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 someone spending time in the city of Bordeaux, southwestern France, writing of my life and some of the more unusual twists in it that have led to my current status and latest adventure.
I studied cephalopods, that is 'octopus and squid,' and the marine environment for nearly 25 years, during which time I participated in many expeditions, from sampling seamounts, deep-sea fishing, to chasing the Giant Squid. My exploits have seen me travel extensively on expeditions around New Zealand, the Bonin Islands in southern Japan and Sea of Cortez, using submersibles, nets, deep-sea robots and sleds. In a Discovery Channel first way back in 2001 my team even caught and filmed juvenile giant squid off New Zealand; we had them in tanks aboard a ship but sadly all died during an attempt to rear them. Our approach was a simple numbers game - there must be hundreds of thousands of juvenile giant squid for every adult; all we had to do was catch the juvenile and grow it up in captivity in an aquarium ..... a very big aquarium. Unfortunately it was easier said than done; I do hope someone achieves it one day because I'd like everyone to have an opportunity to see this magnificent animal alive for themselves. The alternative, the approach of my peers, had been to find the live adult in its natural environment - an approach that had remained but a dream until Dr Tsunemi Kubodera achieved it more than a decade later in 2012. The smile on his face was priceless.
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. This isn't a lot actually, though my career was cut short quite unexpectedly. I guess that's what this website is all about.
I first encountered a Giant Squid in 1996 and have since handled more than 130 of them, most retained as bycatch in commercial fishing nets. I have preserved and displayed a number of the better ones around the world, in New Zealand, France, Taiwan and America. Over the years we have learned about these animals maximum weights and lengths, and even reconstructed a lot about their behavior and life history, yet despite finally capturing it on film in 2012 there is still much that we do not know. Some of this information is online at www.TONMO.com, some is still in my head, and some remains locked away in the minds of certain of my colleagues.
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,' 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? If we can protect the large then we can, by default, protect the small also. That was my theory at any rate.
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
What follows is an account of who I am and how I got here that is more up-do-date than anything else available.
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, Bert.
In 2011 I left society, academia, the public eye and New Zealand to travel the world. Words in many journals document my transition: walls to tent, briefcase to back pack, shoes to bare feet, dress pants to shorts or jeans, and computer to fishing rod. My voyage of discovery is one I love to tell, equally as enthralling as an earlier life quest to capture Giant Squid live on film.
My love for the sea always has been strong, and it always will be, but my travels have shown me another and equalling enthralling world, that of life on land and in the air. My passion now extends to insects and birds, and snakes and frogs to name a few, from the jungle vestiges in Borneo to isolated pockets of bush like the Bois de Vincennes in Paris, France. They're all connected one way or another, from the ocean depths to the mountain heights, and all are so very fragile.
As a child I spent my holidays on Onetangi Beach, Waiheke Island, swimming, rowing boats, climbing rocks, searching for life in rock pools, and fishing, and I was forever seen with a bucket in my hand into which I placed my treasures. 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 tidal 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 proved 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.
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 for the kindness and inspiration you gave me.
By 15 I was diving and had an encyclopaedic knowledge of marine species. Basically I could tell you the Latin name of any mollusc (shell) you found on the shore, and a little story about it too. I was forever charging off into 'the wild' with my best friend, the late and ever-so-great Dave 'W for Wonderful' Gibbs in search of some small or rare or little known shell somewhere, diving at a specific location, depth and time of the year, searching beneath rocks of specific dimensions, surrounded by certain species, day or night - we'd developed a strategy to find it during our endless discussions. Dave and me, we could talk shells all day and night long.
Things only improved for me when I went to University in 1984. First there was the BSc (1988), MSc (1990), and then 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).
I was so very fortunate to be mentored by two wonderful professor's, Michael Miller (left) and the late John Morton, and exposed to a generation of brilliant natural historians, taxonomists and conservationists the likes of 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. Auckland University was absolutely brilliant in my day and the teachers (= Professors) without compare. The distinction between preservation and conservation was instilled in me by the entertaining, always thought-provoking and sometimes frustrating discussions I had with Bill 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.
Many months were spent at sea between 1987 and 1991, to the disdain of my University professors (for I was never there), 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 fund my way through university I acted as an environmental consultant. With my sea trips, and contract responsibilities I didn't get much university work done, and my research on and interest in cephalopods, octopus at the time, waned. My Master's thesis on the taxonomy of New Zealand octopuses really was a shocking piece of work - the only reason I continued with a PhD was to make up for the shocking job I had done on the Masters. Museum collections of octopuses in those days were poor as nobody was interested in them. I had to build the collections, and every specimen my fishermen contacts provided me seemed to be new. At the time they were.
