Share / Discuss

close-up of fish's face as it swims

24 Ways to Look at a Fish

On assessing everything anew through the limitless lens of the liberal arts

Six blind men, so the story goes, sought to define by touch what an elephant was. Each offered a different interpretation based on the body part he felt: trunk, side, ear, leg, tusk, tail. All were right, yet all were wrong.*

Elephant-touchers all, we would do well to remember this parable’s wisdom. According to the following community members, we can never be too curious about the world around us; we should never take anything in it for granted, no matter how seemingly mundane. It’s an excellent reminder of the power of a place like Swarthmore, where there are as many ways to look at something—an elephant, a problem, the future, a fish—as there are Swarthmoreans.

After all: The way we look at a fish says little about the animal … but everything about us.

(*Six blind elephants, so a better story goes, sought to define by touch what a man was. “Flat,” they agreed.)

“In the study of faith, Jacob Neusner says everyone is ‘part fish and part ichthyologist.’ That should be true for all of our studies,” says Rabbi Helen Plotkin ’77, director of Swarthmore’s Beit Midrash. “While you’re studying something from an objective standpoint, you’re also studying yourself.”

As a scholar of classical Jewish texts, she points to the ultimate religious fish story: the tale of Jonah, who spent three days in the belly of a giant marine creature.

“There’s a passage in the Zohar—a foundational text of Jewish mysticism from the 13th century—that asks, ‘What did Jonah experience inside that fish and how did it transform him?’” she says. “It reminds me of the first time I saw a color TV as a child and they were showing a Jacques Cousteau special. What transformed Jonah—what transforms us—is seeing the complexity and beauty of the undersea world, hidden from all, through the crystal eyes of a fish.” 

Only by getting beneath the surface can anyone become completely engaged in their faith, their studies, their humanity, she adds, an approach that exemplifies the ideal Swarthmore seminar approach she’s aiming for with the Beit Midrash.

“If the text is a fish, I want us to look at it together with fresh eyes, full of questions, searching both outward and inward,” she says. “There’s a line in the Talmud that is the key to looking at a fish, looking at a text, looking at ourselves: ‘Turn it over, turn it over, everything is in it.’”


“I respect fish enough not to eat them—the way and conditions in which they are farmed in America are pretty horrendous, and I’m not optimistic about how they are treated across the world, either,” says animal-rights activist and vegetarian Daniel Paz ’17. “How can anyone think it’s humane to pierce a fish with a hook, yank it out of the water, then either kill it, wait for it to asphyxiate, or toss it back?”


Charles Harris ’59 coined “Like a fish without a bicycle.” 

Why a fish?
HARRIS: Why a bicycle?

What do fish mean to you?
HARRIS: Dinner.



“I had never seen a tidepool before,” says Grace Farley ’17, who completed a summer research project on anemone behavior. “Observing so many different critters living in them was magical.”

Fascinated by marine biology since the fourth grade, Farley wants to continue her studies. “People’s lives and entire economies rely on our relationship to fish and aquatic creatures,” she says. “Better understanding them and the whole cycle of how the ocean works is crucial to appreciating and protecting it.”


“Have you ever tried one of those little plastic fortune-telling fish that you put in the palm of your hand to tell if you’re passionate or a ‘cold fish’?” laughs Russian Professor Sibelan Forrester. “In fortune-telling, astrology, tarot, dream interpretation, anything, the fish has a ton of symbolism.”

Beyond literary and religious associations—she describes a scene from the 19th-century Polish novel Quo Vadis in which a character in ancient Rome secretly communicates her Christianity by drawing a fish in the sand—Forrester sees fish swimming through humanity’s collective unconsciousness.

“In tarot, fish may suggest a new relationship, new feelings, something new—possibly a child or the idea of conception,” she says. “It’s no surprise we see so much meaning in fish, especially with fish being in the water and water often standing in for the flow of the subconscious or of the emotions.”



“We’ve kept a tank for about 18 years,” say Rowena Yeung ’88 and Thomas Bouquet ’88. “About five years ago, we restarted it with live coral, so it’s always changing.”


Powerful, odd, appealing: Fish symbolism swims through Swarthmore’s Peace Collection.


“I’ve always been a fish guy,” says biomechanist Adam Summers ’86. “I’ve had an aquarium since I was 4 and spent all my summers in the woods, fishing.”

As associate director of the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Laboratories and Pixar’s go-to ichthyologic consultant on Finding Nemo and Finding Dory, Summers constantly looks to aquatic animals for bio-inspired design.

He explores that intersection of art and science for his visual series Cleared, where he photographs chemically bleached and stained fish specimens. (Exhibited at the Seattle Aquarium and around the world, Cleared images are featured here and on this issue’s cover.)

“I see unbelievably breathtaking beauty in the skeletal anatomy of fishes,” he says, “with dozens of symmetric vertebrae, ribs, and spines.”

Fish business is family business—while Summers works to digitize the more than 25,000 fish species, his 10-year-old daughter leads tours of his lab’s 50 sea tables. (The showstopper is when she gets the hagfish to make slime.) And, ultimately, fish are family.

