Deco Fish: An Intimate Portrait of a Bream

The Turks call it a Çipura.  If I were back home on the west coast of Florida, I’d call it a pinfish.  Scientists call it a Sparus aurata.  Whatever its name, it seems to be curious about me.  Not just one, but a whole school is circling my head as I float breathing pure oxygen 20 feet below the surface of the azure Aegean Sea.

For the past few weeks I have been working and photographing on an archaeological excavation off the coast of Turkey, diving on a daily basis to 150’ to excavate a 2,000 year old shipwreck.  Due to the depths and the 20 minutes we spend on the bottom, we are forced to spend up to 20 minutes at a decompression stop, breathing pure Oxygen in order to rid our blood of excess nitrogen.  It is here; at this point of limbo we call deco, where I have watched the fish.

There is the normal school that grows and shrinks depending on the day that floats with us here.  Drawn out of curiosity at first, but the school quickly grew over the last few weeks as some divers brought down stale bread.  Now the school can number somewhere between 50 and 100.  Two obvious species make up the mix, but one, the more common, is what really got my attention.

This morning, I am hanging at deco with two other divers.  The resident fish are here, looking for handouts but none of us are feeding.  The fish though are remarkably bold, swimming within a few inches of my face, seemingly peering into my eyes as I stare back.  After a few mesmerizing moments, I look up at my partners, neither of which have any fish around them, they have all congregated around me.

Focusing back on the fish, they appear to be laterally striped with slightly different colors, light yellows and blues, so subtle that from a distance the colors form lines, but up close, the are really a mix of short broken lines that begin and end in a random pattern. It’s like looking at one of those pictures from a Magic Eye book where a mix of gaudy colors turns into a three dimensional image if you sort of defocus and cross your eyes.  If you stare intently on a stripe of color starting at the gills and try to follow it, there is no direct path but your eye gets there, jumping from line to line as one melds into another until all meet together at a single point, the tail.

The tail itself is magical.  When viewed in profile, it looks a bit darker than the rest of the fish, but if the light is right and the fish is swimming away, the tail is rimmed in a blue that rivals the sky.  What possible evolutionary benefit this halo of color can provide, I do not know.  I simply marvel at the beautiful color that suddenly appears as the fish casually swims away from my face.

The two days previously have provided few photo opportunities for myself so I have been assigned cleaning duties.  This particularly ship sank off a remote rocky section of coast in the century before Jesus walked the Earth, in the height of the Roman Empire.  Carrying a massive, marble column, close to two meters in diameter, the ship went down and has rested on the bottom for two millennia.  The marble column was loaded on the ship in drums, large cross sections.  Stack the eight sections on top of each other, add the capital to the top and presto, you have a column.

For the last two millennia, these eight sections have been sitting on the seabed in two rows of four each with the capital sitting on top of the pile.  When excavations began, the massive drums were moved in order to access what lay below, in particular any hull remains.  However, 20 centuries on the ocean floor means that all sorts of marine creatures have made these columns their home.  From worms to algae to hermit crabs and more, it has covered the surface of the drums, slowly breaking down and transforming the marble drums.

When the drums were moved off to the side of the wreck, they were flipped over, thus exposing the bottom surface that up until now had been in direct contact with the sand of the bottom and partially buried.  These semi-pristine surfaces offered the best glimpse into the original size and shape of the drums before marine life began little by little, breaking the marble down into very fine sand.  That was all two and three years ago.  Since then it’s been open season for anything looking for available real estate and these surfaces were rapidly colonized.  I was sent with two plastic scrub brushes in hand to dispatch as much algae and gunk as possible.  We wanted to once again showcase the gleaming white marble in all its glory.

On my first drum scrubbing dive, I approached carefully even though I was assured that I really couldn’t damage an eight ton chunk of marble with a little plastic brush.  After a first few swipes, that became quite obvious and I began scrubbing enthusiastically, a brush in each hand.  Placing my knees somewhere near the center, I began sort of rotating around scrubbing in circular patterns with each hand.  Algae, slime, and gunk were freed from their grip in the marble and liberated into the water column around my face.  As I rotated around the drum doing a sort of underwater break dance, I was totally enveloped by a cloud of green amorphous sludge.  Within seconds, visibility was cut to zero and unknowingly, I approached an edge and proceeded to fall completely off the drum to the seabed a few feet below.

After righting myself and regaining my bearings, I dove back in for another go.  As I continued to spin and scrub, spin and scrub I made massive progress and before long the surface began to transform from a fuzzy green brown to a hard shiny marble though a stain remained from the life that had grown there moments before.

