Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#333: Scientific Names Can be Important

Forty years ago I arrived at Arrow Point on Catalina aboard the dive boat Golden Doubloon, ready to assume my new position as marine biology teacher at the old Catalina Island School for Boys after a few dives. My knowledge of California waters was very limited at the time. The Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean were more familiar since I had lived in northern Florida as a boy, did my undergraduate studies on the East Coast, and free dove off Italy and Greece the summer before I moved here. Therefore the critters I would encounter in the waters off the island were then unfamiliar to me. Of course I liked the challenge of learning an entirely new set of "characters" in the ecological play, but this was in the days of snail mail rather than e-mail and Google searches. After all, my Harvard classmate Al Gore had just invented the Internet!

I searched for the best local field guides I could find, but they were far fewer then than they are today. However, within the first month I would encounter a man with substantial knowledge of our local marine life, and more importantly the willingness to share his knowledge with others. I met Robert Given at the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center during a national conference for marine educators held at that unique site. He wasn't quite Dr. Bob then... that would come the following year.

Bob's surname could have been "Giving" instead of Given! He shared his knowledge gained through many dives in our waters. He gave me my first set of 35mm underwater slides that I used in my early classes at Toyon Bay, a big help since the first underwater pictures I took in Toyon Bay that year were next to worthless. Knowing access to good scientific literature was difficult to gain back then, Bob invited me to drive my trusty old M38A1 military jeep out to the lab so I could use the library. My busy schedule at Toyon didn't give me enough opportunities to do that, but I took advantage of the ones I could.

Over the 39 years I knew Dr. Bob, he accomplished much of great importance to our beloved island. In additional to his studies of the island's ecology, he undertook pioneering studies in diving physiology and deep air diving that many in the global SCUBA community have benefited from as well. Bob became director of the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center from 1975 to 1984. Along with another pioneer, Doug Propst, he was instrumental in helping the Wrigley and Offield families create the Santa Catalina Island Conservancy, and served as one of its Benefactor Members from 1975 until his death. Bob also helped form the Catalina Conservancy Divers (CCD) in 1992 and served as their primary educator about marine species and ecology.

In 1984 Bob continued his passion for biology and education, teaching at Marymount College in Rancho Palos Verdes. His giving nature won the hearts of his students, both in Marymount's classrooms and those of the CCD divers whose understanding of marine life he enhanced. It has been said that Bob was one of those rare scientists who could transcend the sometimes stiff and formal nature of some old school biologists, and make the biological world come alive for the non-scientist as well. When I became Vice President of the Conservancy, Bob and I often talked about how best to address the challenge of ecologically managing this complex island, and to educate residents and visitors alike about its uniqueness.

My last memories of Bob were of our talks the year before he passed away, either on "the wall" or outside the patio at Antonio's Cabaret. He cautioned me about checking for hidden melanomas, the initial source of the cancer that eventually took him. However, most of our conversations were about diving... which should come as no surprise! He talked about wanting to don his gear one more time and do one last dive in Catalina's magical waters. I told him I'd be proud to be his buddy on that dive! Unfortunately that never happened as Bob's health declined and he went to that "Great Tidepool in the Sky" the following February.

On April 1st of this year, another noted marine biologist with strong Catalina ties, Dr. Eric Hochberg at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, sent me a copy of a scientific paper in the journal Zootaxa by Nicholas Philipp and Daphne Fautin entitled "Three new species of shallow water, yellow zoanthids (Hexacorallia: Zoanthidea: Epizoanthidae) from southern California, USA and southern Australia. It described the "new" species, Epizoanthus giveni, as having the distinctive features of a "sphincter muscle with alveoli arrayed in a single, longitudinal column, polyps no longer than 8mm beyond the coenenchyme, obvious scapus ridges numbering 19 or fewer, and mesenteries numbering 36 or fewer" found only on certain islets off Santa Catalina and San Clemente Islands.

If you needed a dictionary to understand that description, I'll acknowledge I did too. I think Bob would probably get a big laugh at the wording used to define a species so commonly seen at Catalina dive sites like Ship Rock, Farnsworth Bank, Eagle Reef and Little Farnsworth. He had hoped for decades someone would finally describe this species and give it a true scientific name. And this name is special... since it was in honor of Dr. Bob! Of course Bob did not live to see this, but he was aware it was imminent. He did live long enough to be honored with the Robert Given Fund for Ocean Conservation created at the Conservancy by major donations from the Offield Family Foundation, Geoff and Alison Wrigley Rusack, and the Catalina Conservancy Divers... another fitting tribute to a man who gave so much to our island. I'm sure Bob is smiling somewhere "up there."

© 2009 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 49, 10:00 AM and 5:00 PM weekdays and on Charter Communications Cable channel 33 at 7:30 PM on Tuesdays in the Riverside/Norco area. Please help me climb out of self-imposed poverty... buy my DVD's (see this link). Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

"Dr. Bob" Given, the "yellow zoanthid" (Epizoanthus giveni) that now bears his name, and a solid wall
of these anemone-like invertebrates on a deep wall at Farnsworth Bank.

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2008 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia