You've reached (Dr) Steve O'Shea, once upon a time curator at NIWA and once upon a time professor at AUT, squid chaser, but nowadays just someone passing time in the lovely city of Paris, writing of my life and some of the more unusual twists in it that have led to my current status and latest adventure.
There are a few surprises for folk in what you will read here, especially towards the bottom of the page, but I would sooner you read it here than have someone relay nonsense to you later on.
I have studied cephalopods, that is 'octopus and squid,' for almost 25 years, during which time I have participated in many expeditions, from sampling seamounts, deep-sea fishing, to chasing the Giant Squid. These exploits that have seen me travel around New Zealand many times by sea, and to the Bonin Islands and Sea of Cortez, using a variety of equipment, from submersibles to nets to deep-sea robots and sleds.
In 2001, in a Discovery Channel first, my team caught and filmed juvenile giant squid off New Zealand, though sadly all died during our attempt to rear them in captivity, something that has been a decade-long plan.
My approach always had been to target the juvenile giant squid, rather than limiting my search to the adult; it was a simple numbers game - there must be hundreds of thousands of juvenile giant squid out there for every adult (simple population dynamics). All I had to do was catch it and then grow it up in captivity in an aquarium ..... a very big aquarium, and easier said than done! The alternative, the approach of my peers, had been to try and find the live adult alive, in situ, that is in its natural environment, a dream come true if it could be achieved.
Over my career I have published more than 40 papers on squid, octopus, whales, fisheries and conservation, and been involved in a dozen-or-so documentaries on the subject of giant and colossal squid, and conservation.
I first encountered a Giant Squid in 1996, but since then have dealt with well over 130 of them, most of them retained as bycatch in commercial fishing nets. I have preserved many of these specimens and have displayed them around the world, in New Zealand, France, Taiwan and America, but despite my long association with these animals I have published very little on them.
Over the years I have learned much about these animals, like maximum weights and lengths, and a lot about their behavior and life history. Some of this information is online here, and some of it elsewhere, mainly at www.TONMO.com, a website that I have been involved with since 2002.
I have always used Giant Squid as a hook to lure people into other important matters like conservation, for people are fascinated by charismatic megafauna, the 'big stuff' like these squid, but they are less aware of the oftentimes infinitely more bizarre smaller stuff. If we know so little about this big stuff then how much do we know about the small?
During my career my exploits have been profiled in many documentaries, magazine and newspaper articles and news clips, but the article most people are familiar with is likely to be David Grann's of the New Yorker. The internet is full of old stories.
I have been most fortunate in my life to have met many wonderful, interesting and influential people, and I have been involved in a lot, but I am also aware that there is still so much to do and to discover. My greatest concern is for the welfare of the marine environment and its many very poorly known species - not just the giants, the squid and whales that you read about in the papers and see on television - but the others, those that are considerably smaller in size that people just don't hear about. Political procrastination and commercial interests are driving all to the brink of extinction, and television programing standards and the target demographic of the written press are largely unconcerned with much more than short-attention-span politics, crime, money and scandal. It is a sad age in which we live.
I am looking for a new role to play in society. If you can help me, please contact me.
A brief history of me
There is a lot of information about me on the internet, but not all of it is true or current. What follows is an account of who I am and how I got here that is more up-do-date than anything elsewhere available, and that also contains more information than many of you would ever want or need to know. I have included the amount of detail that I have here because I have been asked questions repeatedly in the past, by many different people in many different interviews or letters, and would rather not repeat myself again if I can help it. I would rather answer something new than live in the past.
I was born on 14 December 1965 in Auckland, New Zealand, the second of three siblings, one brother, Michael, and one sister, Gina, to mum, Patricia (Pat) O'Shea and my late dad, Bertram (Bert) Whistler. When my parents separated years later I assumed my mother's maiden name, and from that day have been known professionally as Steve O'Shea, though am officially Stephen Whistler. One day I will do something about it, but what is the hurry. It is just a name.
In 2011 Steve O'Shea left society, academia and the public eye, and as Stephen Whistler left New Zealand also, to live in a tent and almost complete isolation on the beautiful west coast of Australia. It is here that a new chapter in his life began. What an enriching experience this was, and what an amazing country Australia is, the perfect wilderness in which to rediscover yourself. The many journals I wrote during my travels document my struggle with a transition from respectable academic to effective burnout and bum, having replaced my briefcase with a back pack, leather shoes with bare feet, dress pants with shorts or jeans (or occasionally nothing), computer for fishing rod, stress for happiness and sickness for health.
