Julia Jones, Yachting Monthly's literary reviewer discusses The Secret Life of Fish by Doug Mackay-Hope: "Now here’s a book I’d be happy to be given."

The Secret Life of Fish
Doug Mackay-Hope
Ivy Press £16.99

Now here’s a book I’d be happy to be given.

Doug Mackay-Hope is a biologist and an executive producer at the BBC’s Natural History Unit.

He’s also an illustrator who admits cheerfully that his charming water colours may not all be scientifically accurate but says they are ‘an attempt to capture the character of each fish’.

Intellectually that’s impossible – we humans can have no concept what it’s like, for instance, to be a male angler fish doomed to die at the larval stage if a female is not found within a month.

Once discovered the male is attached for life, literally, as he becomes part of her blood stream.

Science cannot yet explain why Moray eels and grouper fish have been observed working co-operatively together or why it is that anemones thrive if they have clownfish living inside them.

Why is this the only fish to be immune from the predator’s venomous stings?

The world’s oceans and rivers are so large, the fish species so numerous – and frequently so inaccessible — that even most impressive research poses more questions than answers.

Lantern fish have been estimated to comprise 65% of fish bio-mass in the deep sea.

Scientists have tracked their perilous daily journeys to the surface, can offer explanations of the chemical reactions that produce their individual luminescence but cannot answer the question why?

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The Secret Life of Fish is full of such unanswered questions but also a sense of wonder that such variety and mysteries exist.

Despite its visual appeal this is not ultimately a feel-good book.

The text makes clear that a continued emotional haze of wonderment is neither tenable or desirable.

There have been too many occasions when human ignorance has led to the removal of an apex predator or the disruption of an local ecosystem by the introduction of an alien species – lionfish are a good example.

We cannot hope to assess any sort of sustainable future for the gigantic, endangered whale shark against mass killings in China when basic knowledge of their global lifestyle is so scanty.

I’m not a diver or a fisherman and have little expectation of ever seeing these marvellous creatures other than on natural history programmes or possibly in aquaria.

Yes, this is a populist book but why not when every page throws up some unexpected fact even about such familiar species as the goldfish or the brown trout.

As the author writes at the end of his description of the Amazonian Arapaima ‘the world is a better place with them in it’.

I’m glad to know that.

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