I guess we’re not in Kansas (City) anymore… The Monterey Bay Aquarium!!

Part 2 of the great American road trip! I have been really lucky throughout this PhD to talk with amazing sunfish researchers from all over the world, although to date, most of these meetings have been on skype!

Since the AFS conference had brought me all the way to Kansas City, it seemed silly to go home without trying to catch a few sunfish people in the States… so it was just a short hop over to California where I had been able to arrange meetings with none other than Michael Howard (senior sunfish aquarist at Monterey Bay Aquarium) and Dr Tierney Thys (National Geographic explorer)!!

California… here we come!

Along with every marine biologist in existence, I have always dreamt of taking a trip to Monterey for the world famous research labs, aquarium and wildlife. Michael’s ground-breaking work at the aquarium; keeping the seemingly impossible sunfish on public display, sharing hard-earned knowledge on handling and sampling protocols, and satellite tagging sunfish on release is world-renown.

In Monterey I was able to join him for a week ‘behind the scenes at the aquarium’, which seems the most amazingly diverse job! As part of the open ocean team I spent my week searching for sunfish at sea, observing tuna tank transfers, learning about growing jellies for display and even hand-feeding a sunfish (a definite career highlight!) It was an incredible experience to see the dedicated research that goes into caring for such an amazing array of creatures and constantly improving animal welfare standards. Just from walking around the aquarium, it was clear how this approach provides an inspirational experience for all visitors, showcasing the beauty of the natural world and highlighting conservation issues.

Monterey Bay Aquarium

We were hoping to use some of the techniques from my fieldwork (mucus sampling, deploying accelerometer harness systems etc.), on captive sunfish in Monterey, to increase our dataset and to validate all methods in controlled environments… however the fickle finger of fate intervened and unfortunately there was only one little sunfish left in the tanks when I arrived.

As this fish was the “heir to the throne” as Michael put it, getting ready to go on display and inspire thousands of people to care for the marine environment, there was no chance I would be able to play with it! So we went out on the bay every other day searching for wild fish. Although we observed plenty of wildlife, (humpback whales, Risso’s dolphins, seals, otters, sealions and one whopper of a sunfish, too big to collect ~100kg!), collectable sunfish remained elusive. Even the best laid plans…

Stealing the sunfish spotlight…

However, despite the lack of sunfish (which is something I really need get used to!) I gained an incredible amount from this experience, particularly relating to handling and dietary requirements which is vital to my research. During the week I also gave a seminar on our work on ocean sunfish at Belfast to a packed room of fish enthusiasts (researchers, aquarists and volunteers) and the feedback was wonderful!

Sunfish seminar

Alongside my incredible week at the aquarium, I was able to finally meet Tierney in person after working with her on a couple of sunfish papers over the last two years! Over dinner with her lovely family we spoke about sunfish for hours *apologies again to Bret & the kids* and examined her treasure trove of sunfish merchandise from badges, bags and bathroom flannels, to chopsticks, toys and charms. (I clearly am very behind on my sunfish collection!)

It was an incredible evening, to meet someone whose work has inspired so many in this field (including my own career). If anyone reading this blog is unfamiliar with Tierney’s work, I would highly recommend starting with her amazing (and super funny) TED talk on sunfish.

Image result for tierney thys

Click on the link to Tierney’s sunfish talk above!

One of best parts of undertaking a PhD are the incredible opportunities to meet people who have the most amazing careers changing the world for the better. This trip has been truly inspirational and I am so very grateful to my funding bodies and grant providers for making this possible.

Marine inspiration

If anyone has any questions or comments about marine biology, PhD life or sunfish please get in touch!