Why did I do this? This is another story altogether. But just walking away is not an easy thing to do, even though sometimes you need to do it to gain a fresh perspective on life. However, as a consequence of having done a Reginald Perinn, a lot of information online concerning my whereabouts, activities and title became obsolete overnight, and I left a lot of unfinished business behind. The purpose of this site is just to update that information so that folk don't go running off to NIWA or AUT to try and contact me, which people still do a decade or more after my having moved on.
My interests have always been varied, but my love for the sea has always been strong, and it has always been there for as long as I can remember, at least from the age of 4 (right). Thankfully by this stage mum was no longer dressing me in somewhat feminine attire (above right). I say this, not about how mum dressed me but about people's career choice, because I was constantly amazed later on in life to meet people that didn't know what they wanted to do, even postgraduate students searching for a topic to research because they had no idea themselves. It struck me as rather unusual.
I have many times been asked for, and many times searched for images between my age of 4 and my teens, but there are few. This was not the age of the digital camera, and memories, like photographs, have a habit of being lost with the passage of time.
At this early stage of my life I spent considerable time living with my grandmother at Onetangi Beach, Waiheke Island, just out of Auckland. Over school holidays, and for a while through the year, I could swim, row boats, climb rocks, search for life in rock pools, and fish, and was forever seen with a bucket in my hand to fill with shells. Each time the tide receded I would crawl the length of the beach on my knees, my nose up against in the tideline drift, eyes searching for the minutiae washed up amongst the foam, a potpourri of crustacean limbs, insects, sand grains, jellyfish and exquisite tiny shells. The perfect life for a child it was, but strangely, even though there were three of us and a number of similarly aged kids on the beach, only one of us was focussed on marine biology. It must have been a combination of opportunity and some natural predisposition to the aquatic realm that drove me into my chosen career.
It was not only on Waiheke Island that I lost my front tooth to a swing when it hit me in the face in a playground, and from this day on have had at least one false tooth in my head, but here also that I had my first encounters with an octopus, barbarically turning the poor animals inside out to try and impress a young lady at the time, Louise, in between hurtling sea eggs (urchins) at her and her cousin Michael as we played war in opposing dinghies. It would be 20-or-so years later before I would come to fully appreciate these magnificent animals and regret my childhood antics. As an aside, Louise was never impressed, and I caught up with Michael just several years ago.
Like many kids I found school a chore, especially secondary school in Papakura, at Rosehill College. Here few teachers understood me, with the curriculum delivery of some about as intriguing as the plot of a phone book, and limited in subject matter of interest to me. Nevertheless I did have several wonderful, inspirational teachers, most notably Mr Breeze, my chemistry teacher, and for some reason, always on first-name basis, George Hawkins, my art teacher. To the two of you I am indebted, and I still do think about you 30 years on.
Despite aches and pains in my bones from an early age, and with an apparent heart murmur, afflictions that for years would see me sidelined during any form of prescribed school physical activity, one day I just put aside my distasteful yellow pills that I had taken for a decade and got on with my life. I cycled everywhere, sometimes hundreds of kilometres with a pack on my back, to collect my precious shells at far-off locations, never wanting to miss a good Spring low tide or an opportunity to find something weird, wonderful, rare or uncommon.
I was never destined to be a big fellow, it just wasn't in my genes, but I was as fit as could be. Despite this, from an early age I was a bit of a loner, with few friends, and spent my lunchtimes munching 'Oddfellow' peppermints whilst painting in the art department. In 1982 (above right) two years before I left secondary school to go to university, something I had always wanted to do, I won first prize in a national art competition, a computer for the school, Rosehill College, in the days when computers were so new, when Microsoft Windows was still three years from commercial release. Rather than a picture of the piece of art they photographed me next to a part of my shell collection. Probably a good idea, as my artwork at the time, water colour, gouache, focussed on macabre scenes of death, drugs, blood, needles, brains and bones. People must have wondered from a very early age whether everything was alright at home or in my head.
What a complete geek I was, 15 doing SCUBA, never been kissed, recluse, and shell collector extraordinaire, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of marine species. Put a SCUBA tank on and I would be off with my best mate, the late, great Dave 'W for Wonderful' Gibbs, in search of some small mollusc with a disproportionately long Latin name, diving at a specific location, depth and time of the year, searching beneath rocks of specific dimensions, surrounded by certain species, day or night. It was a challenge for both Dave and me, but we were good, and the two of us could sit there talking shells all day and night long, esoteric detail of no consequence in the social world. My interest in natural history, in Latin, and in the concept of the species was entrenched, and all I wanted to do was to become a 'marine biologist,' whatever that entailed.
