Monthly Archives: January 1997

Marine ‘natural’ born through friend’s care

Published January 27, 1997 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1997 Susan Scott

Today is the birthday of my friend and partner of 17 years. I mention this here because if not for him, this column would not exist.

When I met Craig, I was the essence of Midwest landlubber. Here’s how sea-challenged I was: My Wisconsin mother was so unfamiliar with things marine, she didn’t know the ocean was salty.

On her first visit to Hawaii, she asked why everyone showered after swimming. “Imagine that,” she said, when I told her about the salt. This odd form of what she considered “pollution” never ceased to amaze her.

Given this profound terrestrial background, I was not exactly prepared for my first snorkeling trip in Mexico. Nevertheless, Craig rented snorkeling gear, dressed me in it and led me stumbling to the water.

I was a spectacle. Even though I was a good swimmer, I thrashed and sputtered about, skinning both knees on the coral and gulping mouthfuls of seawater.

Still, I loved it. By the time we got out, my curiosity about this new and wonderful world was soaring.

“What was that big purple fish?” I asked Craig.

He shrugged. “I don’t know their name.”

“How about that little green one with the pointy snout?”

Again he shrugged.

I eyed him suspiciously. “How can you like snorkeling so much if you don’t know what any of the plants or animals are?”

“Because I don’t care what you call them,” he said. “I just enjoy being in the water and looking at them.”

“Well, I have to know their names,” I said.

And so began my study of marine biology. But even after I learned the names of fish and the habits of invertebrates, I had more marine hurdles to jump. And Craig was right there helping me through each one.

Once, when learning to scuba dive, I panicked. After purposely dropping my weight belt, I bobbed to the surface hyperventilating, sure I was going to die. Craig surfaced seconds later and helped me to shore.

“I can’t do it,” I told him, sitting on the beach near tears. “I’m too scared.”

“What are you afraid of?”

I shrugged. “The idea of being down there, I guess.”

So we went home and practiced being “down there” in familiar, shallow waters. We swam shoulder to shoulder, sometimes holding hands, for hours until finally I felt comfortable. Later that month, we got certified.

Now I knew the animals’ names and could get to their level. But I couldn’t just go to the same place over and over. To fully enjoy my newfound passion, I had to learn about boats.

We bought one in Connecticut and together sailed it home to the Ala Wai.

At the beginning of the trip, I was a nervous wreck. One night I woke Craig in a frenzy to report that a huge ship was rapidly bearing down on us. He got up, looked, then with great patience explained that the enormous chain descending from the ship’s bow meant it was going nowhere – it was firmly anchored.

Another time, our boat got holed in the Panama Canal. I was half dead with anxiety over the accident, but not Craig. I’ll never forget driving the boat while he leaned over the side, sanding his fiberglass patch and whistling a merry tune. To him, it was just another nautical adventure.

And years later, when my love affair with the ocean looked like a permanent passion, guess who encouraged me to start writing it all down?

Some people think I’m a natural around the water, but it’s not true. All my marine skills were learned later in life thanks to the untiring encouragement of a friend who understood my fears and stuck with me through it all.

Thanks, Craig. And Happy Birthday.

Cleaning oiled wildlife probably useless effort

Published January 20, 1997 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1997 Susan Scott

 We’ve all seen the pictures of volunteers in rubber gloves tenderly washing sea birds and sea otters dirtied in oil spills. Those images warm our hearts. But does it help the animals?

A few years ago, while visiting Midway, I found a Laysan albatross covered with thick, black stuff resembling tar.

The bedraggled bird stood on a rocky outcrop, forlornly rubbing its beak up and down its wings in a vain attempt to clean the filthy feathers.

“What is that sticky stuff?” I asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife refuge manager as he examined the bird.

“Probably bunker or waste oil either spilled or dumped at sea.

When the birds dive through it to get a fish, they get covered. We see it pretty often.”

“Can we wash it off?”

He shook his head.

