Denizens of the Deep

Bishop Museum scientist Richard Pyle was used to funding his risky deepwater research, so it was a bit of a shock when he was named to Esquire’s Best and Brightest and awarded a $45,000 grant from GE

Friday - December 30, 2005
By Chad Pata
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Pyle adds a new specimen to Bishop Museum’s fish collection
Pyle adds a new specimen to Bishop
Museum’s fish collection

Being named to Esquire‘s Best and Brightest is something most people associate with Brad Pitt or Alan Greenspan: someone flashy with a high Q rating.

So when a scientist who works in the bowels of Bishop Museum surrounded by dead fish and preservation alcohol got the phone call, he was more than a little shocked.

“They gave it to me for reasons I still don’t understand,” says Richard Pyle, Ph.D., who works in the biology department at the museum. “I thought they had to be kidding. I figured one of my friends was playing a practical joke on me.”

Not only were they not joking, but at the Best and Brightest Awards celebration he was chosen for a $45,000 grant from GE. This provided the first cash funding for a project he has been 20 years in the making, the nonprofit Association for Marine Exploration.

“I have always had to use my own money for the research so I could play by my rules,” says Pyle, a zoologist who has done extensive diving everywhere from Christmas Island to Papua, New Guinea. “For 20 years I have always been looking at stumbling blocks and now I don’t see any.”

The need for autonomy for Pyle comes not from a disregard for authority, but a disregard for his own safety. He and his crew are experts in deep-water diving, ranging from 200 to 500 feet - depths the average diver will never see.

Richard Pyle dives deep to explore the unexplored
Richard Pyle dives deep to explore the unexplored

According to conventional thinking - and government regulations - the diving they perform does not adhere to the safety rules put in place to protect weekend divers. So if someone else is footing the bill, such as Bishop Museum or UH, they would become liable for anything that went wrong.

“There is no way they could defend themselves in court,” says Pyle, a graduate of both Punahou and UH-Manoa. “They would bring in expert witness after expert witness saying what we are doing is wrong. And they would all be correct in conventional diving.”

But what Pyle and his partners have been doing is stretching the bounds to explore the unexplored. During an expedition to the Cook Islands in 1988, they began working with mixed gases - at the time considered to be foolish, if not suicidal - to allow themselves to reach depths that other ichthyologists had never reached.

Pyle was inspired by the body of work that his mentor, Dr. Jack Randall, had done when Randall began in the 1940s and ‘50s when scuba was first introduced. Prior to that, fish gathering at any depth had to be accomplished with dynamite or trawls. Utilizing the technology, Randall identified more than 650 new species of coral reef fish, making him the foremost discoverer of reef fish in the world.

Before Randall, the fish collection at the museum consisted of a 4-by-8-foot bank of shelves. It now looks like the warehouse from Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Pyle is looking to add his own wing to the collection.

Pyle says that much like Randall was the right man at the right time, the mixed gas diving he and his partners are doing will yield similarly magnificent results. They currently have discovered 100 new species, but he estimates there are thousands more to be found at the depths they now can reach.

This is the reason Pyle was considered one of the best and brightest, but it all almost went up in a billow of nitrogen bubbles when Pyle was just 19. A rising star graduating from Punahou, Pyle became disen-chanted with college and decided to move to Palau to pursue fish collecting.

While there, Randall came to the islands for a week and needed a dive boat and partner. Never having met him, but anxious to be around a master in the field, Pyle jumped at the chance.

Pyle and his divers are experts at deep-water diving, reaching depths of up to 500 feet
Pyle and his divers are experts
at deep-water diving, reaching
depths of up to 500 feet

On the final day of their dives, Pyle’s air pressure gauge failed him twice and that - along with some decisions only an over-confident young man could make - left him paralyzed by the bends from the neck down.

Ironically, exactly a year earlier his friend David Wilder had been injured in the same way during dives off of Christmas Island. Wilder has been confined to a wheelchair for life.

But Pyle was blessed with some redundant nerves, which when coupled with some hard work allowed him to regain use of his arms and legs. It took a year of recovery to return himself to normal and the doctors told him he should never dive again.

But his abiding passion for fish led him back to the water. Randall offered him a job at the museum labeling samples and changing out their preservation fluids. As for college, the only way that his dad’s insurance would cover him is if he was a student.

Amazing how a near-death experience and hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical expenses will cure college burnout.

Now a father of two, Pyle finds that he does not take the risks he did as a youth. Instead of spending an extra five minutes on the bottom, he returns to the top on time, and the equipment is light years away from the helium tanks he once used.

“The science has made it where we have a manageable level of risk,” he says “I always say the most dangerous part of the dive trip is the car ride to the boat.”

As for walking (or rolling) away from the water, it was never an option.

“The passion of discovery, the adrenaline rush of seeing something that no one else has ever seen is amazing,” says Pyle.

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