‘Legend of Kwi Coast,’ Nick Checker’s latest novel, captures the romance and dangers of the sea
New London -- Nick Checker's romance with the ocean goes way back to his boyhood watching television specials produced by undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau, and his latest book due out this month hearkens back to one of his earliest stories, based partly on his relationship with Sassy, a very special dolphin whose statue even now graces Mystic Aquarium.
Checker, who will sign copies of his new novel "The Legend of Kwi Coast" at Mystic's Bank Square Books at 5:30 p.m. Oct. 4, said the story came to him sometime in the late 1980s after contemplating a report by Cousteau's son Phillipe that he witnessed a "dolphin congress" in which a group of the cetaceans was seen gathering together in a semicircle near a reef, sitting on their flukes and communicating with one another as if they were attending a city council meeting.
The result of that indelible image is Checker's charming allegorical story in which a female dolphin named Piper helps save her species from a tyrannical leader whose misconceptions about the world of the oceans would have led her species to certain doom.
It's a story Checker said came close to being published at the time he wrote it, but gathered dust for a number of years as he moved on to other projects. He returned to it last year after editors at Wild Rose Press, which published his previous book, "The Saga of Marathon," expressed an interest in other novels he might have written.
"It's the same story I wrote back then, but it's much refined," Checker said in an interview last month at the Washington Street Coffeehouse. "I think people are going to love Piper."
Piper's personality is based on what the New London author learned about dolphins when he was studying them more than three decades ago at the aquarium.
"I had to learn about the ocean," said Checker, who prides himself on intricate research to make even the most fanciful novel as true to life as possible.
So he approached Kurt Butkiewicz, a marine mammal trainer who volunteered to introduce him to the aquarium dolphins at the time, including Sassy, Kimo and Daphne. He immediately fell for Sassy, a playful, headstrong dolphin with a big personality, and it's her traits that Checker uses to propel his young adult novel along.
"She violates all the codes of the clan," Checker said.
But in doing so Piper discovers a terrible danger that only she is equipped to describe to her fellow dolphins. The novel shows many of the ocean's perils but also manages to convey how the ocean itself is imperiled because of many manmade catastrophes, including plastic disposal, oil spills and climate change.
"I have many things to say, but my creatures say it," Checker said. He hopes that young readers will get the message to "be kind to our seas; be fascinated by them."
He also hopes kids and adults alike will take away a reverence for the animals who live in the sea.
"There's much we can learn from the animal kingdom," Checker said.
In fact, he is much more sanguine about the ability of dolphins to solve their problems than he is of humans being able to come to terms with life's biggest challenges.
"I think our species is the most despicable of all," he said. "What creature is capable of destroying the planet? We have an obligation to improve the planet. ... We need to be less arrogant as a species; we need to be less savage."
By contrast, Checker is in awe of the intelligence and soulfulness of dolphins, perhaps the most intelligent of all marine animals.
"Dolphins save people from sharks, they rescue people from drowning," he said.
The science in the book is accurate, he said, made more so from reading such books as "Voices in the Ocean" by Susan Casey, an animal activist. Checker said the book is dedicated to his old dolphin pal Sassy, but he hopes both Casey and his hero Jacques Cousteau would approve of his depictions of life undersea.
"I want to know that I have done something decent and worthwhile," he said.