Monthly Archives: May 1996

Protect the environment but don’t forget tourism

Published May 27, 1996 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1996Susan Scott

YEARS ago, when I was living in Denver and had yet to dip a toe in the Pacific Ocean, a co-worker with a similar dryland background took a trip to Hawaii. When she returned, she was raving.

“I went snorkeling,” she gushed. “It was fantastic! The fish there are absolutely beautiful. And TAME.”

I ignored her, mostly because I didn’t know a snorkel from a snowstorm and therefore hadn’t the foggiest idea what she was so excited about.

“Listen,” she pleaded several times that week. “This snorkeling thing is so much fun. You put on a mask with a tube to breathe through and you can see all these gorgeous fish. They come right up to you.”

“Mmm,” I said.

I just didn’t get it.

Eventually, my friend chalked me up as a lost cause and stopped praising the miracles of snorkeling. But whenever anyone else even mentioned the word, she was off and running, a true evangelist in the ministry of pretty fish.

This long-ago incident came to mind while I pondered some recent task force suggestions about how to better manage Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve. Some recommendations would significantly reduce the number of park visitors.

THIS may be reasonable for preserving the park. But few other areas on Oahu are protected from fishing. Where will the people turned away from Hanauma Bay go snorkeling?

Who cares? Why should people who grew up fishing in Hawaii waters give up their sport or profession for a bunch of fish-huggers who don’t even live here?

My co-worker above is one good reason. She, and thousands of people like her, are walking around their hometowns telling people not to miss snorkeling when visiting Hawaii. When those people get here and can’t go snorkeling, they’re disappointed. The vacation becomes unremarkable. Next time they try the Caribbean.

Again, who cares? My friend in Aiea who can’t find a job cares. So does my neighbor whose ice cream shop is failing. Much as we love to talk about diversifying the economy, the reality is when the tourism industry coughs, we residents get pneumonia.

By creating more marine preserves, the state can boost the economy in another way too: Such preserves help bring back dwindling fish stocks.

I recently visited a huge marine preserve in Western Australia where fishing was restricted in certain areas but allowed in others. A map of the area, shaded to show fishing areas, looked like the pattern on a Holstein cow.

OUR guide explained that fishing areas had mostly been chosen for their boundary clarity. Managers wanted to leave no doubt about where fishing was legal and where it was not.

“How do they enforce this?” I asked.

“We all do it,” the dive guide said. “If we see someone fishing in a restricted zone, we call an officer who comes out and fines them.”

I’m happy to report that this system not only makes good diving, it also makes great fishing. Each day, as we passed through fishing areas on our way to preserve waters, we put out lines and lures. Each time, within seconds, we had a strike, punctuating excellent dives with fresh sashimi.

The making of more marine conservation districts in Hawaii has been stalled for years by people arguing, often bitterly, against regulations to protect our marine life. Ironically, by refusing to work together, fishermen, tour operators and snorkelers are destroying the reefs and fish stocks each claim rights to.

We’re in the dark ages on this. We need a leader with some political savvy, someone to jump the hurdles and hammer out a solution.

Restricting visitors to Hanauma Bay but creating no alternatives not only lacks vision, it makes us all losers.

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


Female monk seal draws attention but needs privacy

Published May 20, 1996 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1996Susan Scott

The monk seal and her pup on Mokapu Peninsula. Official USMC photo by Aaron Martin.

LAST week, on Mother’s Day, I received a dinner invitation from friends staying at a Kaneohe Marine Base VIP cottage.

It wasn’t until I was driving down the narrow road of the Mokapu Peninsula that I remembered a press release sitting on my desk. In April, a female monk seal had given birth on a beach somewhere near these cottages.

Now there’s a noteworthy mother, I thought. Since only about 1,300 Hawaiian monk seals are left in the world, this female’s maternal efforts may make a vital contribution to the survival of her entire species.

After greeting our hosts, I asked about the seal mother and her pup. They had heard nothing.

I trudged down to the beach and asked the federal lifeguard about the seal. He knew of the event but believed that the pup was weaned and both seals had left the peninsula.

