Eloquence of the Sardine

Eloquence of the Sardine coverEloquence of the Sardine: Extraordinary Encounters Beneath the Sea
Bill François, translated by Antony Shugaar
St. Martin’s Press (August 17, 2021), 186 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon hardcover $18.49

In this short but thoroughly enjoyable book Bill François shares his love of the sea and the creatures that live in it. He writes about the science, legend, and mythology of sea life.

The author opens the book by describing an encounter at the seashore as a child. He discovers a sardine in a tidepool, far away from where it should be. The sardine somehow communicates to him that it wants to be back in the ocean, and François obliges. This transforms him from a youngster with a fear of the ocean to an avid snorkeler. He describes doing line drawings of sea life in school when he should have been paying attention to a boring lecture on geometry, and how his teacher doled out detention for such subversive behavior. François has no love for the French school system.

Each chapter takes on a different aspect of ocean life and he prefaces every chapter with a series of “in which…” statements, just as you might find in a nineteenth-century British novel. (“In which distant galaxies glitter in the black eyes of prawns.”)

François describes how fish communicate with each other and work together. He discusses how they protect themselves from predators and how they find their food. He delves into how sea creatures perhaps communicate with humans.

The author devotes some space to the sexuality of fish. Several species of fish can change gender as appropriate. Others are truly hermaphrodite. He tells us the rockfish carries its young for more than two years, the longest gestation of any animal on the planet. (And he mentions that a rockfish can live more than a hundred years.)

One enjoyable section discusses how there are legends and accounts from around the world regarding how remora (that parasitical fish that attaches itself to larger sea life) communicate with humans and help them catch the sea life they were hunting. These stories seem to be similar while coming from disparate cultures. A modern researcher was not able to replicate this behavior, however.

François tells us that the sea serpent is more than a legend. It’s a fish called the giant oarfish, and he notes that it is shaped like a serpent and can grow up to thirty-five feet. The giant oarfish seems to be sensitive to earthquakes. Humans rarely see them, but they show up on occasion.

Eloquence of the Sardine is a translation of the French, so I have no way of telling how much of François’s voice is preserved, but translator Antony Shugaar’s light, conversational English is delightful to read.

If you enjoy reading about sea life and the oceans you won’t be disappointed with this title.

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