In late 1994, I got a phone call from the National Institute of Water & Atmospheric Research (NIWA; formerly the New Zealand Oceanographic Institute, NZOI) in Wellington, asking me if I wanted a job. I said yes. And that's when the roller coaster ride started. From January of 1995 to 2003 I spent most every waking (and most sleeping) moments thinking about or working on the marine environment. Unfortunately my PhD took many years to finish; in the end I recognised some 42 species in New Zealand waters, many of which were new to science. It's not a bad piece of work, but like every piece of work it is not without error. I wish people would read the introduction, especially the first paragraph, before throwing stones.
My job at NIWA involved working on deep-sea fauna rather than the 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 NIWA held, and was, accordingly, exposed to a fantastic diversity of marine life and some rather interesting, colourful people that came to research the collections. Shortly after joining I encountered this squid by the name of Architeuthis, the Giant Squid, and my first Globster (right) - the first of many dead whales I would examine over the course of my career. My life was never going to be the same again. I 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 definitely had more than two phone calls in 7 years, but these two were the biggies). I wasn't expecting this call - an offer to return to university to do what I really wanted to do, teach. My reaction was an instant 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 available to someone at NIWA.
Whether the right decision or not I will never know, but I took the new job and relocated from Wellington to Auckland in 2003. I was set to spend the next 8 years of my life at university again, pursuing novel research opportunities, teaching, mentoring and supervising students, and contributing towards a new generation of cephalopod experts and conservationists that would, I hope, have it easier than I ever had, because my life hadn't 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. I hoped to do my university professors proud.
Squid and whales were to follow me wherever I went, as were documentary crews, 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 was to follow. During my tenure I also inherited Directorship of a Research Institute, the Earth & Oceanic Sciences Research Institute (EOS), and was to spend an inordinate amount of time developing research programmes and university infrastructure to allow students and staff to conduct their research. I was good if I say so myself.
The subject of my university tenure is the subject of my biography, something I have been writing now for several years. But to cut a long story short I had a two-year affair with one of my PhD students, for whom I left my wife of nearly 20 years. I was only to learn later that the student had been having an affair with someone else for a significant amount of time. This revelation destroyed me. Clinically depressed I found myself on the edge of a balcony convinced that my life as I knew it wasn't worth living. Depression is a killer. I resigned from AUT to commence a new life, and indeed, a new life did begin.
And so it happened, one day while driving somewhere to meet some dear friends I picked up a hitch hiker on the side of the road, and from that moment on my life would never be the same. To her I volunteered my story. What we had expected would be a 5-minute lift up the road turned into a four-year (going on 5) adventure around the world during which I learned more than I ever could from books. I also learned what was worth holding onto and who my real friends were.
We've travelled to and through Australia, Vanuatu, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Borneo, Thailand, Cambodia, Japan, the United States, UK and France, and that's just naming a few of the places we have been. Now we are based in Bordeaux, southwestern France, having moved here quite recently from the beautiful city that is Paris. A new adventure has started. We are planning another soon enough.
And that, if you managed to read this far, is basically who I am and how I got here, wherever that may be at this point in time. Along the way the facial hair has come and gone, and on the right, beardless for a change, I'm releasing a young bull shark in an estuary in Queensland, Australia. Despite the rain life was good. Life was truly excellent in fact.
My interests these days have changed little from those of my career or childhood, though to conservation, and the systematics, biogeography, comparative morphology (and a little bit of function) and culture of cephalopods and marine invertebrates in general, I can now add photography, cuisine, culture, travel and adventure. I will always have an interest in Giant Squid, and Colossal ones too, but if you don't hear about me chasing the Colossal then one day I hope you can find me in western Australia where my ultimate dream would be to start up a backpackers, dealing with a new generation of environmentally conscious youth, and, if lucky, the occasional old bugger like me in need of an ear.
Although I've written no popular books I am in the process of completing several. In the interim you'll have to read my contribution on cephalopods and deep-sea life in general; a bibliography of some of the more science-oriented publications is detailed in My Publications.
I have a substantial library of books on cephalopods, some very old, which one day I might sell. 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. I also have a plastinated giant squid that I will sell, if you are in the market for your very own 5-metre-long piece of history.
In parting, there are a couple of people out there to whom I will always be indebted just for being who they were, and for always being supportive, particularly my former wife Shoba (above right), and my hitchiker Cyrielle (above left). And I'd like to say thanks to a few true friends; you know who you are because you'll 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.