Dr. Ellen PRAGER 12/10/14   Dive Into the Story: Ocean Science Fun for All

Dr. Ellen PRAGER 12/10/14 Dive Into the Story: Ocean Science Fun for All


Well you sort of heard a lot about my checkered
past and what I’m going to do tonight is tell you some of my favorite stories that I used
in some of my books and then this new project that I’ve undertaken, which is writing fiction
for middle graders but incorporating some of my own experiences and real ocean science
into the story, but as I’ve been telling people, having written a lot of nonfiction, boy is
it fun when I get to make things up. So as Dennis told you, I’ve had some great experiences,
both as jobs and just as adventures as a marine scientist and here’s just a couple. I’m going
to tell you a little bit more about some of them but I was the chief scientist for the
world’s only undersea research station, which is called the Aquarius Reef Base off of Key
Largo. There’s a picture of myself and you might recognize that person right there as
Sylvia Earl. We were on a mission together and lived underwater for two weeks. I’m going
to talk more about that. I did, in fact, work at SEA where I spent
six weeks onshore, teaching my students and then I’d go out to sea for six weeks with
them teaching oceanography, real hands on experience. Great, unless you are prone to
seasickness, not so good. I’m very fortunate, luckily, I don’t get that. I did some work
in Fiji, all throughout the Caribbean and one of my favorite places in the world, where
I’m going to talk a little bit about is the Galapagos Islands. I was there in the 1980s,
studying the impact of El Nino on coral and I spent about two months in the Galapagos
and I’ve been so fortunate ever since. I had been going back with — okay, I will admit
it, this is probably the best job ever – I am the science adviser for Celebrity Cruise
Lines very small cruise ship in the Galapagos. So my job is to go to the Galapagos about
three times a year to work onboard the ship. Oh, it’s horrible.
I’ve also been very fortunate to go down in some small submersibles, a couple hundred
feet, I’m either doing test dives or doing research, which is just fantastic. One of
the things that I discovered while doing all of these adventures and in my jobs is that
scientists who work in the field have fantastic stories and they involve things like wonder
and surprise and hard work, but the truth is most people don’t get to hear those stories.
Typically, it’s after a hard day of work in the field, we’re all sort of sitting around
having a drink, soda, and we share these stories and so one of the first books I did was bringing
those stories to the public in a book called ‘Chasing Science at Sea, Racing Hurricanes,
Stalking Sharks and Living Undersea with Ocean Experts’ and it’s really all about what the
textbooks don’t tell you about doing science in the field and the lessons we’d learned.
And I went to a lot of my colleagues in all different disciplines: geology, biology, sub-drivers,
medical doctors and collected stories from them and here’s just a few of my favorites.
Some of you have seen some of these stories before and I put a mix of new and older ones
in so some might be a refresher, some are going to be brand new stories. In 1997, I
was working with the U.S. Geological Survey doing work in Florida Bay and that’s this
wedge shape area, which is just south of the southern extent of the Everglades and here
are the Florida Keys. So it’s this wedge shaped area called Florida Bay and a biologist said
to me, ‘there’s been a bloom of sea urchins, would you come out with us to look at the
impact on the sea floor’ and I said, ‘uh, sure’ and I thought one or two sea urchins,
it would be sort of interesting but no big deal, well let me show you what we found.
Not just one or two sea urchins, echinoderms, there were hundreds of them climbing over
one another and this is what they were doing on the sea floor. Here’s the sea grass and
it was like an army of lawn mowers marching through the sea grass eating them away and
all that was left was sand and mud behind. Clearly, it was having a very big impact on
the habitat in Florida Bay. We don’t know how often they happen, we don’t
know why they happen but clearly a big impact. Now I just want to say I’m going to show my
age here. Any of you Star Trek fans? What does this remind you of? Tribbles, I know.
Another great story from my colleague Susan Humphries up at Wood’s Hole, she is one of
the world’s experts in black smokers or hydrothermal vents where water comes into the ocean through
fractures in the deep sea floor. The water comes in and it hits the cold water, minerals
precipitate out and it looks like smoke, but it’s really minerals precipitating out and
they’re called black smokers, but when Susan was a graduate student, she wasn’t involved
with this at all and her professor’s said, ‘we have an opportunity to go down in the
Alvin, this little submersible, to look at black smokers, would you like to go?? Graduate
student, what a great opportunity, she says, ‘sure I’d love to go’ and then her professor
said, ‘now Susan, when you go down, remember that what you say during the dive, your voice
is part of the scientific record, so be very careful because sometimes scientists see things
and they get very excited and they say things that you don’t necessarily want recorded.’
