Erich Hoyt is the author of more than 20 books, including Orca: The Whale Called Killer, Weird Sea Creatures, Seasons of the Whale, and Creatures of the Deep. He is a research fellow with the international group Whale and Dolphin Conservation, and is the co-founder and director of the Far East Russia Orca Project. A Canadian and American citizen, he lives in Dorset, England.
Q: What are some of the weirdest of the sea creatures in your new book Weird Sea Creatures?
A: There are so many odd stories in the deep dark sea.
Take the female deep-sea blackdevil anglerfish. The female has a fishing pole growing out of her forehead, the tip of which is covered in bioluminescent bacteria that flashes and attracts her fishy prey.
Male anglerfish are only 1/6th the size of females and when they find a female, the male attaches to her permanently, living as a parasite, till death do they part. Scientists think this is because it is so hard to find a mate in the deep sea that if you find one, you’d better stay glued together.
There is the Yeti Crab only discovered in 2011 whose bottom is covered in furry hair even though it lives on hot hydrothermal vents several hundred degrees in temperature. The hairs collect bacteria that the crabs can harvest as a food source.
And then there are the 3-foot-long jewel squid, a.k.a. the cock-eyed squid, with one eye designed pointed up for viewing in the higher light levels toward the surface, while the other eye always angles down and takes in much more light and is attuned to bioluminescent flashes.
When attacked, some squid will squirt out their own bioluminescent cloud and if that doesn’t work, they bite off the bioluminescent tip of one their arms and let it float away, distracting the predator. In time the arm grows back.
And then there’s the shrimplike “pram bug,” the female of which hunts for tunicates called salps. With her big claws and two sets of eyes, she finds and kills the tubelike salp by eating it from the inside out, and moving into the casing and calling it home.
She proceeds to lay her eggs inside and use the salp’s shell as a pram or baby buggy as she floats through the sea looking for more victims.
Q: Many of your books deal with whales and dolphins. How did you first get interested in studying them, and what are some of the biggest misperceptions people have about them?
A: I was fortunate to have started working with wild killer whales off northern Vancouver Island the first year that scientists began studying them, about 40 years ago.
We lived among a number of large family groups of orcas, saw them repeatedly day after day, and got to know them as individuals. Before that I had no interest in whales but I loved the sea and knew that was where I wanted to be.
With the killer whale work, I returned every summer to northern Vancouver Island for 10 years, eventually writing my book Orca: The Whale Called Killer, as well as articles for National Geographic and other magazines.
Since then I have worked with many other whale species in Russia, Japan, Canada and other countries, and, when you add up all the days, I have spent close to three years at sea.
Propelling my interest in studying them was the excitement that we were learning so much day by day and that I had a chance to contribute to the research.
Misconceptions? People think that whales are all more or less the same but there are more than 80 species of whales, dolphins and porpoises and each species has its own kinds of sounds that it uses to communicate, its own diet and hunting habits, preferred habitats and—something we’re beginning to understand—their own cultural differences which they pass on to their young.
Another misconception: In the late 1960s when the “save the whales” movement first appeared, people thought whales were gentle beings, maybe super intelligent and even supernatural. Some of those ideas persist today.
It turns out that some species like humpback whales can be quite violent with each other on the breeding grounds. And we know whales, especially the toothed whales, are large-brained but the more we learn about them, the more we realize that theirs is another kind of intelligence and we can’t assess it by any measure we use to judge human intelligence, such as it is.
Compared to our misconceptions, the real stories of whales, in many ways, are far more impressive. Who would have thought we would find a species of whale living to 200 or more years (the bowhead whale), that each pod of killer whales has its own dialect, that blue whales, with their long booming calls, can communicate across entire ocean basins. We have astonishing new findings every few weeks it seems…
Q: Your classic book Orca: The Whale Called Killer has been rereleased as an e-book. How has the situation changed for orcas since you first wrote the book?
A: When I started studying orcas, we were still capturing them in large numbers in the U.S. and Canada for SeaWorld and other aquariums while fishermen were shooting at them for taking all their fish. People were generally rather nervous about them. We’ve learned so much.
Today, it’s rare for people to shoot at them; orcas, in fact, support a large whale watching industry. Many members of the public know the individuals and follow their life histories as the families develop in the wild.
At first we thought killer whales were in every ocean from Arctic to Antarctic so they must be numerous and healthy. In fact, they have one of the lowest birth rates and live in small units with breeding populations of from fewer than 100 to no more than 600 individuals.
So we must be careful about the status of the pod unit. When aquariums were catching orca pods in the Northwest USA and Canada, they were often removing the young productive females, and today the orcas living there are still struggling due to these removals as well as newer problems such as pollution, boat traffic and fewer salmon than before. They are, in fact, considered “endangered.”
This year, following the film “Blackfish,” which made many more people aware of the situation with orcas in captivity, there is a bill that has been introduced in the California legislature to stop all killer whale, or orca, exhibitions in California. Other countries have already banned all captures and captivity for whales and dolphins.
I think this is the start of even bigger changes in terms of the public’s ideas of whales and dolphins. In 2010, in Helsinki, Finland, a small group of whale scientists and conservationists put forward a formal declaration of rights for whales and dolphins. It may be that the public is getting ready to consider such an idea.
Q: You've written for both adults and children. Do you have a preference?
I enjoy writing for all ages. I have written with my four children in mind, as they have been growing up, but I can also vividly recall my own childhood and the first books that I read that drew me into other worlds of discovery.
I like to write in many different ways. I have written personal narrative books as well as coffee table photography and fact-based guidebooks. I have edited anthologies. I have written film treatments and scripts for several of my books, and a radio play. I also like to write scientific papers, policy and opinion pieces on conservation.
For me, the best thing about writing is building it around stories and trying to engage the reader. Stories are what people are interested in. Even in a scientific paper, it’s possible to give the flavor of a story, to hint at the excitement behind a new discovery.
I love to go back to the beginning of any subject and take the reader by the arm and walk into a strange new land. I like to push into the secret world of animals and the natural world. I think we have so much to learn there about the natural world and that this teaches us about ourselves.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am now completing an all new edition of a full-length adult nonfiction work on the deep sea, although again this is something that can be enjoyed by any age over 11 or 12.
This book started out during a Thurber Writer in Residency in 2000; the first edition of the book, called Creatures of the Deep, was published in 2001 and won Outstanding Book of the Year Award from the American Society of Journalists & Authors. However, there is no other field moving faster than ocean and deepsea research, so it is now time to tell all the new stories that are happening.
For the new edition of Creatures of the Deep, I have rewritten the entire book, adding more than 20,000 words throughout including new chapters and a whole new part. I have searched for outstanding new photographs — more than 100 of them — to illustrate the new book.
The frontier of new discoveries on Earth is the deep sea and it is happening now before our eyes — or beneath our eyes. Actually we can’t really see what’s happening with all these new discoveries because it is happening just below the surface.
That is really exciting to me, to try to bring that alive, and I hope it will be for readers when the new Creatures of the Deep is released in October 2014.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: My passion is exploring new frontiers in marine conservation and science. I believe that the natural world has so much to teach us. The secret is getting our eyes, ears, all our senses attuned. Slowing down, we can start to appreciate this hidden world.
People say, how can I do that, I can’t swim in the sea or go down in a submarine? But most people can visit the sea sometimes, and have a chance to look along the beach and explore. I’m a runner and often when I run along the beach I find treasures from the deep waters washed ashore. Of course after a storm or a high tide is best.
It is all learning more about what the natural world has to teach us, and then opening your eyes and your head to possibilities.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb