Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

A Q&A with Expert Douglas Long

An interview with Smithsonian Expert Douglas Long about the Caribbean.

Q: You specialize in sharks, marine mammals, and deep-sea fishes, and you've shared your expertise in college classrooms, as well as on many educational programs, including on CNN, BBC, and PBS. What first led to your fascination with the underwater world?

A: I can truly say that I was born a biologist, and have been entranced with the natural world ever since I can remember. As a kid from Orange County, where other friends had swimming pools or tennis courts in their back yards, I had fish ponds and walk-through aviaries, terraria with snakes and lizards, and aquaria with fresh & salt-water species. I lived within a short bike ride of the ocean, and spent my younger years fishing and beachcombing. My after-school job in high school was in a taxidermy studio that specialized in mounting fish, and it was a unique opportunity to get to know the diversity and anatomy of the fishes we prepared, from a 4-inch goldfish to an 18-foot long great white shark. Add to that re-runs of Jacques Cousteau films and birthday trips to Marineland and Sea World, and since then I've never lost my fascination for the ocean and what lives in it.

Q: From the unique perspective of a marine biologist with expertise in the Caribbean region, what would you indentify as the highlights of this program?

A: Natural history is both a vocation and an avocation for me. While my published research is on marine biology, my hobbies are other areas of nature. In my spare time I'm an avid bird watcher, lizard catcher, spider wrangler, fossil hunter, and armchair archaeologist. And the Caribbean region has all of that. Whatever your interests, be they butterflies or angelfish, volcanoes or coral reefs, pirates or parrots, the Caribbean will not disappoint. Our itinerary will provide a wide diversity of history, marine and terrestrial biodiversity, conservation, and geology that will give passengers a deeper understanding of the uniqueness of this special place.

Q: What's the most fascinating creature you've ever seen in the Caribbean? What creatures would you encourage our travelers to be on the lookout for?

A: The Caribbean islands are ancient but still evolving, cut off from the rest of the world, yet spawned from chunks of ancient continents and still active with fire and molten rock. Island chains like these contain both relict populations of ancient species, as well as newly evolved forms found nowhere else in the world. For example, the Caribbean has some of the smallest known species of lizards, frogs, snakes and birds, some not much larger than a dime, like the Bee Hummingbird, yet some islands have giant rodents and huge iguanas. But to me, one of the most interesting animals is the ubiquitous Anolis lizards found on every island. Like the Galapagos Finches Charles Darwin studied to understand the concept of speciation, different types of these small lizards are unique to each island, and are adapted to specific habitats and behaviors for their survival. These friendly little reptiles have been studied to better understand the dynamics of evolution, geography, and biodiversity. On a totally different animal adventure, I was recently with a group of passengers in Antigua's 'Stingray City', where we could feed and swim with huge (but harmless) stingrays, some over 6-feet across, in water barely 4-feet deep. It was a first for me, and you could see how personal contact with these amazing animals instantly turned people's initial fear to excitement and appreciation, which is always the first step toward conservation.