Biological collector uses his expertise to create a unique undersea laboratory
By Arthur Lightbourn
When a dead 67-foot fin whale recently washed up on a Point Loma beach, city authorities and lifeguards realized they had a huge problem — how to dispose of the 30-ton carcass.
But Eddie Kisfaludy, 34, a former Scripps Institution of Oceanography biological collector, and SIO professor/curator Greg Rouse saw it as a unique opportunity to create an undersea “whale fall” laboratory by sinking the remains of the whale in the ocean off La Jolla — instead of standing idly by as city crews carried out a plan to somehow haul the whale’s remains to the Miramar landfill for disposal.
“Sinking a whale offshore in the ocean,” Kisfaludy said, “is the more ecological and environmentally responsible thing to do because we don’t want to fill our landfills with whale and it’s more of a natural process…We are just adding one more whale to the millions who have died and sank throughout the oceans.”
The purpose of a scientific “whale fall” operation, Kisfaludy said, was to return the whale to the sea while creating an accessible site that researchers could revisit in the months and years ahead to monitor the biology of the “whale fall” as it provides an ongoing feast for countless sea creatures and sustains a complex local undersea ecosystem.
“This is the largest whale ever sunk by science,” he reckoned. “You could consider this the largest fish-feeding that man has ever done. It’s an incredible organic input to the sea floor.”
The successful sinking of the fin whale climaxed a multi-agency coordinated effort by SIO, Virgin Oceanic, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and SeaWorld.
We interviewed Kisfaludy mid-morning last week on the sunlit patio of Caroline’s Seaside Café on the SIO campus. While we talked, dolphins could be seen leaping just beyond the breakers.
The story of the ill-fated fin whale and its contribution to science began last November shortly before Thanksgiving when the whale’s carcass was spotted by a Coast Guard helicopter as it floated toward shore and eventually washed up in a cove just north of the Point Loma sewerage plant.
Fin whales, Kisfaludy said, are much larger than the average gray whales that occasionally wash up on San Diego beaches and that are routinely transported by dump trucks for disposal in the local landfill.
“But you couldn’t put a whale this size in the back of a dump truck,” he said. “You’d have to cut it up into three pieces which would have been a daunting task. The logical thing was to tow it offshore.”
Kisfaludy and Greg Rouse actually devised a plan to create scientific whale falls using gray whales three years ago, but they were unable to raise funds for the project estimated at a cost of $15,000 per whale.
When the fin whale washed up on shore, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration approached Kisfaludy and Rouse for help.
“This was two days before Thanksgiving and everybody was on holiday,” Kisfaludy recalled. “So I got on the horn and called as many people as I could; and in six hours we had the Virgin Oceanic catamaran lined up, we located 14,000 pounds of steel that would be needed to weigh down the whale in order to sink it, and we secured the cooperation of the lifeguards and SeaWorld.”
Rouse directed the overall operation for the whale fall and Kisfaludy oversaw the offshore details as operations manager.
The operation was three-phased, Kisfaludy said.
“First was to tow the whale 6.5 miles from Point Loma to Fiesta Island. That was the lifeguards. The second phase was to do a necropsy to determine the cause of death. That was SeaWorld and NOAA fisheries. And the third phase was to sink the whale offshore. That was me.”
Kisfaludy, in his current role as San Diego-based operations manager of Richard Branson’s Virgin Oceanic company, arranged for Virgin Oceanic’s 125-foot ultra-catamaran to be dispatched from Newport Harbor to tow the whale from Fiesta Island to the selected burial site 12 nautical miles off La Jolla.
The necropsy determined that the fin whale was a pregnant female that died after she was struck by a ship. Numerous fractured vertebrae and large areas of hemorrhage indicated that the whale was alive when she was struck.
Fin whales are considered the “greyhounds of the sea” because of their aerodynamic lines and their dangerous habit of racing in front of the bows of large ships.
“This particular fin whale might have been doing just that when she was struck or she may have been on the surface because she was experiencing trouble due to her pregnancy,” Kisfaludy ventured.
The whale was buried at sea on the morning of Nov. 25.
It took 3,000 pounds of large shackles, 1,000 pounds of large ship chain and 10,200 pounds of rusty steel mooring — totaling more than 14,000 pounds, attached to the whale’s flippers, to sink it 850 meters to the sea floor.
“We chose that depth,” Kisfaludy explained, “because we wanted to put it deep enough where it would be interesting biologically, but shallow enough to where the Scripps’ remotely operated vehicle (ROV) could access it.”
