Richard Ross is a longtime hobbyist, author and authority on the captive care and breeding of cephalopods. He is a moderator on, former president of the Bay Area Reefers club and an aquarist at the California Academy of Sciences Steinhart Aquarium in San Francisco. Recently, Reefs Magazine editors Randy Donowitz and Dominick Cirigliano had the opportunity to sit down with Rich to chat about a remarkable range of things aquatic and otherwise.

If you’d like to listen to the unedited version of this rollicking conversation (we recommend it ) we have made it available in convenient MP3 format by simply clicking on the provided link.

Reefs Magazine would like to thank Rob Bray from House of Fins for use of his office and Dr. Beth Harris for her technical assistance with the audio post production.

RM: How did you get into the hobby?

RR: I got into the hobby because as a kid in Chicago, my dad had tanks. He had in our basement–I think it was two 50 gallon or two 60 gallon. They were huge for the time, like in the ‘70s I guess. One was African Cichlids and one was goldfish.

RM: So did you used to help him with them or did you ignore him?

RR: I think I used to ignore him and think I was all hip with the fish. And then when I was a little older we moved – we lived in South Africa for three years. We just had goldfish then, probably about thirty gallons. Then we moved back to the states. When I was around twelve, thirteen, fourteen, I guess, I started keeping my own tanks. And that very quickly turned into 20-25 tanks in the bedroom–brackish water at that point. At that time saltwater was impossible, it was hard, it was terrible! I was also doing reptiles at this time. In ’82, I started working at a fish store and learned more about saltwater at the time.

RM: This was in Chicago?

RR: This was in LA. and it was, you know, when bio-balls first appeared. It was when a tank covered in hair algae seemed totally cool ‘cause everything was alive.

RM: I remember the stories that Terry Seigel tells about the first reef tanks when they first got live rock, and aiptasia started growing and they were like WOOSH!

RR: Something alive! {laughs} And you know, we’d make these spray bars plumbed right from the bottom of the tank. No overflow tube, it was just like the bottom of the tank plumbed. Protein skimmers made with a piece of PVC with an airstone shoved down in it and it would just drain into the chamber. And they did work. They produced … goo. … which is the goal I guess. Typically for me, once we really started understanding things, I kind of got out of it. I went to college.

RM: Where did you go to college?

RR: UC Davis.

RM: UC Davis. I bet you rode a bike?

RR: I did, I rode a bike. And a skateboard. Mostly skateboards because parking a bike at Davis could be a real hassle. I was actually transshipping reptiles through my dorm room. Bad idea. There was a store that couldn’t get anything in Davis, so I used the people I knew in LA to transship stuff. I was bringing, like, mangrove snakes – they’re rear fanged – through so I’d have like 30 reptiles in the dorm. What was I doing? I was probably a real jackass.

RM: I bet this was very popular with the ladies.

RR: Totally. They love an escaped snake. Then I came home after college and got back into it [the saltwater hobby] about five or six years after that. I had moved to San Francisco and lived there probably about four years until it occurred to me, I should do a tank. I’d been thinking about it for a long time. Then I found out that everything had changed and spent a furious year unlearning bad things. I didn’t even know about, you know, high intensity lamps at that point. Still fluorescents and PCs.

RM: So then it seems you started on the usual trajectory of contemporary reef tank setups.

RR: Yes! Mushrooms and soft corals, and just right to hard corals as soon as I understood about lighting. I think that my wife got me Charles’ book, the first one. [The Reef Aquarium Vol. 1] And it was like, oooh, and I remember going through it and I went, let’s treat this like a textbook and highlighted it. We had a little 50 gallon aqua-system, you know with the sump built in kinda thing in the back and it slowly took over an entire wall of the living room with auto top-offs being built and all jinkied together. Terrible, horrible, ugly, disgusting, sad, I couldn’t believe she let me do it. And then when we moved out I ended up officially marrying her because she’d let me do stuff. Well, you’ve seen the pictures of the cephalopod room.

RM: We’ll get to cephalopods in a minute. I want to go back… you lived as a kid in South Africa? How did that happen, and what was that like?

RR: My dad was offered a job there. And… took it. That was kind of interesting because we were actually there for the Soweto riots. We could see smoke from them because we lived in Johannesberg but we didn’t know the riots were going on because, you know, totally state run media and everything so we had no idea until we got a call from my grandma asking if we were okay. I was six – six through ten, something like that. That was pretty cool! Good experience, great reptile park.

RM: Did that feed into your desire to smuggle reptiles?

RR: Ahh, I can’t believe I did that. And I had a parrot at the same time, a blue front Amazon and I remember one of the mangrove snakes escaped and someone came and found me and said you gotta go to your room and the snake was trying to eat the bird and it was just … what the hell was I doing?

RM: What did you study in college?

RR: I ended up studying philosophy.

RM: Philosophy! I in fact was a philosophy major as well. Who was your favorite philosopher?