“We are all fish. There’s two big radiations—ray-finned fishes, the Actinopterygians, and lobe-finned fishes, the Sarcopterygians,” he says. “In that latter group are the tetrapods: amphibians, reptiles, birds, and, of course, mammals. You are a lobe-finned fish.”



“Fish are yucky!” says Patrick, 3, son of Swarthmore senior writer/editor Ryan Dougherty, although he named this one “Meemo.”


“I didn’t think of The Little Mermaid,” says Linguistics Professor Donna Jo Napoli, co-author with David Wiesner of the graphic novel Fish Girl. “We see the sea as infinite, a place of enormous freedom and privilege, so to have a mermaid—that glorious hybrid between fish and woman—like ours trapped in a glass box, what could be worse? 

“This is not the story of a girl rescued through romance. This is the story of a sea creature finding—and fighting for—her identity.”


“I named my fish Lola after the Kinks song,” says soon-to-be-science-teacher Amit Schwalb ’17 of his male betta, “because I wanted her to be trans so I could relate to her.”

His mother’s hasty replacement for a pet fish she accidentally killed—“She forgot I’d notice Pablo was blue and Lola was red”—Lola slowly swam into Schwalb’s heart.

He played guitar and sang to her in the dorm; she accompanied him to class, to Sharples, and even on road trips in a travel container.

“Ultimately, we’re all just projecting onto our pets, and I would laugh and think, This is almost performance art,” Schwalb says. “But I genuinely developed an emotional connection with her.”

In front of her “diva” fish bowl decoration and beneath posters of Madonna, Emma Goldman, and Angela Davis, Lola bore witness to some of Schwalb’s most formative years; when she died, he buried her in the northwest corner of West Philadelphia’s Clark Park.

“She was a big part of my life,” he says. “A little fish named Lola was worth caring about. We all are.”


“Sushi is a beautiful art of fine details,” says Henry Han ’20. “It takes practice and precision.”

Arriving on campus with some sushi-chef training, Han teamed with Natasha Markov-Riss ’20 to open Late Nite, an immensely popular after-hours Swarthmore
sushi dorm-delivery service. (Max Katz-Balmes ’20, left, helps with deliveries; Han made sure to secure a food handler’s license.)

“Sushi also brings to mind overfishing—ahi tuna could be extinct in 20 years,” he says. “Maybe my thing will be innovating sustainable ways to make sushi.”



“I’m mesmerized by fish fins because I’ve been building robots for six years based on them,” says Jeff Kahn ’10, who followed his interest in fluid dynamics all the way to a Ph.D. “It’s surprising how much fish can actively control the flexibility of their fins and bodies. We’ll need underwater technologies inspired by the movements of fish to survey ocean environments and safely transport cargo and people.”


For April Fool’s Day—punning on the French “poisson d’avril” tradition—librarians Pam Harris, Maria Aghazarian, and Kate Carter filled McCabe with microfiche “microfish.”

“We all know each other here so this was a metaphor,” Harris laughs. “Swarthmore is a fishbowl.”

15 & 16

“I was just showing my makeup class a YouTube tutorial where women use fishnet stockings to paint face scales,” says Tara Webb ’94, manager of Swarthmore’s costume shop. “How it feels, looks, sounds to breathe and move underwater—there’s no end to the artistic inspiration fish provide.” 

High on her list: Esther Williams’s water ballets; sci-fi characters like Hellboy’s merman Abe Sapien; the many-tentacled charms of Cthulhu.

She and the Media Center’s Jeremy Polk hope to create a “Whale Garden”: a 360-degree undersea projection experience in the Theresa Lang Fragrance Garden.

“Visitors will be able to create clicks and songs,” Webb says. “We want to allow people to become whales and swim around on campus.”

“We’re also hoping to stream the experience,” Polk adds, “so TriCo students can hear Swarthmore’s whale songs and sing their own back.”

In love with the ocean since he was a kid reading 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Island of the Blue Dolphins, Polk volunteers as a weekend diver at Camden, N.J.’s Adventure Aquarium and hopes to launch a Swarthmore scuba certification program.

“It’s a great recreational activity, a potential professional credential, and an immersive way to transform people’s perspectives on conservation,” he says. “The ocean sustains all life on earth. When you see it and the world from a fish’s eye view, it changes the way you look at everything.”


“The night sky is like the ocean: deep, dark, and mysterious. So it’s no surprise we named Neptune and Pisces,” says Astronomy Professor David Cohen, citing the prominence of fish across our culture, our emojis, and maybe even our universe.

“Instead of picturing English-speaking Star Trek villains, it’s a good exercise in open-mindedness to think about what other forms of life we might find beyond Earth,” he adds. “Physicist Freeman Dyson famously suggested that we should look for freeze-dried fish in orbit around Jupiter.”

What Dyson meant, Cohen explains, concerns one of Jupiter’s many moons. Europa has ice-covered saltwater oceans—maybe double the amount of Earth’s water—and chemical energy, all the prerequisites for “fishy sort of life.” (Princeton astrobiologist Christopher Chyba ’82, H’03 is perhaps the world’s expert on the icy moon.)

