Swimming Inside A 'Fish Tornado'

The waters of Cabo Pulmo, Mexico, teem with life—a reminder of what the oceans were like a century ago.

Most of the time, we compare the state of our oceans to years past, when fish were more abundant and marine life was healthier. Cabo Pulmo in Baja California is different—many marine biologists consider this to be the most successful marine reserve in the world. Working here was a unique opportunity to provide visual proof of the wonderful and incredible things that can happen if you protect a part of the ocean. The ocean has the amazing ability to recover if we introduce the right legislation and we engage in the right restoration efforts.

The school extended from the surface of the water down about 90 feet to the sea floor.

My challenge as a photographer was to make a picture that would illustrate the crazy abundance of fish and illustrate what a lot of the rest of the ocean would have looked like 50-100 years ago.

This school of trevallys we came across when taking these pictures was simply mind-boggling. This pulsating, swirling mass of fish began as a narrow funnel hugging the sea floor and stretched 90 feet up to the surface. The closest analogy I can think of are tormados on the plains of the United States.

Each sequence of images was slightly different because the fish never move alongside the diver in the same way. As you duck dive underwater and go downwards, it’s like a mass of quicksilver. After about 4-6 feet, the top later begins to part, the school of fish opens up and then closes behind you. It’s like swimming down a tunnel that gets darker and darker as fish envelop you.

There was something about the pulsating, twister-like energy that my still photos just weren’t capturing, though, so on one of my last dives, I turned the camera on myself and recorded some video. Watching the footage later was one of those primal experiences where you feel like you’ve gone back in time. All the negative impact we’ve had on the ocean disappeared. This must be what it was like everywhere. Schools of fish so dense they blocked out the sun.

"Each sequence of images was slightly different because the fish never move alongside the diver in the same way," Peschak says.

National Geographic Explorer Thomas Peschak is an assignment photographer for National Geographic magazine specialising in conservation stories about the world's oceans and islands. You can see more of Peschak's work on his website.

Lead Image: To illustrate the sheer size of the school of fish, Peschak photographed his assistant Steve Benjamin about 80-90 feet down. "People understand scale in relation to a human form," he says. PHOTOGRAPH BY THOMAS P. PESCHAK

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