RR: Spinoza. Loved the Spinoza. He’s internally consistent. Wrong, well maybe wrong but how are we supposed to know? Davis has a real good philosophy program, but it’s very small so they let you do the graduate classes. So I was doing that with Spinoza. Totally out of my league. It was great.

RM: So what was the title of your major paper?

RR: Metaphorical Love. Spinoza and Metaphorical Love. And it turned out metaphorical was actually the wrong word. It was terrible.

There was another class, one of the big classes with this guy Julian, I forget his name but he was a big Set theorist. He believed that Sets were actual things. So, it was like a 300 person class about logical fusions and we spent two days on this and he finally says that a logical fusion is a bicycle, the same bicycle through time. If you replace all the parts over time is it the same bicycle or it now a different bicycle? He said now with the logical fusion of parts we just logically say it’s the one thing. And I was sitting next to a grad student and I went, “excuse me! Isn’t that kind of a trivial distinction?” And she went, “Oh boy.” And she leaned away from me. I never got anything higher than a C in his class again. He hated me. And then, rightfully so because I kinda called him a jackass. So I got out of symbolic logic pretty quickly. But I went into college to be a marine biologist and couldn’t deal with the way the science program was worked. There was no counselor to come and help and so it appeared to me that I would be doing two to three years of make work in the lab and I had no interest in doing that. And the philosophy people were like, we’re very cool and we hate the psychology students and come with us we’ll bag on them!

It was great. I make fun of it because, you know, what do you do with a philosophy degree? But it really taught me to think and to write. I think the first paper I ever turned in was one page and got turned back and it said, “23 spelling mistakes in 24 lines. You should fix this.” And I was like, oh, okay. There was no guilt, or you’re bad, it was just, you shouldn’t do this again. And you have a chance to fix it now.

RM: Have you given any thought as to how that sort of mind training might influence your approach to the hobby?

RR: There are two things. I look at it critically so I can follow A to B to C to D to F, to wherever it goes to in a progression that’s fast and makes sense. You can kind of scope something out and understand it easily, and it’s like – this makes sense, this doesn’t make sense. Also my approach to anecdotal evidence and things like that – people saying “I changed my light bulb and cured my ich” – is that post hoc or proper hoc? I wanted to be the practical philosopher and I think that’s in the hobby a lot ‘cause it allows me to Macguyver things. I hate to use the phase. But you can use superglue for everything. It’s not just for frags, it’s for a billion uses if you just … think about them. So, I think that’s pretty fun.

RM: Okay let’s just jump around a little. Your career prior to your current one, how did that come about, how did you get into that and really what was that all about?

RR: I learned how to juggle when I was a kid. And then by the time I was sixteen I kind of submerged myself in the juggling culture. I just fell into it. I was doing shows already when I was sixteen and then I went off to college … and was doing shows through college. And I finished college and was like I don’t need a job, I can juggle. I was doing street shows and clubs and whatever gigs I could. I was often performing and became part of a dual act called American Dream Comedy Team. One of those guys, Scottie Meltzer, his partner moved away and so he folded me right in and it was like insta career.

We changed our name to Monkey Wrench, and then it became Comedy Industries. I stepped into a full blown career. The juggling is an excuse to be on stage and make funny things happen. We were doing TV, we were opening for The Smothers Brothers, and all kinds of stuff. And we started doing more corporate stuff. We did some trade shows where we talked about their products in our show and it turned out we were good at that integration and then so we became corporate whores. And that’s what we mostly did. We’d be writing, we’d be performing a show, memorizing next week’s show, writing the script after that and doing the initial meetings to touch base with the next show after that.


RM: So it’s sort of marketing for the company by lampooning them in front of an audience?

RR: Yeah, well we’d ask for their white papers and take their messages and turn it into English and then fold it into comedy bits. Sometimes we’d write custom things, but we sort of had a set of things where we could plug their information in. And you know, the hardest part was getting the conversation with them, getting them all not to pee on the script. So that got hard after a while. And then we had a kid, and my wife and I were making about the same amount of money, but she had insurance and therefore I become the stay-at-home Dad.

RM: What does she do?

RR: She’s a financial planner. It’s been a good couple of weeks [laughter]

RM: So you gave up the other thing?

RR: I gave up the other thing. I didn’t mind, I didn’t miss the traveling. I did that for ten years, it was a lot of travel. I guess that’s probably when I really sank into the hobby a whole lot because I had a bunch of time at home.

RM: Is that when the obsession with cephalopods started?

RR: It started about a year after that.

RM: At what point did you take the leap into trying to breed cephalopods?

RR: As soon as I could. The first group I had I wanted to breed, I had three. That’s when I built all those dividers and transparent doors and dark doors and let them see each other so they wouldn’t kill each other. But I didn’t have any real success in breeding them until I was able to get to raise a group up together.

RM: So you were never able to successfully introduce two?

RR: Yeah, I got some matings, but you know when they’re adults and they come in and they’re all stressed and you’re trying to introduce them together and trying to figure out how to keep them at the same time and what size tank do they need and things like that …

RM: Did you start with octopus or cuttlefish?

