Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Renaissance Man

Meet John Earle, Homo universalis extraordinaire!

How to describe the man?
For sure, a bonvivant and raconteur. A sportsman and adventurer. A brilliant analytical mind. A Philosopher. Meticulously attached to minutiae whilst never forgetting the Big Picture. Wits that always manage to crack me up. Husband to formidable (and obviously, endlessly tolerant) corporate lawyer Jackie. Father and, I think, grandfather (at which, having become biologically redundant, he had to devote himself to other worthwhile tasks).
Bachelors degree with honors from Princeton University. Ex Navy and airline pilot. One of the original Hawaiian surfing bums. Extreme climber. Accomplished fly fisherman. Dives since 1957 and once "cornered" the market for rare endemic Hawaiian shells, pocketing a small fortune in the process. Has three fish, two shells and one shrimp named in his honor.
Did I miss anything? Most probably!

Certainly once a reckless mad dog, John must have somewhat mellowed as time went by.
His latest, and passionate incarnation sees him as a Research Associate in Zoology at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu and fervent disciple of Prof. Dr. John E. "Jack" Randall, the unmatched guru and elder statesman of Fish Taxonomy, considered by many to be one of the more tedious disciplines of Ichtyology.

Did I say: "mellowed"? And: "tedious"?
With Jack having described every reef fish all the way down to the limits of certain death by DCS, John and fellow researcher, and desperado, Dr. Richard Pyle decided to strap on a couple of Cis-Lunar MK4 closed circuit rebreathers and headed straight down into the twilight zone.

Several near-death experiences and quasi fatal decompression accidents later, they are considered to be the pioneers of tech diving and deep water exploration. With every dive yielding one or more new species, they have thus positioned themselves smack at the very cutting edge of science.

I first met John in July 2002 when he and Jack joined Pelagian's infamous Voyage of Discovery from Kimbe Bay to Rabaul, PNG. The trip yielded Amblyeleotris neumanni, a pretty shrimp goby from remote Lolobau Island and my very own ticket to immortality.
Like most people touched by Jack, we became friends and have since tried to keep contact, not an easy feat considering his ever busy ichtyological schedule and my own erratic girovagations.

When we established Shark Reef Marine Reserve in 2004, John was gracious enough to fly in and conduct a first baseline fish count.
267 species in 7 dives represent a (and I cite) "high species count for a few dives in a limited area, especially considering that the presence of large sharks distracted somewhat from a focus on smaller fishes. The fauna of Shark Reef is exceptionally rich."
Ceci-dit, it was always obvious to me that the condition of Shark Reef was way below its true potential. The hard corals were just beginning to stage a tenuous comeback after the double whammy of the 2000 coral bleaching and tsunami; and the reef had been transformed into a garbage dump by the previous operator, thus tipping the balance in favor of predators, grazers and scavengers.

Four years later, the coral is thriving and we've substantially reduced the amount, and augmented the quality of introduced nutrients.
John enthusiastically offered to come document the changes to the ecosystem. Having achieved mental mastery over 5,000 fish species along with all of their distinguishing features, he's now a scientific silverback in his own right, all the way to turning up with a wise man's beard and his very own first disciple, Rob Whitton, a young, smart, promising computer whiz.

And boy, what a harvest this has been!
Preliminary findings point to a much more balanced ecosystem harboring over 370 species, and counting, among which such oddities as Cockatoo Waspfish and Longtail Ghostpipefish.

And there's more: at least 2 range extensions, among which the spectacular hovering shrimp goby Stonogobiops yasha.
Last time I saw one of those was in 2002 in Palau. At that time, I was still a photographer and my attempt of getting the ultimate picture of both gobies together with both shrimp, a blue-faced shot at 43m on Nitrox 32, earned me both 125% EAN and a permanent excommunication by my trusted Aladin Computer.
This time, yasha was peeking out from a hole in the midst of a colony of equally beautiful Yellownose Shrimp Gobies. Must be that the presence of large sharks had so far somewhat distracted me, too.

And, very possibly, Shark Reef might boast the presence of not one, but a whopping three species new to science!
Two shrimp gobies are "cf", i.e. comparable (yet clearly different) to known species, requiring DNA sampling. One, a dragonet, is obviously something brand new, triggering a Code Red Capture Alert from Jack in Hawaii.

Click the pictures and judge for yourself!

All-in-all, very very cool indeed!

And, what next?
I cite John: "...........our return next year with collecting gear to capture these species and surely add more to the list. On our last dive I added 4 additional species to the list, so the well is not dry and the count could eventually exceed 400 species. This is astounding given that I have not used ichthyocides….yet. A little whiff of rotenone does work wonders in convincing recalcitrant Amblyeleotris to become scientific specimens."

Watch this space!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...