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Reef Encounters: Pawel Achtel

As part of International Year of the Reef, we're speaking to people who work with coral reefs, from filmmakers to fish taxonomists. In this post, we hear from Pawel Achtel, a cinematographer, director, producer, structural engineer, inventor and manufacturer of underwater equipment.

What is your typical day?

Most of the time there is no typical day. My focus changes depending on what I’m working on at the time. If I’m in the field filming, the morning starts with equipment check followed by breakfast and then we head out to sea for filming. The evening is filled with footage offloading before checking and setting up the cameras for the following day. I like to have my equipment all set up a day earlier to avoid last-minute surprises.

  • DSC00232.small, Pawel Achtel
    , Pawel Achtel

When did you first know you wanted to work in this area, and how did you get into your work?

When I first visited the Great Barrier Reef about 30 years ago and put my head down I realised this was something I wanted to pursue. After returning from my holidays, I completed a scuba diving course, bought a broadcast-quality camera and housing and since then almost never dived without one in my hands.

What inspires you in your work?

The immense beauty, unusual behaviour, and diversity of marine life motivate me to try to capture some of those moments. A well shot 3D spectacle is the ultimate reward. I want to share these experiences with others.

What would your take-home message for the future of reefs be?

When we watch pristine marine habitats we often take these environments for granted, but from the perspective of my 30 years of diving, I can tell you that the reefs are dying. It’s hard to watch. Every year we are losing marine habitats one after another and they take many years to recover. Some of them never do. I try not to think what the future is going to be like. I try to focus on how to preserve as much as we can and educate others about the importance of these marine ecosystems.

What’s your favourite creature on the reef, and why?

I love marine mammals. A humpback whale would be my number one. They are so powerful, yet so gentle. So different, yet so intelligent. Every time I look into a whale’s eye I see a warm, intelligent being.

What’s the oddest thing you’ve seen at sea?

Sydney’s pygmy pipehorse (Idiotropiscis lumnitzeri).

  • Pawel Whale, Pawel Achtel
    , Pawel Achtel

What kit do you use?

I film almost exclusively in 3D. My setup is two RED Epic Dragon cameras, 3Deep titanium housing, Denecke Genlock, Nikonos 15mm submersible lenses, Keldan 24X lights with custom reflectors, custom TrueBlue OLPF filters.

What’s the next big thing for your work?

I’m currently filming an IMAX film called Sea of Love 3D about reproduction and relationships in the ocean.

Who’s your ‘reef hero’ – someone doing great work or advocacy for the future of reefs?

Dr John (Charlie) Veron.

Harassed parent to museum student: my volunteering journey with the Horniman

Engage Volunteer, lawyer, mother, and now MA student, Gemma tells us about how volunteering with the Horniman has taken her back to university.

Ever since we moved into the area, about 10 years ago now, I’ve always loved the Horniman – the walrus, the music gallery and, as a sleep-deprived new parent, Busy Bees and the coffee in the café. I started volunteering largely because - with my youngest son starting school - it was getting harder for me to think of legitimate reasons to hang around the place. Joining the Engage volunteer team soon solved that.

The Engage team runs object handling on the engage trolley and welcomes visitors to the Butterfly House and Animal Walk. Very quickly, I went from being the harassed parent with the dinosaur-obsessed child on the one side of the engage trolley to being the well-informed volunteer on the other. Little did I know when I first signed up that Engage was just the start of my journey into the museum world.

  • IMG_3376, Gemma at London Volunteers in Museums Awards ceremony 2017 at City Hall. From left: fellow Family Learning Volunteer Marisa, Community Learning Assistant Ewen, and Gemma
    Gemma at London Volunteers in Museums Awards ceremony 2017 at City Hall. From left: fellow Family Learning Volunteer Marisa, Community Learning Assistant Ewen, and Gemma

Within a couple of months of starting with Engage, I also began volunteering with the Family team – putting my experience with nursery rhymes and the under 5s to good use by helping with the Busy Bees session each Tuesday.

The more I dug into what went on at the Horniman, the more I uncovered and the more I wanted to be involved. I helped the Community team with the Crossing Borders event for refugees. I helped design new object boxes and a banner for the new gallery. I tagged along with the Education team while they presented school sessions on evolution and I chatted to Kate, Sophie, and Rhiannon in turn about what was involved in managing the volunteers.

