Publish Date: Aug/Sept. 1998
Richard Pyle: So Many Fish. So little time: A Fish Nerd’s Journey into the Twilight Zone (1998).
I did this profile of Richard for AQUA magazine a few years after aquaCORPS folded. A few years later AQUA folded. Pyle went on to finish his Ph.D and now works as an Associate Zoologist, Database Coordinator and Diving Safety Officer at Bernice P. Bishop Museum in Honolulu, HI. Pyle continues to work with Bill Stone and his company Stone Aerospace, which consults with Poseidon Diving Systems, the company that licensed Stone’s rebreather technology. Pyle remains one of luminaries of technical diving.
Below is the original profile as it appeared in AQUA “So Many Fish. So
Little Time: A Fish Nerd’s Journey Into the Twilight Zone.”
So Many Fish. So Little Time: A Fish Nerd’s Journey Into the Twilight Zone.
Where twilight zone’s
Dark walls plunge deep, numbed senses
Fight narcotic sleep.—John Earle
Richard Pyle has been down at 300 feet for nearly 60 minutes and has just about exhausted his repertoire of tricks without collecting a single new tilefish—his mission on this morning’s dive.
He’s tried the bombard technique—get as close as possible without scaring the fish and pounce with a hand net. It was way too fast. He tried to herd a pair into his fence net, a ten-foot long mesh cone, but they ducked back into their burrow.
The 31-year old graduate student is now counting on finesse to bag his fish du jour. “Here they come. Almost there, a little more. Gotcha!!?? Damn!”
Even at these depths, Pyle can afford to be patient. His bubble-less Cis-Lunar rebreather is designed to conserve a diver’s breathing gas—in this case, a mixture of oxygen, nitrogen and plenty of helium—giving him potentially hours of “narcosis-free” bottom time. But the prospect of returning empty-handed is weighing heavy on his mind.
He reluctantly turns his attention back to the assortment of small lollipop-colored fish that are swarming just beyond his reach. It’s the part of these dives he calls, ‘So many fish, so little time.’ The problem is always which one to go after first. “Brown goby. Low priority. I saw that soapfish at 200 feet. Jack collected one of those angels last year. Is that a new damselfish? No. There’s something new!”
He swims over to an unidentified yellow wrasse lolling near a coral head and easily nets the fish on his first try. Pyle’s dive partner John Earle, who scouted out the location of the tilefish as Pyle began his descent, is now decompressing on the reef wall some 260 feet above . Pyle prefers to work alone. He checks his computer. With a fish in the bag, and more than three and half hours of decompression to go before he can surface, Pyle decides it’s time to head for home.
To Richard Pyle, the unknown universe can be reduced to a huge aquarium where alluring treasures lurk behind every coral head. Ever since he first added seawater to a jar of sand and live rock as an eight-year old boy, Pyle has been obsessed with the idea that the ocean was teeming with unknown species waiting for him to discover.
And evidently he was right. The self-described fish nerd has gone where few have gone before, racking up finds that would be impressive even in the heady species-gathering days of the last century. Over the last two decades, he has discovered nearly 100 new species of coral reef fish, published more than 80 scientific papers, and in the process, pushed back the underwater frontier.
A hundred years ago, his position as a scientist-explorer would likely have been secure, along with the backing for continued expeditions. But ironically today, Hollywood may be a more accommodating patron for the 31-year old ichthyologist. It’s all a matter of time.
Wandering the huge floor amidst twenty thousand dive hawkers and gawkers, it’s easy to see what makes the annual Diving Equipment & Marketing Association (DEMA) exhibition the largest event of its kind on the planet.
I’m here to interview Richard Pyle who was flown to this year’s show in Southern California by rebreather manufacturer Cis-Lunar Labs to help showcase their new $15,000 hand-assembled, electronic Mk-5P rebreather—the brain-child of inventor and cave explorer Dr. Bill Stone. Pyle’s on booth duty this morning but we agree to meet for dinner.
That night over a cheap plate of fish and chips Pyle’s ready to talk about his favorite subject. “There’s nothing magic about finding new fish,” Pyle explained. “You just have to go where no one has been before.”
Laying 200-500 feet beneath the Pacific is a no-man’s land that few have visited, an eerie indigo world that separates the daylight from the perpetual darkness of the abyss. Pyle calls it the “Twilight Zone,” a dimly lit bridge between the highly diverse coral reef communities that dwell near the surface and the creatures down below. Too deep for conventional scuba and typically ignored by deep-diving submersibles, the deep coral reefs are virtually unexplored.
