In what is becoming a StoryCorps summer tradition, we return to Coney Island, that weird and wonderful boardwalk and beach in Brooklyn, New York, for this episode of the StoryCorps podcast.
In 2015, we shared a story about the incubator babies that were once part of the famous boardwalk sideshow. For forty years, Dr. Martin Couney funded his work by setting up an exhibition of premature babies and charging the public admission to gawk at them. This year, we travel minutes up the boardwalk to the New York Aquarium — the nation’s oldest continuously operating aquarium — to talk with shark biologist Hans Walters, and his wife, animal behaviorist Martha Hiatt.
As a child growing up near New Orleans in the 1970s, Hans would spend hours flipping through the encyclopedia and memorize details about various types of sharks. When he was ready for college he decided to attend the University of Miami, where he majored in marine biology. But in 1982, before he could put his degree to use, he became the lead singer of a Miami-based heavy metal band called ZToyz.
The band found some success, and for the next nine years, Hans moved in the same circles as well-known bands like Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, the Ramones, Humble Pie, and Twisted Sister. But his love for sharks remained.
When ZToyz broke up, Hans applied for a job at the Wildlife Conservation Society. He then went on to earn his master’s degree in marine biology, and eventually became a shark researcher and supervisor at the New York Aquarium.
That is also where he met his future wife, Martha. When they met, she was going through a difficult divorce, but their friendship turned into love as they realized they shared similar musical tastes, a love of chocolate milkshakes, and a passion for the animals at the aquarium. They came to StoryCorps to talk about Hans’ unusual career trajectory and how much of his life was actually motivated by his love of sharks.
Also in this episode, StoryCorps producers Michael Garofalo and Jasmyn Belcher Morris are joined by Nathan Morris, the man who tipped them off to Hans’ story. Nathan, a former rock musician turned biology PhD student, also happens to be Jasmyn’s husband.
Nathan, whose life has many parallels to Hans’, came across the story while on a field trip to the aquarium, and as he was being shown around, he learned that the sharks were all named after rock musicians. Meeting Axl, Duff, and the rest of Guns N’ Roses, as well as Janis Joplin and members of AC/DC and Bad Company, piqued Nathan’s interest, and he knew he had come across an interesting story. For him, getting it to a producer was the easy part.
Episode released July 8, 2016.