So Susan said, ‘don’t worry, I’ve got this.’ She was a student, ‘I got this, no problem,’
gets in the submersible, takes them hours to get to the sea floor, they get down there
and of course what does she see? A black smoker like this very active, but not only that,
there are millions of shrimp swarming around and you can just imagine, ‘oh my — and now
I see the chimney with the shrimp swimming around,’ but the entire time, of course, she
wanted to say things like, ‘oh my God.’ She said it’s so funny when you talk to her
today, she remembers that moment and how excited and inspired she was by that one dive and
as I said, now she is one of the world’s experts in hydrothermal vents and it really stems
from that one dive. I don’t know if I would’ve been as good at controlling my enthusiasm.
Ah, coming back to the Galapagos. When you do field work and you plan for problems like
weather, you know, you’re going to have a couple of weather days. Almost always your
boat is going to break down or some other mechanical failure, but in the Galapagos,
I encountered an obstacle I never imagined. Everybody recognizes this creature, right,
the giant tortoise and how about this one? A blue footed booby, pretty easy, those weren’t
so much of a problem but it turned out, the sea lions loved our equipment. Here’s somebody
I was working with and you see a sea lion coming, they tried to steal our equipment
all the time. Who would have thought this would be such a problem.
We would put survey gear on the bottom and they would try to take it. I literally remember
one day sitting there down on the bottom doing something in my dive gear, I looked over,
there’s my buddy and there was something pulling my fins and it’s one of these where you go,
‘eek.’ Here’s one of their favorite things. They love to swim right up to you and get
right here and blow bubbles in your face. It’s sort of a tease, like we’re really good
here, you’re very inept about working in the ocean, they do it all the time. I will tell
you a little trick. If you’re ever some place and you’re snorkeling with sea lions and you
want to get them to play with you, the thing to do is you dive down and you do somersaults
and twists like they do and often they will come and do it with you. I was in the Galapagos
about two weeks ago and I must have spent an hour in the water with this one sea lion
and I’d come up, ‘I’m so tired’ and then, ‘I have to go back down and do it again.’
I don’t care how old you are but if you get in the water playing with sea lions, it is
just fun. So here’s just a few stories about working
at Aquarius Reef Base and living underwater. So the habitat is located 3.5 miles off the
Florida Keys, off of Key Largo and it sits in this sandy horseshoe area inside Conch Reef.
It’s owned by NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and it’s now operated
by FIU and the whole idea about living underwater is it gives you time and access. If you’re
diving from the surface, say 100 feet. You might, if you’re lucky, might have two dives
at the most for 15 minutes. If you’re living at 50 feet, you have six to nine hours a day
down to 100 feet to do work. So you can imagine if you’re doing surveys or collecting samples,
that’s a real advantage. So here’s what it looks like and let’s see. The base is at about
65 feet of water. You’re living in here so you’re really living at about 45 to 50 feet
of water. It’s about 43 feet long, nine feet in diameter, it’s a cylinder. Missions tend
to be one to two weeks long and you have six people living inside or six aquanauts. You’re
in space, you’re an astronaut, you’re living underwater, you’re an aquanaut and you also
have a shore side support staff. So it’s just like NASA and mission control. You have to
have about 10 to 12 people 24 hours a day monitoring what’s going on underwater.
On the surface, you have what we call the LSB, or Life Support Buoy, and it’s connected
by cables down to the habitat and in there you have a compressor for air, you have a
generator for power, you also have communication systems, so you can actually make phone calls,
get on the internet, you have full communication while you’re living underwater, which is very
handy and here’s what it’s like inside. So to get in, what you do is you get on your
regular scuba gear, you dive down and you swim under here, take off your tank, hang
it up on a rack and then you climb in through the moon pool and this is one of my favorite
parts. So just think about the fact that the air inside the habitat is kept at the exact
same pressure as the water outside, so the water can’t flow in. So you can have an open
hatchway. So basically once you take your tank off, you just walk up this ladder and
you go from 50 feet down, you could be standing there, fish swimming around your feet and
you’re in air, climbing up into the habitat. Inside there are several different compartments.
