Life Aquatic

At 83, Jack Randall has lived an exciting life, much of it underwater.


Photo by Olivier Koning

John "Jack" Randall is the senior ichthyologist at the Bishop Museum, but he's better known by a simpler title, "the fish man." Over the past 50 years, he's spent countless hours diving the deep blue to study fish. To date, he has named 649 new species, including more species of coral reef fishes than anyone else in history.

He's "the greatest living ichthyologist," says former student Richard Pyle, an associate zoologist at the Bishop Museum. "[His work] represents a race to find out what other life forms we share this planet with, before some are lost forever."

Randall's groundbreaking work includes the discovery of the cause of the fish poison ciguatera, and research on the hybridization of reef fishes and the food habitats of western Atlantic fish. "It's always thrilling to see a fish that you know represents a new species, and even more exciting when you succeed in collecting it," says Randall, whose fascination with fish started with an aquarium he kept as a teen in California. After earning his Ph.D. from UH Manoa in 1950, he studied fishes in Puerto Rico, the Florida Keys and the Virgin Islands and collected species throughout the Caribbean, Pacific and Indian oceans.

His adventures have ranged from the amusing to the amazing. In the late 1940s, he created his own wet suit, before the commercial version was invented, by dipping his long johns into a dishpan of latex rubber. At Johnston Island, he journeyed more than 1,200 feet below the surface in a submarine, where he saw fish that he "had known only as specimens or from scientific literature."

Thanks to his work, the Bishop Museum now holds a collection of more than 40,000 fish specimens-a virtual reference library for visiting scientists. Now 83, Randall doesn't dive as much as he used to. "But I did take two of my grandkids scuba diving a couple of weeks ago," he says, "and speared some fish that I needed for DNA analysis."

Saltwater Sex Changes

Photos courtesy of Dr. Jack Randall

How cool is this? Many species of fish undergo sex changes in their lifetime. Here are three Hawaiian species born female but become male later in life, all named by Dr. John "Jack" Randall:

Hawaiian Longfin Anthias


Masked Angelfish


Psychedelic Wrasse

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Honolulu Magazine November 2018
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