Still, I felt I’d only scratched the surface. There was much more to know, so I began to look into courses and other volunteering opportunities. Time and again, there was the Horniman.

I did a free, short online course with Futurelearn and the University of Leicester, and there was the Horniman acting as an example of how to make the best use of museum objects. I did some reading about “Museums in Britain”. There was the Horniman as one of the prime examples of Victorian museums for the general public.

Eventually, I secured a place to study Museums, Galleries and Contemporary Culture on an MA at Westminster. Unfortunately, juggling the course, my day job as a lawyer and my childcare responsibilities, has meant that I’ve had to cut back on my “hanging around at the Horniman” time, but even though I can’t come in as often as I used to, the Horniman is always there.

It’s there in the books I study from, through links with my fellow students and we are all well known for raising the museum as our go-to example of best practice in seminars. On my first course this term, I’ve got a museum visit - it’s to the Horniman. Thank you to the Horniman Museum for being an inspiration, an example, and an education.

What’s in a colour? Blue

As part of our exhibition Colour: The Rainbow Revealed we will be learning about a colour each month.

First up, one of the primary colours: Blue.

Top choice

Blue is one of the most popular colours in the spectrum. It comes out on top as the most preferred colour for both men and women across many countries. This could be because we see it in blue skies and clear water.

This relationship to the sky and sea gives blue an association with calming and soothing environments in our homes, where it prompts feelings of dependability.

  • The blue sky with our Totem Pole, We see blue daily, whether it is a blue sky or water. Our Totem Pole against a blue sky
    We see blue daily, whether it is a blue sky or water. Our Totem Pole against a blue sky

In business and marketing the colour blue engenders a sense of security and trust. You will often see it associated with medical (Blue Cross, Oral B) or tech companies (Facebook, Twitter, IBM).

Both of these sectors depend on customer confidence in the ability of the company to look after their wellbeing or their records, so blue branding is a subtle nod to this. However, you will start to notice lots of other brands which rely on the trust of their customers use it in their logos.

More recently, Blue has come to mean something else in modern society – a link. Blue is the predominant colour for hyperlinks in documents and online.

Feeling blue

It is quite strange that, despite blue’s associated with dependability, this colour is closely associated with sadness. There are blue notes in music, often played in blues songs which evoke feelings of melancholy harking back to the origin of the blues in the US Deep South. 

This is the first commercial recording of vocal blues by an African-American singer: Mamie Smith's performance of Perry Bradford's "Crazy Blues" in 1920:

Some people think the association of blue with sadness came from ships showing blue colours when the Captain or officers were lost during the voyage.

Washington Irving is credited with first using the term “the blues” in 1807, as a synonym for sadness. He was shortening the phrase “blue devils” which was a synonym to describe a menacing presence or a hangover.

Creating blue

Blue has placed an important role in our society as a pigment.

Blue pigments were created from azurite and Lapis lazuli. It was an expensive colour to create, due to scarcity of the mineral deposits, so it is no surprise that you will frequently see it used in older artwork relating to those of high status in Europe, such religious paintings (think the Virgin Mary’s scarf) or stained glass windows, while cobalt blue has long featured in the Middle East and Chinese porcelain.

  • Azurite, A sample of the mineral Azurite, Rob Lavinsky iRocks.com
    A sample of the mineral Azurite, Rob Lavinsky iRocks.com

The first official blue synthetic pigment came from Egypt in the form of calcium copper silicate. The earliest evidence is from around 3250 BC.

Before synthetic blues were developed, plants True Indigo (Indigofera tinctoria) and Woad (Isatis tinctoria) were used to make blue dye for clothing, dating back at least 4,000 years.

The Indigo plant has also been used for food colouring, although many manufacturers have now switched to using spirulina. If you are wearing jeans, you are likely to be wearing indigo now.

You can see some of the plants used to make blue dyes in our Dye Garden.

Blue in nature

While we think of ourselves as being surrounded by blue in nature, with the sea and sky, there is far less when it comes to animals.

The blue you see in animals (particularly mammals and insects) comes often from the structure of their feather or scales, rather than a pigment.

When you think of the blue in a peacock feather, or on our Blue Morpho butterflies in the Butterfly House, the structure of the scale or feather has been created so that it absorbs all other colours, leaving you with the blue light reflected, which is why there is an iridescence when they move.