The main compartment: one whole side of is really system support, life support, communications
and of course you have to have a duplicate of everything in case something breaks, you
want to make sure you have a duplicate. On the other side, there’s a nice little window.
There’s me, many years ago. There’s our window, our little table for eating and working and
behind that is the bunk room. It’s two tiers of three bunks. One of my colleagues, I don’t
remember which one he actually slept on. One of my colleagues goes around saying — we
were on the same mission — he loved just saying, ‘I slept on top of Ellen.’ I’m like
‘thank you so much’ because we slept in the same bunk room. So right there is the kitchen.
Everybody wants to know, what do you eat when you’re living underwater? There’s the kitchen
and you can’t have a stove or an open flame because you’re under high pressure. So you
have an instant hot water maker and mostly you’re eating camping food that you just re-hydrate.
But there’s a little problem. For some reason, and nobody knows why, and even NASA scientists
who have worked with us down there, your taste buds don’t quite work, everything tastes really
bland. One time I’d mentioned that and a couple days
later we got a big package of hot sauce in the mail. It was great but so things that
normally you would taste really good on the surface, you just can’t taste them. So my
favorite story with this is that one day the wife of the husband of one of the guys I was
saturated with, sent down a lemon meringue pie. Sounds good, except what’s meringue’
Egg white and air, so that was white slime under high pressure and the lemon filling,
you couldn’t taste the lemon, so it was a white slime yellow goo pie. Yeah, we said,
‘no more of those.’ The other thing that happens is because a lot of the gas that’s in your
system is nitrogen, think about what’s nitrous oxide? Laughing gas. So things that are funny
on the surface, down there, belly rolling, tears coming out of your eyes laughter. During
decompression you have to go through 17 hours of decompression before you come to the surface
and you just do it inside. We watched one of the Austin Powers movies. We were laughing,
almost crying. One of the scientists got in his bunk and used the bunk like he was Dr.
Evil and I came up to the surface and I watched and I said, ‘that was kind of funny, but not
that funny.’ That was the nitrogen narcosis. It affects everybody a little bit differently,
kind of funny. The other thing that we have, I don’t know
if they’re still there but while I was there we had these wonderful neighbors, giant Goliath
groupers and in particular, they seemed to like one of the staff members. His nickname
was Otter and Otter would be out scrubbing valves and the groupers would come and sidle
up to him and they started doing this all the time and then they started becoming friendly
with everybody. So we had to have a new policy. No hugging the groupers, because you know
they have mucous on them that you don’t want to rub off but they would literally come up
to you and one time I was lying on a grating doing something and one of these giant Goliath
groupers came up to me, laid down and opened its mouth and I think it must have thought
I was a cleaning station, where things go and pick particles off because I could look
right down his mouth, I was so tempted to put my hand in there and pick something off,
but then all I thought of was what if I did that and it closed its mouth and I was stuck
underwater with my hand in a giant groupers mouth. Can you imagine? Somebody probably
would have taken a picture and posted it and that was it for my career. So I decided not
to play cleaner. So that was that first book and after that
I really enjoyed writing popular science and bringing stories to the public and I was thinking
about what I should do next and I became very intrigued with the idea of how we talk about
the diversity of life in the sea, why it’s important and how could I engage a lot of
people. So I came up with this idea, the original title for the book was ‘Weird and Wild Under
the Sea, Why These Creatures Matter’ but as I started doing the research for the book,
several very intriguing themes came up. It turns out more animals than I ever knew use
mucous in some way. Whether to defend against predators, to trap food, to travel over the
bottom, there is a lot of slime under there. Also, to bring forth the next generation of
animals, there’s a lot of interesting reproductive strategies and finally, what folks here at
Harbor Branch know so well and work on, there are more types of animals coming from the
ocean used in biomedical research, either as models or in the search for new pharmaceuticals
than I ever knew. So I went back to my publisher and I said, ‘how about a new title: Sex, Drugs
and Sea Slime: The Ocean’s Oddest Creatures and Why They Matter.’
Now the University of Chicago Press is fairly scholarly so it took a little arm twisting.
