Eloquence of the Sardine

Bill François / St. Martin’s Press / 192 pages

Eloquence of the Sardine: Extraordinary Encounters Beneath the Sea by Bill François, a French physicist and naturalist, is full of fascinating and thought-provoking information about life beneath the waves. Through science and storytelling, François explores the lives of many sea creatures and the remarkable ways they live, communicate, reproduce, find food, play, and escape predators (including humans). Take, for instance, the amazing sardine, whose scales perfectly refract light to avoid detection from above, below, and to the side, and who live together in the thousands, leaderless but effortlessly in sync. 

François describes extinct sea creatures, like the giant manatees of the Bering Strait, and how species that are endangered today, such as the monk seal, were once populous. He amusingly explores the derivations of aquatic names from terrestrial species (e.g., rabbitfish, sea cows, toadfish), professions (e.g., cardinalfish, clownfish), and outer space (e.g., sea stars, sunfish, moonfish). He tells of the alarming early lives of sand tiger sharks, who hatch from eggs while inside the womb and cannibalize their smaller siblings until—from an initial multitude—only the strongest two are left (one in each uterus) to enter the world beyond.

Regarding octopuses, François spares no end of admiration for their intellect, ability to mimic and change shape, and dexterity that allows them to fit through the smallest crevices. He laments that a mother octopus cannot pass on her immense acquired knowledge—she goes without food for months as she tends her eggs, but dies of starvation just as they hatch. The young are left to figure out the world for themselves, which of course they do. 

François describes how female humpback whales, in contrast, spend a lot of time with their young, communicating and teaching them cultural traits, including the songs of their ancestors. The young whales take these songs, add personal touches, and pass them to future generations. François also discusses exactly how baleen whales are able to communicate over huge distances, as well as how human use of the oceans interferes with such communications. 

This relatively short book is a fluid read and is interspersed with charming pencil drawings by the author.