  • Blue Morpho butterflies, Blue Morpho butterflies from our Natural History Collection
    Blue Morpho butterflies from our Natural History Collection

Joe Hanson explains this really well in his series Its ok to be smart.

When it comes to plants and flowers, there are more blues that you would see in animals, but less than 10 percent of the 280,000 species of flowering plants produce blue flowers, and blue foliage is very rare.

Found these facts about blue interesting? Learn more about colour in our exhibition Colour: The Rainbow Revealed.

A Horniman Rainbow Flag

February is LGBT History Month and as we have just opened our new exhibition Colour: The Rainbow Revealed, what better time to look at the Rainbow Flag, which has been a symbol of LGBTQI pride since the 1970s.

The Rainbow Flag is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. The flag was originally created by artist Gilbert Baker in the 1970s. Baker had been tasked by Harvey Milk to create a symbol of pride for the gay community and the original flag flew in the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day parade in June 1978.

“Flags are about power,” Baker told ABC in 2017, “Flags say something. You put a rainbow flag on your windshield, you’re saying something.”

This original flag contained eight colours but was modified to six in 1979, and we have used this six-colour flag to create our own rainbow from our collections.

Red

The red stripe in the flag symbolises life and the colour evokes blood – a symbol of life. As a colour it is at the end of the visible light spectrum which is why it is the first colour in the rainbow.

This is a wax seal from the mid-1800s. Wax seals are still commonly used to secure the padlocked doors and gates of important cabinets, offices and buildings in India and Pakistan. The inscription gives the name Narsinghadev, an official of an 'emperor' Bhagvant Singha, and dates that are equivalent to AD 1838-39 and 1859-60. 

Orange

The orange stripe represents healing. Orange is considered to be a friendly, cheerful colour combining the energy of red and the happiness of yellow.

This is a clownfish from our Aquarium. Most anemonefish are protandrous hermaphrodites, meaning they alternate between the male and female sexes at some point in their lives.

Yellow

The yellow represents sunlight. It is a warm colour and the association with the sun evokes feelings of optimism and clarity.

This is a painted, carved wooden mask of 'El Tigre' from Mexico and is part of our Handling Collection.

Green

The green represents nature, which is natural when green are the colours we associate with spring, growing and life.

Unsurprisingly we’ve gone outside to the Gardens for this part of our flag for a picture from a sunny day under the trees.

Blue

The blue stripe represents serenity, harmony or peace. Blue is used commonly by brands to evoke trust, as it is the most popular colour for both men and women.

We’ve gone for a Blue Morpho for this part of the flag, because they are just stunning. This specimen is part of our Natural History Collection, but you can also see then in our Butterfly House.

Violet

The final stripe at the opposite end of the light spectrum is violet which represents spirit. According to surveys in Europe and the United States, violet is most often associated with extravagance, individualism and the unconventional, which aligns with spirit well.

This circular embroidered fan case came from China in the early 1900s. It is decorated with an embroidered scene of a young woman dressed in blue in a boat surrounded by lilies. Beside her is an overhanging willow and a bird, probably a crane, flying overhead.

There you have it, a Horniman version of the Rainbow Flag.

As Baker said, “I like to think of those as elements as [being] in every person; everybody shares that.”

The Collective meets the objects

Learn about the Studio Collective's visit to the Study Collections Centre to inspect objects that may feature in their exhibition later this year.

The Collective spent a lot of time in our meetings talking about objects from the collection and looking at pictures of them. But nothing compares to seeing objects in real life, so our visit to the Study Collection Centre, where the Horniman stores everything that isn’t on display, was much anticipated.

Collective member Julia says ‘Sometimes you can be really surprised when you “meet the objects” – things which didn't seem so special on the database can really shine and some objects which we thought would be huge turned out to be tiny!’

Horniman staff at the Study Collections Centre had laid out our selection of objects on large tables, and there was plenty to catch the eye, and keep our interest.

Collective member Dom (the Horniman’s Community Engagement Coordinator) says ‘I enjoyed the cabinet of curiosities vibe of seeing such a range of objects. I particularly liked the small, ordinary-seeming objects we looked at, like the piece of bark which is actually a fragment of a much larger object used for divination.’

