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multitude of goldfish in a tank

Fish Tales

Expanded interviews from "24 Ways to Look at a Fish"

 

 

Grace Farley ’17

Sibelan Forrester

Henry Han ’20

Nader Helmy ’17

Jeff Kahn ’10

Donna Jo Napoli

Daniel Paz ’17

Adam Summers ’86

Jason Waterman

Rowena Yeung ’88 and Thomas Bouquet ’88 


 

 

 

Adam Summers ’86

We are fish. That’s Neil Shubin’s take-home message, your inner fish.

I’m a biomechanist so I take advantage of the training I had as a mathematician and engineer at Swarthmore and I use that to investigate biological systems. I’m always looking to the marine environment, especially to fishes, for inspiration for bio-inspired design. So new materials, new ways of doing business, that are inspired by how aquatic animals do business. My lab is full of people who use all the techniques of engineering, physical modeling, mathematical modeling, all this kind of stuff to look at the natural world. The concept of having natural history inspire engineering is one that has a lot of legs. We should be able to do this forever—there’s a lot of fish stories in the world.

I was so lucky to get connected with Pixar. I was a postdoc at Berkeley and my landlady ran Pixar University. One time she asked me whether I knew anyone who worked on fish. What was meant to be an hour lecture turned into a three-hour lecture, which turned into three years of working on Nemo. I basically spent a lot of time answering questions and had a great deal of fun getting exposed to an interesting world of people who were as excited to do their job as I was to do mine.

My kids don’t have pet fish at home because we live a mile and half from my lab, which has 50 sea tables full of fish. They’ve grown up doing animal care, and we tell all kinds of good fish stories! My son is apt to tell you about the mating habits of clownfish. I think every kid absorbs the things their parents do and I’m pretty obsessed with biology and with fish and with being out in the woods, flipping rocks and finding salamanders and snakes and things, and so they are completely natural history kids. 

I don’t eat fish. I never have. But I’ve certainly cooked and cleaned a lot of them. And I’m always impressed by the skeleton. I think that’s a fabulous thing to be looking for when you’ve got a boned fish on the plate: the repeated blocks of muscle down the body is kind of neat.

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Daniel Paz ’17

As far as I am concerned, fish should not be off the table from making an argument for animal rights. Arguments for the protection and rights of animals ought to focus on pain rather than intelligence. Among human beings, there are various levels of cognition, but these differences due not necessitate the privileging of one human over another. The expansion of this to other species is simply remaining true to this logic. Animals can feel pain, just as we do—perhaps not exactly in the same way, but enough to cause serious concern for the ways in which they are treated. I'm going to include a quote here from the North American vegetarian society that touches upon the ability of fish to feel pain.

Among the overwhelming evidence that fish can suffer is a recent report by a team of marine biologists at Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute. The report was published by the Royal Society, one of Britain’s leading scientific institutes. The researchers found that rainbow trout possess pain receptors and react to a harmful substance (in this case, acetic acid) with “profound behavioral and physiological changes . . . over a prolonged period, comparable to those observed in higher mammals.” The researchers concluded that their findings “fulfill the criteria for animal pain.” Their conclusion is also consistent with common sense: fish, like other animals, need to be able to feel pain in order to survive.

Keeping fish as pets or in aquariums is tricky. I am overwhelmingly inclined to say aquariums and captivity are distressful and psychologically damaging to fish, but perhaps it is possible that certain fish who are raised in captivity might thrive in such a position. There is also a large difference between keeping a goldfish and a great white shark as a pet, for example, so it truly depends. (I actually really dislike sharks because they are scary to me. However, I think they are unfairly treated, demeaned, and misunderstood. I don't know if I'll ever stop seeing them in a scary light, but I realize that my immediate feelings and the reality do not align.) 

I think some fish can be beautiful or terrifying.

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Jason Waterman

​I wrote this lab for CS21 when I was a visiting assistant professor at Swarthmore (now I'm an assistant professor at ​Vassar). In a previous semester of CS21, we had the students implement the memory game Simon, and I thought this would be a nice update to that lab, with a nod to pop culture to help keep the students engaged. We gave them the code which drew and moved the sharks, they had to come up with the data structures and logic to make it work as a game. I drew the shark from scratch based on a GIF from the internet.