-Comments section below

-Twitter: @sunfishresearch

-Instagram: SunfishResearch

-Email: nphillips01@qub.ac.uk

Show me the fish-y! The American Fisheries Society Conference 2016

Hello from across the pond! This blog post is coming from the USA where I have been visiting the American Fisheries Society (ASF) conference courtesy of the wonderful student scholarship exchange program with the Fisheries Society of the British Isles (FSBI). After a long flight over amazing scenery and transfer at San Francisco (which I made, although my bag had other ideas!) I arrived in sunny Kansas City. Luckily, after jetting around the country on three additional flights (via Santa Barbra and Chicago), my suitcase decided to visit Kansas City too! *phew

Stunning views & baggage detours

The AFS annual conference is possibly the largest gathering of fish biologists in the world with approximately 1500 attendees! The conference changes venues each year, so for 2016 we were based in the Show Me State of Missouri, in Kansas City. Apparently this year there was a slightly lower abundance of fish enthusiasts (it seems the coastal locations are always the most popular) but this has easily been the largest conference I have ever seen!

AFS conference at Kansas City

Over the course of the conference I have been presenting my research on ocean sunfish distribution patterns and a poster on the depth use of the Molidae family, all of which was really well received! Aside from talking sunfish, I’ve been using every moment to attend the incredible dedicated sessions from learning more on tagging pelagic fish, to tackling invasive species and even designing social media strategies for scientists! The conference provided a wonderful whirlwind of a week filled with friendly people, inspiring science and in an amazing location.

Sunfish poster & stunning views

Alongside the science, the conference provided a great place to meet scientists from all over the world at the differing social events. From the first night where >1000 people mingled over invasive Asian carp tacos (yum) & fish hotdogs (not entirely convinced…), to the last delicious giant BBQ for all attendees in the enormous historic Union Station under an electrical storm!

AFS legendary socials!

I have to admit, I was really nervous turning up at such a huge conference on my own (especially after travelling for 2 days without clean clothes *thanks United), but the fish world is such a friendly place and despite my scruffy attire, after walking in the door, I never looked back! If anyone is debating whether to attend next year’s conference, I would whole-heartedly recommend it! The Florida team gave a great presentation to welcome us to their hometown for 2017 and it looks to be another great one and I would definitely love to go, so better get back to some science for next year’s presentation!

‘Till next year!

I would just like to express my particular thanks to everyone at the AFS for making me feel so welcome, particularly Bob Hughes, Ron Essig, Zach Penney, Patrick Cooney and Iain Barber.

As always, if anyone has found a dead sunfish, has any questions about my research or would just like updates on the project please feel free to contact me either in the comments section or through these channels:

Email: nphillips01@qub.ac.uk

Twitter: @sunfishresearch

Instagram: SunfishResearch


Time to head home… for a little while at least!

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Goodbye sunfishes!

Of course all good things must come to an end, and the summer of sunfish is coming to a close. Although along the trip there has been occasional shedding of blood, sweat and tears (sometimes simultaneously!) I have loved every mad minute of it. We have tissue samples from 51 sunfish and tag data from 2 which is a fantastic result (up 5000% from last year!) Of course we still have 2 sunfish tags out somewhere in the Ligurian Triangle that I am still hopeful will return to us eventually🙂


The sun sets on another field season

I realise I am probably one of the luckiest researchers in the world chasing down big fish in beautiful locations and I have to thank the people who enable me to do this, namely The Fisheries Society of the British Isles (who fund my PhD) and the Portofino Marine Protected Area authorities and fishermen of the Tonnarella whose kindness and support in the field has been incredible! I cannot thank them enough (but fortunately beer is the international vote of thanks!) Alongside this star cast, I also received generous funding support for this field season from The Royal Society of Biology and the William and Betty MacQuitty Travel Scholarship QUB.

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Going to miss these guys…

So what happens next? No time for back-to-work-blues as I am heading back to Belfast to work up my data for a month… then I’m afraid I’m jetting off again to my first big international conference! The American Fisheries Society Conference is one of the biggest gathering of fish biologists in the world (up to 3,000 people!) over a week of talks, trade fairs, training sessions and socials. I am attending the conference courtesy of the FSBI and AFS student exchange programme and through travel funding from the Marine Institute which means I can present a talk on sunfish distribution and a poster on sunfish use of mesopelagic depths! Little bit terrifying but extremely exciting! I will be blogging and tweeting from the conference and following that I will be using my time State-side to meet with a man who knows more about sunfish needs than anyone, Michael Howard, senior aquarist and keeper of the sunfish at Monterrey Bay Aquarium!

