Meet the researchers: Phil Bock


Image: Claudia Reidy

Geologist, scientist, teacher, blogger, amateur philosopher and Fijian Chief - the indefatigable and fascinating Phil Bock has accomplished many things in his life. The retired scientist has more energy than a 20-year-old and boundless enthusiasm for his area of study.

Phil became involved in the CReefs project not only out of choice and desire to study on Lizard Island (and Heron Island later in the year), but also out of necessity.

He is one of the few people around the world who studies bryozoans, also known as lace corals or moss animals.

"The biologists don't get into it very much….they tend to get things that are easier to collect. Something like a sea urchin is a lot easier to collect than these things."
 
When asked why students should get involved in his area of study, his eyes light up and he tells me "the soft corals don't have any skeleton – the lace corals are quite a different group, much more advanced biologically. There are so many weird designs to see…so many colonies. You can get these beautiful patterns," he says.
Bryozoans are tiny aquatic colonial animals that are abundant in modern marine environments, and have been important components of the fossil record. They are superficially similar to coral.
There are around 6000 species of bryozoans around the world and Phil believes that that there are 500-1000 more "which will be found without much effort."
Phil retired from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) 10 years ago but has never really stopped working. He is an Honorary Associate at the Museum of Victoria, and has been working there in a voluntary capacity since 1976.
He became interested in science at a very early age.
"I always wanted to be out there collecting rocks and looking at the world…when I was 13 we went to a building excavation for a children's hospital and I remember one of my friends broke open a rock and there was a starfish inside of it. I was amazed…so I started looking for fossils – which is what I've done ever since."
Phil's first passion was geology. He studied fossils near the Twelve Apostles in Victoria when he stumbled across bryozoans and started diving to get his own samples.
Phil says that Lizard Island is "marvellous" and "a great opportunity", as the area has never really been studied.
"This is my first time working on the Barrier Reef; I've usually worked on the cooler waters…I think I've seen around 60 species so far and most are new to me," he says.
Phil says that currently there is no-one doing paid work in the study of bryozoans and that he has been lucky enough to have created a hobby out of his work.
Phil has been running his own website on bryozoans for 14 years, and it's the first thing he checks when he gets up in the morning.
"I like to see what's been going on," he says.
His other interests are philosophy, particularly in relation to the evolution and creation debate, listening to music and reading science fiction.
He also volunteers at the University of the Third Age teaching geology and biology. At the moment his class is discussing the history of the Earth.
On top of all this, Phil is also a Fijian Chief. His father was a Methodist missionary and Phil was born in Fiji. Due to his father being an Honorary chief, they made him a chief too.
"I'm a chief in theory but I've never tried it out. One of the things I'm told….at least 50 years ago, was that no-one could be at a higher level. My mother said this was a real pain in the neck. Can you imagine a two-year-old in the room, the visitors came and they had to get down on the floor!" Phil laughs.
For more information on Phil's bryozoan website, go to www.bryozoa.net