This engaging memoir presents one man's lifelong love of the ocean and gives a highly personal, behind-the-scenes look at California's magnificent and innovative aquariums. David Powell, for many years curator of the world-renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium, tells the story of his life as a pioneering aquarist. From handling great white sharks to transporting delicate fish on bumpy airplanes to night diving for fish in the Indian Ocean, A Fascination for Fish describes many of the mind-boggling challenges that make modern aquariums possible and offers an intriguing glimpse beneath the ocean's surface.
Powell's career in diving and aquarium development goes back to the beginning of modern methods in both areas. From the early techniques he devised to get fish into aquariums alive and healthy to his later exploratory dive to a depth of eleven hundred feet in a two-person submarine, Powell's action-packed narrative inspires laughter, wonder, and philosophical reflection. A Fascination for Fish also includes many stories about Powell's diving adventures on the California coast, in the Sea of Cortez, and in many remote and exotic locations around the world.
A Fascination for Fish Adventures of an Underwater Pioneer
- by David C. Powell (Author), Sylvia Earle (Foreword)
- April 2003
- First Edition
SeriesUC Press/Monterey Bay Aquarium Series in Marine Conservation
Rights: Available worldwide
Trim Size: 6.125 x 9.25
Illustrations: 51 b/w photographs, 1 line illustration, 1 map
Underwater ThoughtsThe morning fog was beginning to lift as Bob Kiwala, Mike Weekley, and I headed out of Monterey Harbor in the eighteen-foot outboard. We were in our wet suits, and the boat was loaded with six scuba tanks and our dive gear as well as a gasoline-powered pump and a hundred feet of garden hose. The Monterey Bay Aquarium was nearing completion, the exhibits were coming together, and we had started collecting the thousands of fishes and invertebrates the visitors would be coming to see in the fall of 1984, now only a few months away.
As unlikely as a hundred feet of garden hose may seem, it was the key to success in collecting the beautiful burrowing sea anemones (Pachycerianthus fimbriatus) that are so abundant in the sandy mud bottom near the base of Monterey's Coast Guard breakwater. After dropping anchor in fifty feet of water, Bob and I put on our weights, tanks, fins, and masks, rolled over into the water, and headed for the bottom clutching one end of the hose. On board, Mike fired up the pump engine, and water jetted out of the hose end. Swimming down, we were buzzed by a couple of curious sea lions--who were wondering, no doubt, what we were up to.
On the bottom we saw dozens of sea anemones, their crowns of tentacles gently waving in the slight current a foot or so above the seafloor. Their delicate look was deceptive, however, for not visible were the two-foot-long tubes that lie buried beneath the firm mud bottom. That's why we needed the pump and garden hose.
Although all of these anemones are the same species, they come in three distinct colors. Most have light gray tentacles, but for some reason a few have either deep purple or glowing orange tentacles. These orange anemones are puzzling. Because seawater, as it increases in depth, selectively filters out the red end of the light spectrum before the blue, no orange light reaches fifty feet below the surface; yet there they are, glowing bright orange. We understand the physics of how they appear orange when there's no orange light--the tissues in their tentacles refract the short blue wavelength and change it to the longer wavelength of orange--but the biological reason for this phenomenon remains a mystery. In any event, the visual effect is striking. Selecting a fine-looking orange specimen, I started blowing the muddy bottom away from around the anemone's tube with the jet of water from the end of the garden hose. Gradually working my hand and the hose deeper and deeper until reaching the bottom of the animal's tube, I gently lifted it out, unharmed, and placed it in a plastic bag.
What a bizarre way to make a living! Here I was, fifty feet below the surface of the bay, totally obscured in a cloud of mud, with my left arm stuck clear up to my armpit in the bottom, trying to dig out a sea anemone. In spite of the numbing cold and zero visibility, I was thoroughly enjoying every minute and felt quite at home in this underwater world.
At times like these, I wonder how I was ever so fortunate as to end up in this strange line of work. Yet looking back, I can spot clear signposts steering me away from well-traveled, traditional, acceptable employment routes straight toward my chosen career.