As the current began to pull the cloud off gunk away from me, I noticed the fish.  At first, they were just at the edges of the cloud, but I quickly became aware they were surrounding me, only inches away from my swift brushes, nimbly diving in to grab up anything edible that I liberated into the water column.  Trapezoidal fish with black stripes, whiskered bottom feeders, whispy, thin minnows.  I was simply providing a buffet free of charge and free of effort.  As I worked from drum to drum, I had a diverse school following me like a group of children greeting a stranger in a small village.

Now, as I float horizontally at deco watching the striped fish watch me, I wonder if they recognize me as the scrubber, the large creature decked in black with giant yellow fins.  Is their memory that good?  Can they smell the remaining bits of algae embedded in my wetsuit?  Do these fish at 20 feet even know about the buffet that occurred 130 feet below them the previous day?  I ponder these questions as I float semi motionless staring into the eyes of a fish until my dive partner taps me on the shoulder, signaling our time is up and we must return to the surface, give up the weightlessness and return to our terrestrial existence forever tied to the force of gravity.

* * *

The fish are still there as I return after my afternoon dive.  I now have 20 minutes to ponder the life of a fish, their consciousness, and their relation to my life.  However, these thoughts are quickly pushed aside as concern for my dive partner takes precedence.  As we have ascended, he has struggled to clear his ears.  There are few experiences I have had that rival this pain.

Feeling that your ear will explode, as the air in your sinus cavities begins to expand.  As you slowly rise to the surface, the pain grows exponentially until all you want is for it to be relieved at any cost.  Usually equalization comes bringing a wave of relief.  Occasionally it doesn’t, resulting in excruciating pain and the danger of a rupture or other injury.

As I signal to my partner by pointing at him, my ear, and then giving an OK sign, he thinks for a moment and then responds with a wave of his hand side to side.  Things aren’t good, but they aren’t bad.  So, so.  Not much we can do at this point anyway.  Ascend slower.  Pray.  Keep Trying.  Pinch your nose, blow.  Repeat.  Drop down a few feet and try again.

But now we are at deco and can’t go anywhere, there is nothing to do but wait and hope they eventually clear.  After a few minutes, I return to my fish.  In the afternoon, the light is different.  I can see slightly different colors, different patterns.  The broken lateral lines aren’t broken on all the fish.  In fact, each one is different, like a snowflake or a fingerprint.

The patterns seem to follow a general pattern, but each individual is quite different.  The belly is white, clean.  Starting about a third of the way up the side, the colored lines begin.  Spread out at first, rather broken.  Running from gill to tail, they sporadically cover the side of the fish.  About two thirds of the way up, a thin black line, about even with the eye, runs from the gill to the tail, continuous, unbroken.  Above this, the lines of color become densely packed and by the time you reach the back of the fish, they have simply become a speckling of color, not lines at all.

The dorsal fin runs along the back from above the gills nearly to the tail.  At times it lays flat and others it raises up to revealing sharp pins with webbing in between.  The top is dark, nearly black, while the webbing is a more translucent film offering a slight hint of speckling.  So faint I can’t tell if it exists or my eyes are playing tricks on me.

A few days later I leave the bottom as the alarm sounds ending my dive.  At Deco, a few fish circle, awaiting our arrival. However, the numbers have decreased dramatically.  Only a few days ago, the school was three or four times the size.  The school has consistently grown, like teenagers who have discovered a party with beer and then calling everyone they know.  Yet, when everyone arrives there is only a single case of beer and the crowd disperses in a sullen mood.  It is like this today, a few fish show only to find that we have no bread for them and reluctantly return to the depths.

As the fish disperse, I realize that they don’t recognize me as the buffet provider from a few days earlier.  I am seen simply as a large creature that occasionally dispatches free food 20 feet below the surface.  The memory exists, divers provide food, but recognition of the individuals that provide the bread seems to be more than the fish brain can store.  A part of me wishes that I am special enough to be held in regard by the icthyeous brain but I also realize, all I need to do is stick a piece of stale bread in my pocket.

This essay was written last summer, 2009, during my time working on the Kizilburun ship excavation off the coast of Turkey.  I was inspired to record my own experiences after reading The Animal Dialogues: Uncommon Encounters in the Wild by Craig Childs.  I apologize for the length, but I wanted to post the essay in its entirety.  I’d love to continue to post essays like this describing my experiences in the field, but would love to hear your opinions.  Do you want more?

For more information about the excavation, please take a look at the underwater panoramas.

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  1. Great description! It takes me back to being underwater. Fantastic. 🙂

  2. I enjoyed the essay immensely. I also wonder what the birds and animals think, they make eye contact better than most humans.

  3. Glad you both liked it! I will be sure to include some more posts like it!

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