The Unforgettable Bob Fenner - One of the Founding Fathers of the Hobby
Bob Fenner 1952 - 2020
Co-authored by Metrokat and Felicia McCaulley
One of the greatest reef aquarium and diving legends we’ve ever known unexpectedly departed this world on May 7th, 2020, and the entire aquarium community is grieving. Bob Fenner is best known for what many call the "saltwater aquarium Bible” - his book The Conscientious Marine Aquarist and his website WetWebMedia.com. He received the prestigious MASNA award in 2005 and was an avid book writer/photographer and a regular contributor to many magazines including CORAL magazine, FAMA, Tropical Fish Hobbyist, and many more. Most aquarium hobbyists today can trace their “roots” back to Fenner in some way - he either inspired you directly, or he inspired someone who inspired you.
Bob loved people. Hobbyists and friends all have similar stories about their first time meeting him. He was superbly friendly, upbeat, and smiling, and usually invited his new friends to go diving by the end of their first conversation! He loved to collect friends, taking note of their interests and introducing compatible friends to one another. If you ever met Bob, he remembered your name. He likely remembered small details about your aquarium and your life. Maybe he even remembered your birthday. He was passionate about humans as well as the natural world.
In his WetWebMedia bio, he said, “The central thread to everything I have attempted in writing, presentation or action in the interest has been/is "to enhance people’s love of their own lives through an appreciation of the living world.’” - a lofty goal, certainly achieved over a lifetime of passion and patience.
There is no denying Bob Fenner’s brilliance and genius. We in the marine aquarium hobby are lucky he chose our field to focus on and that he graciously shared his knowledge with us. He spent 25 years painstakingly and patiently answering countless emails from hobbyists on his site WetWebMedia. He was the "go-to guy" if you had a question about aquariums that no one else could answer, but he never resented answering beginners' tedious questions, too.
His first job was as a local fish store employee, and he started an aquarium maintenance business that helped him through college. After receiving his Zoology BS from San Diego with a minor in chemistry, he went on to teach high school science and then was an instructor at University of California San Diego. He also worked in aquatic wholesale, Betta culturing, and later started his own business, Nature, Etc. Inc. designing habitats.
The first thing many people noticed about Bob was his charisma and infectious excitability. He was known for being “socially contagious” with a unique laugh and sometimes "off color" sense of humor. Able to express empathy and relate to others sincerely, he built excellent rapport with many in our community over the years to collaborate on projects and form bonds with other industry leaders and hobbyists.
Bob was a prolific writer with a copious body of work. He produced more than a dozen books in print and an uncountable number of web and magazine articles over his lifetime. His writing style can be described as “stream of consciousness,” but easily understandable with visual imagery and philosophic inspirations. He was a staple at frag swaps, trade shows, and conventions like the International Marine Aquarium Conference, Marine Aquarium Conference of North America, and Interzoo, often attending as a speaker or person of honor. Bob was the Vice-President of Marine Aquarium Societies of North America and presented at eleven MACNA events between 2001 - 2018. He also recently helped set up a marine ornamentals collection station with Walt Smith in Fiji.
There are some who believe you can’t be a defender of reefs and a defender of the aquarium hobby at the same time. Bob set out to prove that idea wrong. He believed that responsible and conscientious aquarium keeping (and diving) fostered a love and respect for aquatic species and reefs; he knew that humans were more likely to protect what they love. He has been on thousands of dives, observing, documenting, and reporting on the health of the world’s natural reefs.
Bob strived to be the best human that he could be while responsibly pursuing as much enjoyment and excitement as he could fit into his life. He called for all of us to make more responsible decisions to help mitigate and amend the destruction caused by humans to coral reefs and other natural habitats.
Bob led an extraordinarily active, energetic lifestyle. He lived for adventure! Close friends referred to him as “the most interesting man in the world.” He had a full and colorful life, vacationing in tropical locations, diving, and visiting beloved friends all over the world. He was a talented underwater photographer with a vast collection of photos from nearly 40 years of diving. He’d recently been attempting to catalog them with the help of friends, and he posted beautiful, educational photos of fish, corals, and inverts on his facebook page each day. When he was home from his dive trips, he didn’t sit still for too long - he was a Hash House Harrier, comically referred to as a “drinking club with a running problem.” In his downtime, he enjoyed playing guitar, drums, and reading science fiction (even writing some himself). He was always up for a beer or some quality sushi with a friend to talk fish or philosophy.