If an asteroid or meteor hit the surface of Europa—a not-unlikely occurrence due to Jupiter’s strong gravitational pull—it could send water into orbit, which could theoretically be spectroscopically analyzed.

“I’m not sure how serious Dyson was, but I think there’s something to it,” says Cohen. “It’s also a nice way to look at fish in the astronomical context: as cosmic messengers of life.”


Russell Fernald ’63 studies brain changes that occur when one animal prevails over another. He discovered complex social structures among African cichlids, where nondominant male fish gain access to food resources controlled by dominant males—by pretending to be female.


A cone snail sting changed Kasie Groom Regnier ’07’s life. Then a doctoral student in Oahu researching neuropeptides in sex-changing fish, she spent her hospital stay recovering from temporary paralysis—and reconsidering her direction.

“Initially, I just wanted to play with fish and hated chemistry, but I realized how everything in my work traced back to water itself,” she says. “Fish take water for granted—and, too often, so do we.”

Now the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s water quality manager, Regnier loves her work—chemistry and all.

“In a tank or in the wild, when you look at a fish, think about the intricate balance between it and its environment—and us,” she says. “We’re all more interconnected than you might realize.”


“​As a computer scientist, I am intrigued by how fish school,” says professor Jason Waterman, now at Vassar.

“This fish behavior has been the basis for biologically inspired computing used in designing certain algorithms.”

Waterman created an unforgettable lab at Swarthmore in 2015. Inspired by pop star Katy Perry’s surfside Super Bowl halftime show, he tasked students to write a program making her Internet sensation “Left Shark” dance, dance, dance. 

In addition to sharks’ sweet moves, Waterman remains fascinated by their ability to sense and process electrical fields.

“Sharks are basically swimming computers,” he says.


“Samak Mashwi” 
A poem by Nader Helmy ’17

I talk a really good game but to be 
frank, I didn’t really care for Finding Nemo
(unpopular opinion can topple a whole metropolis)

I suppose that’s my inability to empathize
with a loss that resolves itself too quickly
(I needed a sequel toward some burdened light)

I am swimming in the Red Sea before I can count
and my whole world are the critters kissing my ankles
(there is no suffering here, just me and the crew)

We all gotta eat so eventually, we depart from the coast
course correct to the feast, family eating the crew
(from afar the market sets up a circus in the nostrils)

Before we sit down, our critter friends wait for us
on the table, half a crispy brown sheen glistening
(half charred skin blackened flakes like shingles)

Eyes gouged out, mouth agape, skeleton intact 
I get it when we squeeze the lemon on top
(greens from the earth, meat from the sea, the elements)

Still me daydreaming about the friends I’ve yet to meet
deep sea monsters, wading, one with the still blackness
(me kissing their ankles / the closest analogue on their body)

Spiky horns, lizard lions, cyclops squids, animated coral
all part of the sea, married to the ocean like us
(we the lost children of diaspora dumped by the mainland)

We have always been an agile species, darting through
the water, surviving despite the odds against us
(depriving this infant evolution of the oxygen it needs)

And so there is calm and light amidst the constant thunder
our people giving proper honors for the struggle of the crew
(blackened scales, flaking abyss with hollow eyes bone-in)


As a student at Swarthmore, the late Eugene Lang ’38, H’81 ran a youth club at a settlement house in Philadelphia. Inspired by a freshman bio lab, he engaged his charges with a guided dissection of a dogfish. 

Five years later, he received word from one young man informing him that the dogfish experience had inspired him to earn a scholarship to med school.

“I can never forget that,” Lang said.


“Fishing can connect us to each other and to the outdoors,” says Joel Johnson ’96, right, a lifelong angler and the former chief marketing officer of Trout Unlimited. “My father gave me my love of the natural world when he taught me how to fish.” 

Growing up in a large family, at times “minutes from welfare,” Johnson remembers how rich they felt whenever his father would bring home enough perch for a fish fry, and how fishing has remained his own constant escape, comfort, and inspiration.

“Fish don’t care about your politics, your race, your gender—anything,” he says. “Trying to catch them connects us to our wilder side. You can find out so much about yourself and the world through a fish.

“For example, two summers ago, I guided a group of young black men from a leadership charter school here in D.C. They were loud, obnoxious, funny, annoying—you know, teenagers,” he remembers. “But when they started catching fish, you should’ve heard them scream—it was this scream of pure joy that a child would make, and it was wonderful.”

It’s a reminder he believes we all share—especially here.

“Almost everybody at Swarthmore—all these different people with all these different views, talents, and interests—has a connection to the Crum,” he says. “Crum Creek has native fish that have been here long before the College ever was. I would imagine nearly every Swarthmore student has stood on the edge of that bank, looked down into the water, and spotted a fish.

“That moment changes us,” he says. “That little thrill of discovery you get when you see a fish connects you to your younger, best self, when you were fascinated by the world and everything it.”