Inside San Diego's Million-Specimen Fish ‘Library' — With the Scientist Who Runs It

The institute was officially founded in 1903 and since then has gathered, acquired and collected numerous specimens of 6,000 species of fish

Some of the coolest things about San Diego are off-limits: The infield grass at Petco Park, the stage at the Shell on San Diego Bay, the marine vertebrate collection at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

The what what collection?

Almost all San Diegans are ocean-life nerds — they look in the fisherman's 5-gallon Home Depot bucket at Crystal Pier, they kneel for hours at the tide pools at Sunset Cliffs, they check out the iridescent glowing blue waves no matter how bad it smells.

The institute was officially founded in 1903 and since then has gathered, acquired and collected numerous specimens of 6,000 species of fish

So when we had a chance to reconnect with Ben Frable, the Scripps collection manager of marine vertebrates, this time in his fish factory just blocks from the water, we were hooked, pardon the pun.

Frable, a gregarious 33-year-old who holds a master's degree in fisheries science and ichthyology ("I think? Haha never paid too much attention to the full title"), toils upstairs from the marine invertebrate collection, in a windowless lab, surrounded by roughly 2 million vertebrates biding their time in tubs, jars and other glassware.

Wetsuit-wearing surfers make their way past the somewhat nondescript exterior of a building that is home to the collection, its aged linoleum floors and beige paint harking back to its 1960s beginnings. Inside, Frable, a bearded, flannel-wearing craft-brewing fan, spends his days surrounded by the many bottled vertebrates.

"When I say marine vertebrate, I'm talking about things with backbones," Frable said. "We call it the marine vertebrate collection, but we pretty much focus exclusively on fishes. They're the largest group of vertebrates. There's about 36,000, and that's more than all birds, mammals and reptiles and amphibians combined."

The institute was officially founded in 1903 and since then has gathered, acquired and collected numerous specimens of 6,000 species. In fact, they have so many specimens, they're not what, exactly, they have.

"There's still a lot of material that hasn't been completely identified," Frable said, "and there are … I'm sure there are probably some undescribed species sitting on a shelf back there."

Highlights From the Collection

There are hundreds and hundreds of feet of shelves holding the collection, many of them in yellowing fluid, some as old as a sockeye salmon Frable showed us that was captured way back in 1886.

Among the rarities are, of course, a footballfish, a pair of which washed ashore in San Diego last fall, as well as a coelacanth (sēləˌkanTH), three feet or so of prehistoric fish that was acquired back in the '60s.

"They're very abundant in the fossil record," Frable said. "Kind of started to disappear around 70 million years ago, so, right before the dinosaurs went extinct. "But, lo and behold, in the 1930s, a fisherman brought one to a curator at a small museum in South Africa."

The curator did not recognize the fish, Frable said, but she asked a curator at another museum who was more well-versed in prehistoric fish.

"He saw her drawing and immediately was like, 'Wow! What is this?' It turned out to be this fish called a coelacanth that was presumably extinct for 70 million years," the collections manager said.

Frable never gets tired of going to work, he said.

"One thing I really like about this job is that you never really know what's on your plate for the day when I come into the office," Frable said. "I could get an email asking, 'Hey, I need to come visit,' or we actually send fish in the mail to people all over the world."

Frable chuckled at the thought. You get the feeling he does that a lot.

Still curious? The Birch Aquarium has an Oddities exhibit, with some rarities from the collection on public view, including the footballfish that washed up near the oceanography institution last year.

Looking Back

Here are more stories from NBC 7 looking back at San Diego remarkable marine life:

The creature was a Pacific footballfish, a type of deep-sea anglerfish made famous in 'Finding Nemo' that has a little bioluminescent light on top of its head that acts as a lure

A walk on Black’s Beach, a day like hundreds of others, held a shocking surprise of one San Diego man one weekend last fall.

Patrick Coyne (@patrickc_la) captured the dolphins swimming through the waves, appearing as swirling blue streaks in the ocean.

Red tide. Bioluminescence. Algae bloom. You know, those super cool, electric-blue waves? Whatever you like to call them, they were back earlier this month at San Diego County beaches.

In December, beachgoers north of La Jolla Shores discovered a 4-foot live lancetfish that had beached itself.

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