​The students enjoyed it and ​I hope Left Shark enjoyed his 15 minutes of Swarthmore fame. I had a lot of fun creating him.  ​

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Donna Jo Napoli

I’d never thought of doing a graphic novel before David Weisner asked me to collaborate with him on Fish Girl. I am not a visual person. In fact, I’m probably one of the least visual people around. I grew up with extremely poor vision and it wasn’t until 2014 when I had surgeries on my eyes that my whole way of negotiating the world changed. So the last thing on my mind was something like a graphic novel. That said, I have an enormous appreciation for the artwork that goes into children’s books and David Wiesner is, I believe, the most famous children’s illustrator in the world. He’s exceptionally innovative and getting to work with him was really appealing.

David generally works on things that are appropriate for the very youngest children, but Fish Girl is not. Certainly an 8-year-old can enjoy it, but it a much older sensibility will understand that this is really a story of abuse. David had never gone to these dark places, but I often do.

He came to me with 20 pictures or so—a mermaid, an octopus, a man with a crown on his head and a trident, a house with fish—separate drawings he'd made over the years that hadn't gelled together yet. (In fact, he started his first drawing of an ordinary house with fish in it when he was in art school.) I think the reason he wasn’t seeing a story there was that the situation of a mermaid in a glass box is not for the preschooler. For me on the other hand, a character who’s trapped is very appealing: I feel like so many of us are trapped, sometimes by our own behavior but often by external things. I was immediately drawn to the pictures and the problem I saw, so I knew this could be my kind of story.

I like to tell people it felt like someone had shaken an old photograph album and random pictures had fallen out. It was my job to figure out who these people were and how they related to each other and which picture was from which event in their lives. It was like a mystery, a puzzle putting them together. But I trusted his psyche and used any little detail he'd included: if it was herrings, then I used herrings, if a girl had a ponytail, then I used a ponytail. I did not ignore anything that he did. I’d look down at the pictures and say, "oh look there’s a broken shell there. That means the mermaid will be trying to put together a necklace, sifting through, trying to find shells that aren’t broken."

I used everything that I saw in any way I could, then I just let whatever it is inside me create this story of how these characters related to each other. Since the mermaid is underwater so much, and since you can’t use speech underwater, I decided to focus on the whole idea of language and having a voice and you know how frogs—amphibians, frogs and toads, newts and salamanders and caecilians, those three groups of animals that are amphibious—start out with only gills and as they develop, as they mature, they add in lungs. I decided she should have this amphibious characteristic of developing lungs as she grew up, so she’s only recently come to have lungs, which means that she’s only recently come to have the potential for speech, even though she’s been talked to all along, so she understands language, but as a passive participant in the language event, not as an active participant. With this development of her lungs she now can vocalize, but she doesn’t know it.

Gradually through the story, she comes to understand that her mother had a voice and her mother sang and then she’s in a different place because maybe she can have a voice. So the linguist in me comes out through her developing her voice in a literal way and of course in a metaphorical way.

Mermaid fascinate humanity but so have centaurs, fauns, and then of course in the Egyptian hybrids that are part bird, part lion, part this, part that. Something being externally identifiable as hybrid is very appealing to humans since so much of the time internally we feel like we’re hybrids. I think that’s just something about humans, and I don’t know if any other animals share that. But we love to imagine that we are another creature. We love to try to understand what it is that birds are doing with each other, how it is that lionesses can hunt together or African dogs can communicate with each other to hunt by playing a kind of relay game. 

Mermaids are beautiful, but there are mermen in many traditions as well, even if the modern sensibility doesn’t seem to be drawn to mermen at all. You might ask yourself if that has a lot to do with genitalia and the idea that we don’t like a merman because it feels like he’s been more than castrated—the genitals are gone. It may be a remark on our subjugation of women, I don’t know. Certainly the female part of the mermaids is what allows us to find them so attractive.

Fish Girl is not my first mermaid book; Sirena came out in 1998. My two mermaid books are about as far apart as you can get in terms of sensibilities. Sirena is set in classical times, it grows out of a scene that’s in the Iliad where Philoctedes, a Greek soldier, is abandoned on an island

because he gets bitten by a sea serpent and everybody expects he’ll die. Ten years later they come back to get his bow and arrows and instead they find him alive, but how? This was my opportunity to save him and I came up with a mermaid very much steeped in classical Greek mythology.