Sleeping with Fish
The earliest sign, which I can't even remember, is one my mother told me about. I was born in South Africa in 1927 to American parents. When I was about five, my mother and father took my sister and me to the seashore town of Durban for a day at the beach and to do some fishing. With my father's help, I caught a fish, perhaps my very first. That night I insisted on sleeping with it under my pillow, and my tolerant mother agreed. While this may have been on the fringes of accepted behavior for "normal" kids, I see it as an omen, the sign of a born biologist. After all, Jane Goodall, or so I heard, slept with earthworms under her pillow.
My family moved to England in 1932. As a boy growing up in England, I was constantly drawn to water and would catch newts, water boatmen, and dragonfly larvae to keep in jars in my room. Using a primitive microscope, I would study with fascination the beating heart and developing brood of babies inside the tiny female water flea (Daphnia). Off I would go on my bicycle with my fishing rod, dip net, and jar to explore the streams and lakes within a wide range of home or school. This was the early 1940s, and England and Germany were at war. Practically all food except bread and vegetables was strictly rationed, and my fishing efforts, while fun for me, contributed significantly to our table.
My first job, at the age of fourteen, was at a canoe and punt rental operation next to Oxford University's Magdelan College on the river Thames. I kept the boats clean, bailed out water, and chauffeured people on leisurely cruises in a punt, one of those long, narrow boats propelled by pushing against the river bottom with a long pole. Many times during those years I read and reread Izaak Walton's The Compleat Angler, written in 1676, and relished both the fish lore and the poetry.
My mother had a tendency to embrace whatever was the latest educational theory. As a result of her avant-garde thinking, my sister and I attended a succession of drastically different schools: a nudist school where, weather permitting, teachers and students were naked; a school in Wimbledon with a philosophy similar to that of the well-known Summerhill, the only rule being not to hurt anyone; and a strict Church of England school.
Fortunately, I ended up in a fine Quaker school, though by then I had become something of a rebel and troublemaker. The Friends' School in Saffron Walden was in the southeast of England. At that time, the Battle of Britain was at its height, and planes from Germany, England, and America were being shot down, some within easy bike-riding distance of my school. Before long I began experimenting with explosives taken from the machine-gun cartridges of downed planes. One night an accomplice and I set off a homemade "bomb" in the school's goldfish pond. A geyser of water and goldfish shot twenty feet into the air. Frantically scooping up a few of the fattest ones, we ran off before the school staff discovered the origin of the loud noise. Sneaking into the chem lab, we cooked the goldfish in a pan over a bunsen burner. To perpetually hungry, growing boys enduring wartime food rationing, these fish, seasoned by the excitement of the adventure, tasted delicious.
My experiments with explosives grew in magnitude until a concerned classmate tipped off the headmaster. I was called to his office, given a stern lecture on the dangers of my activities, and expelled from school for a month.
Another sign of my biological bent came when, as a sixteen-year-old, I began to question some of the school's curriculum. What earthly use was French or calculus going to be to me when I was out in the world earning a living? I wanted to quit school and get a job somewhere working with fish. The understanding headmaster talked me out of it. Acknowledging my desire, he explained that without some sort of degree I would end up cleaning fish tanks for the rest of my life. Years later, I had to laugh. Having earned a master's degree from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), I found myself doing just that: cleaning fish tanks along with my other tasks at Marineland of the Pacific.
At age seventeen I graduated from the Friends' School and was now subject to the military draft. Fortunately, I had both American and British citizenship, so I signed up as a mess boy on an American freighter returning to the States in convoy, under nightly attack by German U-boats from Liverpool to New York. I spent the remainder of World War II on Liberty ships in the Pacific ferrying war supplies to the battle zones of Guadalcanal, New Guinea, and the Philippines. When the war ended, I served as a medical technician in the U.S. Army for a year and a half on Okinawa.
This military service qualified me to take advantage of the G.I. Bill's free education for service personnel. I enrolled at UCLA, finally able to focus on my dream. Although the U.S. government covered school fees and books, I had to pay my own living expenses. I therefore took on a wide variety of part-time jobs: I worked the night desk at a Sunset Boulevard motel and the graveyard shift at a gas station; I served as night attendant in the psychiatric ward of the Veterans Hospital--a very disturbing job--and maintained the live Maine lobster holding facility at a Malibu restaurant. For two summers I worked as a seasonal aide for the California Department of Fish and Game catching, measuring, tagging, and releasing yellowtail from sportfishing boats out of Long Beach and San Pedro harbors. It was great work, but it also gave me a taste of the bureaucracy in a government agency.
