Biologist writer faced rough seas at start
Twenty years ago today my first Ocean Watch column, a piece about Portuguese man-of-wars, appeared in the Star-Bulletin.
It's been a remarkable two decades.
Writing this column opened doors I didn't know existed, introduced me to people who are now lifelong friends and taught me how to write.
But life in this space was not always so rosy. The column and I had a shaky start.
After I pleaded the case that Hawaii needed a weekly article about marine life, and that I, a person with limited writing experience, should write it, the editor said, "Try a few and we'll see how it goes."
I worked hard at it for several months, but the articles lacked zest. One day, the editor said, "In a column, Susan, it's OK to write in first person."
"You mean use the word 'I'?"
"You're the biologist," he said. "Say what you think."
Publishing my thoughts was scary, and I approached it shyly at first. Then I got bold. I lambasted the local Sierra Club over its insistence on advanced sewage treatment (still at issue all these years later). I scolded the Bishop Museum for their shell-collecting exhibit. I led the charge for the state Legislature to create a marine sanctuary in Waikiki.
They ate me alive. A Sierra Club attorney demanded I be fired. The director of the Waikiki Aquarium told me my attack on the museum was mean. A fisherman in a red T-shirt said I would be seeing a lot more of that color if I continued to promote the marine park. And since I had the nerve to write about ancient Hawaiian conservation practices, one reader suggested in a letter to the editor that I be sacrificed to the ancient Hawaiian gods.
Star-Bulletin managers didn't mind the controversy. "This is what newspapers do," the managing editor told me when I sniffled. "If you aren't getting responses, people aren't reading you."
But outrage and threats were not the responses I had in mind when I suggested a column about the ocean. "I wanted to share the fun of finding and learning about marine life," I told him. "I love these animals."
"I do, too," he said. "I just don't know much about them."
"They're amazing. Elegant and weird at the same time, like space aliens. The first time I saw sea urchins, I thought they were plants. Imagine."
He stared at me for a long moment and then uttered a phrase that makes me smile to this day: "Susan," he said, "write about fish."
It was good advice. I changed direction and began writing about my experiences with fish and all the other marine life in, on and near the ocean.
Since then, rather than wanting to kill me, readers write to inform me, thank me and share their own experiences. I learn new facts, collect good stories and stay up to date with discoveries in the marine world. It's a lot more rewarding this way, and the column still carries my message of conservation.
I love this job, but I do get tired. Several times in the past 20 years, I've informed my friends and family that I'm going to quit. They nod and say nothing, because they know what will happen.
"Still feeling like quitting your column, Susan?" someone will ask a few days after my big announcement.
"Not right now," I say. "I've decided to try a few more, and see how it goes."