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Book Review: (& Input)

A Fascination for Fish; Adventures of an Underwater Pioneer

David C. Powell
Foreword by Sylvia A. Earle
339pp, Hardbound, $29.95
2001, Publisher: University of California Press, www.ucpress.edu
Monterey Bay Aquarium www.montereybayaquarium.org

by Robert Fenner


There are few written works on the folks who have produced public aquariums, captive science and technology, and underwater innovation. Here is a first-person work that covers all three in following the life and career of David Powell. A span of some five decades spent pursuing and enjoying building out exhibits, collecting specimens and dealing with the "human" sides of our interest.


This is a personal narrative of Davids time as an adventurous diving youth (in the days when gear was quite "experimental") to many years designing, helping run some prominent west coast (US) public aquariums (Marineland, SeaWorld (starting with George Milay), Steinhart (under Earl S. Herald), and the Packard's fabulous Monterey Bay Aquarium (since its inception till a couple of years back)… designing, engineering, constructing exhibits… collecting and tending to their livestock. A couple of quotes will grant you an understanding of this man's philosophy and composition of this book.

On attending Dr. Boyd Walker's intensive ichthyology course at UCLA: … "there's something seriously lacking when all you see is the grotesque dead body of a pickled study specimen. Swimming with (sic) fish in their own world, collecting them, and keeping them in an aquarium environment are the ways to really understand these creatures." I'm sure we all agree.

On marine mammal shows: "I found the animal shows trite and anthropomorphic, but what the animals themselves could do was most impressive. Animal behaviors that today are accepted as no big deal were truly amazing then."

On the job of professional aquarists: "Outsiders often wonder what exactly aquarists do. Feed the fish? Well, yes, but there's a whole lot more. The number one requirement of a good aquarist is to have a fascination with nature and, in particular, a love of animals and a feeling for what they need. This means, simply, that an aquarist must have an indefinable ability to "read" an animal and tell just by looking how it's doing."

What this Reviewer Particularly Liked:

The clear, descriptive, straightforward description of what was seen and done. There is no mincing of words or feelings here. David was not always given latitude to do his best for the institutions and upper management he worked for, and he makes this exceedingly clear.

Aquarists, divers of any "depth" (experience, time) will appreciate the stories related here. Anyone who has an interest or time spent in the Public Aquarium field will greatly enjoy and gain from a close reading of this book.

What I Didn't particularly Care For:

Hope it doesn't sound too picky, but labeling kelp/seaweeds as plants, calling more than one species of fish "fish" (rather than fishes), stating that he "dove" rather than dived… are unworthy mistakes.

With his vast experience I would have liked David to expand on many of his ideas with examples… one of my common oversights as a writer as well.

Conclusive Remarks:

For the price, readability, sheer fun of going through, "A Fascination for Fish" is a bargain and more. For thirty dollars you will receive hours of entertainment, inspiration, and a kinship with a true aquarist.

A sad note re David Powell's last employer (he still does consulting and exhibit design freelance), the Monterey Bay Aquarium. While promoting the aquarium interest here, it's a shame and a hypocrisy that the Monterey Bay Aquarium has made the choice to stop carrying "pet-fish books" in their gift shop and e-tail businesses. While attending this years (2001) Western Marine Conference in Monterey I had a chance to talk with the Book Buyer there re this issue. He stated that the organization had fell prey to local pressure to drop such offerings as "they thought/felt it sent the wrong message" to the public… On my asking exactly what this "message" was, he stated that "the aquarium hobby is harming the environment"… This work was subsidized...



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