How did the title come about?
One of my favorite descriptors of the book by a reviewer is “tastefully scandalous”! The original title was Weird and Wild Under the Sea: And Why These Creatures Matter. However, as I delved into the academic literature and talked with colleagues, a few rather intriguing and shall we say, titillating, themes evolved. Turns out that in the ocean more creatures use, have, or are made up of slime than I ever realized—it is a seriously slimy place beneath the waves. I also discovered all sorts of wacky reproductive behaviors in the ocean. And while I was aware of some of the research being done by my colleagues in the field of biomedical research, I never knew the breadth and diversity of organisms being studied in the search for new drugs or that are being used as models to study disease. And so the title, Sex, Drugs, and Sea Slime: The Oceans’ Oddest Creatures and Why They Matter was born. It did take a little convincing to get my publisher to go along with it. And while I really like the title and think it is absolutely appropriate, I hope that people will not shy away from the book because of it or think that I did it simply for shock value.
What was the inspiration for the book?
There were several “light-bulb goes on” moments on this one, beginning with a conference in Washington, DC on biodiversity loss. It is a very significant topic, but I came away thinking that nobody outside the scientific and conservation communities represented at the meeting would ever understand what biodiversity in the ocean is or why the heck they should care. Too much science-speak and jargon with little relevance to the average person. I began to ponder how to make ocean biodiversity an interesting and relevant topic for the layperson.
Then, while visiting a wonderfully funny friend in Maine, I discovered the answer (I hope). She had me laughing almost to tears with her newly discovered, little-known, ocean phobia—hagfish. There are hundreds of thousands of hagfish in the deep waters of the Gulf of Maine. They are jawless, finless, eel-like fish that have only small teeth on their tongue. They cannot tear through the scales or tough skin of their prey. To feed on the tasty inside flesh and organs of fish and other victims (I mean prey), they must therefore find other means of access—in through the mouth, gills, or you might say, the “backdoor”. With so many of these orifice-seeking ghoulish creatures in the Gulf of Maine, my friend (crossing her legs) explained that swimming just wasn’t so appealing anymore. Actually she was joking–they feed mostly on the dead or dying, so a quick dip isn’t really a problem. Burial-at-sea, now that is another story, unless you want to share your remains with writhing, squiggly hagfish! When I heard that Osama Bin Laden had been buried at sea, I tweeted that even the hagfish were unhappy! They are also called slime monsters or slime hags because they can create large quantities of gooey hagfish slime in just minutes (a defense mechanism).
I am proud to say that the slimy, orifice-seeking hagfish was an inspiration. Using weird, wacky, and, okay, totally disgusting, biology stories would be a great way to hook readers and engage them in learning about the great diversity of life in the ocean and how it is connected to the average person’s life. Yes, there are even reasons why you should care about the hagfish!
Do you have a favorite story or creature from the book?
Lots of them. One is not only a fun story, but exemplifies how I came by much of the information included in the text. I sent an email to Dr. Al Stoner, a colleague that has long been studying queen conch, and asked if he had any fun biology facts about the queen conch. And in an email he replied, “There is a real advantage to studying the reproductive biology of an animal that is big, slow, mates for hours on end, and has a penis half its total body length”. As you might imagine, my eyes lit up with joy and I dove into the literature to learn more. I found clever and funny limericks about the well-endowed male queen conch and an even more surprising fact. When the male queen conch extends his “verge” (that’s what the scientists call it) out of his large shell, around, and under the female, it is vulnerable to hungry crabs and eels (sorry, men). But not to worry, lose one and they just grow another! The male queen conch can regenerate its penis!
What do you hope people come away with after reading the book?
One of my main goals with this book was to make science entertaining, understandable, and relevant to the average person. So I hope people learn, but have great fun doing it. Of course, I also want people to better comprehend the great importance of the diversity of life in the ocean not only for the ocean, but for humankind as well., in terms of the things we all care about, such as jobs, food, health, the economy, security, and our quality of life. For readers to also become better stewards of and have a stronger voice for the oceans, and to promote more sustainable use of its resources. It is meant to be entertaining, but with a more serious and relevant underlying message.
What are some of your favorite personal ocean adventures?
I have been incredibly fortunate to have so many wonderful, sometimes a bit wild, ocean adventures and jobs so far. During the summer following my junior year in college, I worked as a safety/support diver for an undersea laboratory in St. Croix, U.S.V.I. My job title was really a euphemism for undersea slave and all around underwater gopher. But it was fantastic and I learned a ton about diving, marine science, and doing fieldwork.
I taught oceanography to undergraduates out at sea for six weeks aboard tall sailing ships for Sea Education Association. A wonderful and exciting program, thank goodness I do not get seasick. My very first cruise we went through a hurricane in the open North Atlantic (was there something about that in the fine print of my contract?). I was also at one time the director of a marine laboratory on a very, very small island in a remote area of the Bahamas. It was a difficult job, things were always breaking down, and people tended to go a little nuts being so isolated. And we had to worry about hurricanes, drug-runners, and a serious lack of supplies. Not so fun, but the snorkeling, diving, and hiking off-hours were fantastic.
I have also lived underwater for almost two weeks, twice, in the Aquarius Reef Base habitat in the Florida Keys. The habitat is in about 60 feet of water in a sandy area on Conch Reef some 3.5 miles off Key Largo. Living in the habitat allows divers six to nine hours of diving each day down to about 100 feet. It was fantastic. You truly feel a part of the underwater world instead of just a short-term visitor. Every day we would swim to our work sites on SCUBA and see the same corals or sponges, with resident fish and even a big green moray eel. Essentially, we got to know the neighborhood. And even just watching from the habitat viewport while we were inside was amazing.
Lastly, I have to say that I especially appreciate the time I have spent and am spending in the Galapagos Islands. I did research there in the 1980s and have been the science advisor for Celebrity Xpedition in the Galapagos for several years now and get to go there several times a year. The Galapagos allows us to view what our world must have been like before humans decimated the planet’s wildlife and destroyed habitats. The animals have no fear of humans, are extremely well protected, and you can see extraordinary behaviors and wildlife right at your feet. It is a place everyone should go at least once in their lives,, one that inspires an entirely new and heightened appreciation for the wilds of our planet.
I’m doing a lot of public speaking right now and between the reactions I’m getting from the book and at my talks, it seems that I am able to engage broad audiences, keep them interested, and make them laugh (even with science). That last part is a bit addictive and I can see why comedians like their jobs.
I love the idea of marrying science and the environment with entertainment, and I think I am pretty good at it. So I’d like to do more in that vein, use my ability to make people laugh and relate to broader audiences to better communicate ocean and earth science to the public through entertainment. Know anyone in the entertainment industry?
Having made all the mistakes that may be possible when appearing as an expert on television, I am now very comfortable in front of the camera and would maybe like to do more of that as well. I’ve also started writing an ocean-related fiction book for young readers, but it’s really a new genre for me, so I’ll have to get an agent and face potential manuscript rejections like all the writers out there.
It’s exciting not knowing what is next, and yet somewhat terrifying as well – that “paying-bills” thing always gets in the way!
Dr. Prager will be on a public speaking tour associated with Sex, Drugs and Sea Slime: The Oceans’ Oddest Creatures and Why They Matter sponsored by Microsoft Research.
October 12th, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, Ft. Pierce, FL
October 18th, University of South Florida, St. Petersburg, FL
October 27th, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, LA
November 2nd, Rookery Bay Reserve, Naples, FL
November 19, Miami Book Fair, Miami, FL
December 5th, Oregon Museum of Science and Industry