Kisfaludy was raised in Pacific Beach a couple of blocks from Mission Bay.
His father, an auto mechanic, now retired, specialized in European cars. “My father emigrated from Hungary to New York with his family aboard a refugee ship when he was 10.”
Kisfaludy’s mother is a dental hygienist.
Asked what attracted him to a career in marine biology, he said, “That’s easy. All my time when I wasn’t in school, I spent at the beach, snorkeling or spear-fishing or jumping off cliffs or doing something in the ocean.”
While attending Mission Bay High School, he realized eventually he would have to get a job, “but I wanted to do what I was doing for fun.”
“The difficult part was to figure out how you get paid for having fun. I went over to the Birch Aquarium at Scripps. I thought it would be fun to be a diver in their kelp tank and get paid to do that. Turns out they only gave volunteers the opportunity to do that.”
So he volunteered and kept at it while studying for his degree in biology at SDSU.
Then when the marine collector at Scripps needed help acquiring living specimens in support the research and educational requests of faculty, staff and students at SIO, Kisfaludy was offered the position, again as a volunteer.
He took it, without hesitation.
“It was a dream come true,” he said.
“So I started working with my predecessor. I was at Scripps two to three days a week. It was hard to keep my grades up at SDSU. But that’s what I did. Then after about four years volunteering with him, when my predecessor retired, I was graduating at the same time, and, for some strange reason, Scripps wanted me to do his job.”
One of his heroes and an inspiration during his career at Scripps, he said, was biologist/collector Ed Ricketts, a friend of novelist John Steinbeck, who was featured in Steinbeck’s nonfiction book “The Log from the Sea of Cortez,” and who served as the model for the fictional character of “Doc” in Steinbeck’s classic novel, Cannery Row.
Kisfaludy was employed at SIO for 10 years as a biological collector, marine technician, experimental aquarium manager, animal welfare curator, and boating safety manager and pilot.
As a “jack of all seas,” at Scripps, he logged more than 2,000 days at sea and led 800 oceanographic excursions around the world.
He even had a new species of salt-water rotifer, a near-microscopic multicellular parasitic scavenger, named after him, Paraseison kisfaludyi.
Rotifers are important participants in aquatic food chain, consuming various microorganisms and detritus, and, in turn, being eaten by tiny crustaceans. Kisfaludy’s parasitic species of rotifer was found feeding on the gills of shrimp-like Nebalia crustaceans that he collected for an SIO class during an 80-foot scuba dive into an area of dead sea grass a mile off of Scripps pier.
“It was quite an honor,” Kisfaludy said of the naming, regardless of it being a parasite. “That’s what Scripps is in the business of doing, things that nobody has ever done. If somebody has done it before, there’s no place for you at Scripps,” he said of his former employer.
“So my job was to be in the business of making things happen that had never been done before, and this fin whale fall was no different than collecting a nebalia and finding a parasitic rotifer on its gills.”
It was a first.
While at Scripps, Kisfaludy also combined a love of the ocean with a passion for flying.
“That was my big hobby,” he said. “I took every dollar I made and threw it straight up into the sky or at an airplane. I ended up being a commercial pilot with a flight instructor rating, bought a plane, and developed two businesses around it.”
Kisfaludy will narrate a 30-minute video presentation on the whale fall titled “A Whale of a Tale,” on Thursday, Feb. 2, at 7 p.m., at the Del Mar Television Foundation’s Communications Building, 240 10th Street, Del Mar. For more information, you are invited to call: 858-224-3888.
Kisfaludy was the offshore operations manager of a recent multi-agency collaboration to tow and sink a dead 67-foot, 30-ton fin whale 12 nautical miles offshore of La Jolla for a burial at sea, with the scientific goal of creating an accessible site that researchers can revisit to monitor the biology of the “whale fall” as it provides sustenance for countless sea creatures and a complex localized ecosystem. Kisfaludy is the San Diego-based operations manager of Richard Branson’s Virgin Oceanic company.
La Jolla at Scripps Memorial Hospital 34 years ago.
B.S. degree in biology, San Diego State University, 2000.
Flying and natural history filmmaking.
: “Cannery Row” and “The Log from the Sea of Cortez,” by John Steinbeck
“My most favorite on the planet is Baja California. I’m an airplane pilot and I think I became a pilot so that I could access Baja much easier.”
BBC Earth series documentaries and National Geographic natural history documentaries.
“Do good things for the world and if you don’t like what you’re doing, change; and try to live life as much on your own schedule as you can.”