Dr. Fred Bortzbooks

Review of Sensuous Seas: Tales of a Marine Biologist

by Eugene H. Kaplan

(Princeton University Press, 272 pages, $24.95, August, 2006)

Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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Most people know about the unusual mating habits of seahorses, in which the female deposits eggs in a pouch in the male's abdomen. The male then releases his sperm, fertilizing the eggs and initiating a ten-day pregnancy after which he gives birth to a swarm of fully viable offspring.

If such familiar oddities were all that Hofstra University Distinguished Professor Eugene H. Kaplan had to offer in "Sensuous Seas: Tales of a Marine Biologist," few readers would give the book further consideration. Fortunately for Kaplan and his publisher, bookstore science-shelf browsers will quickly discover that male pregnancy is just the beginning of the seahorse story.

Would-be purchasers might scan the table of contents to find some familiar territory. They would likely sample Chapter 10, "Role Reversal," and quickly note Kaplan's enticing prose that sets the scene: "The seaweed sways to-and-fro with the ocean swells, yellow-tan fronds glistening in the sunlight.... Barely discernable, the outlines of two shadowy, miniature horse-like shapes can be picked out of the seaweed jungle...."

The narrative then moves quickly to the action that the reader was eager to find: "From their perches on fronds of seaweed, wearing their nuptial attire, the newly colorful couple unwind their prehensile tails and begin the reproductive ritual.... Faster and faster goes this maypole dance. If the pair is compatible, this nuptial maneuver prepares the gonads for the culminating act."

The description continues through the birth pangs. The eggs develop and "the male's pregnancy reaches term, his pouch swollen almost to bursting. The pressure of the swelling ejects a cloud of tiny, miniature seahorses. The male gives birth! He has brooded the juveniles until they are capable of functioning as free-living organisms, vaguely similar to the brooding of mammals."

That introduces a short diversion into a biology lesson about strategies that various species have developed to produce their young. Seahorse reproduction lies in a middle ground between simple egg-laying and placenta-assisted live birth.

Then comes the delicious tidbit that will cement the readers' recall of the chapter. "There is an ancient tradition among old Japanese men that impotence can be cured by a potion made of dried seahorse (Japanese folk Viagra). The formula is: take ten small or five large fresh or dried seahorses, grind them into a pulp or powder, mix with a cup of sake, and drink an hour before attempting sexual activity."

The chapter notes that many species of seahorse are endangered. Aquarium hobbyists love the little creatures, and native divers have learned to satisfy the demand using a collection technique that involves squirting deadly cyanide into crevices of coral reefs and then resuscitating the belly-up floaters, many of which do not survive.

Predictably, this technique leaves substantial collateral damage to the reef and other species of marine life. Developing techniques for seahorse aquaculture is difficult, but, fortunately, Kaplan's own research has come to the rescue. Farmed seahorses now satisfy both the aquarium trade and the urges of aging Japanese.

That chapter is but one of many that cover a diversity of marine life and are based on true stories that Kaplan has collected during his long teaching career. Many readers will be satisfied simply by reading and enjoying each chapter in isolation, but the author clearly has a broader intent.

He notes in the Preface that the subtitle notwithstanding, the term "marine biologist" is a misnomer. The field is simply too broad for one person to master. "One can be a marine invertebrate zoologist (worms, clams, and crabs), a marine ichthyologist (fishes), or even a marine phycologist (algae, seaweed). Within these specialties one can study the ecology, behavior, physiology, taxonomy, and so on of one's chosen group of organisms." Marine scientists are specialists, dedicating their lives to "one kind of intellectual quest, like tracing the migration patterns of different sharks."

He regularly delivers that dose of reality to eager students who enter college badly needing to distinguish between animal training and marine research as a scientific pursuit. Many young people enter his classes hoping to swim with the dolphins, but--judging by this enticing collection of true stories and personal experiences that he uses to motivate his lectures--most of them leave with questions compelling enough to last a lifetime.

The book displays how he guides students through that transition. The prologue reflects on a typical first day of class in a lecture hall filled with "hormone-laden young men and women."

"What can I say that will interest them...as I drone interminably about worms and clams?" he worries. His answer comes from a learned colleague's "secret of good biology teaching....Infuse into each lecture a generous helping of sex, so that seething hormone-infused thoughts will be directed toward what I am saying, not Miss Nubile."

The 31 main chapters follow, each featuring a particular type of marine life and each with the same structure: a dramatic opening, followed by biological content spiced with the author's personal experiences. Drawn into a biology lesson by Prof. Kaplan's comfortable prose, readers pay rapt attention while awaiting the juicy parts.

Occasionally, the motivational opening is more bizarre than erotic. Topics include unusual reproductive techniques with body structures to match, the proper way to prepare and eat poisonous fish, venomous spikes and tentacles, sea cucumbers that fill their mouths with sand while breathing through toothy anuses, a fish that enters a human urethra and swims upstream to devastate the bladder, penile bloodletting with stingray spines, and the evolution of various forms of eyes.

From this collection of short stories, a theme emerges. Kaplan guides readers to appreciate the remarkably diverse web of life that has evolved and continues to evolve in an ever-changing ocean environment.

Readers also discover the fragility of it all, most notably coral reefs, the marine equivalent of canaries in coal mines. These stony structures, built up by tiny living organisms over countless generations, support entire undersea ecologies in environments that would otherwise be sparsely populated. Yet all around the world, reefs are dying or showing signs of stress brought on by human activity and, more recently, global warming.

"Sensuous Seas" entertains, informs, and challenges, one fascinating tale after another.

Physicist Fred Bortz is the author of 15 science books for young readers and a prolific reviewer of science books for adults.