Meet the scientist scooping up marine oddities along San Diego’s shoreline

An ultra-rare Pacific footballfish was reported as washing ashore Dec. 10, 2021 at Swami's Beach in Encinitas.
An ultra-rare Pacific footballfish was reported as washing ashore Dec. 10, 2021 at Swami’s Beach in Encinitas.
(Ben Frable/Scripps Institution of Oceanography)

UCSD researcher Benjamin Frable manages one of the largest marine vertebrate collection in the country


Benjamin Frable inspected rows of glass jars containing bizarre sea creatures stored on towering shelves on a recent weekday afternoon at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

The 34-year-old marine scientist was preparing to lead one of his many student tours of the university’s nearly 80-year-old marine vertebrate collection, which includes specimens such as the dragonfish, lanternfish and goblin shark.

Frable ran his hands through his fiery orange hair while excitedly describing the inventory, which also includes rarities washed up on San Diego’s shoreline such as the recently acquired footballfish.

“Working here, even though it’s a little morbid, is one of the best ways to interact with the diversity of life on a daily basis,” he said. “It’s amazing to come here.”

Frable has spent his six years at the university investigating marine creatures, tracing their evolutionary lineages and geographic distributions. He and other researchers from around the world rely on such collections, of which UCSD’s is the eighth largest in the country.

In a dimly lit office on campus, he can often be found with his nose buried in dusty, paper records of creatures he and his predecessors have documented for decades. The researcher regularly documents data about newly acquired specimens, from their physical features to genetic sequences.

“Something that impacted me about him was always his passion for fishes,” said Dahiana Arcila, the marine vertebrate collection curator, who has known Frable since they were graduate students.

Frable said so far he has contributed to about 10 research papers describing new species, including damselfish from Madagascar and groupers from the South China Sea.

“Each time, you are presenting your hypothesis to the scientific community,” he said. “You are making your mark on history.”

Whether it may be the sighting of a common toadfish or the alien-like corpse of a moray eel, Southern California residents regularly send photos of their discoveries to Frable.

He also has established connections with lifeguard programs in Del Mar, La Jolla and Encinitas, who contact the researcher when unfamiliar life forms surface on the beach.

“It’s our way to get an answer,” said Jonathan Strickland, the marine safety lieutenant for Encinitas. “If there’s something going on in the ocean, then we need to know about it.”

Frable got wind in 2021 that lifeguards at Swami’s Beach in Encinitas had discovered a footballfish, an extremely rare species of anglerfish.

“My heart started going,” he said. “I was just trying to figure out was the lifeguard able to grab it? Is the thing in good condition? Can I get up there and pick it up?”

He scrambled into his car from the university, and hours later, he finally secured his hands on the black, ghoulish specimen.

“I was super ecstatic, and it was so great to be able to get back to the lab,” he said. “There were so many questions we wanted to ask.”

Frable’s curiosity for marine life stems back to his childhood growing up in the Washington D.C. area. He would spend his afternoons scavenging the lush estuaries and beach strips near Chesapeake Bay.

To pursue his bubbling interest, he then attended the University of Washington, where he landed a student job helping sort specimens at the Burke Museum. The opportunity offered him a glimpse into a potential career choice.

He also worked at the largest fish collection in the world at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. Today, Frable is one of about 100 full-time marine collection managers employed across the country.

“It’s really great showing off the amazing things that nature has accomplished over the last millions of years,” he said.