RR: Cuttlefish. Traditionally, I’ve been more interested in cuttlefish although that seems to be changing now. I need a new species of cuttlefish. If I could get, six flamboyants, I’d be all excited.

RM: You have had some major breakthroughs in the octopus realm recently though.

RR: Yeah … that’s pretty cool. It started with one Wunderpus – Its scientific name is Wunderpus photogenicus – being able to keep it ten months and get it to burrow. And you know, and it’s interesting now, thinking about how philosophy relates ‘cause there was a lot of ethical stuff going on about the Wunderpus on the cephalopod site, TONMO. I was at a wholesaler when it came in and it was healthy and small and I had an empty tank. And it was just serendipity that I happened to have everything available.

RM: So once you revealed on TONMO this sort of serendipitous circumstance, was there support?

RR: There was a rash of shit and support. I got both. There’s a couple people on there who are very anti. Everything to be left in the ocean kind of stuff, and it’s not that simple. From some researchers I got some grief, but I was very stable and said, you know, I understand and I disagree on this and I’m going to do the best I can and there were some people who said, well, if anyone can do it, if anyone should do it, it should be you. Which was very gratifying. You know, which I immediately of course dismissed because I know who I am, I know that I’m just a fraud. But I think everyone knows they’re a fraud.

RM: But in your fraudulent way, you’ve actually made a major breakthrough, right?

RR: I think it’s worked out, I’m doing good.

RM: So talk about your new breakthrough.

RR: The new one is Octopus chierchiae, which is just a little octopus, about golf ball size, the size of a blue ring,. They were last studied in ’86, that was the only paper on them. They’re a large egg species and the main problem with them is just getting them. They’re just hard to get, they never show up. I know Roy Caldwell at Berkeley actually sent people to collect them and they got completely skunked, they came back with nothing. We were able to get a female and a male. I’ve been looking for them for three years. They’ve been kind of the grail of aquarium octopuses because they’re large egged and the female will lay multiple clutches and not die. And I think we’re on our third clutch of eggs on the one female. They’re small and they’re easy to keep. They’re a good pet. I mean, they’re not super active but they’re there and you can see ‘em.

RM: Are they the only species that lay multiple clutches of eggs and survive?

RR: There’s a bunch actually. There’s an actual word for it, but it’s escaping me right now. Um… not sure, mercatorus might do it too. I’d have to double check that. I might be making stuff up. The larger egg ones are going to be more likely to do it. So we had the first batch and I think the ones we have from the first batch are over 100 days old, which is great. We’ve discovered a bunch of stuff already, like the female will continue to eat through brooding which the paper from ’86 says that they won’t. And just doing it, and documenting it has been pretty cool. I’d like to get them to the hobby, sell them, people want them, but we’re not ready yet.

RM: What do they eat?

RR: They eat amphipods when they’re little. I collect amphipods, culture them. And shore shrimp, I just buy a bunch of bait shrimp and freeze it. They eat almost anything. They’re easy octopus. So, easy and small. So you could always just plumb a small tank into your system and then when it’s done you could un-plumb it. You know they only live a year or however long they live.

RM: Alright, I know your car service is on it’s way, maybe just quickly, how did you end up at the Steinhart where you are now?

RR: That’s a crazy story. My kid’s five now, so it gives me a little bit more freedom. I started sort of volunteering and that was going well and there’s always the idea that oh, well, maybe that’ll be a job, but, you know, they’re pretty clear up front that volunteering doesn’t lead to anything and I understand that.

And then a biologist actually retired and Matt Wandell said, “Hey do you have a degree? Because you should apply for this because it’s opening up,” and there was a whole lot of discussion about well I have a degree in uh… philosophy. But that’s something. And then there was a lot of wrestling about do I want a job even. For me, coming at it from the hobbyist side, this is like my pretend career. When they started the move they needed real help, so I became what is called an as-needed biologist. And so it was like, okay, just work your ass off. So I’ve been working with them and they know me and they like me and I guess I’m competent and I get along with everyone and they found a little pot of money. I was on vacation in the summer for three weeks which I was worried about because it was right in the middle of the move and I thought, oh, they’ll probably let me go because of this and then I get an email that says, hey, as soon as you come back can you go full time and probably permanent. So then we got home and it was insane – we had to put my daughter in private school to make it work.

RM: What did your wife think about that?

RR: We had a lot of discussions about it. When the idea first came around, she was really supportive of it. She said, “You’ve been at home for five years with a kid. You should be around people.” We were in like a co-op preschool and I just wanted to kill everyone. It was just a nightmare, I just hated it. The point of the co-op was to teach me how to not kill other parents. I think that’s what it was.

And now the job is great, everyone there is great and it’s just real exciting to be part of it.

RM: Well thanks so much Rich , that must be you car service beating on the door. We don’t want you to miss your plane. 

RR: Thank You it was fun.

[Editor’s note: Rich did make it to the airport on time only to be delayed at JFK for 6 hours. So it goes……]

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