AMS2016 monetery bay

Lots of fun to come!

We hope to do a few feeding trials with Michael’s sunfish and hopefully validate the harness and tags on an individual we can actually watch! Fingers crossed the sunfish in the tanks are big and healthy for September!

mont feed sun

Michael Howard target training sunfish

But lots of work to do before then so better crack on! Updates to be posted soon🙂

Lights, camera, sunfish! Discovery documentary take 2

Last year, the sunfish research project was lucky enough to spark the interest of the Daily Planet show on the Discovery Channel and we spent a great day out on the water filming our work for a brief (10 minute) documentary. However as the saying goes never work with animals on TV… the sunfish must have caught a case of camera shyness and we had no fish to work with! Fortunately Lara, the director, still thought our work was intriguing enough to give it another go this year so time for take 2!


The Marine Protected Area authorities very kindly lent us their high power RIB for the day (as it would have been a bit of a squeeze on the fishermen’s wooden rowboats!) so we set off early with Valentina and Giorgio (from the MPA) and Kevin our cameraman. It was a really hot day even at 8am and we watched the fishermen pull the nets feeling relived to be out of the sun but also a bit guilty for not helping! After raising the nets half way, the crew stopped for a break and to let a group of divers swim with the sunfish (the diver leader, Robbie, often helps to empty the nets when they become too full of sunfish to lift and with other in-water net problems so this is one of his job perks!).  Robbie very kindly took my Go-Pro on one of his dives to capture some amazing underwater footage of the sunfish!

After he returned, it transpired that there were no commercial species of fish in the nets so the fishermen decided to go back to port early without emptying the Tonnarella. This was a real blow to our hopes of tagging a sunfish on film, and although I offered to pay the fishermen more than usual to raise the nets, they were just too tired (of course they had also raised the nets at 3am that morning.) So we returned to Santa Margherita where Kevin interviewed me about our work (little bit nerve-wracking!) and we were able to plan our afternoon trip to the Tonnarella for the last net pull of the day at 4pm.


We arrived a little early to demonstrate on camera how we locate and collect our equipment after it is released from the sunfish, and then we waited for the fishermen to pull the nets. The weather, which had been perfect flat calm and hot in the morning was now cool with a strong breeze and we guiltily watched the fishermen having to work harder and harder to pull the boat against the wind.


But luck was with us this time! 19 sunfish flapped in the nets, including a gorgeous specimen weighing 22kg to show off to the camera. We took full samples from this individual which behaved beautifully, no wild fins slaps today, the fish lay calmly while we took tissue samples and measurements before we released it into the water in under 4 minutes! A perfect end to the day🙂


Lawrence and I have also been collecting footage throughout the field season of our work on ocean sunfish so this will be added to the film taken on the day and hopefully some of our videos will be added to the documentary! Watch this space🙂

Fish-eye view: sunfish selfie!

What a week! I finally had the chance to deploy my best piece of kit which has been carefully saved until we had tested new retrieval techniques (as it’s rather special and expensive!) So now we are deploying accelerometers on fish within the Tonnarella nets using the nets as a giant sea pen (344m wide by 80m deep), for approx. 4 hours before the harness pops off and the fish is then recaptured and lifted to true freedom at the next net haul.


The harness and tag then float at the surface so I have the best chance of finding it in one area before it drifts off! We deployed a CEFAS accelerometer this way (great piece of kit, how can you fit so many sensors into such a tiny object?!) and heard it on the radio receiver within 5 minutes of it arriving at the surface. Lawrence and I then kayaked out to collect it!

So I finally had the confidence to use the CATScam (Customised Animal Tracking Solutions camera) which is a bit larger with in-built accelerometer and video camera! This means the sunfish will film its day so we can visually validate all behaviours and get a fishes-eye view of the world!

