Olivia the octopus loved to hold the hand of diver Dee Scarr. Spooky,
a moray eel, hugged her. And Scarr has had her fair share of spooky
manicures by ghost shrimp.
With more than 7,000 hours submerged in seawater,
this Conifer resident knows a thing or two about marine animals.
Scarr, a professional recreational diver who
spends the summer in the mountains and works winters on Bonaire, an
island in the Netherlands Antilles, is on a mission to change the way
we view sea creatureseven coral.
Yes, coral is an animal, she will tell you.
They are polyp animalstube-like organismsthat
resemble upside-down jellyfish and grow in interdependent colonies.
Large coral heads take centuries to grow and
play a key role in the health of the ocean, providing a refuge where
many living things take shelter. But the polyps can be destroyed easily
when bumped by unaware people or objects that shove the organism's outer
skin into its razor-like skeleton.
"Coral reefs are in trouble from a lot
bigger things than diversglobal warming,
dynamite fishing, pollutionbut the
more divers understand, the better advocates they would be for the ocean,"
Scarr said from her Conifer home last week. "We divers have a unique
position to know what's going on."
Scarr, an environmentalist and naturalist, has
spent more than 25 years examining what's going on in the sea.
She has written three books about those experiences,
including a children's book. She has won numerous awards for her achievements
and contributions and is an inaugural member of the Women Divers Hall
of Fame and the Platinum Pro 5000 Diversthe
world's most elite water explorers.
Scarr's books, with names such as "Touch
the Sea," have helped alter false impressions that the underwater
world is filled with creatures interested in "biting, stinging
and otherwise injuring humans." She teaches people that these fascinating
"friends in low places" are merely "minding their own
business: foraging for food, seeking out mates and avoiding predation."
"It's a mission that has changed over the
years (since I wrote the first book in 1984)," Scarr said. "Diving
with people, I was watching them be very cavalier about crawling along
the bottom or very standoffish in terms of the animals."
Animals that make their home in sea space are
different than those that live in mountains, Scarr said. For example,
the recent black fox she and her husband, David Batalsky, spotted crossing
their property was one of very few black fox sightings they have had
in their 10 years here.
Sea creatures, however, are not as hidden from
humansthey often let people get close
"In the water, there are so many nature
shows. You can spend hours and hours to get to know one behavior,"
And Scarr has spent hours and hours observing
the behavior of a Christmas tree worm or lettuce sea slug; a shovel-nosed
lobster on the prowl; or a peacock flounder swimming on its side, its
left fin serving as a sail.
As a child, Scarr spent hours on the canals
of Miami, watching little snappers and grunts nibble pieces of hot dog
off the tiniest hooks she could find. She frequented Marineland, read
about National Geographic explorations, watched Jacques Cousteau documentaries
As her interest grew, she hoped to become a
marine biologist. But in the late 1960s there was scarce funding in
that field, and she received little encouragement to pursue it.
Instead, she earned a master's degree in English
literature and became a high school English teacher with a focus on
speaking and debate.
That career lasted five years before the "structure"
and time constraints of academia proved less appealing than her fascination
with the sea.
Two years in the Bahamas as a dive master led
to greater opportunities on Bonaire, where she began her own diving
operation and began sharing her discoveries in slide shows and printed
materials in a variety of public venues.
Scarr married Batalsky, a retired, eastern-based
Showtime executive, 22 years ago.
Batalsky met Scarr when he traveled to Bonaire
on a diving excursion and attended one of her presentations. They have
since carved out a comfortable long-distance relationship.
"I think the best relationships happen
when you are not looking for one," Scarr said, adding: "He
didn't have to borrow my life, and I didn't have to borrow his."
The pair travel back and forth between two worldsone
of which includes a mountain ranch in Conifer where Batalsky keeps his
beloved horse, John J. (Scarr's bichon frise, Sweetie Pie, travels to
Bonaire with her.)
Batalsky is proud of his gifted partner.
"She has gills; sometimes she stays down
so long (underwater) I am worried," he said. "She has slow,
even breathing; she is in harmony with the sea, and the animals know
Both wear matching necklaces bearing a tiny
mermaid cast in gold, and they have matching wedding bands designed
to look like an ocean wave.
Scarr returns this week to her 24-mile-long
islandconsidered one of the finest
snorkeling and scuba diving destinations in the Caribbean, with year-round
daytime highs of 82; where airborne pink flamingos glide across white
salt flats; and where this mountain resident, in her neoprene dive skin,
slips into the vast aqua sea for an hour or two every day.
"It's a tough life, but somebody has to
do it," Scarr said.
For more information about Dee Scarr's work,