So just a couple of stories. I know some of you have seen some of these before but I also
threw in some new ones. The first chapter in that book is called ‘The Invisible Crown’
and it’s really about the microscopic organisms, the floating plants, the phytoplankton and
floating animal zooplankton and there are some very beautiful designs as well as some
monsters in miniature. And even in that group there’s slime. And here’s a game and I know
there’s a couple members in the audience who have played this game before. I see somebody
sitting in the front, kind of in the front there, so you can’t play because that would
be cheating. So I like to play this game with my audiences called Mystery Young because
many of the animals in the ocean’s microscopic world are larvae of things that we would all
recognize when they’re adults, but when they’re larvae, they’re pretty hard to figure out
what they are. So just a couple, I’m going to show you the larvae and I want you to guess
what the adult is. IF you’ve played this before with me, please, no cheating. So what do you
think? Here’s the larvae of something that you would recognize when it gets old.
A shark, a stingray, that’s a good guess, a jellyfish, oh that’s another good guess,
crab, somebody got it. Yes, very good, it’s a crab but obviously it goes through several
changes as it develops. How about this one? This one’s pretty tricky, what do you think?
Octopus, no, a turtle, turtle’s a good guess. What do you think it is? A seahorse, that’s
a great guess, but guess what? It’s a sea star. Wow, I know, that’s kind of crazy. Okay,
here is another one of my favorite creatures which most people don’t ever get to see, it’s
a little bit past the microscopic stage because you could sort of see it, it’s called a foraminifera
and they’re amoeba like creatures and they live in these little shells or tents of calcium
carbonate that kind of look like miniature golf balls and they float around in the ocean
and they feed by taking their arms of goo outside the shell and collecting particles,
bacteria, particles that float by. Some have spines to help them float. In this picture
of a live foraminifera – and typically, the only thing you see are the shells in the
sand – but this is a really cool image of a live foraminifera and look at those dots.
Can anybody guess what those are? Food is a guess, what do you think? Wow, that’s pretty
clever, I might need to use that in one of my books. He said, ‘slime that is bioluminescent.’
You have a very good imagination. Oh, eggs, that’s another good one but you’re all wrong.
They’re algae cells and what the foraminifera does is they take the algae from inside their
shell in the morning, put them out on the spine to photosynthesize and grow and then
right before dusk, they pull it back into the shell, that way there’s not a lot of food
floating by – they’ve got a little farm inside. Pretty clever for an animal that doesn’t
have a brain. Ah, now here’s a new one that I put in the slideshow, just for all of you.
The spiny lobster. We all think we know a lot about the spiny lobster but they have
some really interesting behaviors and capabilities. Have any of you ever seen this? The march
of the spiny lobster. It turns out after the first storm in fall when it’s starting to
get cold, spiny lobsters have a two to three week trek offshore into deeper water to protect
themselves from the cold and they do it in what’s called a queue, which is really odd.
See how they’ve got their tail and they’ve got their antennas. Scientists think they
do it in this single file march because it’s like bicycle riders and the lobster behind
the one in front of it is actually drafting, so it’s more energy efficient. They also think
that as the crustacean train marches offshore, it attracts more lobsters to join in and they
think that they navigate possibly by the earth’s magnetic field and they might be able to chemically
sense or smell where their home range is. So very cool to see that and when you talk
about smell, another really interesting property that some scientists have discovered is most
of the time if you’re going out lobstering and you see something like this, you see one
hole and you see them all crowded in their with their spines waving around because they’re
defending themselves against hungry divers, sharks, eels, but it turns out juvenile spiny
lobsters can actually sense, they smell when another lobster is diseased.
They did these experiments and if another lobster is diseased, they basically shun them
and make them go in a hole all by themselves. They basically put them in quarantine and
the scientists think that if it’s an infectious disease, it doesn’t spread throughout the
lobster population. Isn’t that amazing? So they’re not just good to eat. So I already
mentioned cleaning stations. On coral reefs, there are specific places set up where fish
and eels and other creatures basically go for a wash and shine. They basically can be
a coral head, like this, and a fish comes over and typically they may present themselves
with their head down, they may flash a certain color, take a certain body position and then
shrimp and cleaner wrasse will come in. Remember how I was tempted to do it with that big grouper?