This seemed early to me, but then, I couldn’t remember how long monk seals nursed their pups. I returned to the cottage disgruntled that I hadn’t seen the seals and frustrated with myself for not remembering more details.

After several calls the next day, I learned that yes, the mother seal is still on the beach nursing her healthy pup, born April 6.

However, they are on an isolated (and now roped-off) beach on the Kaneohe Bay side of the peninsula. I was looking on the Kailua side.

Female monk seals nurse their young for about six weeks, meaning this Oahu pup’s weaning is likely to occur any day now.

After its withdrawal from mother’s milk, National Marine Fisheries Service managers will decide if the pup (called a weaner at this stage) needs to be moved to another island or left on Oahu.

THE move would be for its own safety. Five years ago, this same seal mother gave birth to another pup on Oahu’s North Shore. Fearing nets or other fishing gear on Oahu would hurt or kill the youngster, officials moved the weaner to Kure Atoll.

That pup, a female, is now alive, well and approaching sexual maturity. Managers are anxiously waiting for signs that this Oahu offspring is pregnant.

But back to the Oahu mother. Although not tagged, this seal, at least 12 years old, is no stranger to Hawaii’s marine mammal managers, who recognize her by her unique body scars. Besides giving birth here, this seal occasionally shows up in public places, causing plenty of commotion.

ONCE, she spent the day basking at a popular beach in the Ala Wai Boat Harbor. Biologists sat with her for the day to answer questions and manage crowds.

Another time, this resolute female picked a public place on Maui to molt, causing day after day of traffic jams by wildlife enthusiasts.

After learning the history of this particular monk seal, I realized that my inability to find her at Mokapu last week was probably a blessing in disguise. Although this seal appears to tolerate humans more than most, she still needs peace and quiet during this critical period of nursing her young.

This isolated Oahu beach was the perfect place for this extraordinary mother to spend Mother’s Day with her new baby.

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


Irresistible adventure with the whale shark

Published May 13, 1996 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1996Susan Scott

ABOUT a year ago, a friend called to invite me to join a small group traveling to Western Australia to swim with whale sharks. I wasn’t sure where this was exactly, I didn’t know much about whale sharks and the trip was expensive.

Just say no, my sensible self told me. I signed on and went back to work.

Then, last week, that far-off day finally arrived. I was on a dive boat in the Indian Ocean off Western Australia, speeding toward whale shark territory.

But rather than being exhilarated, I was jumpy, and fighting a nervous stomach.

What have I gotten myself into? I wondered. In moments, I would be jumping into the water with an enormous shark that people knew little about.

Oh sure, I knew whale sharks were plankton feeders. And I had seen pictures of people swimming with them. But looking at pictures was one thing; snorkeling alongside the creature was another matter entirely.

As I fretted, a spotting plane droned in the sky above our boat. This was part of the routine. When the pilot saw a shark, he radioed its position to several boat captains.

The boat captains then sorted out who would drop how many passengers into what area of the ocean.

SUCH details are strictly set by Western Australia’s Department of Conservation and Land Management, the agency responsible for this unique marine park. Managers and users alike are determined to preserve and protect this rare marine treasure.

And rare it is. The unique combination of coral spawning events, marine currents and nearshore location makes Ningaloo Reef off Exmouth one of the few places in the world humans can see whale sharks.

It also creates one of the few places where biologists can study the little-known creatures.

One such researcher from Perth University hitched a ride on our boat and answered questions as we waited for the plane to radio good news about spotting sharks.

WHALE sharks are the world’s largest fish, growing to about 50 feet long and ranging throughout tropical waters.

These sharks have thousands of tiny teeth but neither bite nor chew their food.

Like manta rays, whale sharks eat by drawing water in their mouths and out their gills, straining plankton in the process.

And that’s about it. No one knows how these big fish reproduce, how long they live or how many exist.

Our biology talk was cut off by the excited shout of our dive leader. “Get ready,” he called. Then, “Quick, JUMP IN!”

Frantically adjusting masks and snorkels, 10 of us fell into the water, kicking like mad to keep up with our leader.

And then suddenly, there it was, a 40-foot shark just a few feet from my face. The creature bore the familiar dorsal and tail fins of most sharks, but there the resemblance ended. This shark was a luxurious velvety blue adorned with symmetrical white spots.

