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Longboat Key Wednesday, Mar. 18, 2015 7 years ago

Q&A: Stephen Spotte

Read our candid Q&A with marine scientist Stephen Spotte.
by: Robin Hartill Managing Editor

Marine scientist Stephen Spotte, 72, shares his adventures that span from his boyhood in a West Virginia mining camp to traveling the world as a marine scientist in his memoir, “My Watery Self: Memoirs of a Marine Scientist,” published this month by Three Rooms Press.

A Longboat Key resident since 2001, Spotte has written more than 80 scientific research papers and 18 books. Here, he delves into the stories from his latest book, which is his second memoir. 

Q: How does a kid from West Virginia wind up becoming a marine biologist?

A: When I was around 10 or 12, there were these books these guys, Hans Hass and Guy Gilpatric wrote about their adventures in skin-diving. These guys got to work in their swimsuits. What could be better than that?

Q: You’ve written 18 books, including one previous memoir. Do you find it easier to write about yourself or wildlife?

A: I find it more difficult to write about myself. When you spend your whole life as a scientist, what you write is very restricted. Everything has to be completely accurate. The last entry (of “My Watery Self”) is about how reliable memory really is. It’s certainly accurate to the best of my recollection, but it’s very difficult even to remember last week and how you were feeling at a certain moment.


Q: There’s a scene in “My Watery Self” in which you dive while tripping on acid. Did the experience influence you as a scientist?

A: No. I had to make a big decision (decide whether to accept a curator position at a Boston aquarium or a similar position in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn, N.Y.; he chose the latter). It was a career change, and it was at night, and I was by myself, and I wanted to think as best as I could.


Q: What’s a typical day like working at an aquarium?

A: When you’re a curator, your duties all have to do with taking care of the animals. When you’re a director, you’re taking care of staff. I didn’t like being a director as much as a curator because I’m a hands-on kind of guy. I used to always be asked, “It must be hard to take care of all these animals.” I would say, “It’s these employees. They’re the hard ones.”


Q: What do you think about the Seaworld controversy? 

A: We’re well past the point in our culture where we have to keep whales and dolphins in captivity. Although I was part of that in the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s, our motive was different because we were publishing scientific research. Seaworld produces very little research. It’s hard to justify keeping them in captivity unless you’re disseminating research. 


Q: What would you have done as a career if you hadn’t become a marine scientist?

A: An ethnobotanist. I was going to be a forester at one point, but I had allergies.


Q: Where is the most spectacular place you’ve gone diving?

A: The Solomon Islands. It was pristine. It hadn’t been trashed yet at all. The epicenter of coral reef diversity is in the South Pacific. The Philippines has the same capacity to be beautiful, but the people fish with dynamite. The reefs have giant holes in them. 


Q: When was the photo on the cover of the book taken?

A: It was taken the early ’70s in Key Largo by a guy named Skinner. He liked to take photos in black and white. I didn’t even know I was having my photo taken. The next thing I know, he’s developed this shot in black and white.


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