After three years of writing these columns, I thought I'd focus this week on a "species" that is frequently observed in the dive park. It is an organism that has been important to you (I hope) in conveying a better understanding of all the other organisms found there, and the myriad interactions that make up the park's ecological web. Yes, I'm referring to the one organism that day after day submerges in our waters to bring home the observations and the pictures that seem to please so many of this column's readers. Undoubtedly this is one of the most fascinating organisms that ever finned its way through the kelp forests... me! I hope this shameless self-portrait will give my readers a better idea of why I do what I do, and why this column and my cable TV show are known as "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill."
How did a young man growing up in the suburbs of Chicago develop into a gilled denizen of the marine world off Catalina (or anywhere else I can get to)? Back in those ancient times, television was not something parents let their offspring spend much time in front of. In retrospect, this was a wise decision back then (and even more so today). The program selection on TV in that era was quite limited (I guess some things never change). I also quickly realized that sitting close to the TV screen drawing a crayon bridge for Winky Dink to cross a deep canyon subjected me to a powerful dose of radiation (I am told I was quite precocious). Certainly in those days television was not good for your physical OR mental health (at least today you can watch my show)! But then those were the days when shoe salesmen let you play with the x-ray machines to check out the fit of those new Keds. An age of innocence.
A few early TV shows probably helped trigger my interest in marine biology. Certainly the early Cousteau specials were a factor... even though our family TV was black-and-white (like those of most families on our block). Lloyd Bridge's "Sea Hunt" also helped trigger this interest. I was surprised to learn after living at Toyon Bay for 10 years that the pinnacle just beyond our pier was THE rock that Lloyd Bridges' boat used to pass by at the end of each episode! In my youth I had to satisfy my interest in biology by collecting from the fields and streams of Midwest suburbia. Mom and Dad had to deal with cages and boxes of garter and grass snakes, 17-year "locusts," cottontail bunnies, snapping turtles and anything else too slow to escape my grasp. I even charged a nickel for neighborhood kids to visit my "zoo." Back then a nickel actually bought a box of jujubes (still my favorite candy). As I grew, so did our little village of Northbrook. New subdivisions were built, destroying most of my collecting fields. This "development" of my special natural areas also nurtured an early interest in conservation.
I studied biology in high school and first sucked air from a SCUBA tank in the winter of my freshman year (1961-62). By the time I arrived at Harvard, I intended to become a marine biologist. One of my first courses freshman year was a marine biology seminar taught by Dr. H. Barraclough Fell. Barry, a noted New Zealand echinoderm specialist, became a mentor of mine. I later took several independent study courses with him. In one we modeled the global distribution of marine invertebrates through evolutionary time in an attempt to disprove the then preposterous notion of "continental drift." This was a good experience for when "plate tectonics" (as it later became known) was accepted by the scientific community, I learned that not all scientific investigations lead to "truths" and some theories will be proven otherwise. Barry used to invite me to lunch in the Faculty Club, and there I'd sit with my long hair and beard beneath the statues of Harvard notables discussing this theory. Some of them had beards and long hair (mostly wigs) too, so I felt I was right at home!
One of my projects used Harvard's mainframe computer (one of the very first university computers and about the size of my condo) to analyze data that I entered onto IBM punchcards. Using this equivalent of a modern day hand calculator, we were able to output maps created with X's, O's, asterisks and other symbols that mapped starfish and sea urchin distributions across the globe over millions of years. This early computer mapping led to my adoption of GIS (geographic information systems) technology in my Ph.D. research decades later. However, this early experience with computers also left a sour taste in my mouth. About midnight one wintry Boston night I was walking back to my dorm after punching cards for a computer run early the next morning. I was tired and lost my footing on the ice of Massachusetts Avenue. The deck of IBM cards scattered over the street and the slush, with some getting run over by the traffic. Remember "do not bend, fold, staple or mutilate?" I don't remember them saying anything about sleet and snow, but this incident forced me to put in an "all nighter" repunching the card deck since computer runs were hard to reschedule. I really questioned how valuable computers would be in saving time after this early experience!
I took a course by E. O. Wilson at the time when he and co-researcher Robert McArthur were preparing "The Theory of Island Biogeography" for publication. Thanks to E. O. Wilson's incredible teaching and his book, I became very interested in the biogeography of islands. The following year it seemed a very logical step to accept the position of marine biologist at the Catalina Island School for Boys (CISB) after graduation. Although I had used SCUBA and did hard hat diving in the Midwest during the 1960's, I had to go through the Los Angeles County SCUBA certification program before taking my high school students underwater to study kelp forests. At the school I was able to create an entire science program focused on field activities using this incredible island as a "natural laboratory." My students observed the stars of Catalina's crystal clear skies (well, compared to LA), learned about the island's geologic history, and studied the ecology and behavior of Catalina's wildlife in the field. They also conducted research on marine invertebrates dispersing on drifting kelp facts, a project funded by a National Science Foundation grant with my Harvard mentor Dr. Fell. And it was while teaching at CISB that I first met and worked with Jean-Michel Cousteau, Dick Murphy and others that would become a part of my future. Rather than outline the last 36 years here on Catalina, I'll jump to June of 2000 when I became a Catalina Conservancy "alumnus" due to disagreements with certain policies and actions at the time.
At that point I decided to adopt the words of one of my icons, mythologist Joseph Campbell, who said to "follow your bliss." In the mid-80's the Cousteau's had introduced me to video as a tool to document natural world (instead of just family reunions) when I used one of their camcorders to "film" footage for one of their TV documentaries.. Without the fetters of a desk job (or the paycheck that is the reward offered for such torture), I started pursuing one of my early dreams... to create "films" about the underwater world that many Catalina residents and visitors never experience firsthand. I wanted to bring it topside so even these "landlubbers" could experience more of this magnificent place we call home. Many years ago the SCICO boat crew had given me the nickname "Dr. Bill." In part due to that, I had returned to grad school and completed my Ph.D. studies at UCSB so I could legitimately use that "moniker" (and that's no Lewinsky).
Time for the final piece of the puzzle before this spills over onto a second newspaper page. Why the "Dive Dry?" There are many in the SCUBA community that think I teach dry suit diving. The fact is I've never been wimpy enough to even wear a dry suit, much less know how to teach others how to use one. I came up with the "dive dry" part because it refers to you, my readers... and to those who watch my TV show. YOU are the ones who get to "dive dry" with no wetsuits or cold water required. You get to sit in the comfort of your easy chair, in the warmth of your home, with a nice cup of hot chocolate (or a cold beer) and some munchies, and experience the underwater world without even dipping your toes in the water! And now you know the answer to the ultimate question in the Universe, Why "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill?"
© 2005 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 49, 10:00 AM and 5:00 PM weekdays.
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Dr. Bill Bushing.
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