Mira, the mermaid in Fish Girl, is today, she’s right now, she has nothing to do with Greek mythology. That Neptune puts on a crown and a trident is his doing, he’s a modern man, too. A very deluded and unfortunate modern man, but a modern man. He doesn’t belong to the Roman civilization that he harked to in his name and his crown and his trident and neither does she. They both belong toa logic and a tradition that is modern times America. 

These are about as different as two mermaid stories can be. In Fish Girl, there’s a point when the human girl goes into the aquarium. It isn’t just Mira longing to be human. It’s the understanding that there’s something glorious in the sea world, too. And the two girls are trying very hard to understand each other. I like their relationship. It’s not that one is trying to become like the other, or trying to make the other like her, they’re just trying to understand each other. Mira has to make a decision since once she understands that she’s a mix, she really belongs nowhere unless she makes a choice. She could’ve chosen fish life, mermaid as a sea creature. Even though she happened to go the human way, but I am contemplating a possible future for her.

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Grace Farley ’17

I was working with Professor Rachel Merz this summer and she was really great in letting me choose my own project. For the first two weeks I was out in Friday Harbor, an island off the coast of Washington. We just went to different intertidal environments and looked at the cool organisms there and thought of questions we could ask.

I was really interested in anemones because they basically carpet the intertidals there, so you have to be really careful walking because it’s just anemones everywhere. They had all of these little particles attached to them, bits of barnacles shell, pebbles, seaweed, wood. I was curious: What is that? Why do they have all this stuff all over them? Is it causing them problems? Are the waves washing it up on their bodies and they’re sticky so it’s sticking to them? Or is it some sort of thing they’re actively doing? Is it conferring some benefit on them?


I had read a little bit that this particle coverage could prevent desiccation when the tide was low, but I noticed that even when the tide was low, there were a lot of anemones in the water that had this still. So I began thinking, okay what are other reasons they have this cover on them? One interesting thing about these anemones is they have two different photosynthetic symbionts so that means they have basically algae that are living inside their tissues and these algae photosynthesize and produce sugars and the anemone benefits from these sugars. Most of the anemone’s food comes from its symbionts.

This is a really interesting species because there are two different types: one is green and one is brown and it actually makes the anemones those colors. And the one that’s green is more light-sensitive according to the literature so I thought that maybe this pebble coverage could be a sunscreen helping protect the anemones from too much light exposure, especially those green ones that are more light-sensitive.

I basically got interested in the project by going out in the world and observing what was there and figuring out something that was interesting.

I’ve been interested in marine biology since the third grade so I knew a lot about anemones beforehand. I think their symbiotic relationships are very interesting. It’s really interesting to think about organisms working together, especially an organism inside another organism. A lot of people think about them as plants but they’re animals and they really do have behavior and I was interested in learning more about that.

I grew up in Colorado, which is totally landlocked. Maybe I became interested in marine biology because it was such a novel thing for me. In fourth grade, my uncle’s friend who was a marine biologist heard I was interested in that field and gave me this textbook based off the show Blue Planet. I read straight through the textbook and it was just so interesting: aquatic life is beautiful and bizarre. 

I think anemones are dynamic and beautiful. People know them from Finding Nemo, like Nemo lives in an anemone, but people don’t really have a deeper appreciation—the reason they’re these beautiful colors is because they have algae living in their tissues, they have all these interesting behaviors, and they really are animals related to jellyfish and coral. My dad was like, anything that has its butt for its face is not cute—in anemones, the mouth and the anus is the same—but I think they’re kind of cute, honestly. 

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Henry Han ’20

I’ve always wanted to be a chef and so I was just trying to find some kind of a restaurant to work at back home. A job opened up at the local sushi bar. Of course it wasn’t like a rigorous traditional training like in Japan, which starts with six months of washing rice alone, but I got the very simplified version. I still washed rice quite a bit, practiced, and prepped a lot of vegetables and ingredients before I actually got to sushi-making, but the boss was willing to train me and I’ve been making sushi ever since.