This is what they’ll do. The fish will put its mouth open and they will come pick off
mucous bits, parasite, dead skin, but it’s really funny because there is something called
the saber tooth blenny, who is a con artist and is colored very much like the cleaner
wrasse and so the fish will come in and the saber tooth blenny will be like ‘ah, I’m ready
to clean ya, come on in.’ The fish will set itself up, the saber tooth
blenny will go in and instead of cleaning them, take a bite. So pretty clever. And these
are some common jellyfish that we see here. Are any of you guys swimmers that deal with
jellyfish? Yeah, I’m a big swimmer in Biscayne Bay and we have had a horrible moon jelly
season. They’ve just been there all year, so here are some moon jellies. One of the
things about the moon jellies is they have a fairly weak sting and their bells are actually
covered with what’s my favorite thing? Slime, thank you very much, they’re covered in slime
and when things get trapped in it, they slide down into the tentacles, which in the moon
jelly are just around the edges. They tend to have a weak sting, but I will tell you,
it’s very individual, so I’ll get a little sting and it will go away in a couple hours
but other people are very susceptible to a stronger sting.
These are very common by docks. If you look on the bottom, have any of you seen these
upside down jellies? Yeah? They are very strange jellyfish that sit on their bell on the bottom
and you can see them pulsing. What’s kind of interesting, also, is if something is swimming
over it that they want to either defend against or maybe capture, they can actually shoot
out their stinging cells, like launching little grenades. So if you’re ever swimming and you
see these on the bottom, you don’t want to swim right over them because you can get little
stings from them. And of course – I just took this image maybe two weeks ago in Miami.
What’s this? The Portuguese Man of War. Now I will go in the water if there are moon jellies,
but I will not go in the water if there’s a Portuguese Man of War. And these are not
true jellyfish, they’re actually called siphonophores and they’re colonies of creatures that live
together and they have a very strong sting. So I would encourage you, if you see these
floating around, do not go in the water. Basically what I did in the Sex, Drugs and
Sea Slime book is at the back end of every chapter, there’s a section of why they matter.
And my whole message with that book was no matter how big, small or bizarre an animal
is, they’re important not only to the ocean ecosystem, but to human society as well, whether
it’s through food, the economy, jobs, biomedical research, biotechnology. But of course many
of these animals are now at risk due to things like climate change, overfishing, invasive
species, habitat loss and so the whole idea is we need to understand why they are so important
so that we can better protect them. So I had done a bunch of popular science books and
some children’s illustrated books and I will tell you, the last time I was here, I had
so much fun with the audience and every time I’d bring up some creature that used mucous
I had everybody shouting out ‘slime!’ that really from that lecture I decided to do a
new children’s book called, ‘Sea Slime: it’s Eeuwy, Gooey and Under the Sea.’ It’s all
about how animals in the ocean use mucous in different ways.
It was really because I had so much fun with the audience, particularly here when I was
talking about this. But I go around and I’m giving talks about these books and parents
and educators and kids said to me, ‘what about the middle graders?’ What about kids that
are like eight to 12 years old? These young books tend to be four to seven and these are
sort of high school and above. So there’s a group completely missing and what I was
told was there are a lot of really good books out there for these kids but they don’t have
a lot of science in them and very little oceans. So I decided to do my homework to discover
what do kids that age like to read and really why is it important? So I will tell you, if
you think about middle-graders that’s a really important grade. Not only is it an influential
time in their lives, but I’ll tell you, these kids have an impact on their parents, on their
peers and they are our future leaders in conservation, in science, in politics, so it’s very important
that we focus on, not only younger, but also the eight to 12 year olds. So what do they
like to read? So I went to the bookstore and collected all
sorts of books. I queried from my colleague’s kids and I see some aged kids, would you guys
have some favorite books? Harry Potter, that’s a pretty easy one, right? Harry Potter, and
one of the series that these kids love that I fell in love with is called Percy Jackson
and the author, Rick Riordan, what he does, for those of you who have never had the pleasure
to read any of these books is he combines adventure and really sarcastic humor with
Greek mythology and the kids go wild for Greek mythology now after reading these books. They’re
incredibly funny, I love them and I thought, ‘what if I could do something similar with
the oceans and combine adventure and humor with oceans and sea creatures?’ And the truth
is, from all of my adventures in ocean science, I already had the elements of a really good
story, but I was missing a couple things. Some of that sarcasm, a little bit of teenage
angst or frustration, and of course, I needed a good villain.
So with all of that, put those together and I came up with a new series, a fiction series
called ‘Tristan Hunt and the Sea Guardians’. The first book came out in May, it’s called
the Shark Whisperer. Right now we have planned five books and I have to say I am having so
much fun with these books. And the first book starts in Sarasota, they then go to the Florida
Keys and then the kids go on an adventure in the Bahamas.