Bob Fenner’s passing is a devastating loss to our hobby and to his friends and family. We at Marine Depot want to extend our deepest condolences to all who loved and looked up to him.
“Thanks for all the fish”.
"Bob was a dear friend and mentor to me. He played an influential role in the story of my life. My life would not be as full or rich if he were not a part of it.
The first couple of times I met Bob, he invited me and my former husband to Hawai’i to stay at his house. I thought it was a gracious gesture but didn’t really take him seriously till he inscribed my copy of his book, “come to Hawai’i and get SCUBA certified.” Since I had it in writing, I did. We arrived in Hawaii with Bob’s phone number, e-mail address, and no other contact information. With great anticipation, I called his number. There was no answer. I left a message at the beep. As I hung up, panic started to seep into my thoughts. Maybe my friends were right. What kind of hare-brained idea was this? About twenty minutes later Bob called to let us know he was on his way to pick us up. Thus began the first of many adventures with Bob.
Bob invited me to be part of the crew responding to the daily FAQ’s on WetWebMedia. I was pretty new to the hobby and didn’t feel I had much to offer, but he encouraged me and I found my niche. He encouraged me to write, though that was/is not my strong suit. I much prefer photography. He mentored me there as well, allowing me to use his secondary underwater photography gear when we dove together.
Most people who have met Bob know him as full of energy and charisma. He most certainly was, but he could also be quirky and moody. I learned not to talk to him before he was at least half-way through his morning vat of coffee, frequently in a 4 cup measuring cup. He would read queries, and if they had a lot of spelling or grammar mistakes, he would send them back telling the writer to fix it and send again. “Alot” was a pet peeve of his. He had a distinctive writing method which can be seen on every query on WWM, which he carried over into email, occasionally confusing people.
Bob enjoyed cooking and never met a processed meat he didn’t like. His home was decorated with all things fishy, yet I have never seen more than a freshwater set up there. His library is astounding. I doubt there is anyone with a more vast collection, at least in the US. For leisure he enjoyed reading sci-fi’s. He was particularly fond of Frank Herbert and read his Dune series many times over. At conferences, you could always find him at the hotel bar, beer in hand, speaking to any number of friends new and old. Had I not met Bob, I would not have met my significant other, Craig Bingman, or had our son, Kai. I am greatly saddened by the future opportunities lost I had looked forward travel and dive adventures when our now 3 year old son might remember them. I am disappointed that Kai will never have the pleasure of knowing Bob or having him as a teacher. Bob touched lives all over the globe and he will be deeply missed by me and so many others.
So here’s to you, Bob. Cheers, mate! - Michelle Lemech
Bob was easily the biggest titan of the reef aquarium hobby, but he was so down to earth and cool. He felt like a celebrity to me, but he was also my friend. One of my favorite memories of Bob is when we went to the Reef Conservation Society frag swap in 2012 and met a little boy, maybe 9 years old, who was a big fan of Bob Fenner. That little boy was completely star struck and even brought his copy of Conscientious Marine Aquarist for Bob to sign. Bob was so sweet and gracious, he chatted with that boy for a long time and made him so happy. He took the time to get to know the boy, and when we all left, I bet that boy felt like Bob Fenner was his friend, too. That is how Bob made us all feel. Like we were friends with our favorite rock star. He never acted like he was better than anyone else, though, in my opinion, he was.” - Felicia McCaulley
“Bob was so many things, but what made him so truly remarkable (in my mind) was how effortlessly good and kind he could be. He made it look so easy. It made you want to be a better person.” - Sara Allyn Liva, OG hobbyist, diver, and very good friend of Bob.
“Yes, Bob Fenner was one of the most genuinely sincere people I have ever known. How many times have we all seen Bob surrounded by a crowd yet focus on one in need or his deep style of greeting by putting his hand on your shoulder and looking you straight in the eye (head tilted) and wanting to know how you are? I mean really wanting to know how you are. That was Bob Fenner.
