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How does Yi-Kai Tea make fish so sexy?

Ichthyologist (aka fish expert) Yi-Kai Tea, also known as Kai the Fish Guy, is one of Sweaty City’s favourite scientists. Since 2018, Kai has garnered a following of over 10k on Twitter through his incredible macrophotography of bright and beautiful fishes and his science communication... like the time he named a purple fairy wrasse 'Wakanda'.

What started out as an obsession with freshwater aquariums at the age of nine, developed into a fully-fledged love for Australia’s most colourful and charismatic fish. Back in the day, you’d find Kai on popular aquarium blogs under the pseudonym ‘Lemon TYK, but now he’s put up shop at the Australian Museum, rewriting all we know about his favourite fairy wrasses and having his research published in the New York Times.

Here, Sweaty City sat down with Kai to talk all things fish, climate and where he sees himself in the future.

Tell me about how your passion for fish developed?

Growing up as a kid I was intensely interested in aquarium fishes. This mostly developed through my father’s shared interest. I actually don’t remember a time where we’ve not had a fish tank at home. I continued keeping aquarium fish late into my teenage years, and got my first saltwater fish tank at 16. I was also heavily involved in blogging, and for many years worked as an editor for several popular aquarium fish blogs and websites.

Did you have any important early mentors?

Dr. Anthony Gill was my first (and still is) my mentor in fish taxonomy and systematics. I would go to him with questions about fishes even as a casual hobbyist. Eventually he officially mentored me when I was in grad school and he’s still teaching me new things every day.

How important is it for scientists like yourself to be able to communicate what they're studying?

Oh, immensely important. Doing good science is only half the work. Communicating it to the wider audience is the other.

Everyone has their own take on science communication. For me I try to be as relatable as possible. Break down that scientist façade – but also make sure that I’m communicating good, accurate science.

I also do a lot of photography, and I’m lucky in that I’m able to share original content. Lastly, I think its very important to try and communicate your science in a manner that is easily understood. I’ve had a lot of practice with non-scientific writing during my editorial days, so this is a blessing for me.

Do you have concerns about climate change when it comes to studying fish?

Climate change accelerated bleaching is a pressing concern. Lots of the fishes I study are coral reef dependent and when the reefs go, they go too. Although some fishes living in deeper habitats are able to persist even with coral bleaching, not all fishes are so lucky.

Can you tell me about one of your best career moments?

I’m still very green as a scientist, but I’ve had lots of amazing wonderful memories. I’ll tell you two.

The first was when I got to go into a submarine in Curacao to look for new species of deepwater fishes. We got down to about 900ft and were able to collect some new species. I wasn’t in academia yet at the time and I got to go down with some friends, and it was a real experience.

The second was describing Cirrhilabrus wakanda, the Vibranium Fairy Wrasse, with Luiz Rocha. We named this one after a MARVEL reference and got heaps of press for this. It was nice being able to get people interested in taxonomy.

We have to ask, what's your favourite Sydney fish? 

The eastern blue devil (Paraplesiops bleekeri).

What's it like working at the Australian Museum? 

Amazing! The Australian Museum holds one of the biggest collections of type specimens in the world (of coral reef fishes). They hold many very important specimens not only for my research, but for other academics. The staff there are so immensely friendly and so supportive of my research, and they’ve been there for me every step of the way. The curator of fishes, Joseph DiBattista, is a supervisor on my PhD panel, and the collections manager, Amanda Hay, is always there for me whenever I need help with loans or X-Rays. They really make life so easy for me and for that I’m very grateful!

What have been some of your biggest challenges, in terms of pursuing ichthyology?

That there aren’t too many opportunities for formal training. Here in Australia we don’t have dedicated courses at universities for ichthyology or taxonomy. A lot of it is self-taught, through reading and mentorship. It’s not easy, and it's partly the reason why there aren’t too many ichthyologists around.

What are your future goals as a scientist? 

I would like to be known as someone who has contributed something meaningful and insightful into the field of ichthyology and coral reef systematics. ☺ Revising the genus of Cirrhilabrus (fairy wrasses) is one of my biggest goals. It’s something that isn’t particularly difficult, but very time consuming, and in need of careful work. We’ll get there some day.

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