The researchers from Scripps Institution of Oceanography began their trip to the Fijian island of Dravuni with a direct flight from LAX to Viti Levu, the country’s main island. From there they drove to the capital city of Suva, hopped a small plane to another island called Kadavu. In Kadavu they chartered a small skiff that finally took them to Dravuni.
Before leaving the main island, Eddie Kisfaludy made sure to stop in a Suva market and get a choice piece of kava root.
The Scripps crew had traveled to Dravuni to look for bacteria in the sediment on Fiji’s Great Astrolabe Reef. In 2003, researchers at Scripps’ Center for Marine Biotechnology and Biomedicine discovered that this type of bacteria, called Salinispora, produces chemicals found to be active against cancer cells.
But the team couldn’t just show up in Dravuni and start digging around the reef for these magic bacteria. It needed to get permission from the chief of the native tribe that governs the area. And the chief likes his kava.
The root, the key ingredient of a potent drink, has been a cultural mainstay of the South Pacific for thousands of years. “You need to be a gringo who knows good kava when he sees it,” Kisfaludy said. “It’s the kava with the long root stems that aren’t broken at the end — that is the stuff, dare I say chronic. You don’t want to bring a bottle of Two-Buck Chuck when you are trying to wine and dine a government official.”
Getting the kava right on a research trip to Fiji isn’t listed in the job description of marine technician, Kisfaludy’s official position at Scripps. But categorizing all the things he does for the institution might not be possible.
Kisfaludy is at once a biologist, a plumber, an electrician, an engineer and a teacher. He is the guy who makes the wild ideas that the dozens of Scripps researchers come up with on a regular basis actually happen, whether it is handling the details of a far-flung expedition, or building a small aquarium that simulates deep sea conditions.
“Most of the time we are doing things here that no one else has ever done,” Kisfaludy said of the work at Scripps. “These researchers are pioneers in whatever field they are in. They are going to try a lot of things that aren’t guaranteed to work. That is just part of being the first to do any of this stuff.”
Just like wining and dining a Dravuni chief is part of getting a hold of some Salinispora. Last year’s trip began with the chief inviting the Scripps team to his home. Inside the researchers sat with the tribes people in a circle lit with kerosene lanterns. Stories were swapped, ukuleles started playing and the kava was brought out. The natives make the drink by grinding the root in half coconut shells, wrapping it in a cloth and then soaking it in water, much like you make tea.
The festivities went on until late in the evening. Eventually, the researchers steered the conversation to science. They asked if they could head out to the reef the next morning and begin collecting sediment that they hoped would contain the Salinspora. The chief said sure, but he thought his visitors were crazy.
“You have come this far for sand?” he asked.
Yep. Although it’s not always sand that they are on the hunt for. Sometimes it is kelp or mackerel or sea urchins or another of the millions of species and organisms that call the ocean home. And it is often Kisfaludy who is leading that search.
Jack of All Seas
Marine biologist Paul Jensen, who was the lead researcher on last year’s trip to Fiji, said that discoveries by Scripps’ elite scientists wouldn’t happen without Kisfaludy’s inventiveness and tremendous knowledge of the ocean. “Eddie is not a scientist per se — he is sort of the link between the ocean and the scientists,” Jensen said. “Scientists are often good at the analytical part, but not that good at getting what they need from the ocean. That link is often the difference between success and failure.”
Jensen said he is often amazed at Kisfaludy’s sense of place in the ocean. Research crews are often out in rough seas on small boats scooping up ocean mud that is 3,000 feet down. They will throw a scooper over the side and then have to wait 30 minutes or so until it hits bottom and then comes back up. But if you don’t know what you are doing, you could drift a half mile away from your scooper in that time.
“He has been unbelievable,” Jensen said. “He says ‘I think it is going to come up right here.’ And up it pops … without him we would have been a mile away from the thing.”