Several of the Collective were particularly fascinated by this figure of a donkey, made up of other interlocking animals including swans, fish, a monkey and a lion (and a man’s face, see if you can spot it). It’s from India, was made before 1837 and is part of a set of 12 similar figures including two people also made of animals.

Seeing our longlist of objects ‘in the flesh’ was the next step towards deciding what will be included in the first Studio exhibition, opening in autumn. Will the horse figure make it into a display case? You’ll just have to wait and see but in the meantime, the last word goes to Julia…

‘Seeing all the objects together, outside of a glass box, gets your imagination going. They conjure worlds. It's a lot to take in but it's very special.’

The Mini-Museum of Travel

Helen Merrill fills us in on how our volunteers went about putting together their latest Engage Discovery Box, a mini-museum in itself.

In the run-up to the opening of the World Gallery later this year, many of us here at the Horniman have been trying to answer the question, What does it mean to be human?

As a part of this project, the volunteers from our Engage Discovery Box Project took the lead in creating new discovery boxes that will be used in conjunction with the World Gallery by visitors and groups for years to come. Discovery boxes act like mini-museums, containing objects that follow a theme chosen by the group.

A thirteen strong team was organised and a theme of 'travel' agreed upon to complement the vision of the museum's Founder, Frederick, J. Horniman – Tea trader, Collector, Philanthropist and Anthropologist. The team needed to search for Museum objects in the Horniman collection that considered this theme while taking into consideration a broad target audience of young families, outreach venues and other community groups.

The objects had to incorporate sight, colour, smell, sound, and touch. The catalogue of available objects was vast but the objects not only had to represent the theme but they needed to be the right size and shape to fit into the Discovery Box. Safe handling was also a key factor. Eventually, the list was whittled down to 8-10 suitable objects.

  • Saddled camel model
  • Horniman tea tin
  • Bike gear 
  • Compass 
  • Yugoslavian slippers 
  • Image of Dorothy’s shoes 
  • Indbanas head piece 
  • Masai milk gourd 
  • African head scarf
  • London tube map
  • Range of other maps
  • Monarch butterfly
  • Three smell pots out of a choice of cinnamon, nutmeg, curry, and coffee.

Once the objects were chosen, the next stage was trial and evaluation with visitors. A special session was run in the Hands on Base to gauge visitor perception. Questions and feedback focused on discovery, adventure, travel, transport, and nostalgia, giving a picture of how the objects fit into the theme of travel while some objects were potentially not so relevant.

On the whole, the experience was extremely positive and thought-provoking, and it was great to know that a whole host of specialist groups would benefit from the mini-museum. For their efforts the team were nominated for the London Volunteers in Museums Awards which took place in September 2017 at City Hall. The team were declared runners-up in the award for 'Best Team Contribution', clearly recognising the enthusiasm and hard work of this dedicated team.

The accolade proved that the Horniman Volunteer Teams certainly know what it takes to engage, inspire and enrich visitor experience.

The thoroughly modern Annie Horniman

Annie Horniman was the daughter and eldest child of Frederick John Horniman and his first wife Rebekah.

  • Annie Horniman, Annie Horniman standing on the left with her mother, father and brother
    Annie Horniman standing on the left with her mother, father and brother

A liberal start

The house she grew up in was fairly liberal and her father’s interests in the natural world, anthropology and the arts undoubtedly left an impression on Annie. When young she had heard her father’s support for Jacob Bright, a liberal who was promoting a Parliamentary Bill that would give women the vote and, according to author Shelia Gooddie, Annie “resolved that one day she would have the vote.”

Annie she was in a privileged position. The family business and the progressive attitude of the Horniman family meant that she was able to enrol in the Slade School of Art when she was 22 in 1882, along with her bother Emslie, who was 19.

It was the first fine art school to open its doors to both sexes and Slade allowed Annie Horniman an element of freedom. She cut her long hair short, smoked in public, and entered into a romantic relationship with another student, Mina Bergson.

  • Annie Horniman, Annie (standing) with Emslie and a seated woman who may be Laura Plover, Emslie's wife to be
    Annie (standing) with Emslie and a seated woman who may be Laura Plover, Emslie's wife to be

On her bike

Annie also discovered the bicycle during this time. It was an important mode of transport for women, granting them a level of independence, if they could afford one. The American suffragette Susan B Anthony said, ''I think [the bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.’’