In every book they’re going to go someplace different and explore different places, different
marine habitats, different creatures. So what I thought I would do for you this evening
is just read the very beginning of the book to give you a flavor of it and then I’m going
to go through some of the real science and real creatures and real habitats that are
actually incorporated into the story. ‘A sudden unnatural hush fell over the crowd.
All eyes were fixed on the pool below. It was the worst of their nightmares come to
life. Just the thought of evil, unblinking eyes, blood and hundreds of sharp teeth was
enough to scare the pants off even the bravest of bystanders. ‘A boy’s fallen in,’ a young
mother shouted, covering her daughter’s eyes, ‘call 9-1-1, do something! He’ll be eaten
alive.’ Thuma’s daughter, who had been calm before now tore from her mother’s grasp. She
ran from the scene screaming, her arm’s waving wildly. The girl dashed straight into the
mob rushing toward her. People were running to the aquarium shark pool, a dark curiosity
drawing them like flies to road kill. The commotion even attracted the local seagulls,
about 50 flocked to the site. The loud, high-pitched squawking in a barrage of bird poop bombs
added to the growing chaos.’ Now remember how I said I put real life experiences
into the book? How many of you have been pooped on by a seagull? See, a lot of people. By
the way, it’s supposed to be good luck if it happens to you. ”Tristan, Tristan!’ the
boy’s father called out, he squeezed his arm through the railing that ran around the pool,
but even with his arm extended all the way through and his face mashed against the metal,
he was still far from being able to reach his 12 year old son. ‘The sharks, they’re
coming,’ another man yelled, pointing to three large dorsal fins slicing through the water
with deadly efficiency. They were headed straight for the boy.
At first, young Tristan Hunt did not know what happened or where he was. One minute
he was leaning over the pool’s railing to get a better look at the sharks swimming below,
the next thing he knew, he was in the water. When he landed, it actually felt pretty good,
a refreshing cool splash to escape the scorching south Florida heat. Then suddenly, Tristan
realized where he was and that he was not alone in the water. This was no neighborhood
pool. He swam to the surrounding concrete wall, it was slick and smooth. There wasn’t
a ladder, steps, or anything to grab hold of. That’s when he saw the first fin. Tall
and lanky, Tristan’s limbs seemed to grow too fast for the rest of his body to keep
up with. He was constantly tripping over the simplest of obstacles as well as his own feet.
The kids at school made fun of him. At home, his older sister teased him relentlessly with
names like ‘the gangly green giant’ and ‘trippin’ Tristan’ but this was the king of all trips,
the captain of slips, the champion of stumbles, Tristan had fallen into a pool of sharks.’
Now it would be a very, very short story if Tristan was eaten by the sharks, so clearly,
the main character is not eaten by the sharks, he gets pulled out and then becomes obsessed
with all things sharks and as some of our children do, he drove his parents crazy with
questions. ‘What do sharks eat, where they do they go, what do they like?’ And it just
so happens the same day he falls into the shark pool, a mysterious invitation arrives
at their house the same day in the mail to an ocean fiends summer camp in the Florida
Keys. Perfect. So his parents send him to the Florida Keys to Cranky Key, to the Florida
Keys Sea Park for a summer camp. Now, how many of you have been to the Florida Keys?
Have you ever been to Cranky Key? No, I got to make it up, I’m having so much fun and
there is no Florida Keys Sea Park, but if I could design a park, it would be a combination
aquarium, water theme park and botanical garden. So that’s what it is and it’s great, in all
the books we’re going to have maps and so there are snorkeling streams, there’s a wave
pool, there’s a water slide, there’s a sea turtle pond, there’s shark alley and there’s
a rehab center. So Tristan goes to the camp and he meets some
of the other new campers and they start exploring the whole area and one of the things they
do is they go snorkeling in the stream and they get to meet some cow nose stingrays and
some parrotfish and they start discovering that they weren’t just invited to this camp
for no reason. It turns out, they, like all the other campers, have traces of the genes
in their body that allowed animals to first adapt to the sea and they each have special
ocean powers and while they’re at camp they start discovering what those powers are and
one of the places that this happens is the rehab center and one of the things that the
kids can do is – certain kids can communicate with different animals. So this rehab center
is not like the rescue center you all might be used to with wildlife.
