- by Carol Standish
John Waldman is a practicing ichthyologist who works for the Hudson River Foundation for Science and Environmental research. His first book written for the general public, Heartbeats in the Muck (see review) was a fascinating narrative account of his search for life in New York Harbor. The Dance of the Flying Gurnards (The Lyons Press, 208pp, $24.95), although sporting an equally alluring title, has nothing of the urgency and tension of Heartbeats—which may be a disappointment to his fans. Rather than the narrative form, Waldman has chosen this time to share his vast watery knowledge in the form of a rather folksy and eccentric mini-reference.
Subtitled America’s Coastal Curiosities and Beachside Wonders, the book is organized alphabetically, into ninety-plus explanatory essays on various denizens and phenomena related to the ocean and the shore—from ambergris to worm hatches. Choice of subject-matter is wide-ranging and unrelated except by the ocean and the alphabet which makes reading the book cover to cover a rather bumpy ride. “Bobbing around” is a much more satisfactory way to enjoy it. As a jumping off place to search for more detail on a given topic that you might not ever have heard of (like “tidal syzygy” perhaps) the book is especially useful. Waldman references many other authorities and in cases where coastal geography is relevant, lists optimum observation locations for the various phenomena he is discussing. (Delaware Bay for shore bird migrations, Point Lobos Reserve for sea otter observation, for instance.)
Most fun about The Dance is the collection of little known facts with which nature continues to dazzle us—if we only knew. Waldman knows and is happy to share. He knows what a gurnard is, that sharks are older than trees and that color may play a role in shark attacks. (They seem to be attracted to bright hues and “the standard color of life jackets has become known as ‘yum-yum yellow’ among shark researchers.”) Waldman tells us that “most shells on the North Carolina coast have been radio carbon dated to nine thousand years old and originally came from the sounds and lagoons behind the beach so should be considered fossils.”
He even knows about Maine. It has only sixty-five miles of sand and gravel beach—about two percent of it’s shoreline. And that Captain John Smith got stung by a stingray while exploring the Chesapeake Bay in 1608 and had a grave dug for himself—“ ‘the agony was so great that I concluded that my death was indeed nigh.’ ” (When the pain subsided Smith ate his tormenter for supper.)
You get the drift of the knobby surprises that swim around in Waldman’s head and make the book a tickle if not a thrill. The editorial decisions behind the absence of a layman’s bibliography, a table of contents, more (labeled) illustrations, diminishes the general usefulness of the book and is a mild irritation for the reader who wants to know more, but overall, you’ll be happy to have this book aboard whenever the wind dies or you’re last in line at the gas dock. A gently ironic mini-essay on icebergs or ichthyosarcotoxism will lighten your mood and float you through all sorts of minor irritants.