Annie preferred the men’s bikes over the ladies cycles according to Gooddie, saying “ladies bicycles are mere hen-roosts – the gears are so low that any serious traveling on them is ridiculous.” Her actions provoked mockery and anger from men. Unsurprising, when the ladies bikes of the day were lambasted for showing ankles and bloomers.

She remained undaunted. When Annie grew tired of hearing insults about her legs she started wearing trousers, which did not become commonplace in the UK until the early 20th century. Her bicycle opened up the world of London and surrounding counties to Annie, and she didn’t stop there. She also took her bike around Europe, journeying twice over the Alps. Her love of cycling didn’t diminish as she grew older.

When she bought her apartment in London's Portman Square she would carry the bicycle up three flights of stairs.

An artistic set

Her admission to Slade included a reader’s ticket to the British Museum and it was while she was studying art in reading room, that she met several important figures, including Bernard Shaw, WB Yeats and Florence Farr. She joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn with them in 1890, an occult society that admitted both men and women.

  • Annie Horniman, An illustration of Annie Horniman at her brother's wedding
    An illustration of Annie Horniman at her brother's wedding

Their friendships would prove important for all parties. Annie financed Farr’s first venture as a director, as well as the first plays by Yeats and Shaw. She did so anonymously, as despite their liberal leanings, the Horniman family did not approve of the theatre.

Annie worked with Yeats for years and established the Abbey Theatre in Dublin with him, running the financial and business side until she cut her ties in 1910 after a falling out with Yeats. However, she is remembered by many for her role in developing the first regional repertory theatre company in Britain at the Gaiety Theatre in Manchester.

A supporter of suffrage

Harking back perhaps to some of those earlier conversations overheard in Forest Hill, Annie supported the suffrage movement.

Annie spoke at numerous meetings. At a meeting of suffragettes in the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, Annie had been on the platform. She had spoken in London at the Queen’s Hall. She helped to raise funds for a new Women’s Union Building for Manchester University, by holding a special matinee performance at the Gaiety Theatre. The aim was to provide facilities for use by both sexes.

Her work was recognised by Emmeline Pankhurst, who told Annie, “You have done so much for dramatic art in this country that you have won our gratitude. It is an added pleasure to me that you are a woman”.

Annie thought the best way to prove the quality of the sexes was for women to show by their own achievements that they could do as well and better than men. And the money she inherited enabled her to do this, an avenue which was not available to most women.

  • Annie Horniman, A studio portrait of Annie Horniman in her Golden Dawn gown, Reproduced with the permission of Michael Horniman
    A studio portrait of Annie Horniman in her Golden Dawn gown, Reproduced with the permission of Michael Horniman

Annie was made a Companion of Honour a few years before she died in 1937 at her home in Shere, Surrey.


If you are interested in learning more about Annie Horniman you can:

How an idea becomes a gallery

Have you ever wondered how we put together a brand new gallery? Well, Sarah Watson from Collections Management tells us how.

This year the Horniman has been preparing for the opening of a new gallery which will show around 4,300 objects from our anthropology collection. The new World Gallery will redisplay a number of objects previously found in the Centenary and African Worlds Galleries, and importantly will include many more objects - some of which have never before been on display.

Once the World Gallery is open you will see inspiring and exciting objects from across the world highlighting different themes and cultures. Sounds enticing, doesn’t it? Before you rush to the Museum though there is still a lot of challenging work taking place behind the scenes in order for the doors of the World Gallery to open for the first time. 

Before any of the Museum's objects can be installed there needs to be decisions made about how they will be arranged and how these displays can be made possible physically. Considering how to arrange objects in a new exhibition is no easy task and one which our curators have been focused on for the last six or so years.

Some of these decisions are made at layouts when objects are set out in a mock-up of how a showcase might eventually look. Conservators, curators, collections management, documentation, and workshop staff all attend to discuss the practicalities and challenges of displaying particular objects. 

Prior to a layout, all of the required objects must be retrieved from the Horniman’s very own TARDIS - the Study Collections Centre (SCC) - our offsite storage facility which houses the majority of the museum’s collection.

Retrieving objects is carried out by the Collections Management Team who are responsible for the care, storage, and documentation of the collection. As part of this team, I work with my colleagues prior to each layout to identify the location of selected objects, collect them, and arrange them according to a design planned by curators. 

