Dr. Steve O'Shea Interview
What follows is TONMO.com's exclusive interview conducted 5/10/02 with marine biologist Dr. Steve O'Shea. Subsequent to this, for several years, Dr. O'Shea was a member of the TONMO.com Staff.
TONMO.com: How did you get into this field?
Steve O'Shea: By a series of complete accidents. My first experiences with octopus involved catching them and turning them inside out to impress some young lass that I was mad keen on back in the dark ages. This never really got me anywhere mind you, so as a form of youthful courtship you can take it from me, don't waste your time with this one (in retrospect it was also awfully cruel, but I was only about five). I often wonder what happened to Louise.
To cut a long story short, I had developed this rather sensational shell collection from years of diving, dredging and deep-sea trawling around our coast, and had intended to research the systematics of a group of gastropods for a Masters thesis. However, a friend at the National Museum in Wellington, Bruce Marshall, had other ideas (he was also interested in that particular group of gastropods) and he gave me no option and 'pushed' me into working on the poorly known octopus fauna as a thesis topic. It took me years to forgive him! However, somewhere along the way I began to see some patterns in diversity, became hooked, and ended up working on them for a PhD also. I was now quite captivated with octopus, but didn't understand squid one bit (and this was quite recently - only a few years ago).
Well, one evening, winding down from a hard day, I had a chat with someone over a beer, let the fertile imagination run wild, just having a little fun you know and certainly not intending for it to go anywhere (and certainly not expecting anyone to remember anything the next day) - you have to be very careful who you talk to - and before I knew it I realised 'Golly gosh, I was about to go out chasing baby giant squid'. Well, I really didn't know what hit me, and to add to my woes I really disliked the camera (and it really disliked me); I also didn't know the front end of a squid from the back, what the baby squid looked like, and I sure didn't know how I was going to catch them and keep them alive. It was just a knucklehead idea that was to take me on some roller-coaster ride of my life. Well, we've come a wee way since. I just wished that I knew then what I know now.
TONMO.com: How many deep sea excursions do you typically make per year?
Steve O'Shea: Over the past 4 or 5 years I've spent anywhere from 1 to 3 months away at sea each year, but I am involved in quite a few different research programmes. Some voyages may last 2 or 3 days only, others a week or 2, and others a month, although later this year I'm scheduled for a 50 day seamount-sampling expedition. Usually I participate in 4-or-so trips a year, but often exceed this. Although I love it away, it can be very hard on the home life.
TONMO.com: What's your take on the ecological state of our world's oceans?
Steve O'Shea: This is a very difficult question. Although I read about, hear and am otherwise aware of the damage that is being done to ocean life globally, I really am in no position to comment on what is happening at this sort of scale. Locally, however, I am concerned.
For most people what goes on subsurface is 'out of sight, out of mind'. Organisations/industries/people exploiting the oceans as waste dumps or for commercial fishing activities either stand to save or make a tremendous amounts of money. So, as a conservationist you are battling some very serious obstacles - sadly industry and money speak volumes.
It is extremely difficult to determine (actually quantify) what the true nature and extent of marine impacts are, especially those in the difficult and expensive to sample deep-sea environment. But my gut feeling is that some of what I have witnessed is very tragic. If the same holds true on the global scale we really are in deep trouble.
TONMO.com: You recently went on a trip to observe marine life around deep-sea hydrothermal vents. What did you find?
Steve O'Shea: The fauna unique to these vent environments is rather spectacular, and very localised in distribution (anywhere from a few metres to a few hundred square metres in extent). We now know that our true vent fauna is characterised by dense beds of foot-long mussels, hand-sized clams, large starfish, and rather specialised crabs, prawns and barnacles. However, we determined they were true vent species only after extensively sampling non-venting adjacent environments. Whenever you sample a new environment, especially something limited in spatial extent like hydrothermal vents and cold seeps, there are many different species that are collected for the first time. In order to determine whether these new species are actually unique to this sort of environment you have to sample non-venting adjacent environments; only then can you determine what species are truly endemic to vents (as opposed to ambient deep-sea equally poorly known fauna.
As we get new species delivered to us nearly every day, from waters all around New Zealand (it is actually very normal when dealing with deep-sea life) it sends us a very strong message that we really know very little about the deep-sea environment in general.
