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


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