“It’s the last frontier of coral reef fishes, “ Pyle said. “There’s nowhere else in the world that you can find as many new species of fish in as short amount of dive time.” His dive partner Earle compares the experience to that of the first westerners to journey through unexplored Africa.
On their 1995 expedition to Papua New Guinea, Pyle and Earle collected nearly 30 new species of deep-water tropical fish. Two years later, they bagged 30 more on an expedition to Palau. A log of the trip is posted on Pyle’s website along with the disclaimer: The dives referred to on these pages are of an experimental nature and all persons involved are fully cognizant of the associated risks. Kids, don’t try this at home!
Because of the depth, these expeditions are not sanctioned by the University of Hawaii where Pyle is completing his Ph.D. dissertation or by his employer Bishop Museum. The American Academy of Underwater Scientists (AAUS) guidelines strictly limit scientific diving to 190 feet; recreational scuba is limited to 130.
Diving beyond 200 feet on conventional scuba is perilous. Having survived thousands of these air dives before getting his rebreather, Pyle knows the dangers first hand. He’s run out of air, survived near bouts with oxygen poisoning, has been “narked” so bad that he was unable to swim and breathe at the same time, and still walks with a limp as a result of a severe case of neurological decompression sickness that he suffered twelve years ago. But these incidents never deterred him from his course.
Why would someone risk his or her life for an unidentified aquarium fish?
“I’m clearly in the crazy category,“ Pyle admited. “I’m looking for fish, not the cure for cancer. But I’d rather be crazy than stupid. Stupid is getting into risky situations without fully understanding what you’re getting into.”
A few rare individuals are born with an exceptional gift that sets the course of their lives in motion. Perhaps in Pyle’s case it was an eye for fish and an innate need to bring order to the confusing mélange of underwater life.
Born in Kailua, Hawaii to a family of naturalists, Pyle’s predilection was evident from the first day he discovered the family aquarium. By age eight, Pyle had an aquarium of his own and began running collection trips out to island tide pools. Four years later, he was diving the shallow reefs, always discovering something new.
“Even as a kid, discovery was always the exciting part of fish,” Pyle said.
At age 13, he found an unidentified angelfish during a field trip to Palau that stumped the Waikiki Aquarium Director. It was his first significant discovery. Two years later, he was catching rare aquarium fish at 200 feet. Then during his junior year in high school, Pyle discovered a new subspecies of butterfly fish off Christmas Island. It was the first time that he had put a name to something. He was hooked.
“Finding something new, a species that no one had ever seen before, was an addiction,” he confessed. “It was a high that kept me going. ”
But soon after enrolling in the Zoology program at the University of Hawaii, Pyle’s fish finding career suffered a major setback. Pyle ran out of air on a 140-foot dive—the shallowest of three dives that day—and was forced to make an emergency ascent. Within seconds his body went numb. Minutes later he was paralyzed from the collarbone down.
After more than 28 chamber treatments he was able to walk, but the doctors told him that he would never dive again. Pyle would not be dissuaded.
“I knew that I was going to continue deep diving. In spite of how scary it was to be bent, the excitement of finding new things was so alluring to me that I knew it was what I had to do.”
Having spent a year recovering, Pyle returned to the water and was soon blowing off his University classes to make as many as four 200-foot plus air dives a day without incident.
“By today’s standards, that kind of diving is crazy. It shouldn’t be advocated or even talked about,” he said.“ On the other hand, probably 70-80% of my ability to deal with stressful situations came from those years of experience.”
The turning point came in 1989 when collector Chip Boyle invited Pyle to help him catch two new angelfish that he had spotted in Rarotonga. Pyle jumped at the chance. Finding one new species of angelfish was akin to finding the Holy Grail; you don’t find two new species.
Over 11 days of diving, they conducted 14 air dives ranging from 330-360 feet, deeper than Pyle had ever been before, and managed to collect the fish. He learned two important lessons from that trip: one, there were more new fish at those depths than he ever expected; and two, air diving was not the way to do it. It was just too dangerous.
“We got away with it without injury but I was narked for three months after that expedition, ”recalled Pyle who was shaken by the experience. “It was three months before I could start remembering phone numbers again.”
But his brain kicked back into gear when the 22-year old collector found an article by Dr. Bill Stone who was pioneering the use of trimix—an oxygen, nitrogen, helium breathing gas—as a “safer” alternative to air for deep cave diving exploration. An accompanying Rolex advertisement featured the experimental rebreather that Stone was developing. It was exactly what he needed.
Pyle dashed off a letter to Stone and few weeks later received a four-page, single-spaced reply and began what would become a five-year mix diving correspondence course under Stone’s tutelage.