For instance, let’s see, there’s a moray eel that you see here, there’s a moray eel that
has a little overeating problem and can’t fit in his hiding holes anymore, so he’s on
a customized exercise diet program. There’s a scallop and you could see in this scallop,
if you look and see these little blue dots, those are its eyes and scallops can have up
to 100 eyes but unfortunately, for one little scallop, she’s farsighted and so she keeps
running into the walls. There’s a clownfish who has a sea anemone phobia and so he’s under
family therapy and his brother’s trying to coax him into the sea anemone, and there’s
a six-armed octopus that helps the students learn about camouflage techniques and one
of the kids discovers he can change the color of his skin like an octopus. And finally,
there is Snaggletooth, a sand tiger shark that had a hook in his jaws and the only way
they could save him was to take out his jaws and teeth so they’re giving him dentures and
the main character, Tristan, discovers that he can communicate with sharks.
So at one point, then, he and his new friends are in the lagoon at camp practicing when
some lemon sharks arrive and they ask Tristan if the camp will help because there’s somebody
in the Bahamas who is shark finning and unfortunately, this is a real problem worldwide where tens
of millions of sharks are killed every year just for their fins and I imagine most of
you have heard about this. And what I want to do in every book, I’ve incorporated real
world issues. So in the first book, shark finning and blowing up coral reefs, the second
book it’s all about marine pollution and overfishing. The third book is going to be about illegal
collecting, so there’s a theme in every book. But the sharks ask Tristan if the campers
will help them and what Tristan is soon to discover is not only do the kids have special
powers at this camp, they’re also asked to go on secret missions. They’re secret undersea
agents to investigate ocean problems and save marine life. I would have liked to have done
that myself. So they end up going to the Bahamas after
a series of events. Some of the older campers are there investigating the shark finning
and what’s going on and they get kidnapped. And so a series of events, Tristan and his
new friends end up helping to go on a rescue mission and to outwit the bad guy and they
do this in the Exuma Bahamas. And as you heard, I, at one point, was the director of a small
marine lab in the Bahamas on Lee Stocking Island and that is the real island. There’s
my house, and here’s another map and this is Great Exuma here, Lee Stocking Island is
right there. And again, one of the fun parts about this is there were certain things I
needed, so I got to make up some new islands and put them in the map. So some of them are
real and there’s just a few new ones. While they’re in the Bahamas, they get to
see some really interesting animals and habitats. One of the things that happens is when they
first get to the Bahamas, they’re in there at night and they’re on a dock and they look
down and all of a sudden they start seeing these squiggly glowing things coming up to
the surface and releasing a shimmering cloud. That sounds pretty fantastic but that’s exactly
what happened to me once in the Florida Keys. I was out, kind of checking out the water,
on a dock at night, which I couldn’t help myself, and all of a sudden there were these
squiggly things glowing, coming up to the surface and releasing a glowing cloud and
I was like ‘what the heck is that?? And I had to ask Edie Widder, who many of you may
know and she told me they are the Bermuda Fire Worms, that when they’re spawning, that’s
what they do, they bioluminesce, they glow at night, they come up to the surface and
they must release their eggs and sperm. Well, the other things that happen, is once they
do that, they’re kind of a nice little light show and you can imagine all of a sudden,
fish start coming in and eating them and it’s this great show at night. So, of course, I
had to incorporate that into the book. Another thing I put in there were stromatolites,
how many of you have heard of stromatolites? Quite a few, fantastic. Stromatolites are
only forming in a couple places in the world today and here’s a diver for scale, they look
like tall pillars and if you didn’t know what they are, you would think you were swimming
through the ruins of an ancient stone temple, that’s really what they look like. And they
form under very special conditions and they’re kind of like a layer cake of microbes and
sand. So what happens is you have microbes sort of creating a sticky mat on the bottom
and then sand washes over them and gets stuck and then the microbes grow through the sand
and then more sand gets over them and you get a layer of microbes and sand growing up
like this and it gets hardened over time. And they’re really unusual looking. So of
course, I have the team in the book exploring some stromatolites.
The other interesting thing about stromatolites is that we have fossil stromatolites that
are billions of years old that we think are some of the first evidence of life on earth.
