35 year mystery solved: the search to find the object that inspired my career in fish science

Written by Patrick Cooney

I regularly get asked, “What inspired you to become a fish scientist?”

For 35 years, I was unable to properly answer this question because the answer was tied to an object…an object I last saw with my own eyes in the summer of 1986 at the age of 6 years old and have not seen since…until 3 months ago!

This story documents my journey to find the object that inspired me to become a fish scientist.

The Synopsis

In 1996, I sat down to write my college application essay about what inspired me to choose the path of studying to be a fish scientist.  The process made me realize that a childhood item I relinquished possession of 10 years prior was the initial inspiration to who I was becoming.  From that moment on, I began an on-again, off-again 25-year search to locate this object to help me better understand my origin story as a fish scientist.

From time to time, I could see a blurred image of the object in my mind.  I concentrated on the blurred image to grasp at any identifying detail to better ascertain how I could get my hands on this object once again.  Then: ZAP.  The image would disappear into a vast sea of nothingness with no additional clues to help me in my quest.  I would be left no closer to properly answering the question I so frequently get asked about what inspired me to be a fish scientist.

At times, I became obsessed with locating the object.  I searched wherever I could and went so far as to place phone calls to strangers who may have clues to ask for help in finding it…but I always came up empty handed.

And then, just when I thought I had exhausted my best options to find answers, a breakthrough happened that helped solve the decades long mystery and once again bring it back into my hands after a 35 year absence.

The Origin

From a young age, I was drawn to animals.  My room was filled with books and posters about animals. I craved access to anything that gave me knowledge about animals. My favorite television show was Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. This show focused a lot on land animals, and therefore, I was initially drawn to land animals.

While in 1st Grade in 1986, I remember going to the school library each day to pick out books to read.  While most kids headed to the children’s reading section, I went to the science section and picked out different animal identification books.

Then one day, I found it.  A book about fish.

Little did I know that this would not be the first time in my life that I would be exhilarated about finding this book.

There was something about this book that spoke to me.  The fish were so weird looking and fascinating.  I never knew that such diversity existed in the world of fish. Of all the fish illustrated in the book, I thought the pipefish looked the strangest…almost like a dragon!

I checked that book out over and over and over again and poured over it, soaking it all in. My quest for knowledge became hyper focused on fish, and this book had what I was looking for.

As the end of the school year approached, we were told to pick one book out to take home to read for the summer and return it at the start of the next school year.  Of course, I picked my favorite book about fish.

My mom saw the passion and fascination I had for reading this book and identifying and learning about fish.  She explored more ways to expose me to my passion about fish. Only two years prior, in 1984, the Monterey Bay Aquarium had opened its doors.  My mom, always the champion, packed up the car and took me and my brother on a road trip to Monterey, California in the summer of 1986 to see fish in real life.

The 1985 Grand opening of the Monterey Bay Aquarium…just 2 years before my Mom took me and my brother for a visit.

I still remember that day at the Monterey Bay Aquarium vividly.  I remember the smell of the salt in the air and the giant deck that hung out over the Pacific Ocean at the end of the old Cannery Row.  I also remember seeing the old building that once served as a fish science lab for Ed Rickett, a real life fish scientist who inspired the character “Doc” in a book I am now fond of: Cannery Row by John Steinbeck.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium in 1986 overhanging Monterey Bay and the Pacific Ocean.

That day at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, I first witnessed the fish swimming, interacting, and coming to life in ways I had not imagined.  The gentle sway of the giant kelp forest shifting back and forth.  The leathery feel of the sea star and sea cucumber in the touch tank. My senses were activated and my desire for more knowledge reached new levels.

Me at the Touch Tank at Monterey Bay Aquarium in 1986.
My brother at the Touch Tank at Monterey Bay Aquarium…with me just behind him (see my finger!) feeling the leathery skin of a sea star.

I remember asking my mom while at the aquarium to please not tell me the names of the fish that were displayed next to each tank.  I asked her to let me look through the book I had brought to see how many I could name. 

When I witnessed the pipefish at the aquarium, I jumped for joy, then flipped to the page I had peered at hundreds of times and showed my mom and brother the pipefish in the book. I can perfectly visualize this moment of excitement and replay it in my head like I am still there.