It is hard to sleep tonight as I keep hearing his unique voice and humor in my head. I can't believe he is gone. He was a great and instant friend to almost anyone he met and he never stopped giving of himself until his last hours on this planet. His quiet and peaceful passing can be seen as a gift we all hope for when it's our time to join him.
Rest in peace Bob. The choir of aquatic souls sing praises in tribute to your full and dedicated life. You had more fun doing what you loved than anyone I know.
Our many times together, over the past 40+ years, have given Deb and I memories that highlight our lives and your friendship, generosity and advice always came from deep in your heart. The many that knew you know this to be true and you have touched so many. Your books and continuous contributions to our aquatic world as well as your encyclopedic memory have marked you as one of the most memorable "characters" we were lucky enough to know.
I know you will always be with us ... always!”
In loving memory of Mr. Bob Fenner ~ Walt and Deb Smith
“I don’t know how to open this; it seems like there should be something epic to say, but there’s no statement that sums up the immensity of loss that is the passing of Bob Fenner. There isn’t a way to say it right, so I’ll just say it.
A few days ago, my friend Bob died.
If you’re reading this, he was probably your friend as well. There are likely hundreds of people mourning as deeply as I am right now, and thousands upon thousands of others that are touched by this loss. You know what I’m feeling, because you’re feeling it, too.
Bob was… (Was. I can’t get over the use of past tense, here; this is a real struggle.) Bob was just amazing. He was a charismatic presence stronger than any other. To say he was the life of every party is inadequate; he knew everybody, and everybody knew him, and he had a sort of an inescapable gravity that drew people to him.
It’s an odd and magical feeling when you meet your hero, and he turns into a friend almost instantly. I know I’m not the only one who has felt this with Bob; it was just his way. To meet him was to befriend him. He tried to include anyone and everyone around him in conversations. He was constantly engaging; put a hand on your arm, or an arm across your shoulders, anything to be close and in contact with any friend, new or old.
One of my fondest memories is when I spent a few weeks at his house in Hawai’i; the mornings we spent working on WetWebMedia. Once he’d gotten about halfway through a cup of coffee, it was the right time to ask a simple question. Any question. About anything. It would spark a two hour conversation that touched on every topic imaginable, from fish to science to science fiction to life. I learned more from him in those mornings than I can convey.
Bob changed my life. It was because of him and WetWebMedia that I became a SCUBA diver; I travelled to Egypt and dived the Red Sea with him and other friends. It was one of the highlights of my life to date. For you fellow fish geeks, get this: on one of our dives in the Red Sea, I even saw a colony of Anthelia spawning. I know a lot of us had once-in-a-lifetime experiences that went on to become twice-in-a-lifetime, three times, more…. Bob set me on a course to try more, do more, change more. To live more.
I can’t believe how different my life has been since Bob entered it almost 18 years ago, derailed it, and set it on a more lively course. I can’t believe how so many others have experienced the same. I can’t believe how one single person can make such wide-reaching, enormous waves that have changed so very, very many lives so dramatically. I can’t even begin to conceive of the innumerable, countless lives of fish and invertebrates he bettered through his books and writings and correspondence via WetWebMedia. And I can’t believe he’s gone." - Sabrina Celeste Sharp-Foxx
"Bob was a world traveler, diver, photographer, aquarist, author, and speaker; both of us Army vets and science teachers, too. He was a genius, a living encyclopedia, as friendly as friendly gets, and always looking for opportunities to help others in any way he could. We were friends, and being vastly more knowledgeable and experienced, he was also a mentor.
Today, rolling back the tape of memories, I’m thinking about all the conversations, advice, and encouragement. Trips, dives, eating, drinking, and joking around. Thinking about just how much of an influence he had on me and countless others, personally, and through his books and articles.
It’s far from exaggeration to say I wouldn’t be who I am today, where I am today, if it wasn’t for Bob. I’m one of many people lucky enough to have known him.
My condolences go out to his family and other friends. We'll miss him."
