We thought it would be fun to do a series of “7 Questions” with people in the industry and hobby. Our first candidate is a Matt Wandell, a marine biologist at the Steinhart Aquarium at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. Throughout the years, we have been able to get to know Matt better and appreciate his insight to rare and unusual fish as well as his great sense of humor. So without further ado, here are 7 Questions with Matt Wandell:
Reef Builders: How old were you when you had your first aquarium? Tell us all about it.
Matt Wandell: I was 20 years old and a poor college student. It was a 25 gallon tank with an Eclipse filter that I intended to keep an octopus in, and it slowly changed into a reef tank. It was a complete disaster. I didn’t know anything about keeping an aquarium and back then, the availability of information was hard to come by. My next tank was an 80 gallon reef tank which was much more successful.
RB: What is your favorite fish?
MW: Trick question! It is really hard to nail down a favorite. Fish are why I keep aquariums; the corals are just a pretty and challenging backdrop. I love wrasses, angels, and fairy basslets, and have planned my dive vacations just to see some of the rarer species of these in the wild. My favorite angelfish is the Ballina Angelfish, which can only be seen in the wild near Lord Howe Island. I visited Lord Howe in 2011 but weather did not cooperate with my plans to make the long boat ride to Ball’s Pyramid, the tiny island where they are found.
My favorite anthias is the Harlequin Anthias, which is only found on a small section of coastline on the east coast of South Africa. This area also happens to be prime habitat to see the King Angelfish, another extremely rare fish. In 2013 I was able to visit Kwajalein, an atoll in the Marshall Islands, a rare wrasse lover’s dream. Here you can see the Johnson’s, Girdled, and Rhomboid Fairy Wrasses all in one place. I also love weird fish that are perfectly adapted to the tiny part of the world they occupy. Ghost Pipefishes and Pygmy Seahorses are some more favorites, and I have been fortunate to be able to breed these fishes in captivity at the Steinhart Aquarium. If I had to pick a single favortite species, it would be Hippocampus bargibanti, THE pygmy seahorse, which is probably the best example of mimicry and camouflage among all fishes.
RB: What made you want to be a marine biologist?
MW: Ummm, to get paid to take care of aquariums? I fell in love with saltwater aquariums first. Then I made it a profession. Then I got hired as a “marine biologist” at my current career. Honestly, I make a pretty poor marine biologist though. I do have a degree in it, but I can’t tell one whale or dolphin from another, and I can’t identify most sharks unless they are very familiar ones. My passion is pretty much limited to animals that are found in and around coral reefs and how best to take care of them.
RB: How did you end up working at the Steinhart Aquarium?
MW: Back in 2005 I learned that the Steinhart Aquarium would be opening a 200,000 gallon reef tank in 2008, and that they would need employees. Since I didn’t have any opportunities to become an astronaut in my near future, I settled for this second best dream job. I started volunteering every week, and apparently impressed somebody enough to hire me, and I began working as a full-time paid algae scraper in 2007.
RB: What is your least favorite maintenance chore and how do you make it better?
MW: Probably scrubbing algae. Working at a public aquarium requires that we keep our exhibits very clean at all times, including the back walls. I like using Mighty Magnets and Magic Erasers to clean a lot of my tanks, and we have plastic backdrops that we can remove from the tank and clean with a dilute hydrochloric acid solution to remove calcareous algae. Some of this I do myself, but I try and have volunteers do as much as possible.
RB: What do you think the biggest advancement has been in the hobby in the last 10 years?
RB: What question do you get asked the most?
MW: That’s a very easy one…”How tall are you?” (I’m 6’9”). The second most asked is “Do you play basketball?” (Yes, but not well).
For being a part of the series, Matt gets to choose the next candidate. His selection? Joe Yaiullo, Curator/Co-Founder at the Long Island Aquarium.