I can look back and easily say that a spark of interest and a lifetime of fascination were ignited by a book about fish then fully set ablaze by that trip to the aquarium. Hopefully you can now imagine why this book plays such a huge roll in answering the question, “What inspired you to become a fish scientist?”

The trip ended and the summer came to a close. The book was brought back to the school library.  I had worn the book out and curved its pages.  I wanted to keep checking that book out, but my teacher and the librarian asked that I broaden the books I was reading beyond the singular book I had read over and over and over again.  At their request, I moved on to other books and never saw that book again…or so I thought!

The Search

As I sat down in 1996 to write my college application essay about my passion for studying fish, I realized the importance of this book and attempted to revisit specific details. After a decade, only blurred images floated in my head.  Little did I know in 1986 that this book would play such a critical role in shaping my entire life. And little did I know in 1996 that I would go on a 25 year search looking for that book.

The blurry image that stuck with me the most between 1996 and 2021…the one that would disappear when I tried bringing it into focus for any clue to help me find this book… was the illustration of the pipefish.  I could see it at the bottom left-hand side of the page somewhere in the middle of the book. 

Unfortunately, this was my best clue to help me find the book.  True, it was not a great clue…but it was a clue. If I could find this illustration in a book, I would know for sure it was the book that inspired my career.

A blurry image that ran through my head for 25 years with a pipefish in the bottom left corner.

Any time I entered a library or a used book store, for 25 years, I searched through fish books for an illustration of a pipefish on the bottom left side of a page.  Hundreds of books checked…no luck.

I searched the internet with a myriad of search options.  No luck.

I asked people who worked on pipefish if they could recall a book of this nature.  No luck.

I even wrote to the elementary school I attended in 1986 and asked the new Librarian, Diane:

“Dear, Diane, I attended your school in 1986 when I was in 1st Grade.  There was a book that I loved and I am trying to find the title of that book.  The book is about fish and has illustrations of fish.  It is more scientific in nature and inspired me to become a fish scientist.  I know that it is a long shot that you would have a book from that long ago, but perhaps there are only a few books in your collection about fish and science.  Perhaps the books still have their old check-out cards where I would have written my name on it.  One detail I vividly remember is an illustration of a pipefish on the bottom left-hand page somewhere in the middle of the book.  I am excited about the potential prospect of learning the title of the book that inspired me to become a fish scientist and I appreciate your help in this search.”

Diane replied:

“I took a look and the book I was thinking about has a copyright of 1998.  I don’t have any books that go back to 1986 or before.  Many of the older books were not kept when the school changed over to a computerized system.  Sorry, I wish I could have helped you. ☹”

Another dead end.  Perhaps I would never find the book.

And of course, with any mystery that is eventually solved, there is a moment that changes the course of history.

The Breakthrough

In late March 2021, just as the COVID pandemic was hitting its one year mark, I was thumbing through an old photo album from my childhood.  I spotted a picture of me and my brother wearing matching jackets and I had a little chuckle at the thought of wearing matching clothes with him today.  During this pause to laugh, I scanned the remainder of the picture. Behind us was a sign on the wall that said “Monterey Bay Aquarium”.

“Wow!” I thought. “This must be from the day we went to the aquarium and I tried identifying fish from the book.”  Then…BOOM…I noticed something in my hand in the picture.

Me, holding THE BOOK in front of the Monterey Bay Aquarium in 1986.

A BOOK!!!!!! Could it be THE BOOK?!?!?! I clearly remember identifying the pipefish from THE BOOK that day. It must be THE BOOK!!! I didn’t care about any other book back then. This must be THE BOOK.

My mom did a wonderful job of documenting family trips with her camera when I was child.  In my search for clues about this book, how had I never thought of looking for a picture from that day?  At this point, it doesn’t matter. The trail was hot with new information.

I turned the print picture into a digital picture and zoomed in and flipped right-side up the book that was frozen in time in my 6 year old hand.

Zoomed in on the book cover.

As you can see, it is difficult to make out the details on the cover of the book.  The title is chopped in half and the pictures on the cover are obscured. Come to think of it, this blurry picture is very similar to the blurry pictures that I explored in my mind for decades. But, at least with this picture I had specifics that would help me search for the cover and not just a random illustration of a pipefish in the middle of the book.