Pyle was soon diving trimix but what he really wanted was to get his hands on one of Stone’s rebreathers. But he would have to wait until Stone’s planned rebreather company, Cis-Lunar laboratories, to get off the ground.
His opportunity came four years later in the summer of ’94. Stone had just returned from a cave diving expedition in Mexico and invited Pyle, now a graduate student, to spend 10 days at his house to train on the prototype rebreathers.
“By the end of the first week, I had fallen in love,” Pyle explianed. “I knew I had to have one of these things.” Within a month, Pyle had convinced Cis-Lunar CEO Richard Nordstrom to rent him and Earle two prototypes, figuring they could earn the money back catching rare deep-water fish. The two plunked down their cash and began racking up hours.
Over the two years as Cis-Lunar’s production units slowly began to take shape, Pyle emailed Stone a constant stream of ideas, design changes and proposed modifications.
“You can’t imagine the incessant electronic bashing that I got from him,” Stone recalled. “When we asked Pyle how the system was working, we were likely to get scores of pages detailing everything from its microscopic to cosmic ramifications along with a blow-by-blow description of his emotions at each step of the dive.”
But persistence paid off. In July 1997, Pyle cashed in the IBM stock he had been saving, Fedex-ed Cis-Lunar a check and took delivery on the first Mk-5P rebreather that rolled off the line.
Huddled around the large 21″ TV monitor, some three dozen rebreather aficionados are jockeying for position to see a preview of Pyle’s Palau expedition footage. Juggling my notebook and a plate of California-style guacamole, I edge my way into the throng.
It’s the first annual Rebreather Party being held in conjunction with the DEMA show. A hundred tekkies, military divers, industry execs, film-makers and a few scientists have come to talk shop, swap secrets and ogle the home-built rebreathers on display as they mill about the large hall. Pyle is one of the evening’s star attractions.
Clad in an angelfish T-shirt, worn jeans and old pair of Nike’s, the cherub-esque boy wonder is on his knees in front of the monitor talking his audience through a catastrophic system failure that forced him to abort a 350 foot dive. In his enthusiasm to get in the water, Pyle neglected to cap the rebreather’s drain plug. Five minutes after reaching the bottom, the rig flooded forcing him to switch to an open-circuit scuba tank that was fortunately stationed near by.
“Right here I couldn’t breathe.” His perpetual Dennis-the—Menace cowlick is bobbing up and down as he hits the fast-forward button on the VCR. Zzzzzzzz.
“Let me show you how stressful this bailout was. By the way, that’s a new genus of starfish.” Zzzzzzzz. The video shows Pyle calmly gliding up a coral encrusted embankment with a scuba tank in tow. Zzzzzzzz.
“Here’s John capping the plug while I do a loop flush.”
With over 300 hours on the rebreather, Pyle has mastered most of its intricacies but occasionally still trips up on fundamentals. Earle reports that in his eagerness Pyle sometimes forgets to do a proper pre-dive check.
“I recognize that it’s a shortcoming, “ Pyle acknowledged. “My nature to be is so focused on the big picture that sometimes the details slip through the cracks. I need to be more disciplined.”
Open-circuit scuba might best be described as the steam engine of diving: it’s simple and reliable. By comparison, diving an electronic rebreather is akin to piloting the space shuttle. It’s a complex life-support machine designed for inner space.
Originally developed to give military divers stealth—there are no bubbles—a rebreather mixes and recirculates a diver’s breathing gas. The system removes exhaled carbon dioxide from the breathing loop and electronically adds the proper amount of oxygen needed to keep the diver alive. An onboard computer system monitors all vital statistics and controls the gas supplied from a small cylinder of oxygen and one containing nitrogen or helium. By eliminating the bubbles, a rebreather can theoretically support a diver at depth all day.
In the fifties, the scientific diving community pioneered the fledgling field of scuba, but today the pioneering work is being done by self-funded explorers like Pyle who aren’t limited by liability considerations. The rebreather has enabled him to conduct dives that would have been impossible a decade ago. But it’s more than just a deep diving tool.
“The technology has a real value for scientists, there’s no question about it,” he said. “It’s not just for deep diving. It’s also for sitting there quietly, motionless on the bottom, and watching fish behavior. I have seen more fish sex in my first few dives with a rebreather than I’ve seen in decades of scuba diving.”
But the rebreather has become much more than a tool to the icthyologically-minded explorer.
“I’m so enthused about the technology that it’s kind of robbed my passion for science,” Pyle explained. “I mean, fish will always be number one, but this is coming up such a close number two that it’s hard for me to find time for other things.”
