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Go with the Flow

Categories: AnimalsScience

school of swimming fish
Photo Courtesy Chris Kovaz
Did you ever wonder how all the fish swimming in a school are able to turn in the same direction at the same time?

There have been countless theories, but the answer is laughably simple.

So how do all the fish manage to turn in the same direction simultaneously?

They don't.

First of all, the question is loaded.  It implies that the fish are in control of the coordinated turn.  In fact, there is another force that is responsible for the illusion of synchronized swimming.  So it might be more appropriate to ask "How are fish turned...?"

Imagine taking a large number of weather vanes and setting them all up in close proximity.  When the wind blows initially, what would happen?  They would all turn in the same direction.  When the wind changes direction, what happens to the weather vanes?  They all turn simultaneously in the same direction.  When the wind changes direction again, the weather vanes all change direction with it.  The weather vanes are not controlling the turns; the wind is.

In large bodies of water, there are currents, much like wind currents.  And like wind, we can't see them, but they're there.  The currents in smaller bodies of water, such as streams or small rivers, aren't large enough to allow this phenomenon to occur, so you won't likely see a school of fish in those places turn on a dime.  You'll only see it in larger bodies of water - oceans, seas, and large lakes.

Think about the effort it takes for you to walk through water.  Even in just a few inches, dragging your feet through the water creates resistance or "drag".  Unless you're really skinny, walking through waist deep water slows you down considerably.

Many fish, though, are really skinny.  Their bodies are often designed so that they can swim efficiently through water...but only if they're swimming forward.  In other words, fish have a difficult time swimming sideways.  There's too much drag, and they're generally not strong enough to overcome that drag.  Since fish often rely on speed to escape predators, they must conserve as much energy as possible in order to survive.  Fish can swim with a cross current, but it requires much more energy.  Depleting that energy leaves the fish more vulnerable to attack.

So when all the fish in a school appear to be in a leisurely swim in one direction, they are almost certainly swimming into the current.  If the current changes direction, what happens to all the fish?  They change direction, too.  Not because they consciously think about it, plan it out, coordinate it, etc., but because they automatically must swim into the current (or with the current, in which case they would be able to swim faster).

So now you know - fish literally "go with the flow."


Chris Kovaz

The photo above was modified from an original photograph by, and is used with the generous permission of, Chris Kovaz.

Chris Kovaz is the director of graphics for Underwater Planet magazine.  Born in Gainesville, Florida (USA), Chris moved to Fort Myers, Florida, at the age of nine and began diving when he was twelve.  Influenced by videos that his father took on diving trips, Chris became interested in underwater photography at a young age, too.  His portfolio is extensive and includes shots of teeny nudibrachs up to great white sharks!  He says that his favorite thing to shoot is macro photography - anyone seeing a pigmy seahorse will earn themselves a drink at his expense!

He holds certifications in rescue diving, nitrox, wreck diving, and underwater photography.  He shoots with a Canon 1DS Mark II with a Sea Cam housing, using Ikelite 150 and ion z240 strobes.  He has been all over the world in pursuit of his passion – to places like the Florida Keys, Fort Lauderdale, Honduras, the Caribbean island of Bonaire, Australia, Papua (New Guinea), the Bahamas, Grand Turks, Cayman Islands, Galapagos, Fiji, and Belize.  His work has been published in Bonita Living and Florida Sportsman magazines, and now Dive Chronicles magazine!

Currently, Chris spends his day as the director of graphics.  He also is in school for computer animation and graphic design at South West Florida College.  His goal in this program is to learn everything he can in the Adobe software and produce his own designs within his underwater photography and design scuba diving magazines.  In addition to attending the design programs at Southwest Florida college, Chris was also co-instructor with David Meo of digital photography classes, as well as given a full class lecture in the forsensic photography class during their underwater photography sections.

diversonly.com is a revolutionary new website for today's diver.  Some of the benefits of this website include an online logbook, articles, monthly drawings, travel discounts, and an innovative forum.  Other features are "Tank Talk", a video TV show, and diversonly radio, a podcast, which is hosted by Chris himself.

For more information about Chris, his photography, or Underwater Planet magazine, email Chris at chrisk@underwaterplanetmagazine.com.


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