Snapshot 2 (24-06-2016 21-15)

Of course, even after months of background work, even the best laid plans can go astray… the tag deployed perfectly, the fish swam off into the nets… but after 4 hours there was nothing, no signal, no peep from the radio tag. Hours and then days passed, and the tag was nowhere to be found. Maybe the sunfish escaped the nets, maybe the tag drifted away really fast, maybe it was run over by a boat and sunk! Unlimited nightmare scenarios kept running through my mind… and when I had almost lost all hope: an email!! It was found by a member of the public in Portofino harbour! The labels and reward had worked and we now have full data from another sunfish including video footage! What a relief!


Our sunfish had filmed its day, including an encounter with another sunfish in the Tonnarella! The data we have received is really invaluable to my research and will help us to better understand this vulnerable species; how they travel, how much energy they need, what they eat and what the potential ecosystem-wide impacts might be if the current rates of mass removal of sunfishes continues. All this information will be useful for future management and conservation of sunfishes across the world, so I am really delighted!

Fingers crossed for more flat calm weather to get the next logger deployed soon!

sunfish filming sunfish

Any comments/questions? Please get in touch!

Email: nphillips01@qub.ac.uk

Twitter: @sunfishresearch

Instagram: Sunfishresearch

Sunfish season! A day in the life of a marine biologist!

What a field season this is turning into! From a nervous start to an average of 50 sunfish a day! I have more fish than I can work with, a complete turn-around from last year. As long as the weather is suitable, myself and my colleague Lawrence are out every day (we work early mornings, evenings, weekends!) if there are fish we will be there. Many people have asked me what a typical field day looks like, so here is a day in the life of a marine biologist!


  • 5:45 Get up, breakfast and triple check everything is packed for the day (sampling kits/weighing scales/accelerometer harness if deploying…)
  • 6:20 Leave to catch train from Santa Margherita to Camogli to meet the fishermen
  • 7:00 Meet the fishermen in the harbour where they are breakfasting after their 3-6am catch (luckily for me the trains do not run this early so I get to join the later morning haul!)
  • 8:00 Row out from the main boat to the moored barge where we prep the fishing gear and my sampling kits. Then the fishermen lay out towels and catch a quick nap while listening to ‘Radio Bambalayo’ (great 80’s music! My favourite moment was the spontaneous dancing and hauling to Karma Chameleon last week!) We have the best part of an hour to wait while the head of the fishermen, Maurizio looks in the nets to estimate our catch (and double check the nets are worth pulling up!) He uses a ‘spectaculor’ (similar to traffic cone with a glass base) to look through the water from the rowing boat for fish.

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  • 9:00 Start pulling the nets! It is hard work as the sun is high overhead by 8am in this region and it is hot hot hot! If any sunfish are tangled in the net mesh as we pull, then these are freed and passed to me to weigh, measure and sample before being thrown back and I rejoin the net pull.
  • 10:20 We reach the end of the nets where the fish are corralled between the two boats. I have approximately 20 minutes to process as many sunfish as possible while the fishermen tip their catch on ice and prepare to leave. Usually this means I can take full samples from 5 sunfish or deploy a harness and tag!

Snapshot 1 (24-06-2016 21-13).png

  • 11:15 Arrive back in port with my samples safely stowed, then head home to label and preserve them back at the flat.
  • 12:00 Start processing samples! All tissue samples need to be labelled and dried in tin foil boats in a small drying oven or preserved in alcohol for later analysis. Previous samples can be removed from the dryer, wrapped up and stored. All waterproofs and boat clothes need washing straight away to scrub off the sunfish mucus (which gets everywhere as they flap!) or poop (which is often projectile!) and all equipment cleaned up. All photos and video needs downloading and saving to file and all data on collected samples typing up.
  • 2:00 If we deployed a harness with accelerometer in the morning, we return to Camogli and hire kayaks to paddle the 3 km out to the fishing grounds and search for the harness using the radio tag that beeps when we are near. If no deployment, we filter water samples and collect invertebrates from local areas and store them for later isotopic analysis.


