Issue 13.2: April/May 2010

Synchronized Swimmers

Story by Julia Steele

Photo by Wayne Levin


In 2000 Wayne Levin was making regular trips into Kealakekua Bay to photograph dolphins. There, in the bay’s vast, clear waters, he’d see huge schools of small, silvery fish named akule. Fascinated, he watched the way they moved in total unison. “The thing that struck me most of all was that the schools were so massive and yet behaved like a single organism,” he recalls. “It really made me question which was the individual: the fish or the school?”


Driven by the resonance of that question—and the sheer beauty of the schools—Wayne decided akule might be a more interesting subject than dolphins. He began hiking to a lookout above the bay to spot schools, and then, Nikonos V underwater camera in hand, he’d swim out. Sometimes, even with the advance scouting, he’d have to crisscross the bay several times to find a school. But each time he came upon one, he marveled. Some, he estimates, contained tens of thousands of fish, maybe even as many as a hundred thousand. A school could stretch a hundred feet across, fifty feet wide, twenty-five feet deep. Occasionally he’d swim right into one, and the fish would form a seamless tunnel around him, 360 degrees of circling silver life that induced vertigo and awe. He saw astonishing things: schools taking the shapes of pinwheels, pyramids, columns, behaving like “living kinetic sculpture.” When predators arrived—amberjacks, sharks, fishermen—he documented the way a school’s shape and behavior changed. He shot film, thirty-six exposures at a time; if the roll ran out and there was more to shoot, he swam to shore and reloaded. He estimates he shot three hundred to four hundred rolls of akule over the last decade, some ten thousand exposures.


Now the work has been collected in a beautiful new book, Akule, just out from Editions Limited. And Wayne is planning a trip to England to photograph flocks of starlings. “They’re a lot like akule, the way they change shapes and fold in on each other,” he says. “I want to keep following that question of whether the true individual is the animal or the group. I still don’t have the answer. But I think it’s a really important question.”