This detail in this picture was definitely a solid find that once again fanned the flames of my obsession with finding this book. Little did I know that I was only minutes away from staring at the first clear image of this book in 35 years.

I texted the zoomed in picture of the book cover over to a dear friend who was previously aware of my search. I explained that I had just had a breakthrough and that the blurry picture of the cover was by far the best new lead I had on this book in decades.

After sending the text, I looked at Google image results of old fish book covers to look for a match. Apparently my friend is a sleuth, because in about 2 minutes she had received the blurry image, ran her own image search, and sent back a reply with something that once again created a world of excitement reminiscent of a moment I had experienced exactly 35 years before in an elementary school library.

The Find

THE BOOK!!!!!!!  Wow.  I was looking at a sharp, clear, non-blurry picture of the cover of the book I had been searching for for decades.  I was elated. This was a moment I had long waited for, and it felt amazing.

THE BOOK!

The next step was to figure out how to get my hands on a copy of the book.

A few days later we shared dinner with the wonderful friend who had found the image of the cover of the book. As we finished dinner and all relaxed at the table, she handed me a wrapped gift. 

I instantly knew what it was…and I wanted to absolutely rip into the package. But I took a few moments. After 35 years, I knew it was important to take a few moments. A moment to think about the role this book played in shaping my career. A moment to think about the lifetime journey that the book inspired. A moment to think of all the people who shared in this journey, inspired me to become a fish scientist, and supported me along the way.

Then, I carefully opened the wrapping.

There it was.

I can honestly say I have never searched for something for so long in my life and then held the object in my hand. Perhaps I never will again.

Without hesitation, the first thing I did was look for the pipefish illustration.  I thumbed through fast.  Even quick glimpses of each page rapidly snapped the blurry images of my memory into sharp images.  Synapses were firing and neural pathways were reconnecting along once abandoned routes.

Then there it was.  On the bottom left corner of page 80 of the 160 page book (the literal middle) was the picture of the pipefish that had focused my efforts for decades. There was no denying it. This was THE BOOK.

The pipefish on the bottom left corner!

The Deeper Connections

Yes, I have now read through the book as many times in 2021 as I did in 1986.  It is wonderful to revisit something so familiar, yet so distant in time, that I was able to reexperience it with new excitement with each turn of the page.  My heart and my mind are happy.

As I wrote this story, I realized I had not revisited the picture of my brother and me sitting in front of the Monterey Bay Aquarium since the day I first saw it and sent a text over to my friend. I looked closer at the zoomed in picture taken in July 1986 and noticed something I had not seen before.  My thumb…it is inserted into a particular page.  At first, I thought that it might be the page with the pipefish.  I grabbed the book and checked the page with the pipefish illustration. The edges of that page did not correspond with the one where my thumb was placed in the picture.  So, I went from the front and once again rapidly flipped through each page in the book.

Amazingly, the very page where my thumb was placed describes, step by step, how to start as an amateur fish identifier and observer to eventually become a fish researcher. In other words, that very page carried the very blueprint of the path I took from that day to my present day life 35 years later.

As indicated by the pictures outlined in blue, you can see that this is the page that my thumb was placed in when I sat in front of the Monterey Bay Aquarium in 1986. Notice the section outlined in red about becoming a fish scientist titled, “Special Studies.”

“Special studies of fishes bring you to the border of scientific research.  A good deal has been and can be done by amateurs.  First, use this book to learn to identify common fishes.  Then make a more systematic study of the fishes of your region.  Begin to observe how fishes live, and by that time you will discover there is much of interest and importance which is not yet in books.  From this to research is but a short step.”

As those words described: I learned to identify fishes, went on to work at a local hatchery to learn more about the fish in my region.   I observed fish and learned that I could go to college and become a fish scientist.  I went through many years of college and proceeded to conduct fish research and continue today.

It was wonderful to continue unlocking mysteries and deeper connections from this inspiring book.

Just when I thought the book was done unlocking secrets, I discovered one more piece of fun information.

The last page of text, right before the glossary, describes “Where to see and study fishes.”  On the short list of places is the University of Miami Marine Laboratory, Coral Gables, Florida.  This is the exact University I was applying to in 1996 that prompted the writing of my college application essay that led me to recognize the importance of this book in my journey to become a fish scientist.

