Capturing the Eye of a Crocodile Fish

“Beauty lies in the beholder’s eyes. Behold these eyes and thou shall recognise, The crystalline lattices of constellations to adore, Mirrored in the eyes of the piscivore.”

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Blue striped travellies cruising on the reef

The shallow sea flattens. Slowly, you descend and in the hustle-bustle of the reef, you cruise, weightless and neutrally buoyant. Thousands of fish move in and out of coral crevices looking at you. In that strange world, you are the outsider. You are the thing that does not belong, a bizarre alien, perhaps.

Lyretail orange Anthias guarding territory on the reefs.

You swim past a feather star and an octopus and are looking at the shapes and patterns of different corals when suddenly, you notice a crocodile fish nearby.

An octopus watching hustle-bustle of the reef.

It blends well in the bright colours of coral polyps and camouflages into its surroundings. You hold your breath for a moment and look carefully at the fish’s face, and you are rewarded with the rare gaze of a crocodile fish, as hypnotic as a revolving prism of a magic ball.

A rare gaze of the crocodile fish (Cymbacephalus beauforti)

When your eye catches the eye of a crocodile fish, you see a pattern. You notice that the fish’s eyes have a spherical latticework of thousands of crystalline lines with two distinct layers—the inside is dark, and the outside is thin and light— both separate, yet holding each other.

Both layers are captivating, but for some reason, you are unable to decide which layer to look at. The outer layer looks like it’s reflecting, while the inner layer is absorbing. The outer layer meanders like a flowing river, whereas the inner layer gives the eyes an illusion of depth. You notice that the textured globe of those eyes is opaque, and there is a lot more happening in the eyes that you can feel but cannot see. The more you gaze into the fish’s eyes the more they seem to reveal.


In the world of eyes, these are true standouts. 


You begin to understand that the light-carrying fibres of the outer layer must be arrayed to optimise the fish’s ability to capture fast prey of small fish. As you gradually shift your gaze, the shape of this dark pupil also shifts—like the eye of a predator dilating when prey comes into view.

Soon you start noticing other fine details—the infinite amount of spines on fins, the rough texture of the fish’s body, the bearded roughness of its face, it’s camouflage, shape and it’s size.

The eyes of a crocodile fish. They have frilly abstract iris lappets, which help them improve camouflage.

You start to think of what you know of the fish. You know that these biological star sapphires take longer to mature than most other fishes, but considering that they don’t have natural predators, their lifespan is quite long by fish standards. Their larvae float for weeks before they decide to settle on a coral reef and it takes almost a year for them to reach adulthood. Considering its predatory nature, in that one year it must have snared hundreds of small crabs and fish, and will have survived a gauntlet of larger predators swimming above it on the food chain.

You realise that you have spent a lot of time observing this fish without taking a single picture. So you adjust and readjust the focal length, the shutter speed and the intensity of the strobe light. You look through the LCD screen of your camera. After going back and forth between clicking images and viewing them on the screen, you capture what you think is the ‘perfect image’ of the fish’s eye. Though aware of your presence the crocodile fish does not move even an inch. You realise that you are a matter of indifference to the fish, some alien, or just some strange fish emitting short bursts of light. That’s when crocodile fish lifts off, instantly darts in pursuit of capturing something only it sees.


Edited version first published in Sanctuary Cubs magazine.

Published by Vardhan Patankar