With sushi, the presentation should be really beautiful. Not just good-looking but it has to taste good, too, so the small details are everything. Seeing customers eat it right in front of me, seeing their faces light up from the quality and taste, makes me super happy.

I love sushi. My boss will tell you he never eats his sushi because he’s had it for 20 years, but sushi is delicious. I’m always finding new combinations, new sauces, new ways to make sushi or make combinations.

For salmon and tuna, good sashimi or nagiri is when the fish kind of melts in your mouth almost. That’s how you know it’s really fresh. If you bite into it and it’s kind of chewy and resists, like rubbery, then you know it’s been frozen or it’s not the freshest. Color is obviously important but you don’t want the artificial kind of color, like packaged sushi with unnaturally red tuna. The rice is important. You don’t want it to be too hard, the individual grains. It should complement the fish. Traditional rolls are with rice on the inside and so when you have those kinds of rolls as opposed to sashimi and nagiri, you’re looking for freshness, the presentation of the sauce, and then it’s the rice ratio. The thinner the rice the more beautiful it looks. So just those small details, if you notice them, you can tell that the chef really knows what he or she is doing.

My boss actually wanted to train me on all parts of running a business, not just being a sushi chef, and so he took me to the fish markets and trained me to see what kind of fish are the ones to buy. Plus, I’m from northwest Washington and also work on a boat as a first mate. We thought about this coming summer, maybe we could fish and serve sushi fresh to our customers on the boat. Fish is just so intertwined into my life now.

When I create a beautiful-looking piece of sushi or beautiful roll, it definitely feels good and like I'm doing the fish some justice.

People are going to laugh at me because it’s not a traditional Japanese roll but I’m a sucker for California rolls with salmon, teriyaki sauce, and some fried onion on top ... it’s perfect. You’ve got the imitation crab flavor that, when you bite into it, it just explodes in your mouth and then when you have the salmon and the teriyaki and the fried onions, you have all those different kinds of textures, like the salmon melts in your mouth, the teriyaki’s kind of gooey and sticky and it’s sweet, too, and you’ve got the fried onion, which is a crunch and it’s got that savory, salty flavor. So everything combined together. And then sometimes you’ll have sesame seeds on there and then you’ll bite into those and those will explode and you’ve got a whole spectrum of flavors for sushi.

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Jeff Kahn ’10

I got into robotics at Swarthmore. It was one of the years in which they offered mobile robotics in the engineering department and I really liked programming. At that point, I was really into writing my own software and realized I could use it to actually make things move in the world. That got really exciting for me. During this honors course I started coming across a lot of research in biological-inspired robotics, and tthis just seemed like such an interesting, fascinating challenge: to study particular animals, organisms, or even cells and look at their behavior, understand it from a physics-based perspective, and then try to basically learn about the physics and then use robots to learn even more about the physics or mechanics of the animal. 

You could take something you found fascinating in nature and then study it over a long period of time with a bunch of different robotic prototypes. You get a better understanding of nature and then, at the end, emerge with this device or platform that could be used more generally to serve humans.

I’ve always really been interested in the ocean. From a physics standpoint, I was fascinated with fluid dynamics. I took some courses at Swarthmore in it and I thought it was one of the most interesting, challenging domains in which you could build things. I know a lot has been done with terrestrial robots or with grasping robots in factories but I thought the interaction of the animal and the underwater environment was really fascinating. I got in a conversation with my then-adviser about how fish swim and I was immediately captivated and thought it was an amazing way to get hands-on experience in fluid dynamics.

I was writing a small grant for National Science Foundation fellowships and thinking it would be really cool to study the interaction of robots with underwater environments. Very few people look at the effects of the fluid environment of a robot moving underwater. So this ended up being perfect for me and what I wanted to pursue.

One of the things that I thought about a lot was that as our climates change and become more complicated, I think humans will increasingly have to deal with complex environments and especially underwater environments. It’s an area which I think we’ll have to look to for energy, an area we’ll have to protect for sustainability reasons, and it’s just an area we don’t understand that well—we don’t survive that well underwater. I think that underwater technologies will become really important in later decades, maybe 30–50 years from now I think we’ll really need these kinds of things.

