Monthly Archives: March 1996

Black coral: Beautiful, but comes at a high price

Published March 25, 1996 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1996 Susan Scott

A couple of years ago, I went strolling through a Manila marketplace with several American acquaintances. The shopkeepers there beckoned us to their booths with animated stories.

One seller of black coral told of the rarity of the precious material and the great danger divers risk to collect it.

“You shouldn’t buy any,” one husband told his wife as she lingered over the black coral display. “I think it’s endangered.”

“Just because it’s hard to get doesn’t mean it’s endangered,” the woman snapped. “Besides, it’s already dead. It would be terrible to let it sit here and go to waste.”

The woman bought the jewelry.

The man fumed in anger.

I remember this scene vividly now that the tragic deaths of two Maui divers has brought black coral to the headlines. Who was right back there in Manila? The question is as mysterious as the animal itself.

Black coral grows in all oceans, ranging from just below the tide line to depths of thousands of feet.

Most of the 150 known species live in tropical waters below about 300 feet. The few that thrive in shallower water, 60 feet or less, usually grow in caves and under ledges where light is dim.

Black corals thrive in such darkness because they don’t have symbiotic plants in their tissues, like reef corals do.

Another difference between these two coral types is that black coral does not form reefs or heads. A colony of black coral looks like a tree growing up from the ocean floor. The largest of such trees in Hawaii reach about 6 feet tall, averaging 2 inches of growth per year.

The trunks and branches of black coral (and some pink and gold species) are as hard as ivory and pearl. After cutting, grinding and polishing, artisans can fashion these coral skeletons into gleaming treasures, popular among a wide range of people.

This coveting of hard coral is not a new human fancy.

Ancient Greeks and Romans collected the unusual animals, thinking they held magical or healing powers.

In Asia, black coral has been sold as scepters, divining rods and amulets to ward off evil or injury. In North Africa, black coral was believed to neutralize the effects of the “evil eye.”

In Hawaii today, countless shops sell millions of dollars worth of pink, black and gold coral each year.

“Is this OK?,” friends ask me. Is black or pink or gold coral endangered?

Technically, no. A Hawaii researcher reports that there’s plenty down there, far beyond the reach of human hands. Therefore, even though it may not be visible, most species are doing just fine.

Also, Hawaii divers say they are careful to take the trees in a responsible, sustainable manner, harvesting only mature growths.

Biologists, however, don’t know much about the living animals because so few remain in areas shallow enough to study. Says one book: “. . . (black corals) are an excellent case where careful observation of the living colony can provide . . . insights unobtainable from the dead skeleton alone.”

Another source states: “Extensive gathering of black coral branches in the Philippines and in Hawaii, for making jewelry, is seriously depleting stocks of this handsome coral.”

Another aspect to consider in a black coral purchase is the cost in terms of human life. Because they must dive so deep to get it, deaths are relatively common worldwide among black coral divers.

Each person must search their own conscience to decide whether to buy black coral. For me, the questions remaining about its growth, and the deaths of divers collecting it, makes the price of black coral too high.

Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean Watch”,

for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin,


Beaked whales are around but they keep a low profile

Published March 18, 1996 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©21996 Susan Scott

Last January, a beaked whaled washed up on the Waianae Coast. I was off-island when it happened, but a friend saved me the story.

I squinted at the dead whale picture, showing a fluke (tail) and part of a dark, spotted body. The fluke had an unusual shape, and white scars crisscrossed the body.

What is a beaked whale? I wondered, wishing the photo showed more. What I didn’t realize was that the odd fluke and those distinct scars were practically signatures in identifying this
little-known family of whales.

At least 19 species of beaked whales swim the world’s oceans. These offshore whales seem like rare species, but this is likely more from their elusive habits than from small numbers.

Beaked whales tend to shun boats, swim alone or in small groups and have no distinct “blow” to help identify them at sea. Also, these whales can make dives up to an hour long, often causing one brief glimpse to be the last.

One marine photographer wrote that he once spotted four beaked whales, one an albino, off the Big Island’s Kona Coast.

Excited about getting a picture of a little-seen species, and an albino to boot, the photographer and his companion got ready to jump into the water, then waited.

And waited. After long silent moments, the two men gazed into the deep blue water, wondering what those whales were doing down there in the dark. Finally, it was obvious the whales were gone. The disappointed photographers did not get one shot.

What beaked whales are doing at those cold ocean depths is looking for squid. Like many of their toothed-whale relatives, beaked whales eat squid, supplemented with fish and bottom-dwelling animals.

Unlike other toothed whales, however, beaked whales don’t have jaws full of teeth. Most beaked whale species have no teeth in the upper jaw and only two or four in the lower jaw.

In females, these few teeth usually remain concealed under the gums. In males, however, the teeth, sometimes called tusks, erupt. Since the lower jaw extends beyond the upper, these teeth often poke up outside the whales’ mouths like blunt weapons.

And weapons they are. Although no one has ever seen it happen, researchers believe beaked whales use these teeth to fight one  another, probably in ramming matches for females. It is during these scuffles that both males and females get scarred.

Some beaked whales are well-suited for such violent collisions. Part of one type of a beaked whale’s calcified upper jaw is the hardest material known in the animal kingdom, surpassing even elephant and walrus ivory.

Beaked whales aren’t commonly seen, but it doesn’t mean they aren’t in Hawaiian waters. Boaters should be alert in the deep waters off the Kona Coast.

Beaked whales look like big, slow-moving dolphins, with a backward-pointing dorsal fin positioned about three-quarters down the animal’s back. Also, beaked whale flukes are either straight across with  no central notch, or an off-center notch.

Beaked whales range in length from about 15 feet to 40 feet.

Since little is known about beaked whales, distinguishing species at sea is difficult. However, two species of beaked whales, Cuvier’s and Blainville’s, have been confirmed in Hawaiian waters.

The beaked whale found on the Waianae Coast last January has not been identified yet due to a deformity, probably congenital, of its mouth. The National Marine Fisheries Service is testing the whale’s DNA.

If you spot a beaked whale, in Hawaii or anywhere, consider it an extraordinary experience. The Peruvian beaked whale was discovered only in 1991.

Another is still out there, briefly observed, but still uncaptured, unnamed and virtually unknown.

Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean Watch”,
for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin,