Growing up, which ocean explorers influenced you?
I liked Jacques Cousteau. His boat, the Calypso, was docked for several years in Norfolk, Virginia. I attended Norfolk Academy from first to twelfth grade. Cousteau’s grandchildren (Fabien and Celine) went to my school during those years as well. I remember watching the film “Dragons of Galapagos” many, many years ago. I was intrigued by the animal life, especially marine iguanas, but what I really remember is laughing at these French guys jumping around on the sharp rocks wearing nothing but red Speedo bathing suits, trying to catch iguanas!
I have to say I liked the movie Jaws, too. I always wanted to be like the Richard Dreyfuss character, studying life beneath the sea.
What is your favorite Academy exhibit?
I’m not sure if this is the same as “favorite” but I’m the most emotionally invested in the Philippine Coral Reef tank because I spent 10 years thinking about it. Six years before we reopened in Golden Gate Park, I was in meetings with exhibit designers and contractors to talk about that tank. It represents an enormous amount of time and is one of the things I was most excited about working on in the new Academy.
Are you also studying the coconut octopus (Amphioctopus marginatus) at the Academy?
Yes. Staff biologists Richard Ross, Marisa Avila and I are writing a paper about the collection, transport and husbandry of this species. It’s not a well-known species. There are some scientific studies documenting its use of tools. You see, it takes a coconut shell around with it like a portable hiding place. It’s a cool animal. It’s got a neat story.
Has an octopus ever climbed out of its tank here?
You know, I think that is part of the folklore of every aquarium. It seems as if every aquarium on the Pacific Coast that displays the giant Pacific octopus has a story about the night the octopus got out and the security guard found him. When I got here, I was told stories about how the crabs in the next tank next door mysteriously disappeared—and were presumably eaten. But I’ve never witnessed it.
Still, I will never underestimate an octopus. They’re smart, curious and they investigate their surroundings. They're escape artists. The only hard part of their body is their beak. So they can put their entire body through a hole that is surprising small compared to their anatomy.
How do you keep an octopus inside its tank?
We put AstroTurf all around the outside top of the giant Pacific octopus tank. It’s a good trick because, apparently, they don’t like to touch the AstroTurf. Their suction cups can’t get a hold of it. And for the smaller octopus, we have tight fitting lids with heavy weights on top. Otherwise they’ll climb right out.