ST. PETERSBURG — At all of my speaking engagements — and it doesn't matter if I am talking to second-graders or Shriners — the conversation usually turns to alligators and sharks.
Both have teeth. Both can be dangerous. And both are great discussion topics, especially when I run out of things to say.
"How fast can an alligator run?" I'm often asked.
"Not as fast as me," I always reply.
Some may disagree. If you've lived in Florida as long as I have, you've probably heard that an alligator can run as fast as a horse. Not true.
How do I know? The answer is simple: personal experience. Once, on Cumberland Island off the Georgia coast, I was chased by an alligator and a wild horse in the same day and lived to tell the tale.
But sharks … they are far more mysterious.
"How many teeth does a shark have," a youngster recently asked.
"I have no idea," I replied. "And I don't plan on trying to count them."
And while I'm what my wife likes to call "an endless repository of not-necessarily insignificant trivia," there are many subjects that I leave to the professionals.
One such topic is the fascinating world of batoid fishes, which are more commonly known as the skates and rays. Take, for example, the cownose ray, which, when seen schooling along local beaches during the spring and summer, sends swimmers out of the water.
If those uneducated souls had been to Marine Quest, they would know that these creatures are harmless. The ones you have to watch out for, I've come to learn, are the ones you can't see.
The primary villain, the Atlantic stingray, is one of the smaller species in local waters. This species is responsible for most of the "stings" or "hits" on beachgoers.
Don't worry. The rays you see in "touch tanks," such as the one on display at this weekend's free Marine Quest in St. Petersburg, have had their spines clipped.
The educational fair, an open house for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, is a great place to pick up lots of great water cooler chit-chat, such as my previously mentioned alligator anecdotes or this interesting factoid: All rays have "spines," which most people mistakenly call "barbs," that are razor-sharp and range in length from 1 to 10 inches.
But Marine Quest has more than touch tanks full of batoids. Nature lovers can also learn about a variety of other marine-related issues, such as how to properly catch and release fish to increase their chance of survival.
My favorite exhibit is the reptile and amphibian booth, where you can learn, once and for all, how to distinguish an alligator from a crocodile. Hint: It has nothing to do with how fast they run. And while you're there, get up close and personal with a 100-pound snapping turtle.
Those with strong stomachs might also find the ecology and fish biology exhibits of interest. If you've ever wondered what's inside a snook's stomach, here's your chance.
And if that's not enough to hook you, check out the man-eating plant show. Well, that might be stretching things a bit, but they do have carnivorous plants — sundews, Venus flytraps and cobra lilies — that actually feed on insects and small frogs. That should be enough to stir up some lively office banter on Monday.