There is a reason for me going into this detail. It is because I have received many letters in the past from kids that are in the same position as I was, but it didn't stop me so shouldn't stop them. I wasn't cool at all. I certainly did not smoke and I certainly did not drink, though I have always farted a lot.
Things finally picked up when I got to University, starting in 1984 and doing the standard stuff: the BSc, completing it in 1988, MSc (1990), and PhD (1999) [all from the University of Auckland] (the PhD took forever as I was also working at the time - not something I would recommend if you can help it). I was extremely fortunate to be mentored by two wonderful professor's, Michael Miller (right, sadly, a photo taken many years later) and the late John Morton, and exposed to a generation of brilliant natural historians, taxonomists and conservationists, like Bill Ballantine, John Walsby and the late Professor's Brian Foster and Dame Patricia Bergquist. Good teachers and mentors can make you, and bad ones can break you; having been involved in the education system for many years I can assure you that there is both good and bad out there, but Auckland University was absolutely brilliant in my day.
At some point in time I discovered lady folk, though I don't think I had my first actual 'date' until late in my 40's. Back in my early 20's at university one particular lady broke my heart. For some silly reason I decided to punish myself and picked up a packet of cigarettes and glass of alcohol so that I could change my image; cigarettes would soon kill my biological father, at the age of 54, though I was not to know for some time, and found out only by accident; he passed away of lung cancer in Townsville, Australia. If I could have my life over again there is only one thing that I would change, and that is that I never picked up that first cigarette! It has taken me nearly 30 years to break the habit, and as I write this it has scarcely been three months since I had my last. I see no problem with a glass of wine, in moderation. Oh, there is one more thing that I would like to change, or parts of it at least ..... but that comes much later in the story. Much much later!
Between 1985 and 1991 I made a living as a marine biological consultant in Auckland. My basic role was to collect and identify marine invertebrates (animals without backbones) in coastal intertidal and subtidal surveys so that environmental impact assessments could be made - along with decisions, like to develop or not to develop, and in the event development was deemed appropriate what the likely consequences of it were and how best to minimise any negative effects. It was a living for me, supplementing that income I had from delivering newspapers by the truck full every morning, six days a week, or working in a brewery delivering alcohol to pubs throughout Auckland, working for Tegel Chicken cleaning entrails from floors and piling ingredients into cement-mixer equivalents to make ground-chicken rolls, or working day and night shift in a petrol station and acting as nightshift porter at a hotel. I had no scholarship to attend university, so had to make ends meet however I could, and I enjoyed real people, those that lived and worked outside of academia.
Even though I loved the animals I wasn't happy doing environmental consultancy work, even though it paid very well, as it was all-too-obvious that development almost always proceeded in favour of the client, at the expense of the environment and species. And when I say 'expense of' I really mean 'death of.' In reality we were playing God, determining who had the right to live. Many shocking things did happen in the name of 'progress' (I wasn't the one making the decisions), but nobody spoke out on behalf of the supposedly inconsequential lumps of snot, the small non-charismatic critters that lived in muds, sands or gravels throughout the Waitemata Harbour that surrounded Auckland.
Life is strange, for unbeknownst to me my career was to progress from identifying animals beneath microscopes to those that would need trucks to transport them, but my love for the small never waned. The need to preserve and to conserve was instilled in me by the entertaining, always thought-provoking and sometimes frustrating discussions I had with Bill Ballantine over the years; I am sure he would be equally able to contribute something wonderfully insightful to a discussion on the meaning of life, as he would be the value of and uses for a phone book, practically and metaphorically.
Sometime in 1987 I met several commercial deep-sea fishermen, first through a university colleague, and then in a bar where I worked at the time, one of many jobs I had to fund myself through university. A truly great bunch of people these fishermen proved to be, even though their profession wrought havoc upon the sea bed. I was not to realise the extent to which bottom trawling annihilated sea-bed communities, not at first, but with the passage of time it became all-too-obvious when I experienced first-hand the sort of weird and wonderful deep-sea life that was hauled to the surface, almost always dead or damaged in nets, and how what was brought to the surface changed over time as the sea-bed was repeatedly scraped of life.
Many months were spent at sea between 1987 and 1991 - to the disdain of my frustrated University professors, but these were important years that would shape my attitude towards the effects of fishing on the marine environment, and conservation in those to follow.