This process of retrieving objects from the SCC can be quite time-consuming, usually taking between one and four days depending on the number of objects needed and the complexity of moving them. One of the largest layouts we have done so far featured over two hundred objects. One of the challenges we encounter when retrieving objects is if they are heavy or large, or both, making them more difficult to move. This adds to the amount of preparation and time needed, and will often require the assistance of additional colleagues and lifting equipment to move them safely. 

So, what happens after the layout has finished I hear you ask. After the curators, conservators, and workshop staff have met and agreed on which objects can be displayed and how collections management carefully pack all the selected objects so they are ready to transport from the SCC to the Museum. Objects that haven’t been chosen will be packed away and go back into storage. As with retrieving objects, packing them also takes time, often as many as four days as we need to ensure that objects are packed as to not sustain damage while in transit. 

To get to the point where we start retrieving objects to the moment they are packed and ready to transport can take the best part of two weeks, particularly if there are a lot of objects involved. Once the layouts are complete we will begin the process of installing objects in the refurbished exhibition space for the World Gallery to open in 2018. In the meantime, we are getting very good at packing, and are delighted to see so many fascinating and unusual objects going on display from the collection.

Farmers' Market Focus: Wise Owl Tea

This month we caught up with Farmers' Market regulars Wise Owl Tea to learn about how they're making tea infusions that are delicious and healthy.

Hi, can you introduce yourself to our readers?

Wise Owl Tea is based in Crystal Palace. We specialise in organic herbal tisanes and all of our blends have a delicious taste with added health benefits. Our blends are caffeine, sugar, and preservative free.

How long have you been creating infusions and what attracted you to the trade?

I have been creating infusions for about 10 years. Wise Owl Tea was founded in 2014 and in our first year we won three Great Taste awards. I was attracted to the tea trade mainly because of all the nice people within the industry. The fact that it is natural, sustainable, and cost-effective was also appealing and inspired me to form the Wise Owl Tea company.

  • Wise Owl Tea, Louise Kamara
    , Louise Kamara

What does a working week look like for you?

The day normally starts at 7am with processing online orders. We aim to dispatch orders on the same day they are received which is all part of our fast reliable service to UK and European customers.

Running my own business I must always be looking for ways to improve the product and service we provide for all our customers and be innovative in looking at different ways to expand the business. We are always busy trying new infusions. Currently, we are working on several new ideas for Summer Ice tea.

How do you ensure your business is organic and sustainable?

We aim to source as much product as we can locally, working with farms that have Soil Association certification. Our teabags are also all environmentally friendly as they are made from natural corn starch. This means they are bio-degradable and compostable in soil within 18 months.

What makes trading at the Horniman special for you?

The diversity of customers is appealing at the market. From regular locals to tour groups visiting the museum and market there's a real mix.

  • DSC03961, Wise Owl Tea
    , Wise Owl Tea

What do you feel sets you apart from other infusion businesses?

As well as delicious tastes, our blends also provide health benefits. Our most popular blend is Bamboo Leaf and Nettle which has won a Great Taste award from the Guild of Fine Foods. Bamboo leaf has a high amount of the mineral silica which is great for healthy looking skin, hair, and nails. Two other blends, Cinnamon Spice and our Night Night Sleepy Tea have also won Great Taste awards and are popular at the market.

Can you tell us your personal favourite blend?

My favorite blend is the Tahitian Night-Night Sleepy Tea. It is a nice relaxing evening blend consisting of chamomile, lavender, limeflower, and valerian root. It is a great way to help give you the good night's sleep you have long been waiting for. January is our healthy-detox month though so we will be featuring a new blend of turmeric and ginger infusion.

Reef Encounters: Yi-Kai Tea

As part of International Year of the Reef, we're speaking to people who work with coral reefs, from filmmakers to fish taxonomists. In this post, we hear from Yi-Kai Tea, a fish taxonomist at the University of Sydney, currently studying under Dr. Anthony Gill as a graduate student in taxonomy and systematics.

  • Yi-Kai Tea at work, Yi-Kai Tea photographing specimens in a tank on the shore, Yi-Kai Tea
    Yi-Kai Tea photographing specimens in a tank on the shore, Yi-Kai Tea

What is your typical day?