Descent into a New World
I can blame Jacques Cousteau for nudging me in the direction that was to become my life. A friend gave me a copy of Cousteau's first book, The Silent World. I was so fascinated with his descriptions of his experiences underwater that I knew I had to learn to dive. Because I was a student and constantly short of money, though, diving was not a simple matter. I talked my younger cousin, Norman Powell, into going halves with me on whatever equipment we needed to get started.
Primitive Diving GearBy present standards the diving equipment in the 1950s was primitive, hard to use, and potentially dangerous if you didn't keep your wits about you at all times.
The Cousteau-Gagnan regulator had two large hoses for the air, one for inhaling and one for exhaling. Although the regulator was quite easy to breathe with underwater, a major problem occurred any time you took the mouthpiece out of your mouth while you were in the water. The hoses immediately filled with water, including the one that was supposed to supply you with air. The air hose now became a water hose. If you stuck the mouthpiece back in your mouth and sucked, you got half a gallon of seawater instead of air.
The trick to avoiding that unpleasant situation was a little routine that had to be followed religiously. Whenever your air hoses became full of water--which happened rather often--you rolled over on your left side and exhaled. If you did it correctly, this blew most of the water out of the exhaust hose. The water that was in the air supply hose, on the right, now flowed downhill into the theoretically empty exhale hose. Inhaling very cautiously, you could get a lungful of air--mixed, of course, with a little of the water that didn't quite get blown out. The whole procedure was annoying at best, but downright dangerous if your mouthpiece was knocked out underwater.
Luckily, the double-hoses-full-of-water situation didn't last very long. An independent and inventive diver devised a pair of check valves that you could buy and install to keep the water out of the inhale hose. Now if it flooded, the only water would be in the small space in the mouthpiece itself. This made diving more pleasant and took much of the worry out of losing your mouthpiece in awkward places, like a hundred feet down or in the dark of night with your hands occupied with a lobster, dive light, and bag. Eventually, the U.S. Divers Company incorporated check valves in all of their regulators.
My first few dives were made in the summer, and I wore long underwear for "warmth." Maybe it helped, but not much. Thirty minutes into the dive I was shivering: I needed some way to keep warm. There were dry dive suits available, and I saved up for one made by Pirelli, the Italian car tire manufacturer. It was made out of thin, smooth rubber to keep the water away from your body, and you wore clothing underneath it for warmth.
The name "dry suit" was a misnomer because on practically every dive, whenever you brushed against a rock, a hole was poked in the thin rubber. The suit took on water, and there went the insulation from the cold. Climbing out of the water after a dive, I would feel the water that had leaked in run down to the lowest point, and my leg would balloon out as though I were suffering from an advanced case of elephantiasis.
After a couple of years, closed-cell foam neoprene came on the market and we had access to true wet suits. I couldn't afford a custom-made suit, so my wife, Betty, and her cousin Frank Parker's wife, B.J., measured me and cut out the rubber material to fit, and we all glued it together. I wouldn't call it the best-glued suit in the world, but it was a huge improvement over the perpetually leaking "dry suits."
We went to the only dive shop in California at the time, the French-run U.S. Divers Company in Westwood Village. We bought one tank, one regulator, a pair of fins, a Squale mask, and a little instruction pamphlet that came with the French-manufactured Cousteau-Gagnan Aqua Lung regulator, serial number 106. Not having access to a pool to try it out, the two of us putted out in my little ten-foot skiff to the Long Beach breakwater in search of some reasonably clear water. Nervously, I put on the tank, fins, and mask and slipped into the water. It was incredible! I was actually breathing underwater, and all around me and all over the rocky bottom were wonderful undersea creatures. I was truly in their world.
The Los Angeles Harbor is far from the most scenic dive spot in the world, but to me it was thrilling. After using up what I guessed was half the tank of air, I surfaced and clambered out on the breakwater rocks. Norman went next but was not nearly as impressed. He never did take to the underwater world like I did; eventually, in fact, he became a land-based geophysicist rather than a marine biologist. To each his own.