Kisfaludy demonstrated this acumen on a recent jaunt that took him and two passengers about a mile off the Scripps pier to collect plankton for a researcher who is studying the individual behavior of the microscopic organisms. After motoring through a school of dolphin that numbered close to 500, he slowed the boat down to the exact confluence of the Scripps and La Jolla submarine canyons, which are an attractive place for all kinds of marine life, from plankton to seals.
Here is how Kisfaludy knew he was in the right place: When he looked to the south, the tower of the La Valencia Hotel lined up in the foreground with the elevator shaft of the Seville condo complex in the background; to the southeast, the dining room window of the Marine Room restaurant lined up with the Mt. Soledad Cross; and to the northeast the end of the Scripps pier lined up with Kisfaludy’s boss’s office at Scripps’ Hubbs Hall.
He let the boat float on the somewhat rocky sea and dropped a windsock-like net into the water. After about 15 minutes he pulled the net up, took its cap off and poured what looked like regular sea water into a large jar. But once it went in the jar, the sea water was pink and pulpy looking. The pulp was actually about a gazillion plankton. “Holy cow! That is a lot,” Kisfaludy said of his catch. “They’re going to be happy.”
A Lifetime By the Sea
The 32-year-old’s knowledge of the sea comes from a lifetime in and around it. He was born and raised in Pacific Beach, and was snorkeling not long after he could walk. And not long after that he was spear fishing and jumping off the La Jolla cliffs.
He started volunteering at Birch Aquarium’s tide pool exhibit when he was a junior at Mission Bay High. A couple years later, while working toward a degree in marine biology at San Diego State University, Kisfaludy ended up volunteering with Ron McConnaughey, Scripps’ marine technician. As it turned out, McConnaughey retired in 2000, the year Kisfaludy graduated from SDSU, and the kid moved into his mentor’s office in Hubbs Hall.
When visiting the office you get the sense the McConnaughey never moved his stuff out, and maybe the guy who had the job before McConnaughey didn’t either. It is overflowing with nets, hooks, ropes, piles of tools and books with titles like “The Handbook of Knots” and “Venomous & Poisonous Marine Animals.” Also wedged in the skinny space is a chop saw, a drill press and a 1950s-era sewing machine that Kisfaludy uses to make and repair nets and stretchers for transporting large fish and sea mammals.
His other workspace at Hubbs Hall is the dank and somewhat smelly marine lab on the first floor where he is keeping an eye on about 20 different experiments. One of his tanks is full of kelp. Another is full of sea urchins, which are useful to researchers because their reproductive systems are similar to those of humans. A big tank in the middle of the lab is full of mackerel, which a grad student is studying for their swimming efficiency.
This is where most Scripps grad students come in contact with Kisfaludy. Nichole Price, a post-doctoral researcher, describes him as an unofficial professor at the institution. When a grad student is learning how to do research, Price said, he or she first learns how to come up with the big question — that is what the professors mostly focus on. The second step is how to design the experiments that answer the question — that is often where Kisfaludy comes in.
“You are sitting there in this aquarium room wondering how you are going to set up the tanks, where you are going to get your organisms from,” Price said. “Eddie is there for that. He is mentoring everybody from the ground up.”
As he was rummaging about the lab getting ready for the plankton run, Kisfaludy talked about how any job, even one that involves trips to remote islands on Fiji and excursions through schools of dolphin, can become mundane. You get the strong sense that after 10 years in this job he is thinking a lot about his next act, which will almost assuredly revolve around a passion for flying that he began to pursue after graduating college.
He went into more detail about his plans while out on the water. He has owned a Piper Saratoga since 2006. “My vision is to develop a flying oceanographic laboratory at Scripps,” he said. In the meantime, he makes the loan payments on the plane by renting it and himself out for research expeditions, mainly down to Baja.
Kisfaludy calls the side business Oceans Aloft. His business card provides a more apt description than marine technician, but still doesn’t get it all. It reads: “Eddie Kisfaludy: Oceanographic Technician — Biological Collector — Commercial Pilot.”