I wish we had more funding in it because I think it’s really important to preserve and take care of the oceans better and better understand them, but it’s something that has immediate applications for underwater vehicles. For the most part, the robots are generally very stiff and run like submarines so having robots that are inspired by fish that can run into a wall or can bend really easily and are not easily damaged and can navigate could be really important, especially in more dangerous environments like near-shore environments like rivers and near jetties or in the arctic.

I studied bony-finned fish and it surprised me how much those fish could actually change the flexibility of their bodies. Using similar mechanisms like co-contraction that humans have in their limbs—if you were to jump off a small ledge, you would stiffen your legs as you land—fish can actually do this while they’re swimming. So they can create stiffer movements through the water to push themselves more rapidly and this is something they control actively. That was really surprising to me. I didn’t know so much was going on with the flexibility of their fins and of their bodies in this way.

We studied these animals with high-speed video and so I spent months and months tracking individual points along the fins in order to translate the movements of the fish were making to the movements on my robots so I can watch a fish and look at the different things it’s doing with its fins and understanding how it’s directing forces that then affect its body.

I am pretty much mesmerized whenever I see any kind of fish. It’s amazing how that kind of connection to them in a different way. I never thought I’d have it.

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Nader Helmy ’17

My poem "Samak Mashwi" was inspired by Egypt and my love of fresh fish and my experiences as a diaspora kid. I often think of immigrants and the children of immigrants, the way our relationship to the ocean and to movement and transience makes us into metaphor. In that sense, I see a real kinship between children of diaspora and fish. We are constantly moving, elusive, in motion as a means of survival. When writing this poem about fish I was also

inundated with lots of images from childhood and my memories of the Red Sea in Egypt. I wished to combine this childlike imagination with the reality of burnt fish and diaspora struggles.

When I think about fish, I think about Egypt and the Nile River and the Red Sea. I see images of myself as a child wading through the water, spending all day at the beach and then going to a restaurant to eat an assortment of sea-faring critters. I see the blackened and fried fish that I've been eating since I was a kid, home-cooked or in a restaurant. I also see Finding Nemo, Shark Tale, and all the classic animated fish.

I am usually inspired or drawn to a poem because of a certain idea, or phrase, or concept that pops into my head. Or, someone might say something or inform me of something so special that it must be a poem. So, if that poem doesn't exist, I write it. The process itself is fairly imprecise, but basically I start writing on the topic in the "voice" that feels right for it. Oftentimes, this is my voice, but sometimes it is not. I write until this voice becomes clear to me. Then, I write and I write until I feel I have some body to work with, and then I almost always go back and restructure the poem, moving things around, cutting out embellishments, adding content where there are ideas that haven't been explored fully. Oftentimes, I will say the poem out loud a few times to find out where it flows and where it doesn't. I don't always know when a poem is incomplete, but I know when it is done.

Poetry will continue to be a part of my life for as long as I live! I write all the time, and I perform frequently. I plan on getting more of my work published in literary journals and magazines and getting together a chapbook soon. I like thematic poetry and work that we can draw a thread through. I will continue to perform at readings and to consume the poetry of my peers. I hope to write a book eventually. As far as fish... I will continue to eat them. Yum.

I like to see how people from different disciplines see the world differently, how their perspective shapes how they approach the world. I'd like to see this done with more topics and different disciplines. Also, while I am definitely a poet, I'm technically STEM—computer and cognitive science—if you can believe it.

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Sibelan Forrester

My daughter found a funny thing online where it described all of the different astrological signs, and how they react to sadness, and the Pisces one said, "Pisces is the sad sign. Somewhere, Pisces is crying right now." So that idea of tears, fish, water, emotions, tears of happiness as well. So, plus of course if you live out in nature, fish is one of the things you can eat that's good for you and can catch without a lot of equipment: a spear, a hook, your hands.

There's a really interesting, lovely novel, Fish: A History of One Migration, by a Russianist who lives in Nebraska. The heroine is identified as a fish becauseher first husband thinks she’s really cold and uninteresting, but she migrates. She moves around. She kind of gets herself into new situations. So fish there as something positive and negative.