I'm always working on something. If I’m not doing research, I’m writing articles or researching up on future things to tackle.

If I’m at the lab, I mostly do counts and take measurements of various fish specimens. Otherwise I’m at the museum looking through the literature.

There's always something to do.

When did you first know you wanted to work in this area, and how did you get into your work?

I spent many years in high school and college writing for various fish magazines and blogs. I was offered a little writing gig after being picked out from a local forum. In the years of writing about reef-fish I’ve noticed so many undescribed species go by without a name for years, often wondering why scientists didn't want to do anything about it.

Years later I decided to become a fish taxonomist myself, and the first species I ever named was the very fish I wrote about on a blog years ago, the same species that made me ponder about the short comings of taxonomy!

I now realize that there aren't many taxonomists around these days, certainly not enough to keep up with the rate at which we're discovering new species.

The first step to conserving anything is to first give something a name. Without a valid scientific name, you technically cannot put a species on a conservation list, even if its habitat is threatened. That is why, to me, taxonomy and systematics is so important.

  • Cirrhilabrus isosceles fish, The Cirrhilabrus isosceles fish, Yi-Kai Tea
    The Cirrhilabrus isosceles fish, Yi-Kai Tea

What inspires you in your work?

This is going to sound really cliché but I am inspired by so many things. I often have periods where I’m totally obsessed with something, and I’ll think to myself, that would make a great name for a fish someday.

I had a moment where I was very into Doctor Who, and I named my second new species of fish after the Sycorax Warriors from the show! A group of lesser known warriors that wore red capes and robes. I've also named a species of anthias after the alcoholic beverage tequila sunrise.

  • Synchiropus sycorax , Synchiropus sycorax, named after Doctor Who creatures the Sycorax Warriors , Yi-Kai Tea
    Synchiropus sycorax, named after Doctor Who creatures the Sycorax Warriors , Yi-Kai Tea

What would your message for the future of reefs be?

Coral reefs are such incredibly wonderful, diverse, awe inspiring ecosystems. I simply cannot think of anything else comparable.

To lose something as precious and valuable as this would certainly be a tragedy. They are resilient but they cannot do it without our help, and everyone has to do their part. Be mindful of the little things you do every day.

You may not think that you alone cannot make a difference, but if everyone thought like that, there would be no future for the reefs. It is a collective effort, and everyone should do their part. 

What’s your favourite creature on the reef, and why?

My favourite creature on the reef would most certainly have to be the clownfish. There is nothing more picturesque than a perfect little orange clownfish bobbing in her anemone home.

There is something so simplistic yet instantly iconic about this relationship, and I find the relationship so interesting and complex.

It really is the emblem of the reef I think.

  • Clown fish, A clown fish in the Horniman Aquarium, Connie Churcher
    A clown fish in the Horniman Aquarium, Connie Churcher

What’s the oddest thing you’ve seen at sea?

I once saw a decapitated Barbie doll floating out in the middle of nowhere whilst on a boat in Hawaii.

Odd, but a grim reminder not to litter!

What kit do you use?

I use a Nikon D7200 with a 150 mm Nikon macro lens. The camera body is equipped with a Nikon SB 900 fill flash.

I keep my photography set up very simple, but it gets the job done! I wouldn't consider myself a professional photographer by any means, but the photos I take do help a lot with my work and hobby.

  • Navigobius kaguya fish, Navigobius kaguya, Yi-Kai Tea
    Navigobius kaguya, Yi-Kai Tea

What’s the next big thing for your work?

I'm currently working on revising a group of wrasses with anti-tropical distributions.

It's an unusual distribution, from a biogeographic stand point. Interestingly, there are multiple groups of fish, all apparently unrelated and from different families and orders that share the same pattern.

I'm interested in seeing how this all fits in a broader context, perhaps temporally and spatially through biogeographic and evolutionary changes.

  • Pseudanthias bartlettorum fish, Pseudanthias bartlettorum, Yi-Kai Tea
    Pseudanthias bartlettorum, Yi-Kai Tea

Who is your ‘reef hero’ – someone doing great work or advocacy for the future of reefs?

David Attenborough.

I don't think I have anything to say about him that hasn't been echoed by the millions of hearts and minds that he has touched in his career. I just love him.

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