Art School

Shape-shifting fish in Hawaii offer a compelling lesson: There’s safety, and beauty, in unity.

Big-eye scad are unwitting performance artists. To avoid predators, tens of thousands of these silvery fish—also called akule—move in unison in the form of quivering clouds, like the one pictured here. When a predator strikes, the akule formation shape-shifts, confusing the assailant. See the faint forms in the upper-right corner? They’re ulua, and they eat scad. “That may be, of all my photos, the most compacted, dense school I’ve ever seen,” says photographer Wayne Levin, who has seen many of these spectacular shows. His book Akule (Bess Press) features the image and dozens more mesmerizing shots.

See this article's accompanying photo gallery

Levin began shooting underwater nearly 30 years ago. He didn’t like color film’s effects—they weren’t distinctive enough—so he switched to black and white. That made all the difference because it abstracted his compositions, blending sky with sea. Through simple tonal editing, at first in the darkroom and now in Photoshop, Levin sometimes adjusts his images’ natural chiaroscuro to create dreamy scenes of people or animals gracefully suspended as if in ether. His interest in big-eye scad came by accident. Several times on his way to photograph dolphins in Hawaii’s Kea-lakekua Bay, Levin passed over what looked like coral but turned out to be an akule school. He began searching for schools by simply swimming around, until a friend suggested he scout from a cliff overlooking the bay. Wearing polarized sunglasses, Levin could spot schools 30 feet below. “I had to kind of extrapolate the direction to swim and hopefully find them,” he says.

Harder to predict were the wondrous movements he’d see when he reached the fish after free-diving to 40 or 50 feet. Sometimes they rushed toward him like speeding cars. Other moments he’d swim after them, their school opening like a tunnel. Yet hungry fish inspired the scads’ most impressive choreography. “As predators move in, they make these incredible shapes,” says Levin. “They’re like kinetic sculpture.” 

Besides being enchanting in its own right, akule synchronicity raises a broader sociological issue: “Do we [humans] see ourselves too much as individuals?” muses Levin. What if we made a greater effort to engage with one another? If akule schools teach any lesson, it’s that there’s beauty in unity.

Photographer: Wayne Levin
Subject: Column of akule
Where: Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii, 2000
Camera: Nikkonos V
Lens: 20mm
Exposure: 1/125 at f4