Fish are in language, too. I don’t know how common it is outside Serbia—there’s a fan of linguistic features where a lot of people speak things that are mutually understandable—but this friend of mine whose nickname, weirdly, was Kitty, always dressed in jeans and a man’s shirt. One day she came in in a dress looking very foxy—see, we use animal terms all the time, too: chick, fox, bird—and one of those guys she worked with at Yugoslav Airlines said, "Kitty is a fish." The guy wasn’t even thinking about the words he was using. It was just coming out. So yeah, fish being something attractive and winky. And again, the association I think with smallness and cuteness.

What I see when I see fish depends on the fish. I’m a huge fan of eating salmon, but I also love watching live fish swimming. It’s wonderful. When I was a kid, my mother took me and my siblings to England to visit her mother, who lived in Devon, and we were quite close to the southern coast of the U.K. And watching little tiny fishies or tiny little crabs in the still water—it was just such a pleasure to peek down and see little things flashing. And I grew up on Colorado, which is not a sea place at all, and yet the idea that even the little irrigation ditch would have tiddlers in it: this idea that if water has fish in it, then you know the water’s healthy, there's life.

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Rowena Yeung ’88 and Thomas Bouquet ’88

Keeping our tank reminds us of our honeymoon in the Tahiti islands in 1992, where we snorkeled and discovered the beauty of tropical coral reefs. We put together our first saltwater tank in 1998 with only six fish. We moved it to our new home in 2002, and decided to add other animals like eels by 2008. About three years later we decided to keep live corals as well. It was a big project—the livestock had to board at a local aquarium shop as we drained and cleaned the tank, and stocked it with live rock that had to sit and grow the right kinds of bacteria for about six weeks. Then the livestock gradually moved back in, and we added our first corals. As the corals grew and technology improved, we moved to a larger tank that could provide a more stable reef environment in 2013. The new tank was moved into place with the help of our older son and his friends, all new high school graduates then. It has become a real focal point for our house, like a TV or fireplace, except alive.

It is a great teaching device. The kids see the different life forms and understand how they play different roles in their environment. There are symbiotic relationships like the clownfish and anemone, or the cleaner shrimp that go into the mouth of the moral eel to clean its teeth, or the corals and the zooxanthelle (phytoplankton) that feed them through photosynthesis. We made it a point to stock an incredible biodiversity (five different phyla are represented in the tank), with fascinating shapes and life cycles. The kids see us take care of the tank and learn the value of stewardship. They see some things grow and some things die. When they and their friends learn that many of these corals are dying off in the open oceans due to small changes in temperature and ocean chemistry, they better understand the significance of human impact on the environment, and the importance of preservation efforts.

Our tank is 175 gallons with LED lights, a biofiltration system, and automated dosing system to continuously feed in the right amount of calcium, pH buffer, and hundreds of trace elements to simulate sea water. Its inhabitants are:

  • 13 fish (two tangs, two wrasses, a trigger, a pseudochromis, two chromis, a blenny, an angelfish, two clownfish, and a mandarin fish who lives exclusively on microscopic copepods living in the rocks)
  • a 20” long snowflake moray eel (technically, a fish)
  • a brittlestar
  • a sea cucumber
  • several anemone (always asexually reproducing)
  • two cleaner shrimp
  • a clam
  • three sea urchins (to eat algae)
  • two sea squirts (vertebrates that attach to rock and become filter feeders)
  • two large starfish (and countless tiny starfish)
  • tubeworms (when the animals emerge they look like featherdusters)
  • crabs
  • snails (part of the clean-up crew)
  • many types of colorful hard and soft corals
  • …and in the past we have had a sea apple, a sea hag and a flame scallop

Due to the balance between all these, and the automatic dosers, there is not much work other than feeding the fish every night. Every two weeks a professional comes to do a 25-percent water change and chemistry check, and a couple of times a week I like to squeegee the algae buildup off of the front glass.  Every couple of weeks we feed frozen fish to the eel and brittlestar, which makes for a great show for guests.

Everything about marine life is alien and otherworldly, but it’s mostly the vibrant colors, patterns, and movements that capture our interest.

It is frustrating to watch some corals die, and to learn that some species simply have short life expectations in captivity (for unknown reasons) while being essentially immortal in the wild. I (Tom) have some ideas about how coral husbandry could be improved, and would like to conduct some experiments to test my hypotheses. I could use some help if anyone is interested: first, to research whether these ideas have already been tested, and if not, to find partners interested in helping.

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