“Hey, aren’t you the lumpfish guy?”
It’s a question that Nate Spada has heard time and time again when meeting people who have binged his wildly-popular series of ocean science videos on TikTok. Spada, a WHOI research assistant who studies harmful algal blooms (HABs) in the Anderson Lab, got his start on the planet’s fastest growing social platform in 2020 after his first video post—of a lumpfish (Cyclopterus lumpus)—went viral.
“There weren’t many videos of lumpfish posted on TikTok at the time, so it’s not something a lot of viewers had been exposed to,” says Spada. “But these basketball-shaped creatures are so charismatic with incredibly vibrant colors and a suction cup on their stomach. So, for my first post, I decided to create a video doing a David Attenborough impression looking at the lumpfish. It got something like 4.5 million views in the first month, and the rest was history.”
Beginners luck? Maybe. But today, Spada’s TikTok has 1.7 million followers—not a trivial number for a science-related feed. He says some of his success—maybe a good chunk of it, even—comes from a promise he made to his followers: if they got him to one million, he’d get a tattoo of a lumpfish. It’s currently on his right shoulder. But his popularity also seems predicated on his unique approach to video content, which he characterizes as “cool fish videos with a funny flair.”
“My number one goal is to educate general audiences about science and the ocean,” Spada says, “but I try to do it in a funny and sometimes sarcastic way, which I think can be more engaging for people. There’s no reason you can’t laugh and learn at the same time.”
Spada thinks of his videos as virtual journeys that viewers can take with him to experience and discover new things. In one series, he pulled lobster traps from the University of New Hampshire’s (UNH) marine research pier just to see what was inside and then explained what each of the creatures were. In another, he walked the beach flipping over rocks to see what was underneath. Since it only takes him about ten minutes to produce a video, he sometimes creates them while he’s on the job.
“I might be in the HABs lab transferring a culture of algae and see some really cool color that strikes me,” he says. “I’ll just film and post it right then and there.”