‘Deep Tow’: Scientist-turned-novelist bases new book on his research at Scripps Institution of Oceanography

V. Elliott Smith recently published his second novel, "Deep Tow," influenced largely by his studies in La Jolla.

Scientist-turned-novelist V. Elliott Smith has released his second novel, “Deep Tow,” influenced heavily by his studies decades ago in La Jolla.

Smith graduated with a Ph.D. in marine biology from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in 1968, when the institute was a “hotbed of … groundbreaking work,” he said. His research focused primarily on the chemistry of marine invertebrates, mainly studying sponges by collecting them and diving off La Jolla’s coast.

Smith’s work at Scripps helped shape “Deep Tow,” which is set in La Jolla and around San Diego in 1979 and ’80.

“The story involves two seagoing enterprises — a deep-sea research expedition and a commercial tuna fishing operation,” Smith said, along with a marine science technician and a journalist who investigate a related scheme together.

In writing “Deep Tow,” Smith — who currently lives in Boulder, Colo., with his wife, Susan, whom he met while living in La Jolla Shores — relied heavily on his own marine knowledge to describe the work that the marine technician does on vessels. “A lot of that was familiar to me,” he said.

V. Elliott Smith, pictured in 2016 on the Scripps Pier, says he writes fiction to learn more about what intrigues him.
V. Elliott Smith, pictured in 2016 on the Scripps Pier in La Jolla, says he writes fiction to learn more about what intrigues him.

The discovery the characters investigate is a substance called methane hydrate, which Smith said is “a highly concentrated form of natural gas formed under a lot of pressure and cold” in deep ocean waters. “It’s come to light in recent years, as there’s more carbon stored as methane hydrate in the world oceans than all the petroleum and natural gas on land. The issue is how to get at it.”

In his research for “Deep Tow,” Smith also consulted former Scripps colleagues, who would review the book and “give me tips, how to make things work better and explain things better,” Smith said. “It’s been great.”

Smith began writing novels at age 70, starting with his first, “Findings,” published in 2015, about a 16th-century Spanish Armada ship and its artifacts discovered sunken off the coast of Ireland in the 1970s.

He began “Deep Tow” just after the first book was published, releasing it last month electronically on Amazon.

Smith said he was motivated to try writing fiction after his work with marine biology and a career in environmental research on the Great Lakes as he “always felt in scientific writing, people could have done it a lot better, made it a lot more lucid for people who aren’t scientists.”

Writing novels was a “springboard to that,” Smith said. “I worked very hard to write things simply and directly, in a way that would explain the science better.”

Smith prefers writing fiction to the scientific and technical writing of his past, saying it allows him to pursue his passions. “It’s an excuse to learn about a lot of things I only knew about in a peripheral way,” such as “other aspects of science I’d never really dealt with before. It gives me a reason to bone up on it so I can write it convincingly.”

He said writing “Deep Tow” provided the opportunity to learn more about the tuna fishing industry, which fascinated him in the 1960s while at Scripps.

“I’ve never been on a tuna clipper before,” he said, “and yet when I was at Scripps there was a fleet of them in San Diego Harbor. It was a big deal. I regret to this day that I wasn’t curious enough to go out there.”

As there aren’t such vessels in San Diego now, Smith resigned himself to reading about tuna fishing to write the novel.

V. Elliott Smith is pictured in 1967 at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, where he studied marine invertebrates.

Smith is mulling his next project. “The next thing I’d like to do is a young-adult fictional novel set in Florida, where I grew up,” he said.

The story will be set several decades ago and will “involve shipwrecks, intrigue and history of that coastline,” he said. Though he hasn’t started it yet, “I have all these ideas floating around in my head.”

“Deep Tow” is available as an e-book download for $2.99 at, where readers also can view the first three chapters free. A paperback version is available for $12. ◆