My Life in Sea Creatures The Strangest Fish in the World and Its Literary Twin
There are certain wonders that disappear in translation.
The barreleye looks like something from another world. The fish’s entire face is transparent, filled with a clear jelly that gently holds its organs in place as jello might cradle a stapler. It looks like an aquarium, a tiny luminescent world unaware of the vast emptiness of the deep sea. And in the heart of this glass dome, facing the sky, its eyes: two ben wa balls the color of an aurora borealis.
This fish is truly bonkers. When I first saw the barreleye in a documentary, I thought the BBC was pranking me. It looks both impossible and wrong, like a demon tried to invent a new fish but then got bored after finishing the head. When the documentary came out, Stephen Colbert wrote a whole segment on the creature and called it the “craziest f#?king thing he’s ever heard.” Scientists also call the barreleye the spook fish, and it’s not hard to guess why.
Scientists have known about the barreleye since 1939, but no one succeeded in taking video of the creature in its clear-headed prime until one remote-controlled MBARI’s voyage in the 1990s. Sometimes I imagine what it must have been like to be the first to see it on video, feverishly trying to convince people that the crazy thing you just saw was real.
The magnificently dystopic barreleye looks like something out of a fever dream, something that no one could have ever invented in their right mind. Except in 1981, someone did, someone who swears he was never under the influence of any drug except red wine.
In the late 1970s, a publishing house in Milan received a mysterious encyclopedia written in its own indecipherable language. The author left no note with the manuscript, though he later revealed himself as Luigi Serafini, an Italian architect and designer. Serafini spent years creating this manuscript, the Codex Seraphianus, a surreal yet internally consistent account of another world far different from our own. People have compared the text to the writer Jorge Luis Borges’ “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” and the painter Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights.”
The Codex offers a lens into a terrible and beautiful world, where copulating humans turn into crocodiles and rainbows wring themselves out to dry. Toothed bowls of salad chew your food into a pulp you may sip with a straw. A sitting man with a planed face like a weather vane stores the extra sides of his faces in wooden crates of grapes. As you may tell, it’s hard to explain what exactly the Codex contains, but you may read the whole thing online here . Copies of the print book go for around $6,000.
The least marvelous creations in Serafini’s Codex are still marvelous in their own right, including his short sketches of the creatures that roam in his invented world. Among them, I, unsurprisingly, find the aquatic ones the most entrancing. Golden fish that look like oatmeal lace cookies and move like skipping stones, careening in the water with a mouth aghast. A gunmetal shark that resembles a naval submarine, studded with fins that look like periscopes. A grizzled green fish with a poor, stringy comb-over of brown hair that culminates in a droopy ponytail. A near- direct copy of the real-life saddle butterflyfish complete with a detachable face to help the fish evade unwanted hooks. A stripy gray fish with a human face protruding from its forehead in the fashion of Professor Quirrell. A red pebbled fish that fades into transparency halfway through its body—an unremarkable quirk by Serafini’s standards. And then there are the eye-fish , blue scaly creatures with a large brown pupil stamped in the center of their body and tail-fins that arch back toward the fish’s head. Per the Codex, these fish swim in couples, and the water level bisects their bodies such that the fish resemble a pair of eyes. Their bushy tail-fins leer at you from the water like eyebrowed periscopes, arched in surprise, horror, and fury.
Buried within this preposterous taxonomy, Serafini drew a fish that, when I saw it, looked eerily like the barreleye. Both have squat, shortened bodies in dull, oily colors. Each, clearly, warrants some kind of study. But most strikingly like the barreleye, Serafini’s fish has a face ensconced in a glass dome that holds small fish, almost like an aquarium. It’s a fish with glass for its face, just like the barreleye. The fish even looks shocked, as if just meeting a long lost twin.
Barreleyes suspend themselves in water below 2,000 feet. Specimen photographs of dead barreleyes caught by scientists or unassuming fishermen show pigmented eyes the color of deep jade. But caught in the sunbeams of a remotely operated submersible, its eyes look like like orbs of Mountain Dew. When lit up this way, the barreleye’s face looks ethereal, almost like a crystal. The sub’s light illuminates all the organs inside—dark eye spots that hold no eyes, pulsing green lights, the topographical patterns of partially obscured scales, flecks of gold that could pass for tiny fish.
When lit up by a remotely operated submarine in the deep sea, the barreleye’s face looks ethereal, almost like a crystal. It beams with an interior light that illuminates all the organs inside—dark eye spots that hold no eyes, pulsing green lights, the topographical patterns of a partially obscured brain, flecks of gold that could pass for tiny fish.
Scientists suspect the green pigment in Macropinna’s eyes helps filter out rays of sunlight that stretch below the sea. While most creatures take comfort in the sun, the barreleye only perceives a distraction from the bioluminescent prey it hunts for food. This way, it can hang motionless in the water for hours or even days, face pointing forward and eyes swiveling toward the sky. It’s a laughably specific and lazy adaptation, especially because the barreleye doesn’t hunt. Instead, it scavenges for crustaceans paralyzed in the tentacles of a jellyfish, a mindless gelatinous doily that is apparently a more capable hunter than the barreleye. While the anglerfish evolved a dangling, light-up cat toy to better hunt prey, the barreleye simply melted away the color in its forehead so it would never have to turn around. All it needs to do is roll its eyes.
Sometimes the deep sea has inside jokes we’re not privy to. Barreleyes’ fragile, jelly-filled heads can burst at the slightest scrape. It also helps that there’s not much to bump into when you’re 2,000 feet below the sea. Whenever scientists managed to excavate a specimen from the deep sea using a net, each fish surfaced with a shattered head. This happened over and over, net after net, heads shattering like dropped light bulbs on their voyage to the surface. On examination tables, these specimens look nothing like they do in their prime, their gelatinous skin the color of a flea and face collapsed like a crumpled balloon. Scientists have recently been able to transport intact barreleyes to the surface using remote subs, but like the much-maligned blobfish, the barreleye is best appreciated at home in the deep sea. Some things, it seems, are not meant to be understood outside of their homes.
In the Codex, Serafini created an intentionally nonsensical, alien world. Decades later, it has stayed that way, despite indefatigable translators, the types of people that believe any work that took thousands of hours to create must have some greater meaning than just being interesting to look at. It exists in its own world, allowing people only to marvel, not read. It’s tiresome how hell-bent humans can be toward analyzing things that seem fine just to exist without some kind of translation, whether in linguistics or biology. Dissecting some things ruin them, evidenced by the crushed head-goo of a barreleye brought up to land. There are certain wonders that disappear in translation.
Maybe it has something to do with the violence of conquering, even though this violence may be performed in service of scientific knowledge. Formalin, a common chemical scientists use to preserve aquatic animals or their parts, can’t help but warp what it preserves. This is why specimens in jars in natural history museums always look a little off—too milky and pale, swollen, or shrunken. In a recent study, scientists noted that ever formalin-drenched barreleye we have bottled up in an archival drawer somewhere has lost its distinct coloration, pattern, and, of course, its face.
When I first spotted the barreleye in Serafini’s Codex, two decades before anyone knew what it looked like, I couldn’t imagine how someone could have drawn something so close to life no one had discovered yet. It’s a fish too ludicrous for this world, or any other. I see both the barreleye and its twin in the Codex as wonders best admired from a distance, free of our relentless bent toward scrutiny. Both the barreleye and Serafini, born into a world insufficient in wonder, found a way to create their own.