To continue funding my way through university, I continued with my environmental consulting through until 1995. With my sea trips, and contract responsibilities I didn't get much university work done during this time, and my research on cephalopods, octopus at the time, became a thing of the past. I think it took me four years to complete my Bachelor's degree, and my Master's degree, the thesis itself, was a complete and utter embarrassment. I was no brain surgeon, but I worked hard on things that interested me, and I was an excellent natural historian - meaning you could put me many places in the ocean and I'd be able to put a name on something for you.
My Master's thesis, on the taxonomy of New Zealand octopuses, really was a shocking piece of work. The only reason I enrolled to do a PhD was to make up for the fact that the Masters was such an embarrassment, and I had an unfinished job to do. Museum collections of octopuses in those days were extremely poor because nobody was remotely interested in the animals. Neither was I really, at the time, but all of this is covered in a separate biography. Even though I was enrolled in a PhD at the University of Auckland I was very rarely at university. Most of my time was spent at sea or environmental consulting. I was working extremely long hours.
Then, late in 1994, I got a phone call from the National Institute of Water & Atmospheric Research (NIWA for short; formerly the New Zealand Oceanographic Institute, NZOI) in Wellington, asking me if I wanted a job. I said yes, because I thought that I would be working more realistic hours. Silly me. And that's when the roller coaster ride started. From January of 1995 to 2003 I spent pretty much every waking (and most sleeping) moments either thinking about or working on the marine environment. Unfortunately, too little time was dedicated to working on octopus, and the PhD took many years to finish; I also had to build the collections, because it had become obvious that there were many more species out there than I was ever aware of, based on the variety of new species that were delivered to my laboratory with alarming regularity. In the end I recognised some 42 species in New Zealand waters, many of which were new to science, like all three Opisthoteuthis (above right), commonly known as Dumbo octopuses, though I never cared much for common names.
The cephalopod community, those that study octopus and squid, always has been rather strange. Being an outsider to it, in that I was self-taught at the bottom of the world, New Zealand, my approach was slightly unorthodox to the majority of them. Decisions I made in my thesis and subsequent memoir were not unanimously accepted, not immediately anyway, and some in the community were to repeatedly, unjustifiably criticize the work, going so far as to deliberately misrepresent or misquote passages from it to serve some self-aggrandising purpose; one other simply plagiarised sections of it. From a rather early age in my career I learned that there are some positively wretched people out there, and because of this came close on many occasions to throwing it in and working on something else that did not involve cephalopods. So began my work on conservation I guess, seamount fauna, effects of dredging and trawling on sea-bed communities, and rather vociferous attacks on the fishing industry, people that I had once counted amongst my closest friends.
My job at NIWA involved working on deep-sea fauna rather than shallow-water fauna with which I had greater experience (at the time). I also was responsible for developing and curating the rather enormous marine collections that NIWA held, and accordingly was exposed to a fantastic diversity of marine life and some rather interesting, colourful people that came to research the collections. During this time I also had to write my thesis up. At some point, shortly after joining NIWA, I encountered this squid by the name of Architeuthis, the Giant Squid, and my first Globster (right), which proved to be the first of many dead whales I would examine. As hard as I tried to escape the cephalopod community I kept getting thrust back into it, nowadays with cameras, and my life was never going to be the same again.
I had never intended to be in front of a camera, and certainly never intended to lead an expedition looking for Architeuthis. In fact I didn't even work on squid (because I was an octopus expert), and really didn't know the front end from the back end when I started. That seems like such a long time ago now.
It is hard to sum up 7 years of work in a few paragraphs, but, as things happen, in mid-2002 I received yet another phone call (I have had more than two phone calls in 7 years, but those were the biggies) - one that I wasn't really expecting. I was given an opportunity to return to university, to do what I really wanted to do, to teach. My first reaction was 'yes', but then insecurity crept in and I saw myself saying goodbye to all of those things that were dear to me - the squid, the collections, a few good friends, and the fantastic resources that were available to someone at NIWA.
The decision to move to AUT was not an easy one to make, and for a while things were stacking up against it, but right or wrong I took the new job and relocated from Wellington to Auckland in 2003 to spend the next 8 years at university. Here I could pursue new research opportunities, teach, mentor and supervise students, and contribute towards a new generation of cephalopod experts and conservationists that would, I would hope, have it easier than I had, because it had not always been a picnic. At university I could also speak out about some of the things happening in our environment without fear of commercial reprisal, acting as critic and conscience of society, or so I thought.