  • 6:00 Return to the flat for dinner and if I am lucky one of the trawlermen from Santa Margherita will have a box of fisheries discards for me to survey and take samples from as part of our studies on the local ecosystem. These often include small shark species like velvet belly lantern and cat sharks, crabs, octopus, squid and small fish.
  • 10:00 Prepare the sampling packs and repack the bags ready to start again in the morning!

It’s busy of course, but exhilarating! This is the best part of my year, the bit that makes all the stress of office work melt away. If the weather changes or the sea swell becomes too high for us to go out on boats, I’ll have a day at my desk working up papers and bits of analysis from Belfast or fixing equipment.


To date we have >30 sunfish sampled and 3 harness tags at sea somewhere (hopefully to return soon!!) So if you happen to be on the Liguria coast this summer and spot something bright yellow with a grey belt, grab it! 30 euro reward and my eternal gratitude!

Reward poster_cats

Any comments/questions? Please get in touch!

Email: nphillips01@qub.ac.uk

Twitter: @sunfishresearch

Instagram: sunfishresearch

Turning the beaches blue! It’s a Velella flotilla*!

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Although the sunfish scarcity continues, the recent stormy seas have washed up a variety of intriguing creatures as the waves cough up their flotsam onto the beaches. As I walked the beaches in search of sunfish harnesses and other potentially interesting finds, it appeared that the pebbles were littered with tiny pieces of soft plastic, like shredded shopping bags. Among the plastic bottles and tumbled logs, the beaches around Santa Margherita have been invaded by a thousand strong flotilla of ‘by-the-wind-sailors’ or Velella velella.

* I appreciate that Velella Flotilla sounds like something you might have as a snack with your morning coffee but I couldn’t resist. “Would you like a Velella Flotilla with that?”


Thousands of Velella’s in the breaking waves (photo credit Lawrence Eagling see more on his amazing photography website: eaglingphotography.co.uk).

These tiny creatures are remarkable for many reasons! Firstly, their shape means that they float on the sea surface, with tiny tendrils trailing the water for plankton like little fishing nets. However, rather than waste precious energy by swimming or pulsing, these animals have evolved to travel the high seas like the explorers of old: using wind power! The central triangle section acts as a sail, driving the Velella around the ocean. Intriguingly, these creatures come in two forms; one right-handed and one left-handed, with sails set to differing angles. The theory behind this is that if the prevailing wind direction drives all the right-handed Velella’s to strand on beaches, the left-handed population will sail to safety and re-populate.


Due to their gelatinous bodies, these are tiny creatures are often mistaken for jellyfish, however the truth is far more intriguing! They are actually classed as hydroids, (like the Portuguese Man Of War!), which are composed of hundreds of individual creatures, all working together to form a larger centrally functioning “body”. Each individual has a specialised function (from those that work in digestion of prey, to making the sail, to reproduction), but all benefit from the communal actions of the whole. Inside the living tissues, a central structure made of carbonate, acts as a skeleton to keep the boat and sail sections rigid.


Although the floating colony stage is the one most people are more familiar with, however this is just one of many stages in a complex life cycle. The colony will later release tiny medusa (a few mm long) which are the sexual reproducing stage and will release eggs and sperm into the water. The eggs can develop into tiny larvae which later develop into the floating colony again!


Illustrated Velella lifecycle (diagram found at bodegahead.blogspot.it, modification of original by Langstroth and Langstroth 2000)  

The recent rough seas here in Italy have driven large numbers of Velellas (usually found in the open oceans of warm temperate and tropical regions) to form huge aggregations, and some of which have been driven ashore. The good news for my research is that ocean sunfishes have been photographed eating Velella’s as a bite sized snack! So fingers crossed for some more sunfish soon🙂

For video of sunfish chasing down Velella’s check out this link: 

Monterey Bay Whale Watch

This beautiful photo shows exactly what I would love to see! Many thanks again to © Jodi Frediani for her kind permission to borrow this one and for more wonderful photographs check out her website: http://www.jodifrediani.com

Any questions/comments? Found a sunfish? Get in touch!

Email: nphillips01@qub.ac.uk

Twitter: @sunfishresearch

Instagram: @sunfishresearch