“We’ve not had much success at cleaning birds this soiled,” he said. “We stress them in a soapy bath for hours, then they die anyway. I think it’s best to just leave it in peace.”

Every day the bird got sicker and weaker.

I volunteered several times to try washing it, but the experienced manager remained firm.

He had seen many such cases in Alaska and was convinced washing would only torture the bird.

Eventually the albatross died, its black-streaked body a stark testimony to the fact that unreported oil spills in the open ocean are both common and damaging.

More recently, at Tern Island, I saw another oiled bird, a masked booby. A different U.S. Fish and Wildlife manager examined the bird, then carried it to the laundry room.

“Let’s try to help it,” he said.

I rolled up my sleeves. But I soon learned that washing oiled birds is much harder in practice than in theory.

At first, we used the small amount of dilute detergent recommended in a manual about cleaning oiled wildlife.

Forget it. The oil was like glue to the bird’s feathers. So we added a little more. No good. Eventually, we poured detergent straight from the bottle onto the feathers, massaged it in, then picked off pellets of pitch.

After a couple of hours, four tired people and one miserable masked booby were covered with oil, soap and water.

Finally, even though the bird was still dirty, we gave up and rinsed it off.

Then we fed it via a tube inserted down its throat. After a rest in a quiet corner, we took it outside and let it go.

The booby still looked terribly dirty, but was preening like mad. A few hours later, it flew away.

We cheered and congratulated one another.

Although we never knew what happened to the bird, we preferred to be optimistic and considered it a save. Now I wonder.

Two new studies about oiled sea birds look at the outcome of such washed sea birds.

It’s not good news. Even when fully rehabilitated (washed, fed and rested), oiled sea birds have short life spans and usually fail to breed.

One California researcher looked at brown pelicans treated after spills in 1990 and 1991.

Only about 10 percent of the washed pelicans could be found later.

Another study shows that smaller sea birds in similar circumstances have an even lower survival rate than the pelicans.

The researchers studying oiled bird outcomes aren’t recommending dumping programs aimed at washing and feeding oiled marine animals. But it may be worth considering.

Treating 800 birds and a few hundred sea otters after the Exxon Valdez oil spill cost $41 million.

Perhaps that money would be better spent on preventing oil spills in the first place.


There’s hope albatrosses might make a comeback

Published January 13, 1997 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1997 Susan Scott

Every now and then, we nature lovers get discouraged about the state of the world’s wildlife.

Too many uncaring people, not enough money, more and more species getting listed as endangered . . .

I was feeling like that last week, brooding in particular over the fact that so many of our black-footed albatrosses are getting killed by long-line fishing hooks that the species may soon be listed.

Then I got a message from Gail Kaaialii, coordinator of the Laysan albatross project at Kaohikaipu Island off Sea Life Park.

Gail had good news: An albatross had settled down on the island for three entire days.

My mood suddenly soared.

If this low-budget program staffed mostly by volunteers is starting to work, there’s hope for the future.

The Laysan albatross project began three years ago as a joint effort among federal, state and private agencies to entice pioneering albatrosses to breed in safe territory.

Uninhabited and predator-free Kaohikaipu Island is such a place.

To lure the sea birds there, workers made and put out decoys that look like Laysan adults and chicks.

Compact discs also continuously play albatross mating songs.

The theory is that passing pioneers will see and hear other members of their species and rightfully think the island a good place to set up housekeeping.

Once a few real birds nest there, the colony will grow on its own since most albatrosses nest in the place of their birth.

To monitor its effectiveness, volunteers watch the island from Sea Life Park and record activity.

The past two years have been encouraging but not great.

Some birds have stopped to check the place out, then left soon after.

This latest bird seems to be more serious. It was even dancing with one of the decoys.

But one bird doesn’t make a colony.

“We’re so close, and yet so far,” Gail told me. “The bird on the ground still has to attract another flying by.”

There’s a good chance that will happen.

