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A talk with Richard Pyle

Biologist, rebreather diver, inventor of Pyle Stops or... database manager X-RAY MAG catches up with the ever-inventive and contemplative pioneer, Richard Pyle, to find out what makes him tick, insights into his theories, and the stories behind his accomplishments.
A talk with Richard Pyle
Published in X-Ray Issue: 21 - Feb 2008
Authored by: Peter Symes | Photography: | Translation:
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Who is Richard Pyle really? A biologist or a rebreather diver?
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Excellent question, many people have asked me that. I am definitely a biologist. My whole life I have been interested in fishes, and I don’t know why but it always has been that way. I’ve had an aquarium since I was a little kid, so fishes have always come first. Scuba diving was a tool to get access to fishes.

The most exciting part for me is finding new things that nobody ever found before, and I quickly learned that the only way I could go where my Ph.D advisor P.H.Randall hadn’t already found a fish was—and he has been all over the world other than down—so I got into deep diving to try to get into a new place and find new kinds of new fishes nobody found before.

There is a lot of history there, but I started off with regular scuba, going deeper and deeper and deeper. And I found out the hard way what the problems were. I got a bad case of the bends—you can read all about it on my website—and then decided not to give up on deep diving but to learn to do it properly. That led me to Bill Stone. I read his article about trimix diving—this was before technical diving became a common term—in 1987. (See Interview with Bill Stone in X-RAY MAG #15).

So, I wrote him a little letter and I asked,“How do you do this?” And he then wrote me back and told me, “We do it this way…” So, I learned how to do trimix diving from Bill Stone, and through him, I also learned about rebreathers, as he was already building rebreathers at that time. So, I got into rebreathers through fishes, and if I had to give one of them up, I would give up rebreathers before fishes.

I am definitely a biologist first and a rebreather diver second. But I will say that I get almost as much enjoyment out of thinking about the technical aspects of the diving. I enjoy thinking about rebreathers and technical diving almost as much as thinking about fishes, so every day I change hats. I have my fish hat and my rebreather hat. They are two very different things to think about, as the topics are very different. I enjoy being able to think about them both.

The reason I ask is that you seem to have not just one, but two claims to fame.

It is actually more, as I have four worlds that I move in—and my family is my fifth world. The four worlds that I travel in are: The saltwater aquarium world—I am actually more known to people in the saltwater aquarium world than any of the other worlds—and I always get invited to give keynote presentations at aquarium meetings, but generally, I have been too busy to do that. The second world is the fish world where I know a lot of people and then, of course, the rebreather and tech world.

But there is a completely different world from which I get my pay check, and that is for programming databases. Most of my travelling goes to meetings to discuss standards for computer databases, so we can exchange data about biological diversity from different computers around the world. I am changing between all these hats all the time and between all these different groups of people. A lot of times, I joke about…you know what a nerd or geek is, someone who is too much into something … I have found that in those worlds there are geeks in every one of them. Some are science nerds about the fish, and some are dive nerds.

There are different sorts of geniuses?
The funny thing is that across the topics, they all have the same characteristics, and I am one of the nerds. In fact, I am a nerd in all four categories. I can have the same sort of excited conversations over dinners regardless of whether it is about databases, fishes or rebreathers. I am surprised how similar it is.

But you are the one that is widely credited with coining the term—or in some way being synonymous with—“The Twilight Zone”

It actually started out with Walter Starck who I think got credit for recognising that this depth zone, however we want to define it, say from 50 to 150 meters, is awaiting to be explored. (Scubadivers can rarely go beyond 40m and submersibles rarely operate shallower than 150m – ed.). Walter Starck, aside from his fame as a photographer, his most significant contribution was to build the very first electronically controlled rebreather, the Electrolung. He invented this rebreather to do what I do, to find new fishes on the deeper coral reefs but this was back in the 1960’s. Of all the known technical divers, I am the least pioneer because rebreather diving. in the sense of what I use it for, was already invented by Walter Starck when I came along. In that ...

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A talk with Richard Pyle
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