by Brigid O’Malley
Whether it’s a tale about a manatee giving her a full-body hug in the Crystal River, a story about an army of sea urchins marching toward her or a first-person account of having a pizza delivered to her submersible off the Florida Keys, Ellen Prager has exploits to share.
“The manatee came up to me and hugged me so tight. I was laughing so hard, I spit my snorkel out,’’ she said, recounting her Crystal River encounter to a crowd of nearly 75 people at the Rookery Bay Environmental Learning Center. “It was the best thing ever. It has to be in my Top Five.”
Prager, a marine scientist and the author of a new book, “Shark Rider,’’ meant to reach out to middle school students by engaging them with fun, fantastic adventures of Tristan Hunt, the main character who has the ability to communicate with sea life. Prager uses her real-life work as a researcher to bring her fictional characters to life in spots from the Florida Keys to the British Virgin Islands.
She is currently a consultant, science advisor to Celebrity Xpedition in the Galapagos Islands and a Safina Center Fellow. She was also once the chief scientist for the Aquarius Reef Base program in Key Largo and the former assistant dean at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.
She captured the attention of the audience with her stories from the Galapagos Islands, from the courtship ritual of the albatross where their mating dance is like a sword fight or the marine iguana’s ability to stay underwater for 45 minutes, munching on algae, topped off with an afternoon in the sun.
“They are just out there in the sun, sneezing the salt water out,’’ Prager explained. “You can hear them.”
She talked about what she believes are the top five problems in the ocean: pollution, climate changes, overfishing, habitat loss and invasive species, pointing the lionfish as the biggest invader.
Prager has lived on tall sailing ships, submersibles and dived oceans around the globe. All of those experiences added up to stories she wanted to share—stories with a purpose. That took her into young adult fiction where she has created new worlds where new, fictional creatures exist: an octopus called “Old Six-Arm Jack,”a scallop usually armed with hundreds of eyes who is near-sighted and a snaggle-tooth shark waiting for his new dentures. The young teen characters with their own special super powers are often racing off to solve mysteries and problems.
“I try to incorporate in real ocean issues, too,’’ she said, explaining that shark-finning is one such issue she tackles. Millions of sharks are killed each year by people removing their fins and tossing the sharks back into the water.
For more information about her series of books, visit www.Tristan-hunt.com.