Dr. Fish

A dive pioneer and a dedicated taxonomist for over 70 years, it’s doubtful there is anyone who knows more about fish than Hawaii’s Jack Randall.

Published March 15, 2016

Jack Randall seems much younger than 91. Sure, his legs are wobbly for an unexplained reason—“idiopathic neuropathy,” his doctors tell him—his shoulders have a bit of a hunch, and his hands are shaky, but his eyes are bright and youthful. They light up when he starts to talk about fish, as if he’s a young boy describing what he loves about his favorite candy.

And, just like a child surrounded by jars of treats in a candy store, much of the tabletops and shelves—and a good chunk of the floor—of Randall’s living room in his Kāne‘ohe, O‘ahu home are covered with jars of fish. There must be hundreds of pickled specimens sequestered in alcohol. And Randall has examined each and every one of them, determining the physical features—often as detailed as the number of scales in a row or rays in a fin—that set one apart from the next. The mess of jars, he explains, is because he’s describing new species (the rest of the clutter comes from his great-granddaughter, who is often at Randall’s home).

The fish garnering all this space and attention are Pempheris, commonly known as sweepers: small, schooling, nocturnal fish with compressed, hatchet-shaped bodies. Randall is reviewing all the species in this genus, describing any new ones he finds based on morphological differences, and fitting them all into a taxonomic key, a guide used to identify organisms to species. It’s fastidious work and every detail counts: dozens of characteristics are meticulously noted to determine the traits that set species apart. Collecting the fish is exciting and adventurous—Randall has dived on some of the most beautiful reefs in the world—but the actual process of identifying species is onerous. Taxonomists with the passion and patience of Randall are hard to come by, but so vital to our overall understanding of life.

Fish from the genus Pempheris await Randall’s scrutiny in his home office. Photo by Tracy Wright Corvo

“The house of an ichthyologist,” Rich Pyle says with a laugh, as he scans the field of containers. Pyle, who has popped in for a chat, is a fellow fish scientist and a former student of Randall’s. Neither of them will ever forget the first time they worked together, almost 30 years ago. It was the week that Pyle almost died. The two connected in Palau Islands, where Randall was looking for new fish species and Pyle was collecting fish for the aquarium trade. Randall enlisted 19-year-old Pyle to help collect fish from deep reefs—over 60 meters down, a hazardous zone for any diver, especially those with a youthful disregard for danger—and on the last day of diving, Pyle’s gear malfunctioned. In desperation, he shot to the surface. It was a dangerous move—a quick ascent can cause decompression sickness, or “the bends,” when air bubbles in the blood expand and wreak havoc—but Pyle had little choice. He survived, but ended up temporarily quadriplegic, a condition that reversed itself over several weeks of medical care.

“That was the best day of my life,” Pyle says, completely sincerely. “Everything that I love about my life all stems from that one day.” According to Pyle, Randall felt so bad about what had happened that he offered Pyle a job at the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum in Honolulu, where he still works today. Pyle became a graduate student of Randall’s at the University of Hawaii on top of his work at the museum, and met his wife, Lisa Privitera, while they were both pursuing their PhDs there.

Other scientists who have met Randall along their career paths share similar sentiments. “He’s helped so many people,” says Gerry Allen, a research associate at the Western Australian Museum and consultant for Conservation International. “There’s just a legion of admirers out there.”

Back in 1966, Allen was a fresh-faced graduate student who ambushed Randall on the pier for the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology. “I can still remember vividly, introducing myself and talking a mile a minute, trying to show him that I was a reef fish person and very much into the same interests that he had,” says Allen. “Even though I was just absolutely no one, I was just another student bugging him … he went out of his way to help me.”

Long-time friends and colleagues, Rich Pyle and Jack Randall. Photo by Tracy Wright Corvo

Allen became Randall’s first PhD student; Pyle was his last. Both credit Randall for inspiring their careers, including their interest in taxonomy.

“I don’t think there’s been anyone more influential in the field of ichthyology,” says Allen, allowing that the one exception might be Dutch ichthyologist Pieter Bleeker, who died more than a century ago, and lived during a time when the oceans were full of species no one had ever seen, let alone described. “[Jack is] an absolute living legend. There’s just no one that even approaches his productivity.” Randall has described more valid marine species than anyone, living or dead—about 790 of them, a number that still continues to rise. The next closest contenders have 100 fewer to their credit. “I’m ahead of everybody,” Randall says with a smile.

“I used to think I could catch up … but not anymore,” says Pyle, who is one of the most prolific fish taxonomists today, working on deep reefs—the last bastion of undiscovered species—that Randall simply couldn’t reach back in the day. “So that means nobody in the future ever will surpass [Randall’s] number.”

