Bart Shepherd holds a hyperbolic chamber for fish in the Philippines

Six questions with Bart Shepherd, Director of the Academy's Steinhart Aquarium.

What is your favorite Academy exhibit?

I’m not sure if this is the same as “favorite” but I’m the most emotionally invested in the Philippine Coral Reef tank because I spent ten years thinking about it. Six years before we reopened in Golden Gate Park, I was in meetings with exhibit designers and contractors to talk about that tank. It represents an enormous amount of time and is one of the things I was most excited about working on in the new Academy.

Growing up, which ocean explorers influenced you?

I liked Jacques Cousteau. His boat, the Calypso, was docked for several years in Norfolk, Virginia. I attended Norfolk Academy from first to twelfth grade. Cousteau’s grandchildren (Fabien and Celine) went to my school during those years as well. I remember watching the film Dragons of Galapagos many, many years ago. I was intrigued by the animal life, especially marine iguanas, but what I really remember is laughing at these French guys jumping around on the sharp rocks wearing nothing but red Speedo bathing suits, trying to catch iguanas!

I have to say I liked the movie Jaws, too. I always wanted to be like the Richard Dreyfuss character, studying life beneath the sea.

Are you also studying the coconut octopus (Amphioctopus marginatus) at the Academy?

Yes, staff biologists Richard Ross, Marisa Avila, and I are writing a paper about the collection, transport, and husbandry of this species. It’s not a well-known species. There are some scientific studies documenting its use of tools. You see, it takes a coconut shell around with it like a portable hiding place. It’s a cool animal. It’s got a neat story.

Has an octopus ever climbed out of its tank here?

You know, I think that is part of the folklore of every aquarium. It seems as if every aquarium on the Pacific Coast that displays the giant Pacific octopus has a story about the night the octopus got out and the security guard found him. When I got here, I was told stories about how the crabs in the tank next door mysteriously disappeared—and were presumably eaten. But I’ve never witnessed it.

Still, I will never underestimate an octopus. They’re smart, curious, and they investigate their surroundings. They're escape artists. The only hard part of their body is their beak. So they can put their entire body through a hole that is surprising small compared to their anatomy.

How do you keep an octopus inside its tank?

We put AstroTurf all around the outside top of the giant Pacific octopus tank. It’s a good trick because, apparently, they don’t like to touch the AstroTurf. Their suction cups can’t get a hold of it. And for the smaller octopus, we have tight fitting lids with heavy weights on top. Otherwise, they’ll climb right out.

What’s your favorite animal on display?

I keep thinking back to the coconut octopus (Amphioctopus marginatus). Maybe it was seeing them in the field during the Hearst Philippine expedition. They were crawling around and playing with broken bottles in less than 10 feet of water. I think I watched them for 20 minutes. Their behavior and interactions are fascinating—they change color, they’re curious, and they investigate everything in their environment. That animal really appeals to me.

They’re in the Water Planet exhibit right now. They’re as small as your hand and very active during the day. I’m proud to say we’re the first institution to display that species.

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More About Bart Shepherd

Department: Steinhart Aquarium
Title: Senior Director, Steinhart Aquarium
Expeditions: 11
Number of Dives: 250+
Certifications: Open-Water diving, Advanced Open Water diving, Nitrox diving, diver propulsion vehicle use, Prism2 air diluent, closed-circuit rebreather diving

Steinhart Aquarium, Then and Now
Philippine Coral Reef Exhibit
Collecting Corals
Preserving Our Shared Resource
Giant Stingray in the Philippines
Chat with an Academy Scientist

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