University of Miami Marine Laboratory, Coral Gables, Florida is mentioned as a place to study fish. This is the exact location i was applying to study fish when I recognized the importance of this book to my path in life.

It is wonderful to know that this book provides so many connections to all stages of my life and career.

So now, when people ask me, “What inspired you to become a fish scientist?”, I can feel confident and fulfilled in my response.  I can share an incredible story of mystery, perseverance, and discovery surrounding the decades long search that reunited me with the object that inspired my passion, my journey, and my career to become a fish scientist.

The impacts of books and experiences for children are incredible. As we continue to be drawn to technology and indoor activities, we sometimes lose the ability to experience and identify with things in nature. I encourage and challenge you to be like those who inspired me, and provide resources to children to be able to learn the names of the animals, plants, and geology in their area. This provides a value in the place where they live that translates into being incredible stewards of land, water, and air…where we live and play.

A huge thank you to everyone who was part of this journey.  I especially thank my mom for recognizing at a young age that I was fascinated with fish.  You constantly opened doors and pathways to me to further explore the world of fish science.  Thank you to my brother for liking cars and showing me that it was great to have something at a young age to enjoy learning about. I also thank my incredibly thoughtful and generous friend who discovered the book and gifted me a copy. 

8 Comments Add yours

  1. Mallory G Martin says:

    Patrick, what a great post. I’m sure I’ve also thumbed through the same book in my youth; I always gravitated toward the Golden Guides, by Herbert S. Zim, Ph.D. while in elementary school. Such a great feeling to make that direct connection back to your early inspiration. Congratulations!

  2. What a wonderful essay. Thank you for sharing it with us!

  3. Susan Cooney says:

    It has always brought me much pride and joy that you followed your passion to become a fish scientist.

  4. Wilson Laney says:

    Patrick: Your story is a hugely enjoyable account, and not dissimilar from my own journey into the world of fishes. Books played a major role, but my first encounter was with unknown (then) cyprinids in appropriately named “Wilson’s Creek” at Brown Mountain Beach, NC. Best to you and Julie. More later.

  5. zzrice says:

    Patrick,

    Thanks for sharing such a great story! It just reinforces how important it is to expose kids to fishes and their natural history (even if only on paper) from an early age.

    The photos of you and your brother are a great bonus. You haven’t changed a bit!

  6. Jim Reynolds says:

    Patrick, I very much enjoyed your recent story of finding the book that turned you to the “dark side” (kidding). Your story is similar to mine except an object (book) was your turning point and mine was an event. I was about 6 (same as you but in 1945) living near Ann Arbor. Each summer I would go with my grandparents to their cottage-in-progress on a lake in the UP. A few times each summer my grandpa would throw a fish fry for some friends around the lake. My job was to catch yellow perch which I was good at (fish were big and plentiful). I would bring in my catch while he filleted fish and got things (beer) ready; then he would say “Go get some more”. One time I came back with a catch and he said it was enough and to help me finishing filleting which I was also good at (because he taught me). While on the last few fish, he said “Let’s see what this fish has been eating”. My jaw must have dropped because I said something like “How can you do that?”. He zipped open the gut with his fillet knife and out tumbled all sorts of inverts, the ones I had been seeing in the lake while swimming. I was “hooked”. That was the turning point for me. My grandpa told that story often and bragged how he got me going in fisheries. Best regards, Jim

  7. Marla Chambers says:

    I loved this! What an awesome journey! I’m also enjoying how it inspires the rest of us to recall what brought us to our careers and passions. . . . For me it was fishing and boating and camping with the family. My Dad would pull a minnow seine through the swimming area at night so the kids could see all the different fish. We loved it!

  8. Justin Ballotta says:

    Patrick –

    Been a long time since we last spoke… Not really knowing anything about fish, I still read your posts from time to time and I find them absolutely fascinating for the simple reason that I can feel your passion come through as I read them and that always motivates me. With that being said, this is one really got me. Love your passion, love that you found the book and love how you made me reflect on being a parent and the importance of really feeding their interests the best way we can no matter how small or incongruent it may be to my own – you never know where or what it will lead to. Thanks for sharing and hope you’re doing well.

    -Justin

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