Unbeknownst to me when i made the move I would shortly find myself immersed in squid and cetacean research and documentaries all over again, with the discovery of the Colossal Squid in April 2003, Dr Tsunemi Kubodera's stunning images of the adult giant squid, Architeuthis dux, in 2006, and my research on stranded whales that soon followed. I also inherited Directorship of a Research Institute at AUT, the Earth & Oceanic Sciences Research Institute (EOS), and spent an inordinate amount of time developing research programmes and university infrastructure to allow students and staff to conduct basic environmental research. I became a bureaucrat.
The subject of my tenure at university is the subject of my biography, and this will follow in due course, soon. But because you are here already, and wonder what really happened, why I skirt around my university tenure, well, to cut a long story short I slept with one of my PhD students, Ka Lai (Clara) Wong, and after a two-year relationship with her left my wife of nearly 20 years, Shoba. I then learned that Clara was and had been having an affair with someone else for a significant amount of time, and both it, this revelation, and she subsequently destroyed me.
I put my wife through hell, found myself on the edge of a balcony convinced that my life as I knew it wasn't worth living, and received intensive psychiatric care, sedated to see me through one day to the next. Depression is a killer, and whilst down and with no light apparent at the end of the tunnel, I watched my career and everything I had worked hard to build over all of those years dismantled, assisted by an orchestrated litany of lies by once-upon-a-time colleagues and a lover. It was a very sad affair. Many involved would benefit from my departure. Branded a threat to their organisation, disrepute to the university and sexual predator, I resigned.
It hurts to write this, but there is no denying what was said about me. The truth will eventually come out; it always does, but too late.
Was I guilty of much that was alleged? No.
Was I guilty of the alleged worst of it? No.
Did I have an affair with that woman? Yes.
One day the vestige of a broken man was driving north to meet some friends when he picked up a hitch hiker on the side of the road. His life would never be the same again. What was meant to be no more than a 5-minute lift turned into a three-year adventure around the world, out of an office, away from people, and at one with nature.
I have led a very interesting life, but the most interesting period in it to date has been the last few years. And even though I seem to have lost everything that I worked so hard to build over 48 years, it has been the last two during which I have learned more about life and friends than any other period, especially about what is worth holding on to and what is not. And professionally, well, those last three years have been rather interesting too.
I lived in Paris, France, a long way away from where the last chapter of my life ended, Auckland, New Zealand, but not that far from a plastinated Giant squid I donated to the museum here nearly a decade earlier. The world is a small place, really. To get here I have lived in tents, circumnavigated Australia by road 1.5 times, survived on what was caught by rod and reel or on snorkel, and lived a life that was a dream. No formal education could have prepared me for this. My travels these past few years have seen me move from New Zealand to Australia, then Bali, Thailand, Japan, France and England, and then back to France, where I currently am in a small but comfortable one-bedroom apartment in the city centre, having recently moved from Paris to the smaller coastal city of Bordeaux. Not quite a tent in Australia, but a new adventure nevertheless.
This is basically who I am and how I got here. Along the way the facial hair has come and gone, and on the right, beardless for a change, you'll see me releasing a young bull shark in an estuary off Queensland, Australia. My tent was to the immediate right of frame, and I was fishing from a chair whilst next to it. Life was good.
My interests these days, I suppose, have changed little from those as a child, though now I know what 'marine biology' entails and can articulate myself better. My interests? Well, conservation, and the systematics, biogeography, comparative morphology (and a little bit of function) and culture of cephalopods and marine invertebrates in general. To this I can add photography, travel and adventure, and being at one with nature. I will always have an interest in Giant Squid, and Colossal ones too, but if you don't hear about me out there chasing the Colossal in the not-too-distant future then one day I hope you can find me in western Australia, starting up a backpackers, which would be my dream - dealing with a new generation of environmentally conscious youth, and, if lucky, an occasional old bugger like me.
Although there are no popular books out there that I have written, I am in the process of completing three. Otherwise I have published extensively on cephalopods and deep-sea life in general, with a bibliography of some of the more science-oriented publications detailed in My Publications.
I have a substantial library of books on cephalopods, some very old. One day I may well sell these. In fact if you are in the market for a career's worth of books on these squid and octopus then drop me a line; I will sell them.
My life today, well, it is very different from that which it started out to be, and during this time there have been ups and downs. But I am not dead yet. There are a couple of people out there to whom I will always be indebted, just for being there and being supportive, particularly my former wife, Shoba (right), and the new lady in my life, Cyrielle (left). Thank you, you two. And I'd like to say thanks to a few true friends; you know who you are because you will have heard from me often.
What tomorrow holds? I don't know. But you can contact me and find out if you don't read about it here first.