Becoming a Naturalist – On The Water

bay scallop
The beautiful blue eyes of a bay scallop.

Since my first fishing trip at the age of six, I have been fascinated with marine life. I wanted to learn as much as I possibly could to “outsmart” the fish I was going to target on my next fishing trip. After every outing, I grabbed my Peterson Field Guide of Atlantic Coast Fishes and absorbed as much information as I could on each of the species I encountered. It was not long before the pages of that paperback began to fall apart, but I still had many questions.

In addition to fishing, I grew up surrounded by aquariums. It was one of my father’s hobbies, and I sat in front of the fish tanks for hours. I was fascinated by all the interactions that took place among the community of fish. Although he only kept freshwater aquariums, I saw the hobby as a way to gain valuable insight into the mind of a fish. After some trial and error, I had a basement fish-room full of saltwater aquariums, windows into their world.
Aquarium observations worked to an extent, but I was limited to what species I could keep. Since my largest was only four feet wide, I couldn’t keep many of the game fish species I targeted. As supportive as my parents were, I knew they would not allow me to take over the family swimming pool to increase my fishy knowledge.

humpback whale breaching
A humpback whale breaches off Long Island.

At the age of sixteen, I was old enough to become scuba certified and able to witness the underwater world of the fish firsthand. My first dive was at the Ponquogue Bridge in Hampton Bays (NY), a bridge where I had spent countless hours fishing. Within minutes of plunging below the surface, I witnessed a summer flounder change its color before my eyes to match the bottom as it swam along. I saw schools of striped bass patrolling the shadow line of the bridge. Behind every large piling was a large blackfish plucking crabs from the bottom. This first dive was an amazing experience. I was finally starting to understand some of the basic “rules” of fishing. But, after each discovery, I had even more questions. How does a fluke change its color like a chameleon? Why do striped bass stay in the shadows? How can a blackfish digest such a hard-shelled meal without tearing apart its insides?

After reading books, observing their behavior in aquariums, and seeing their world firsthand, I knew more about fish than I did at the age of six, but I was thirsty for even more knowledge. The next logical step was to become a marine biologist, so I attended Southampton College, where I earned my BS degree in marine science. While studying, I learned that I was more interested in ecology (the branch of biology that deals with the relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings) rather than fish physiology (the study of how a living organism or bodily part functions). Learning how a fish’s swim bladder helps it maintain buoyancy was interesting, but it was not going to help me understand why we target blackfish on hard bottom structure rather than an open, sandy bottom.

summer flounder
A summer flounder blends in with its surroundings, ready to ambush prey.

After graduation, my family and friends assumed I was an expert in all things fish, but that could not have been further from the truth. The only thing I had mastered was the thirst for more knowledge.

Now, for 30-some years, I am still gaining knowledge. As the manager and naturalist for the Marine Sciences Center for Stony Brook University, I am surrounded by world-renowned researchers who are studying all aspects of the marine world. Through my Fish Guy Photos business (@fishguyphotos on Instagram), I am constantly observing the natural world around me. For the last six years, not only have I shared this knowledge with you, I have personally learned something new with each article I wrote.

The takeaway of this article is that you never stop learning. Through careful observation, you will become a better angler and (I hope) you will quickly learn to better appreciate each outing for the experience rather than how many fish you put in the cooler.

With a degree in marine biology from LIU/Southampton, Chris Paparo is the manager of Stony Brook University’s Marine Sciences Center. Additionally, he is a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America and the NYS Outdoor Writers Association. You can follow him on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter

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