky. And yet very strange creatures live in it: fish, which breathe water and drown in air. That inversion of normality doesn’t seem so remarkable in the sea: the saltiness of the water doesn’t seem to contradict the strangeness of the citizens, as it were. Instead, saltiness and citizens go together.

The difficulty of keeping a marine aquarium seems appropriate too. What else should you expect? But a freshwater aquarium seems special in part because it’s so simple. Even if the water has to be heated, it still seems everyday, like bathwater. But it’s bathwater with aliens in it.

In truth, of course, it’s human beings who are the aliens. Water is where life began. Fish are still there, breathing in the natural way, not the unnatural one. The ocean is the womb of life and when life left the ocean, it had to find ways to re-create it. Blood is a portable ocean and human beings have gills for a time when they’re embryos. We were fish once. Fish still are. But they’ve continued to evolve and to find new habitats. As the introduction to this book points out, moving from the sea to fresh water is like moving from a continent to an island. The world shrinks and fresh-water fish don’t generally have such big ranges as marine ones. Some species are confined to single rivers or single lakes or even single pools, which makes them vulnerable to pollution and desiccation.

But some fish can survive desiccation:

West African lungfish, Protopterus annectens

This fish inhabits temporary swamps and floodplains. When these habitats start to dry, the fish buries itself in the mud and secretes a thin layer of slime around its body. This dries to form a fragile cocoon which helps to maintain moisture. By slowing its body metabolism, it can survive within this cocoon for a year or more, although it normally re-emerges within a few months, when the rains return. … Once the water within its burrow has [evaporated] it relies entirely on its primitive lung to obtain oxygen. (“Africa: Knifefish, Elephantfish, Bichir and Lungfish”, pg. 157)

So lungfish are a step towards life on land. Elsewhere, other fish step in other directions. Electrophorus electricus, the electric eel of South America, isn’t truly an eel but is truly alien. It uses electricity both as a weapon and as a sense, because it lives where vision isn’t always useful: in the “calm, turbid waters” of streams, rivers and swamps (“South America: Sharks, Rays, Sawfish and Electric Eel”, pg. 127). Some cave-dwelling fish have lost their eyes entirely, like Typhlichthys subterraneus, the southern cavefish of Tennessee and Kentucky (pg. 111).

But Toxotes chatareus, the archerfish of Asia and northern Australia, has excellent eyesight, because it can squirt jets of water and “shoot insects” from overhanging branches up to five feet away: “Once it has knocked its target into the water it darts across to snap it up” (“Asia and Oceania: Other Perch-Like Fish”, pg. 231).

This makes it popular with some aquarists. Other fish are popular for their appearance, not their behaviour. Fresh-water fish can’t match the range of colour and patterns found in salt-water fish, but a shoal of neon or cardinal tetras, Paracheirodon innesi and P. axelrodi, is like a cloud of swimming jewels. Surprisingly for such a well-known aquarium fish, the neon tetra is restricted “in the wild to the tributary streams of the Solimões River, which flows into the Amazon” (“South America: Tetras”, pg. 140).

The paintings here capture the beauty of both species: one of the good things about the natural history series to which this encyclopaedia belongs is that it uses paintings to illustrate the main text, not photography. Capturing the shine, shape and colour of fish is a challenge to artists, so when they meet the challenge their art rewards the observer. The amphibians, reptiles and mammals also covered here are less challenging, so less rewarding, but they’re few in number and fish dominate the book. I like that dominance and I like the maps that open each geographic section. Rivers and lakes are prominently marked, from the Amazon to the Mississippi, from the Nile to the Euphrates, from Lake Victoria to the Caspian Sea. There’s lots of interesting information here and lots of attractive art.

Fish are strange creatures and that strangeness seems to strengthen in that everyday liquid we call fresh water. But water is strange too, wherever you find it and whatever it tastes like. It’s still being studied, still throwing up surprises, despite the simplicity of its composition: two atoms of hydrogen to one atom of oxygen. We should remember that as we read books like this.

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Front cover of The Surfrider compiled by Jack Pollard
The Surfrider, compiled by Jack Pollard (K.G. Murray 1963)

On land it’s skiing; in the air it’s gliding; at sea it’s surfing. What is it? The most elegant and elemental sport. Using the simplest of equipment, man creates speed and grace from some basic aspect of nature: snow, air, water. Surfing has something in common with both skiing and gliding. Like skiing, you need good balance and coordination; like gliding, you need quick and sure reactions to an ever-changing medium. Like gliding too, but unlike skiing, surfing is ultimately powered by the sun. In theory, you could ski on Pluto, because all you need is a slope and a coating of snow. Gravity will do the rest. But the wind that carries a glider also creates the waves that carry a surfer. That idea of being carried is part of the joy of both surfing and gliding. We usually have to carry ourselves or exploit an animal or machine. In surfing and gliding, by applying a little ingenuity and skill, you get a free ride at high speed. Surfing is really brain against brawn: the brain of the surfer against the brawn of the sea.

But human brawn may be required to set that confrontation up: you have to carry your board and paddle out to catch a wave. Being small or slender is a disadvantage in big-wave surfing too. It’s not a fatal one, but being timid, unlucky or unskilful can be: “Every big wave rider can tell you of his narrow escapes from death,” writes the Australian surfer Bob Pike in his chapter of this compilation from 1963. Perhaps in the end he wished he had died while surfing. The book contains more now than when it was originally published, because everyone in it, however young and casually athletic then, is either old or dead now. Great athletes, and the best surfers are definitely great athletes, do not enjoy long careers by sedentary standards. Bob Pike, a world champion in 1962, committed suicide in 1999, after an injury had stopped him surfing. He looks like a surf-god in one of the black-and-white photos here, calmly riding a huge but glassy wave at such speed that his board is hydroplaning, or lifting partly free of the water. But he was mortal rather than divine and moments like that were one day only memories.

I don’t believe he really wrote the chapter credited to him either, because it’s too professionally crisp. But he must have approved it and he did indeed think that “Competitions are all against the spirit of surf-riding, which is supposed to be a communion with nature rather than a hectic chase for points.” Another chapter of the book, Jon Donohoe’s “Your Body is Enough”, suggests that the communion is even closer in body-surfing, which doesn’t use a board. But I’d say that the board is an essential part of what makes surfing so compelling. A board is simple but allows human beings to do something spectacular. Penguins and seals body-surf, after all, but no animal can ride on water the way humans can. The board is even attractive as an object in its own right, an elegant shape for a chaotic medium.

But the chaos of water has its own elegance and its own regularities, and one of the most interesting chapters is Jack Mayes’ “How Waves Are Formed”. For example, did you know that the power and height of waves depend on their “fetch”? That’s the distance they travel before they reach the shallow water near land. The further they travel, the bigger they are at the end. This explains why islands like Hawaii and Tahiti, isolated in the vast Pacific, have some of the world’s biggest waves. Big waves display the ocean’s grandeur and beauty, but there’s something sinister in this chapter too. Doubly so. The rip-currents created by water rushing back out to sea threaten incautious surfers not only with drowning, but with dentition too. One kind of rip-current “sometimes contains sharks”. To surf, you generally have to confront the sea and the sea is a dangerous place. But, like its grandeur and beauty, the sea’s danger has an essential place in surfing: Pike’s chapter is called “With Your Whole Heart Jumping”. Colour photography and videos are available nowadays to help you understand why so many people give their hearts to surfing, but this simple black-and-white book from the early 1960s is more than enough.

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