THE whale shark’s mouth was working rhythmically, sucking in water like a giant vacuum, then pushing it out through its gill slits.

We watched the shark for what seemed like seconds but was actually about 30 minutes. At one point, the creature pivoted on its tail, feeding in such slow circles that each of us had thrilling views of the entire animal, over and over again.

Chicken skin covered my body, and my contact lenses got sticky from staring. But I wasn’t afraid. Instead, every cell in my body was exquisitely attuned to the moment.

Floating face to face with this magnificent animal was an exceptional example of one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences. I’m glad I can’t say no.

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


Folks who harass octopus run risk of being bitten

Published May 6, 1996 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1996 Susan Scott

RECENTLY, a marine photographer friend needed a photo of an octopus beak. We decided the best place would be the fish auction held daily, at the crack of dawn, on Ahui Street near Kewalo Basin in Honolulu.

Sure, any octopus there would be dead, but that was likely the only way to get a clear picture of the wiggly animal’s mouth.

My friend called me the next day. “Well, I found one all right, but it sure was a weird experience. I had just lined up a picture of a big octopus beak when this guy comes over and asks me what I’m doing.

“I start to tell him. But before I’m even done talking, he grabs the octopus, pops the entire beak in his mouth, bites it off and SWALLOWS it. ‘That’s how we deal with octopuses around here,’ he says.”

“I don’t get it,” I said. “What was his point?”

“I have no idea. He left before I could say a word.”

I’ve heard of octopus fishermen biting octopuses between the eyes. But eating their beak raw? It’s a new one to me.

IN Hawaii, octopuses are called he’e (Hawaiian), tako (Japanese), or squid (local vernacular).

Three species inhabit Hawaiian reefs. One is the day octopus or he’e mauli. This octopus is dusky-gray, or tan, and hunts for crabs and shrimp on exposed areas of the reef. The day octopus grows to about 2 feet long from its head to the end of its outstretched arms.

A similar species is the crescent octopus, named by the student who recognized it 20 years ago. No scientific name has yet been assigned to the creature, which looks like a small day octopus.

Hawaii’s third species, the reddish-brown night octopus, or he’e puloa, hunts on the reef at night. This nocturnal octopus, identified by its white spots, is smaller and thinner than the day octopus.

An octopus catches prey by pouncing on it, then enclosing the prey in the web between its eight arms. The octopus immobilizes its catch by biting with two parrotlike jaws, its “beak.” Such a bite delivers a paralyzing venom from the animal’s salivary glands. Octopus venom contains enzymes that break down proteins, and a glycoprotein (sugar plus protein) toxin.

Hawaii’s octopuses all carry venom. None however, contain the potentially lethal tetrodotoxin of Australia’s blue ringed octopuses, the only octopuses in the world known to fatally bite humans.

Local fishermen report that most bites come from the night octopus. Typically, fishermen wade onto shallow reef flats, either spearing or catching octopuses by hand. In its death struggle, an octopus sometimes tries to bite the hand that holds it. To subdue this writhing, mucus-covered creature, some fishermen bite the octopus between the eyes.

HAWAII divers usually handle octopuses without being bitten. If the animal is handled gently, it rarely bites. Octopus bites mostly occur when someone harasses them.

An octopus bite can tear a person’s skin, sometimes producing bleeding. The octopus sometimes injects venom from its salivary glands when biting humans.

To avoid octopus bites, don’t take the animals out of the water. In the water, don’t antagonize them. If you do handle an octopus in the water, wear gloves and be kind. Better yet, don’t touch.

An octopus bite usually looks like two puncture wounds. If the animal injects venom, the pain is similar to that of a bee sting, with tingling or pulsating sensation around the wound. Pain may radiate to the entire arm or leg.

Venomous octopus wounds can bleed profusely. Redness and swelling of the affected area is common. Some victims experience intense itching around the wound.

Unless a person is allergic to it, venom produced by Hawaii’s octopuses is not life-threatening.

As for the wisdom of, or reason for, eating a raw octopus beak? I don’t have a clue.

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