Part of Randall’s secret to success was being one of the first to study fish in their ocean habitat. He first dove in the mid-1940s, before the acronym SCUBA—Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus—was even coined. When Randall returned to the University of California, Los Angeles in 1946, after a stint in the US Army, he did his first dive using a chartreuse, jury-rigged tank and regulator he bought at an army and navy surplus store for about US $25. Since there were no instructions, he filled the tank with pure oxygen from a welding shop, a potentially disastrous move that meant he could have died from oxygen toxicity if he’d gone below 10 meters. But luckily, Randall—blissfully ignorant of the danger at the time—just used the rig to clean the bottom of his sailboat. His preliminary explorations with that tank soon came in handy when his ichthyology professor needed someone to collect fish for the class, as Randall was the only one with any scuba experience. He loved diving so much that he kept at it, eventually mastering the finer points of dive safety. He became one of the first scientists to use scuba gear, allowing him to access fish that no one else had ever seen.

Randall even pioneered wetsuits—sort of. He tried using long underwear to stay warm at first, but they didn’t retain heat. Then he got the brilliant idea to dip his long johns in liquid latex, creating a primitive wetsuit years before the first neoprene was used.

Jack Randall with his circa 1963 dive gear. Photo courtesy of Jack Randall

To this day, Randall has never taken a dive class or a certification exam, but he’s been on more dives than he can count, including one off Waikīkī on his 90th birthday. “I can swim better than I can walk,” he says, referring to his current reliance on a walker. “Maybe I’ll do it again for my 92nd.”

By the time he graduated from college in 1950, Randall was a seasoned diver and an accomplished sailor as well. He knew he wanted to continue in a career in which he could explore the oceans, so in July of that year he traded California for Hawaii and set sail for Honolulu to start his PhD. At an orientation for new graduate teaching assistants at the University of Hawaii, he met Helen Au, the woman who became his wife. “I still remember the dress she wore,” Randall says of that first meeting and Au’s orange dress with brown stripes. They were both teaching comparative anatomy and had to show students the reproductive systems of roosters and hens in an embryology lab. There was just one hitch—the chickens were alive. Randall had no idea what to do, but Au stepped in and snapped the birds’ necks. After class, Randall suggested that rather than let the meat go to waste they should cook dinner on his boat. “Our first date was eating dissected chickens.”

The two were married in 1951, and continued their partnership in life and science. To this day, she is Randall’s essential partner. She handles all finances and reviews every manuscript he writes before he submits them for publication. She also is the plumber and electrician for the household.

Randall was awarded his PhD in marine zoology from the University of Hawaii at Manoa in 1955, and in November that year, Randall, Au, and their young daughter, Lori, set off for Tahiti aboard the sailboat Nani to begin Randall’s postdoctoral research. Randall also stopped in Moorea, about 4,200 kilometers south of Hawaii, and noticed that many of the fish there were new species. In that year, he discovered about a dozen species unknown to science.

Taxonomists like Randall, Pyle, and Allen are important because their work forms the foundation for conservation—you can’t know what needs saving until you know what is living where. A lot of the animals that Randall and others have described are endemic: species that are found only in particular parts of the world. And, Allen adds, areas with a lot of unique species need exceptional protection. For example, Randall was one of the first to describe fish from Easter Island and the Îles Marquesas, many of which were not found anywhere else. “He really put [those islands] on the map as being places of special importance.”

Randall with a white tip shark off Kwajalein Atoll, Marshall Islands. Photo courtesy of Jack Randall

But as new technologies lead to new fields of scientific study, old-school taxonomists are becoming harder to find. Funding agencies want to spend money on “innovative” and “cutting-edge” technologies, not the skills of a bygone era and expeditions to discover the unknown. The advent of DNA sequencing has changed how species are defined and deepened our understanding of evolution, but traditional skills of evaluating morphological traits still complement the newer tech to give a fuller picture of evolution. Randall isn’t just a legend—he’s among the last of a lineage of taxonomists that dates back to Carl Linnaeus himself, the founder of our modern system of naming species.

Randall’s scientific and academic achievements are too extensive to list. He’s authored some 880 scientific books and articles—more than any other ichthyologist in history. In his most recent publication—about the Pempheris that litter his living room—Randall described 34 new species, bringing his total for described fish to nearly 800. There were only four species of Pempheris known when he started to look closely.

“Now,” Pyle asks Randall with a grin, “can you finally finish your memoirs?”

A growing number of people in Randall’s life have been harping on him to write his memoirs for decades, though none have been as adamant as Pyle. “He’d tell us all these great stories, and we were worried they’d get forgotten.” Pyle even offered Randall a deal when he helped with the layout and formatting of one of Randall’s many books: an hour of his time for an hour of Randall spent writing his memoirs. The book in the bargain—Reef and Shore Fishes of the Hawaiian Islands—was published in 2007, and Pyle is just now seeing Randall complete his end of the deal.

Randall’s memoir, Fish ’N Ships, recounts his colorful life above and below the seas, and will hopefully be published in 2016—if he can find the time to wrap up the final edits, that is.

But while Pyle and others want their mentor to get his memoirs finished, Randall says he’s still too busy. On top of the 34 sweepers described in the recent publication, Randall has another 13 species descriptions to write, based on the fish in the jars that still clutter his ne‘ohe home. And he knows there are more fish to be discovered, species living secret lives below the waves or hidden in plain sight among hundreds of thousands of jars in museums around the world. The nameless await their scientific introduction, as they have for centuries, since Linnaeus penned the first genus. Randall feels he’s kept them waiting long enough.