Sanibel Island-based Randy Wayne White, a longtime fishing guide-turned-writer whose crime novels featuring Gulf Coast marine biologist Doc Ford have been bestsellers for nearly 30 years, has not one, but two new works out. The latest in the Doc Ford series, Salt River, was published in February, and his first-ever book aimed at middle-schoolers, Fins, debuts this month. Fins is the first in what White plans as a series of Sharks Inc. books centered around the adventures of transplanted Ohio farm boy Luke, who’s teamed with Cuban exile sisters Maribel and Sabina under the guidance of Ford to tag sharks for research—a job that leads to a confrontation with poachers hunting blacktip sharks for the shark fin soup market. As you might expect, there’s an environmental message. We talked with him about sharks and more.
Have you been thinking about writing a kids’ book for a while?
“For years. It was always my secret intention, but I never thought I was smart or talented enough.”
How does spending part of your youth in Ohio play into Luke’s character?
“Let’s put it this way: Like Luke, I’d get lost and wander off, I was in 4-H, and I almost got struck by lightning [which Luke does], probably several times. There’s a wonderful pungent smell to a lightning strike.”
You spent years as a fishing guide in the Sanibel area, and you’ve been a longtime diver as well, right?
“Yes, and I started tagging sharks for the National Fishery Service years ago. I still do free diving.”
Could kids really tag sharks as your characters do?
“I don’t see why not, if they’re supervised. It’s important to do it quickly and without hurting the animal, of course. But kids could do the simple spaghetti tags I mention in the book.”
Should we all be concerned about the market in shark fins?
“Honestly, I’ve never seen a stronger shark population in Florida than now, but internationally...well, there are no gates in the ocean. There are gigantic factory ships out there that fin the sharks and turn them back into the oceans [to die]. It’s horrible. We need to continue to cut off trade to foreign nations that are involved with that.”
You wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times in September 2018, during Florida’s awful red tide outbreak. Is that something you’ve thought a lot about, during your fishing guide years and after?
“I’ve been collecting accounts about red tide for years. It’s always out there; there are reports dating back to the early 1500s, and one elderly lady told me that back in 1946-47 on Tarpon Bay, there were so many dead fish they thought it was the end times. But 2018 saw a combination of events that was really devastating. A lot of hysteria surrounds red tide; I’m very careful about my facts, because so much you hear is inaccurate [as to the causes].”
Another aspect of the Florida waterfront lifestyle you address in Fins is boating safety, as the kids learn to be responsible on the water. Is that a concern for you?
“A lot of boaters, with the advent of GPS, follow electronic devices, but they don’t really know what’s under the water. I spent 300 days a year on the water for 15 years. Boating safety is huge to me, and I wanted to impart some of that in these books, but pass it along easily and in an entertaining way.”
Fins, published by Roaring Brook Press/MacMillan Children’s Publishing Group, is due out March 31. White will be in Sarasota for a book signing at 5:30 p.m. April 3 at Bookstore1.