And then the other thing they experience in the Bahamas, which is probably my favorite
are ooids. How many of you have heard of ooids before? None? A couple, so let’s hear everybody
say that word. Ooids. Any idea what a rock made of ooids is? An ooilite and in fact,
under Miami, the rock that’s under a lot of Miami is the Miami Ooilite and right now ooids
only form in the Bahamas and Persian Gulf. This is under a microscope, they’re sand grains
that look very much like round beads and I have some with me, I think, to show you if
you want to look at them and they actually create these sand waves in the Bahamas. This
is underwater and they actually look like flowing waves moving with the currents. And
if you’re ever flying over the Bahamas and you look down, often you will see these white
sort of wiggly stripes, wavy stripes and those are sand waves made of ooids and they form
by having a nucleus of like a shell or some little piece of something.
They get picked up in the water column and then you get calcium carbonate crystals, like
limestone that basically precipitates around that nucleus and then they fall back down
and they get picked up again, you get another layer of crystals, they fall back down and
over time you get these beadlike grains. Now, of course I took a little artistic license
in the book and used the sand waves like quicksand. So the teens, let’s say, use it to outwit
somebody on a jet ski. So it’s like quicksand, but it’s not really like quicksand. You could
jump into it and it’s about knee deep. A funny story about ooids is when I was working at
SEA, I was doing some experiments at MIT on the dynamics of sand and I wanted to collect
ooids and I brought with me all these bags and containers because I was going to go out.
We were in the Bahamas and I was going to collect ooids and my undergraduate students
were like, ‘she is really crazy. She’s got all these bags and she’s going to collect,
it’s just sand.’ I’m like, ‘really, you don’t understand, they’re ooids, they’re really
cool.’ They thought I was the most geeky, nerdy scientist
they’d ever met. We get out there on a zodiac, we get out there, we jump into the sand, everybody
sinks in and all of a sudden I hear, ‘do you have anymore bags, can we take some of these
home?’ So they became ooid fanatics as well. Of course, in the books I get to incorporate
some of my other favorite animals, they get to play a role and one of the things I like
is that the animals team up with the teams when they’re fighting the bad guys, they’re
not working against each other. I’ve got a great scene where birds, let’s just say they
bomb a yacht, very handy. We have a jumping eagle ray. We have a lock-picking escape artist
octopus, so I really had fun with the creatures and we have some recon hermit crabs that go
on recon on a boat. It was really fun for me to incorporate some of these abilities
and I will say I love writing books of all types but the notes that I get from readers
and parents from this first book in the series have been the most rewarding of anything I’ve
done and here’s two. This one says, ‘Dear Dr. Prager, my name is
Nicholas Challenger, is it okay for me to play Tristan Hunt in the movie? My other favorite
books are Harry Potter and I have a fish to play the fish.’ How cute is that? And then
here’s a picture a mother sent me, her daughter left on her pillow in the morning the book
and a note that said, ‘read this now, wow.’ So I’ve been getting really wonderful notes
from kids and from parents, that’s one of my favorite things. So this book, I have some
copies here with me if you’re interested, also, you can get it on Amazon, you can order
it through bookstores. A lot of bookstores have it. I also have a website which I mention
in the back of the book where I’ve got links to shark tracking, there’s a crossword puzzle,
I put images of sea creatures up there, I have a little blog that I’m doing. And a little
sneak peek at book number two which is coming out in May, I just handed in the final edits,
so it’s like giving up your baby. It’s very hard to give up the book, so we just finished
the final edits, it comes out in May and the premise of the second book is there are some
mysterious fish kills in the British Virgin Islands. There’s a beautiful picture of the
area where it sort of takes place and my favorite creature in this book, anybody know what that
is? It’s called a mantis shrimp. They have the
most powerful strike in the animal kingdom. They have a second leg that is either shaped
like club or like a spear and incredibly powerful strike and they even actually create a cavitation
bubble and in the book there’s a mantis shrimp with a little bit of an anger management issue
and he’s been destroying the coral reef neighborhood he lives in, so they have to have an undersea
intervention and he ends up playing an important role in the book later on. So I just want
to thank Harbor Branch for inviting me – I always love coming and learning about what’s
going on here – as well as my publisher. I’m now a fellow of the Safina Center and
my fellowship pays for my time when I do things like this and I’ve gotten a few grants from
a few people, because I’m sort of doing something that’s a little bit unusual for scientists.
So your typical sources of funding aren’t necessarily out there. So thank you very much
and if you have any questions, I’d be happy to answer them.

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