TONMO.com: What are you working on next?
Steve O'Shea: I will continue with the larval squid capture and rearing research, and would like to have one more go at trying to catch the giant squid larva for the purposes of ongrowing it, but after that I've often thought maybe I should disappear from the documentary scene/public eye and concentrate on marine conservation issues (this is actually what I do do, by and large, for my 'real job') and behind-the-scenes cephalopod research, concentrating on small(!!!!) species. But you never know what opportunities present themselves in this game, so crystal-ball gazing can be a perilous exercise.
TONMO.com: We have a good number of aspiring marine biologists visiting TONMO.com. What word of advice can you give them as they pursue their studies?
Steve O'Shea: Give it everything you have got, live each day as if there's no tomorrow, and don't be concerned when things go wrong - things seldom go right the first time, or as planned.
TONMO.com: As covered in the recent Discovery Channel documentary, "Chasing Giants: On the Trail of the Giant Squid", you were able to make history by capturing and observing living, baby giant squid. Unfortunately the specimens did not survive the trip to port. Do you plan to give this another shot, and what will you do differently?
Steve O'Shea: Absolutely, we will certainly give this another shot. The research we are doing now is designed to develop the most appropriate tank environments in which to keep larval squid alive. We had already done a tremendous amount of work on this, but really hadn't got the system ironed out (although we were very close). As such, we'll not have to change our procedures that drastically, but we might look at shorter-duration expeditions in order to get those squid admitted into a stable environment faster than proved possible during the last expedition. We're also making a few adjustments to the net and catcher bucket design, and to our handling procedures. Lighting is also an issue, so we'll probably use low-level cameras next time.
TONMO.com: You've dissected a large number of giant squid. Can you think of any remarkable discoveries or experiences you've had while doing so?
Steve O'Shea: Hmmmmm. If I were to say 'no' you'd wonder what on earth I'd been doing all of this time. Well, the first squid I ever received was simply dropped on a wharf, and I received a call to come pick it up 'if I wanted it' (I wonder what would have happened if I'd said no). Obviously you cannot fit one of these brutes into the trunk of a car, so I borrowed a friends trailer, man-handled the 250kg defrosting thing onto it, then drove through town to work with trailer and squid, much to the amusement of passing motorists. Other memorable experiences would include the innumerable occasions when one of these animals has literally exploded on me while moving it from A to B (they are actually very feable in construction, and don't take too well to being hauled from a slab into a pickling vat... so seldom can you find people willing to help you move these animals - their smell really can be quite unpleasant - especially a day-or-so after you've handled them... you cannot get the smell out of your skin).
With respect to Discoveries I'm not so sure. It has just been a matter of painstaking dissecting of these animals to try and reconstruct their biology. There is still so much guess work involved that our 'discoveries' are more like theories. A few more of the theories will come out in the next documentary (there's so much about this animal that hasn't made its way to film yet). Watch this space.
TONMO.com: Curious -- do you enjoy eating calamari / squid / octopus?
Steve O'Shea: Several Thai-squid dishes would rank as my all-time favourites, but I am afraid I cannot tolerate octopus.
TONMO.com: All of us at TONMO.com agree that octopus and squid are fascinating, mysterious creatures. What other deep-sea creatures pique your interest, and why?
Steve O'Shea: Gorgonian, scleractinian and antipatharian corals, galatheid crustaceans, brachyuran crabs, starfish, echinoids and gastropods. In fact there is really only one group that I have limited interest in - I find them a little too difficult and too limiting in external characters - and they are the sea anemones. I'm just mad keen on general natural history, and like to understand a little about the biology, systematics and distribution of New Zealand marine life in general. However it doesn't take long to realise that you cannot view the fauna of one country in isolation, as these really are just political boundaries, so in order to more fully understand species distributions and dispersal mechanisms you quickly find yourself looking at deep-sea fauna from around the world. This is when it gets really interesting - and the more interesting something becomes the more insatiable your appetite to learn more also becomes; it's a real avalanche effect.
TONMO.com: Thanks very much for your time and for sharing your thoughts with us. See you on our Forums!
Steve O'Shea: I'm having a lot of fun on your site Tony. Great stuff, great people. Cheers, O