Thinking, Sensing, and Feeling Like a Fish

Some sea life may think, sense and feel in ways that are beyond our comprehension.
  • Transcript


Question: What kinds of sea life are particularly intelligent?

Sylvia Earle: Young things generally tend to be curious, especially those that have something you can really get your mind around, say, "Those creatures have brains.They have enough of a concentration of nerve cells that they can have a reaction to things.  They might even anticipate danger and react accordingly. 

Do they dream?  Do they anticipate the future or reflect on the past the way humans do?  Well we’re still trying to figure that out.  I’m convinced that other creatures, many other creatures have more going for them in terms of intelligence and reasoning capacity than we give them credit for.  I’m confident that dolphins and whales have a level of intelligence in some cases that we wish we had.  We don’t think about sperm whales.  They have the biggest brain on the planet.  They have closely knit societies.  They do things that we don’t know why they do them.  We see them doing group behavior, getting together in a circle that some have designated a margarita formation because it’s a bit like the glass that a margarita is served in.  Like a flower with a narrow base to it, they all on some signal get together and dive down all at once.  To do what or why? We’re not smart enough yet to figure it out.  We’re not sperm whales, but that they do and that they can hold their breath for an hour and find food that they engage, big squid, that they travel over thousands of miles with no roadmap, go back to the same place time and time again, there are things that I wish we had inherit in our capacity.  Or to be a tuna fish for heaven’s sakes that travel over thousands of miles and come back to the same place. To have chemoreceptors.  We can smell, that is a kind of chemoreception. But to have a face that has taste buds that extend around up over your whole face the way many fish do or to be able to sense as sharks do, an electrical field.  All creatures have some kind of an electrical field around them.  We do.  Fish do.  Lobsters do, but to be able to sense it, to know that they’re there, maybe we do have some primitive or shadow effect that gives us some sense of where we are in relation to other things, but sharks really have it.  That’s how they find food at night.  You can’t see, but they can sense where they are. 

The lateral line down many bony fishes that enable them to sense—we think... we don’t know... we don’t have a lateral line—but we speculate that it enables them to sense movement, so you get these tight formations of fish that look as though they’re moving as one fish.  They are so close.  It’s like the Blue Angels, but times a thousand because they move like this, like streams of silver made of 10,000 little pieces that move as if they’re just all coordinated on wires, but they’re not.  They’re independent.  If only we could feel what they feel and see what they see.  To have the eyes of some of the deep sea fish that are exquisitely developed to be able to see in low light levels with receptors and things that glow like a cat’s eye or a dog’s eye that sense the tiniest amount of light.  When we get to 1,000 feet in the sea—even in high noon, the broadest daylight and the clearest ocean water at 1,000 feet—you can still barely make out shapes and forms, but beyond that it is really dark to our sensors. But to a fish, to these deep sea fish for them they can see like a cat can see at night, only much more sensitive.  It’s because many of these are tuned to sense bioluminescent light, the firefly kind of light that characterizes most of the ocean.  You get below 1,000 feet it’s dark, but there are these little lights that flash and sparkle and glow.  It’s like diving into a galaxy.  Even our eyes pick up the light, but these creatures that have enhanced light-gathering capacity it’s like having night vision goggles, like Silence of the Lambs.  There you are.  You can see.  Nobody else can see.  These fish have the capacity to see what we can’t see, so they have gifts.

Recorded April 14th, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen