“Genie”, who passed away on February 25th 2015 at the age of 92, was a star so bright in my life that I feel cast into darkness. But my sadness is tempered by my good fortune of having her as a friend and mentor for 25 years – you should be so lucky.
Genie guided me in so many ways – as a diver and scientist, and in the ways of fishes, but also in matters of leadership, diplomacy and love.
I knew about her many years before we met. She was the “Shark Lady” renowned for her pioneering research on sharks. She was also “The Lady with a Spear”, the title of a book she wrote in 1953 describing her various scientific fish-collecting expeditions. Genie presented a treasured and aged copy to Dinah and me after her first expeditions with us aboard our live-aboard dive boat Telita in Papua New Guinea in 1987. She had vandalised the title page by inserting “out” after “with” and “now” after “Spear”!
So she abandoned the spear – but this necessary task was just delegated to me. When we needed to collect a few adult Convict Fish Pholidichthys leucotaenia. I had to sit near a burrow entrance, spear gun at the ready, to nail the tiny target, perhaps 2cm square, during the brief moment, if at all, that the adult showed its head. But I never missed; I could not let Genie down!
We discovered that the adults, at about 50cm long, lived permanently in burrows only ever showing their heads when spitting out sand from the burrow, usually in the evenings. The juveniles, in thousands, emerged from the burrow every morning at “wake up”, fed on plankton all day, and went “to bed” every evening. The questions we were trying to answer were “How do the adults feed? Were they cannibalistic?” Indeed, by using an underwater endoscope and a TV monitor we observed adults taking juveniles into their mouths – but then spitting them out again. On opening the stomachs of my collected specimens there were no skeletal remains to be seen, just green goo. It appears that the adults may survive on faecal or regurgitated material from the juveniles. All fascinating stuff!
As Senior Research Scientist and Professor Emerita at the University of Maryland Genie found a very clever way of funding her research field trips. Her amateur followers became research assistants on field trips funded by the Foundation – and these followers, who were many, enthusiastic and devoted, and often wealthy, made tax deductible donations to the Foundation covering the costs. We hosted two or three expeditions most years from 1987 until 1996. After this I joined Genie on other boats and also to the Solomon Islands and Indonesia (Komodo 2011).
By the way, verifying (not proving) the statement that the adult Convictfish never leave their burrows necessitated many rostered through-the-night hours watching a video feed from a camera pointed at the burrow to the TV monitor on board to make sure they did not sneak out. The volunteers had to be on call for monitor duty and dives at all times of the day and night. I often found myself in the water before dawn watching for Convictfish and Catfish wake ups, or Sand Diver mating. My tasks mainly involved photography but others may have counts or “ten-minute observations” to plot on their slates, to be transferred to “Kogge” sheets of data on board, named after the expedition’s “boffin” Steve Kogge. All the information ended up in scientific papers published, peer reviewed, in journals.
I became life-long friends with many enthusiastic divers, all characters, that made repeat expeditions with Genie over the years. A very few of her followers could be difficult, but still welcome on the expeditions because they were generous supporters and the money was important. Genie’s diplomatic skills would get to work and I was often called on to add Captain’s Authority to keep the peace, and this tested my patience too at times!
Genie was proud of her Japanese mother and inherited a taste for sashimi. On one expedition we brought up live Nautilus from 250m and photographed them as they swam back to the depths but Genie really wanted a taste – so we sacrificed one and nibbled on the raw muscle. Delicious! Also captured in our deep trap was an unusual Swell Shark. Genie kept the specimen and sure enough it turned out to be a new species.
Genie had no time for the standard diving rulebook and this suited me. In fact I developed one of my rules in her presence – “Never Dive Deeper (in feet) Than Your IQ”. Genie was astronomically bright and I assumed an IQ for her of 200. She would come on board, already well into her 60s, slightly stooped and careful in her movements, and proclaim the need for a 200ft (60m) dive. Soon she was in the water plunging to the depths for her Nitrogen fix. After the dive a transformation would take place. She was now spritely, flexible, smiling and full of energy. The benefits of deep diving were obvious to me and I soon became an aficionado myself.
When we started, the “Deco Brain” computer was all the rage however this was limited to 190ft (57m) before it went berserk. Following Genie down the wall I was bemused to see her dive computer stuck on a rock at 180ft (54m) while she was down well below 200ft (60m). At this time I modified my rule to include “…. IQ PLUS 10ft (3m) for every 1000 dives made”. This gave Genie a clearance to 300ft (90m), although I never saw her go past 280ft and recorded her (Suunto) computer once at 267ft. She would collect the Deco Brain on the way up and always made long decompression stops – sometimes on pure O2 that I had rigged. She dived on a tiny “65 cu ft.” single tank, and appeared completely immune to narcosis.
The problem was of course not Genie but rather some of her followers who had inflated opinions of their IQs … I was always happier if Genie was diving by herself or with one of our capable deep divers, particularly as she got older and certain followers considered she needed “help”. Ha!
We made deep dives not just because it felt good. We spent several seasons studying Sand Tilefish, Hoplolatilus spp. The adults of this genus live in pairs in burrows starting with Hoplolatilus starki which may be found on outer reef slopes as shallow as 20m. As we looked deeper we found different species – H.cuniculus; H. marcosi; H. purpureus; H. chlupati down to 60m. At this depth there is also a mound building species at the time known as H. fronticinctus now revised as H. randalli. This fish builds mounds of coral rubble (up to 40,000 pieces) and makes burrows in the mounds. As this was so deep we had to use remote tripod mounted videos to try to film the actual mound building and this led to one of my own personal scientific discoveries – “that it is impossible for a diver to both point a remote video camera in the right direction, and turn it on, breathing air at depths greater than 50m”.
So we recruited Emory Kristoff and National Geographic who brought out a small ROV. This flooded early in the expedition and became an Un-Remotely Operated Vehicle. John Pohle and I would swim it down to where we needed it then leave it – the camera functions still operated, controlled from the boat, and yes the monitor feed enabled still shots to be taken with the fish moving coral rubble in their mouths!
The highlight of the expeditions was the discovery by John Pohle of some particularly deep mounds at 75m. I dived to inspect them and realised I was taking a photo of a fish never seen before. No one else saw it so I persuaded Genie to stay on site for another day and sure enough it was a new species. The following year Richard Pyle collected a specimen on trimix, and I nominated the new species be named after John Pohle – as it eventually was Hoplolatilus pohle. Dinah and I had already been honoured with a Sand Diver discovery we made with Genie – Trichonotus halstead.
In 2008 I was able to visit Genie at her home in Sarasota and visit the fabulous Mote Marine Laboratory she had founded in 1955 (originally called “Cape Haze”). We spent a long private evening discussing life and love – she had five husbands, the second father to her four children Hera; Aya; Tak and Nikki all of whom I have been privileged to meet and dive with. She was wonderfully free of pretention and inhibitions and had an earthy, but never coarse, good humour. A large favourite painting displayed in her apartment featured human genitals – but well disguised so that the naive rarely spotted them.
Her observational skills were obvious the first moment I met her and she caught me out too. She asked me about my interest in Egyptian hieroglyphics. I was flummoxed until I realised that the “pretty” pattern on my swimming costume was in fact a frieze designed in ancient Egypt.
I loved the way she saw things. She was always ruthlessly objective with data, and then strict in conducting rational debate about these observations and never prone to fanciful speculation. Oh that today’s “scientists” would do the same. She emphasised how important negative results were, and was so thrilled when a particular observation was backed up by an image. Her followers all received generous praise and recognition for their participation. What a woman! I loved her!