For the next year or so I went diving every chance I had. Most of my diving was done solo because I knew few other divers then. One year I was fortunate enough to get a part-time job collecting specimens for the invertebrate zoology classes at UCLA. This gave me a chance to dive and actually call it work, although the pay was very low. With my background in biology, I was fascinated with the life I saw beneath the surface, but I was equally excited by the very act of diving itself. However, just being able to breathe underwater in this new world and to stay submerged for relatively long periods of time didn't quench my thirst. I was eager to learn the secrets of the lives of each creature I saw--and for many years almost every dive I made revealed something new to me.
Although I was only one of the millions of people living in the vast, asphalt-covered city of Los Angeles, I knew I was one of the privileged few. I was able to enter an ocean full of strange, alien beings that exists right at our doorstep. Meanwhile, those millions went about their daily lives totally unaware of this fascinating world just beyond the shore.
First Night Dive
One day one of the French divers at the U.S. Divers store mentioned that he had gone out the night before with an underwater light and caught some spiny lobsters (Panulirus interruptus). That sounded pretty exciting, besides which, it had great gastronomic possibilities. As a working college student I couldn't afford to buy luxuries like lobsters, but this could be a way I could get some virtually free, just for the picking. The diver showed me the light he used. It was a basic two-cell flashlight inside a specially made rubber case, with a hose clamp where the rubber fits around the plastic lens. Of course, the dive shop wanted more money for the light than I was willing or even able to pay.
At the time, I was working the graveyard shift in a gas station, and we quite often replaced burned-out headlights on cars. A car headlight has two filaments, for the low and high beams. When the low beam burns out, the lamp has to be replaced, even though it still has one perfectly good beam. I suspected those lamps had just the kind of brightness I needed for my first underwater venture. What's more, the sealed headlights were designed to resist both water and pressure. All I needed was a big enough battery and a long, heavy electrical cord, and I'd have myself a remarkably serious underwater light: a car high beam underwater. At a war-surplus store I found fifty feet of heavy-gauge, well-insulated, very cheap electrical cord. After soldering the two wires securely to the lamp terminals, I waterproofed the connection with some tar-impregnated electrical tape and then melted it together with a flame over the kitchen stove. When connected to the battery in my car, the light was really bright, and it worked quite well underwater in a bucket. I was in business.
I talked Norman into coming with me, and one dark evening we rowed my little plywood skiff from the Santa Monica Pier out to the harbor breakwater. Decked out in tank, mask, and fins, I rolled over the side into the black water. Taking the light from Norman, I aimed it downward--and saw nothing but murky water, the bottom nowhere in view since it was beyond the beam of the light. It was spooky to be surrounded by nothingness, and for a moment I wondered if I was totally nuts to be doing this. I swam down cautiously through the dark, and finally rocks came into view, and on them was all the marine life I was familiar with. Now that I was in their reassuring presence I felt comfortable and began to look around.
There were two-spot octopuses (Octopus bimaculatus) cruising the bottom for food, and fishes huddled for the night in crevices between the boulders. A sheep crab (Loxorhynchus grandis) drew up its claws defensively when the bright light hit it. Soon I spotted the first lobster crawling over the boulders: its red color stood out beautifully in the bright car headlight. Apparently my presence or the light made it nervous, though, and when I made a grab for it the lobster shot off backward with amazing speed and disappeared into the dark. Whoa! This was not going to be as easy as I thought! Lobsters don't just sit there waiting to be picked up. Cruising on a little farther I spotted another one, and this time I grabbed it with all the speed I could muster. It worked; I now had a firm grip across the back of the frantically flapping lobster.
Returning to the surface I found the skiff and Norman, who had the challenging job of trying to follow my bubbles and the electrical cable in the dark. I tossed the lobster over the gunwale into the boat. Back down I went, and by the time I ran out of air we had six nice lobsters crawling around the bottom of the skiff, the largest weighing about eight pounds. This night diving was all right! For seventy-five cents' worth of scuba air and our time, which in those days was dirt cheap, we had a gourmet feast for a number of people.
Building a Ticket to Explore
The little ten-foot skiff with its often unreliable seven-horsepower outboard engine had proved to be fine for diving in calm, nearby areas with a maximum load of two pretty lightweight people, but I was anxious to see what lay farther afield. The coasts off the Palos Verdes Peninsula and Catalina Island were well outside the safe range of my little skiff. Norman and I decided to build a boat that could take us to those exciting places twenty miles away.
