The question I used to be asked most often is “What’s the difference between a dolphin and a porpoise?” (Answer: dolphins and porpoises are members of two different but closely related families of toothed whales.)
The question I’m most often asked now is “Isn’t all that garbage in the ocean terrible?” (Answer: It’s terrible that people mistreat our home by throwing our garbage in the oceans and on land. But people do even worse things to the oceans, including overfishing, using destructive fishing gear and polluting the atmosphere with so much carbon dioxide that it threatens ocean life.)
But sometimes people ask “How did you become a marine biologist?”
No doubt you’d get different answers if you asked that of other marine biologists. But I’d bet that, for many of us, the answer can be traced to our childhood in some way. In my case, it has a lot to do with the neighborhood where I lived until I was 7.
Obviously this topic is very personal. Discovering who you are is personal. But I’m willing to share this in the hope that it helps others discover who they are.
After my father returned from serving in the US Army during World War II, he and my mother conceived me in in a 1930s-era development on Gotham Avenue in the Gerritsen Beach neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. Although we lived in part of what then was one the world’s largest cities, it didn’t feel city-like.
My neighborhood was divided by an estuarine canal. It looked like this:
From our back door, I could run past Mom’s lilacs and roses down the gangplank to our dock on what everybody called “The Canal.” The Canal was my backyard.
The Canal is a marine ecosystem that isn’t ocean; it empties into Jamaica Bay, which empties into the Atlantic Ocean about 4 kilometers from my first home. The Canal was filled with brackish water, a mix of freshwater and seawater, so the plants and animals in it had to be particularly hardy to withstand the fluctuating mix of both kinds of water.
My parents trusted me enough in the summer I turned 5 to let me fish alone from our dock in The Canal. These days we’d probably call that irresponsible parenting. But despite the fact that the West and China were at war on the Korean Peninsula in the early 1950s, the people I knew were less obsessed with safety then.
Besides, my mother could keep an eye on me from our kitchen window.
She and my father gave me a bamboo pole with a piece of monofilament line, a hook and a red-and-white bobber. I used these to catch the young bluefish (Pomatomus saltatrix) we called snappers. Mom and Dad encouraged me to fish from our dock. And I did. But I also did something they might not have anticipated.
The edges of the boards on the dock were close-enough to block the reflection of the sky from the water’s surface, but far-enough apart so I could look between them. I spent day after day on my belly, peering through the green water of The Canal at the mini-jungle of sea lettuce (Ulva sp.), sea anemones (which?), bryozoans (Bugula turrita), mussels (Mytilus sp.) and sea squirts (which?) growing on submerged parts of the dock.
That summer I fell totally, hopelessly in love. I loved catching what neighborhood kids called “blue-claw crabs” or “blooeys” (blue crabs, Callinectes sapidus), “eels” (American eels, Anguilla rostrata) and “killies” (common mummichog, Fundulus heteroclitus). Catching them helped shape my conservation ethic (I hope to blog about that eventually). But even before I cared about saving marine life, they fascinated me. Even more than catching and eating them, I loved watching and learning about them.
I wanted to know whether horseshoe crabs’ (Limulus polyphemus) “tails” were poisonous.
I wanted to know why blooeys’ left claws were different from their right claws, and why some “blue claws” actually had red claws.
I wanted to know why schools of little fish sometimes leaped from the water.
I wanted to know how “water rats” (brown rats, Rattus norvegicus) could hold their breath so long as they swam below The Canal’s surface.
And I wanted to know what it would be like to go underwater, myself.
So that summer, at age 5, I told my parents that I wanted to study “fish” and asked them what a fish-studier is called. My mother went to the nearby public library. The librarian told her that I wanted to be an ichthyologist.
Thereafter I declared to anyone who would listen that I was an ichthyologist, defining the term “fish” very, very broadly to include everything marine, from what my neighbors called “the weeds” (common reeds, Phragmites australis) in nearby saltmarshes to mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos) that paddled on The Canal.
Only later, at about 13, when my first home was a beloved and never-forgotten memory, was I told that I was going to be a marine biologist, which better described my broad range of interests. Those killies and snappers would just have to share me with other marine life.
As far as I know, I was the only marine biologist to come from that neighborhood. The other kids wanted to be cowboys, firemen, policemen, nurses and mommies (I remember that list so clearly! That was before kids wanted to be astronauts.). I doubt that many actually became cowboys. Some became carpenters, telephone linemen, teachers, artists or felons instead. Early exposure to the wonders of marine life didn’t affect all children the same way.
So that’s how I realized I was a marine biologist.
And I wonder: How many kids today have enough opportunity to fall in love with wild living things, as I did?
Elliott Norse, Founder and Chief Scientist, Marine Conservation Institute