It’s a sore point with his University of Hawaii thesis advisor, ichthyologist Jack Randall, who according to Pyle has discovered more tropical reef fish than anyone alive.
Pyle has been working on his Ph.D. for almost seven years. His dissertation is a scientific revision of the angelfish family, the most popular of aquarium fishes. It’s a matter of dissecting and analyzing hundreds of specimens of some 90 species, and figuring out how they’re related—redoing the family tree. According to Randall, the current classification is in great need of change.
“He hasn’t really done much yet,” the professor explained. “He’s just getting down to work. The problem is he doesn’t have the time.”
Talking to Randall, it’s evident that he’s both proud and supportive of his protégé’s accomplishments, but when I asked him about rebreathers and the Twilight Zone he just sighed, “They’re not his thesis.”
Pyle says that time is his biggest limitation.
“When I started graduate school, it was deep diving competing with a full-time job, competing with aquariums and the Ph.D. I wasn’t making any progress. The Ph.D. suffered. Something had to go.”
Pyle got rid of his aquariums and discontinued his monthly aquarium articles. But then in 1994, he married fellow marine biology Ph.D. candidate Lisa Privitera. The following year Lisa gave birth to their daughter Cara.
“Now I’ve got my family, deep-diving, a full-time job and the Ph.D. Of the four, I can’t neglect my family and I have to work full-time. So it’s an issue between diving and the Ph.D. I’ll probably never use it, but it’s one of those things I need to get. I want that degree in the bag.”
But to do that he needs six uninterrupted months and he’s hard pressed to find the time.
It’s lunchtime at Honolulu’s Bishop Museum and Pyle is hunkered down in front of his computer chowing down on a couple of Woody’s hot dogs and eyeing his collection.
His treasures, some 200 rare coral reef fishes that are now floating heads-up in alcohol—many of them waiting to be described and named—stare back at him from the confines of the glass specimen jars that line the book shelves and countertops of the cramped, fifteen by six foot office. So many fish, so little time.
Pyle spent the morning updating the Museum’s marine invertebrate holdings data in Visual Basic—his day job as Bishop’s resident database wizard—but right now he’s day-dreaming about what he wants to be when he grows up.
“When I was little, I dreamed about being a marine biologist,” he said. “To wake up in the morning and say, I’m gonna go diving today and discover something new about the ocean. To me that freedom was what was attractive about the science thing.”
But science has changed. In the competition for grant money, institutions have become more bureaucratic. Scientists are spending more time writing grant proposals and administrating than conducting research, and liability has become a major concern.
“The freedom is sort of leaching out of science,” Pyle lamented. “There are more rules, more politics and it’s much more difficult to get funded. ”
Today institutions increasingly favor research with practical application. But marine biology is far down the list and grant money and jobs have dwindled.
“The kind of thing I do has little practical value,” Pyle said.“ Who cares about finding a new species?”
Hollywood just might.
Last year Pyle teamed with Los Angeles filmmaker Ken Corben to film his Palau expedition for a Discovery Channel special titled, “Mysteries of the Twilight Zone,” which aired this April. Discovery funded the entire expedition and for Pyle it’s a promising alternative.
“The Discovery folks were great,” he said. “They were very good about letting me call the shots—where we dived, what we did and how we did it.”
Pyle also collaborated with Corben on a hammerhead shark film for Discovery titled “Hammerhead Nomads of the Deep,” which will run during Shark Week this August.
Now Corben wants to retain Pyle for a film project that he’s pitching to handful of potential backers. The inspiration for the project is pure Pyle—replicate the spirit of the legendary 1873 HMS Challenger expedition, a three year voyage to discover new marine species throughout the major oceans of the world. If the project is funded, Pyle would have the money to take six months off work and complete his Ph.D. His hopes are high.
But Pyle’s bigger concern is what to do when he finishes. Today, ichthyologist jobs are hard to come by—a single job opening typically draws 150-200 job applicants.
Stone is emphatic, “Pyle should be writing books and producing underwater movies instead of going to grad school. He has all the trappings of a nascent nouveau Cousteau.”
The self-made fish nerd dreams about doing science on his own terms.
“My goal is to get a million dollars so that I can travel, dive, find new species, come back, describe them, and publish articles,” Pyle exclaimed. “I want to have the financial freedom to just go out and do it.”
But he admits that he doesn’t know exactly how he’s going to do that.
“I’ve learned that the best way to get what you want is not to try too hard to get it. It’s like fish—you never chase them, you wait for them to come to you.”