-James W Fatherree
"Bob’s greatest gift was his ability to relate to people. He had a genuine affection for people, and was amazing at facilitating relationships. If you were trying to find out some information, or accomplish something in the industry, he was an amazing resource... he’d freely introduce e you to the right people, and they’d always be eager to help. Many aquatics industry careers- including my own- were started with his encouragement, advice, and connections." - Scott Fellman
Bob was an excellent mentor and an incredible human, he had a knack for making you feel like family. He picked up like not a day had passed, no matter how long it had been since you'd seen him last. - Josh Solomon
“Today, we lost a valuable asset to the saltwater hobby. Bob Fenner was a friend of mine, one of the first speakers I ever heard way back in 2002 (MACNA - Fort Worth). He loved SCUBA diving, traveling the world to photograph underwater creatures. He was always willing to explore various locales on land as well, and learn their history.
His passion for the hobby was well known, and he was literally loved by many for his sharp wit, his friendliness, and his willingness to help anyone that had a question about our hobby. He also wrote articles for the freshwater hobby, and was an avid writer for the travel industry. His reviews, his insight, that’s what people wanted.
Bob wrote many articles, and ran his own website WetWebMedia that he updated on a daily basis. His book “The Conscientious Marine Aquarist” is a must-read for anyone that loves saltwater aquariums. I’ve been seeing his daily posts on facebook for the past couple of years where he shared a picture (or three) of something he photographed in the ocean during one of his many trips.
We dove together a couple of times. He told me “No matter what, always know that I know where you are.” That’s what a dive buddy does. However, he merely meant that he knew I was somewhere in the ocean. lol Our dive last year was on an island called Bonaire. We dove a total of 14 dives that trip, and enjoyed food and drink late into the night. The next day, he was quick to get his camera gear ready, as well as his scuba gear, to see what else we could find.
This is personal to me, as he was my friend. I’ve stayed in his home, I’ve borrowed his car, I ate his cooking, and we’d meet up at least once a year at one of the major marine events. Bob spoke to DFWMAS several times over the past 18 years, and his infectious love of aquatic life was invigorating. He knew what he was talking about, as he’s as seasoned as they come. He’d answer any question, and he had the best stories. He told me back in the 90s he was a LFS owner. Later, in 2005, he received the MASNA Award, which recognizes someone who has been exceptional in furthering the marine hobby. He excelled at this then, and never stopped; not for a single day.
This generous man would help anyone. He never turned down an opportunity to hang out with others, he loved to drink, his humor was constantly at the ready. Based in San Diego, he was an active member of the SDMAS club, but also was a constant volunteer with the Hashers running club, providing food and beverages for their members at their weekly meet-ups. Today (5/7/20), he died in his sleep. One thing I’ll never forget was how he’d tell me was that he “was ready for his next dive.” Why? Because he was dry. For him, that was much too long. I hope he’s found a perfect reef and will be “blowing bubbles” there forever.” - Marc Levenson
"If you met Bob even once, once was enough. That is pretty much all it took to never forget the vibrant person that was Bob. You can be sure he remembered you, and some detail about you. Quick to laugh, even quicker to make you laugh, Bob was an extraordinary human. Liked by everyone, respected, and certainly loved by many, Bob made the time for every one of his countless friends. Every photo he posted on Facebook was great, I commented on so many over the years and he never forgot to like the comment or reply back.
I got a chance to chat with him about the love of his life - diving - and some of his favorite diving spots for an article I wrote about him in 2017. He shared pictures from Fiji. Chatting with him always felt effortless, no matter the topic. If you had an odd critter in your tank or a strange reef curiosity, Bob had the answers. I remember offering to help him update wetwebmedia.com if he needed someone, he said it was going to be near impossible to catalog the sheer volume of information on the website. Indeed, you can fill several books with the information on the website. He was a walking aquatic encyclopedia and we are lucky to have his knowledge at our fingertips.
As Felicia and I reached out to Bob's friends for this article, there were many for whom his loss is still too raw. He is missed deeply.
Hope the oceans are deep blue and endless where you are. Happy diving Bob." - Kat
"Like many other’s first encounter with Bob, I met him online via his website Wet Web Media, seeking his expert advice when I still in college, just starting to get into the hobby in the early to mid 2000s. Like many new hobbyists, I had tons of questions and looking back, some of them were just down right silly, but he was patient with me and shared his knowledge and made the learning experience enjoyable with his easy going attitude and jokes. His passion and enthusiasm was obvious even through the screen and I was extremely grateful for his help and bought his book to support his work and to learn more.
