Personal Perspectives

Following the Akule

A school of akule (Hawaiian for bigeye scad) explode into a camera's frame.
(Wayne Levin)

While swimming off of the big island of Hawaii in Kealakekua Bay, I saw what first appeared to me as a coral head. As I approached I saw movement within the shape. To my surprise it was an enormous school of fish, tightly packed, and numbering in the tens of thousands. I dove down and took a few photos before continuing my swim. 

It turns out this giant group was made up of akule—Hawaiian for bigeye scad. Over the next year I would occasionally see a school of akule; I would take a few pictures, then be on my way looking for other subjects. But my fascination grew as I continued to observe and photograph them—it seemed as if the group was one huge being with individual fish like cells in a larger organism. 

I began to swim criss-crossing patterns throughout the bay hoping to find  schools , sometimes swimming for several hours without success. Then a friend told me about a steep trail that climbed part way up the cliffs that fronted the bay. From up on the cliff, wearing polarizing sunglasses, I could see a school through the water, even if the top of the school was 30 to 40 feet beneath the surface. I would then swim out to the school and freedive to take my photographs.

Over three years I visited Kealakekua Bay to photograph the akule. The shapes and sizes of the schools would never be the same. Sometimes the akule would be alone, other times predators including bluefin trevally, amber jacks, giant trevally, rainbow runners, and the resident five foot great barracuda would be with them. 

But at the end of those three years, in late 2003, the akule seemed to vanish from the bay. I could no longer find them from the cliff, or from in the water. Several years later, while diving several miles north of Kealakekua Bay I found another akule school. So I returned to my favorite photographic subject for the next couple of years at this new location, where I used SCUBA, as there is a lot of boat traffic. Nothing is worse than making a free dive and having to surface to take a breath just as you hear a boat speeding overhead.

After entering the water, I would surface swim along the south shoreline where the boats don’t go. When I reached the mouth of the bay I would submerge and swim north. I would usually find a school along a narrow sand channel near the middle of the bay. This was a very large school, almost always accompanied by ten to twenty amberjacks. 

I would watch the amberjacks interact with the school. They would often swim into the school, but I never saw them take a fish while inside the school. Rather, three or four amberjacks would work as a team—several would swim into the school while one waited outside. The school would burst where the jacks entered and invariably one unlucky akule would be isolated in the blue open water. The waiting jack on the outside would snatch it up. 

After photographing akule for 15 years, publishing a book “Akule” and exhibiting the work internationally, I felt finished with this project. However last year, when diving at Keauhou, I encountered something different when I came upon an enormous school. The akule were accompanied by a smaller school of a related fish named opelu (mackerel scad). Over the next month the size of the opelu school increased, until it was almost as numerous as the akule. While the fish look similar, their behavior couldn’t be more different. While the akule swim in extremely tight uniform schools, the opelu appear almost chaotic, swimming in very loose schools with seemingly no uniformity of movement. The dynamics caused by the combination of the two schools intermingling was amazing. There was swirling, and sometimes parts of the school would burst—amazing shapes that I could never imagine would appear as the two schools merged. 

Now I’ve moved on to new subject matter. However, I know of three schools on the Kona coast, and I still keep an eye on them, because I never know if something new and unexpected may happen with these amazing fish.

Images from Wayne Levin

August 2015