As the pilot of a marine research vessel, Meng Xiangyu is used to making waves at sea. Now he’s making a splash online thanks to his hobby of photographing fish tails.
Over the past three years, Meng has gained more than 200,000 followers across Chinese social media including WeChat and Xiaohongshu by posting pictures of the colorful fish collected as scientific specimens.
Meng, known to his fans as “Fish Tail Guy,” developed an early interest in a life at sea, despite growing up in the inland city of Linyi, in the eastern Shandong province. The first time he saw open water was at age 19, when he moved to the southeastern city of Xiamen to study marine technology.
At 23, the fervor of youth led him to sail around the world on a merchant ship. Just three years later, he realized his dream of becoming the pilot of a Chinese oceanographic research vessel based out of Guangzhou.
Life on the high seas is both dangerous and tedious, he says. “Amid the tranquility and repetitiveness, you have to find ways to kill time.” It was during a voyage in April 2019 that he first decided to start photographing fish tails to capture their diversity.
“On that voyage, we caught several red-breasted wrasses and realized their tails all had different colors and patterns, as well as various-shaped tips. I thought this was interesting and decided to photograph them up close,” he said. “Some people may be surprised by just how colorful fish tails can be. They spark the imagination, making you wonder what the rest of the fish must look like.”
Meng Xiangyu poses for a photo, 2021. Courtesy of Meng Xiangyu
Whenever his colleagues catch an interesting variety of fish, Meng will take a picture of its tail. He mostly captures the photos with his cellphone camera, using the same square composition and white background each time to highlight the tail’s colors.
He doesn’t toy with the image’s contrast or saturation; at most, he’ll remove objects from the background. Afterwards, most of the fish are placed in a freezer before being delivered to a laboratory on land, where they are used as research specimens.
Meng’s work requires him to make frequent journeys between China’s inland and the south coast. On days when he’s on land, he looks at the photos he’s taken and reminisces about life at sea. He also leads a social media group in which people exchange photos and stories from their maritime adventures.
Meng estimated that he has taken close to 1,000 photos of tails belonging to between 200 and 300 varieties of fish, including golden threadfin bream, boxfish, and rabbitfish. In the future, he hopes to use photography to “document the state of the sea and the relationship between people and fish, as well as the cats we keep on board the marine research vessels and those in fishing villages.” Recently, he has been organizing his fish tail photos, in addition to taking new ones, with a view to publishing a series of picture books.
Meng holds a short-nosed unicornfish, 2020. Courtesy of Meng Xiangyu
Reported by Zhang Yiwen.
A version of this article originally appeared in The Paper. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and is published here with permission.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Xue Yongle and Craig McIntosh; visuals: Ding Yining.
(Header and in-text images: Courtesy of Meng Xiangyu)