Norman was working at the time for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and had a reliable income. I was still going to UCLA plus working part-time, and I had little money to spend on anything beyond bare necessities and the cheapest California jug wine. Norman generously offered to buy most of the equipment and materials; I would contribute my labor. We decided on an eighteen-foot plywood hull that would be powered by a seventy-five-horsepower, four-cylinder inboard marine engine. Buying materials and equipment a little at a time, we worked on it in our spare time for well over a year.
For me the experience meant an ongoing series of problems to solve, not the least of which was developing the self-discipline to keep focused on the dream of the completed boat. There were times when I became discouraged by the seemingly endless tasks that lay between the present and our goal. The hundreds of problems to solve during the construction had their own small rewards, though, and with the completion of each one there was a sense of accomplishment.
As rewarding as the creative process and the end result were, it's not an experience I'd want to repeat. Building a boat is about ten times more work than you think it could possibly be. By this time I had owned three other small boats, and I knew I would always have a boat in my life. Part of me must be a soul mate of Ratty in The Wind in the Willows, who said, "Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing--absolutely nothing--half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats." In later years, though, when I was no longer broke, I would buy used ones and fix them up rather than build from scratch.
The day finally came when our boat was done and we launched it from the Santa Monica Pier. It was a pleasant surprise when everything worked as it was supposed to. Giving throttle, we planed along at a respectable speed of twenty knots. What a joy it was to finally experience the culmination of our months of work! I ended up using the boat far more than Norman did. When I came into a little inheritance money after my father's death a few years later, I took it all and bought out Norman's share.
Actually, I give that little boat a great deal of credit for my career in public aquariums. It provided me with the opportunity to dive in a host of interesting places and to learn firsthand about the life in the underwater world. The observations I was able to make of the habitats and behavior of marine animals, not to mention the diving skills I acquired, were invaluable to me. In addition, that boat, plus the circumstances of being constantly poor, gave me a do-it-yourself attitude and taught me the art and skill of problem solving, improvising, and inventing. These hard-won lessons would serve me well for years to come.
Octopus in My Living Room
Early on I set up a small marine aquarium in my room to keep some of the creatures I collected while diving or tide pooling. One creature in particular, a little octopus, fascinated my friends. One day in 1954, Betty Mumby, a fellow UCLA student, asked if she could come up and see my octopus. That was probably one of the more unusual lines to lead to a relationship, but it certainly worked. We started seeing more and more of each other, and pretty soon we married.
Betty worked full-time in the UCLA Admissions Office while I finished my master's degree. A couple of years after we married I finally got my degree and started to look seriously for a job. By then Betty was seven months pregnant. Unfortunately, the world wasn't crying out for marine biologists, and I couldn't find a thing. I even applied for work in the aircraft industry--twisting the truth about my education just a bit--in an effort to get any kind of paying job. Betty, now very close to term, finally quit her job on a Friday, I found a job on Monday, and our daughter Eve was born on Thursday. That was cutting it pretty close.
In desperation I'd walked in the front door of the Hyperion Sewage Treatment Plant and asked if they had any job openings. I could barely believe it when they told me they had a temporary job in the lab. That huge plant treated and discharged all the sewage from the City of Los Angeles. My job was to test for coliform bacteria on the seawater samples taken daily in Santa Monica Bay from Malibu to Palos Verdes. Once I got used to the odor, it was a pretty good job. We sewage workers had a saying: "It may be just shit to you, but to us it's our bread and butter."
The job had an interesting fringe benefit that was right up my alley: once a month they would collect fishes and invertebrates from the bay to determine if the sewage and the sludge discharging were having any effect on marine life. A series of stations at different depths from fifty to six hundred feet were sampled with a trawl net dragged across the bottom. I got to go out on the boat every month to help catch, count, and identify the creatures that came up in the net.
I was fascinated with some of the invertebrates that lived in the depths of the bay--grotesque, long-legged crabs covered with spines (Paralithodes spp.), delicate branching corals, and sometimes a whole netful of fragile pink sea urchins (Allocentrotus fragilis)--and I would take some of the animals from the shallower samples to keep in my home aquarium. The word quickly spread among my fellow members of the Marine Aquarium Society of Los Angeles, who were eager to see the strange and wonderful creatures in my aquarium. I can credit this hobby, my diving, and our little boat with landing me my first job as an aquarist. And what a job it was!