A few years went by and while I was doing my reef press full time, I ran into Bob at Super Zoo. Even though we had just met, he treated me like an old friend. We had an absolute blast while we sat, drank, and talked about various fish, their behaviors, natural habitats, corals, and scuba diving. He invited me to his scuba diving group where we shared photos (I just mainly watched and asked questions), stories, and grew our friendship through our mutual love for the ocean.
Throughout the years, we would bump into each other at trade shows and almost each time, he would tease me that he could take better photos with his cheap underwater digital point and shoot camera… so I should just buy one of those and join him on one of his scuba trips. Looks like I will never get that chance and I am heart broken about it. He like many others in this hobby embraced me fully when I was just a minnow and helped me grow on my reefkeeping journey. I just want to say thank you and that I will miss him. I still can’t believe that he’s gone. It was just a few days ago that we were talking about Genicanthus semifasciatus. I and many others will miss his knowledge and jokes, his infectious laughter and his positive outlook on life.
Here’s to you Bob. May you rest in peace and may you be surrounded by the amazing sea life that you loved so much. " - Richard Back, Afishionado Channel
"Circa 2002 I found a website called wetwebmedia where I gathered a lifetime of new information in quick succession. Eventually I started exchanging messages with a moderator named Bob, who miraculously had an answer for every damn question. These initial interactions were the catalyst to my never ending search for more salty knowledge, which led to the launch of my first business. - Bob had such a dramatic impact on so many lives personally and professionally. My life would look very different without Bob and WWM, and for that, I am forever grateful.
We love you, Bob. Rest easy." - Austin Lefevre
"My first introduction to Bob Fenner was an interesting one as Bob apparently preferred them that way. I had started my first Coral farming company and the name I came up with was Dynamic Ecomorphology. Thought the name applied real well to stony corals as they can dynamically adapt to changing environmental conditions, within limits. Well, Bob was a strict evolutionists and he did not take well to any suggestions outside that point of view. So here I am at a small conference with at least 100 other people in San Diego. Bob singled me out of the crowd. He was talking about fish as he typically did, and he was referring to a fish that did not do too well. So Bob says, "the fish was obviously not dynamic and not ecomorphologic." He always got some laughs, and he knew I wasn't talking about a fish. But even I chuckled." - Steve Tyree
"Bob was a gentle aquarium giant who’s love and passion for the hobby will reverberate forever. The sheer number of people he educated through wetwebmedia, forums, blogs, books and talks cannot be quantified. His love for others and the aquarium hobby was that of legends. He will be missed for countless generations." - David Hammontree, R2R
It’s often said that someone lives hard and plays hard, but for Bob, that really was the truth. Few people lived life with the passion he did, whether sampling sushi, cross-country running, or diving in the Red Sea. But he had applied that same level of passion to his work, educating hobbyists and promoting the fishkeeping industry across the world. Working with Bob on the WetWebMedia site for fifteen years was both inspirational and tremendous fun, and the gap he leaves will be impossible to fill. - Neale Monks
"Bob, loved the sea and all the creatures that dwelled there. He never met a stranger and especially loved talking to others who shared his passion for sea creatures. He worked tirelessly to educate the public and the hobby with information on the animals we keep. He will be missed by everyone in the hobby." - Ed Wiser
"The things I will remember most from my times with Bob Fenner include his boisterous, gregarious warmth, always an arm around your shoulders, and his unique voice. I consider myself very lucky to have had him in my life, and I will miss him. Bob was simply one of those people who I always looked forward to seeing. He was also always eager to lend a hand, to support a fellow aquarium writer. His profuse amount of writing is obvious in WetWebMedia." - Matthew Pedersen, Coral Magazine
“If the aquarium industry was a corporation, we would consider Bob Fenner a founding member. His love for all things aquatic was beyond apparent and his willingness to share the vast vaults of knowledge he had was unprecedented. Bob Fenner was so much more than an Aquatic media giant; to so many, he was an undeniable source of information but more importantly a friend.” - Peter Cherrick, RNN
From the Marine Depot Archives
The 3rd Reef-A-Palooza California was held in 2006, in the parking lot of the old Marine Depot office building. Bob was a speaker at the event and has been a friend of Marine Depot ever since.