Over the last decade or so, Laysan albatross numbers have been increasing throughout the North Pacific, making colonies in Hawaii’s northwest chain more and more crowded.

Pioneer birds are thus venturing to Oahu.

The problem is that the birds are trying to nest in places dangerous to both themselves and humans.

One such area is the Kaneohe Marine base runways of Mokapu Peninsula. Another is Kaena Point Nature Park where mongooses, cats, dogs and people routinely kill hatchlings in their ground nests.

The Kaohikaipu project is a good effort to help wildlife return to Oahu.

Now if long-line fishermen will voluntarily use anti-sea bird fishing techniques, we may see some black-footed albatrosses here. too.

If you love to birdwatch, you can help with this project by calling Gail Kaaialii at 528-4241.

Victims of jellyfish stings invited to join pain study

Published January 6, 1997 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1997 Susan Scott

The Honolulu City and County lifeguards are launching a study on jellyfish stings this week.

This means that the next time you get a box jellyfish or Portuguese man-of-war sting and head for an orange tower for aid, you may hear the following:

“We’re studying which substances and temperatures help relieve the pain of jellyfish stings. Wanna help?”

If you agree, the lifeguard will have you sign a consent sheet explaining the study, approved medically and sanctioned by the University of Hawaii Committee on Human Studies. Then he or she will apply one of several remedies.

You are the judge, scoring your relief (or lack of it) on a scale of 1 to 10.

At the towers where liquids and pastes are used, neither the lifeguard nor the victim knows the identity of the substance being applied. This is called a double-blind study, important because both researchers’ and victims’ previous beliefs and experiences greatly influence the effectiveness of pain remedies.

Fully one-third of people given a pretend treatment (a “sugar pill”) have genuine relief of their symptoms. This is called the placebo effect and it doesn’t just happen to nut cases. It’s universal, regardless of sex, age and culture. Perhaps it’s an evolved trait that helps us humans better cope with pain.

Because of this powerful placebo effect, you can’t just slap a little meat tenderizer on a jellyfish sting, observe that the person feels better and declare success.

The treatment of jellyfish and Portuguese man-of-war stings has long been a puzzle worldwide.

Hawaii is the only place where people routinely use meat tenderizer on such stings. In other parts of the world, nearly every substance imaginable, including manure, mustard and figs, has been sprayed, laid and smeared on these stings with similar results: Some think the stuff is useless; others swear it’s the best thing since penicillin.

Few of these substances have been tested with any scientific control. The closest anyone has come are the Australians, who have a lot more to worry about than we do. Their box jellyfish, called sea wasps, occasionally kill people with one powerful sting.

Australian researchers have recently recommended dousing all box jellyfish stings (but not those of Portuguese man-of-war) with vinegar. This dousing does not relieve pain, they say. Rather, it inactivates stinging cells still on the skin, thus preventing the sting from worsening. (Vinegar fires stinging cells in some man-of-war species.)

Pain, which can be wicked, is another issue. The Australians use ice packs to ease pain. Some people in Hawaii and on the mainland, however, swear that heat, either in the form of hot packs or hot showers, works better.

And then there’s the hard core urine camp who pee on every sting, cut and puncture that comes from the ocean, believing urine relieves pain and cures wounds.

Here in Hawaii, we’re lucky. Our marine stings are usually a minor annoyance, disappearing on their own in a half-hour or so. This is one reason so many remedies seem to work so well – the sting is going away on it’s own anyway.

The down side of applying anything you happen to have handy is that some substances may do harm. In laboratory tests, urine, ammonia and alcohol cause active stinging cells to fire. Therefore, applying these things has the potential of making a minor sting major.

No such substances are included in the new study, designed by volunteers, myself included, and run by Oahu’s lifeguards as a service to the community.

If you inaugurate the new year with a Portuguese man-of-war or box jellyfish sting, take a few minutes to participate in the study. Your contribution will help replace myth with fact and make the ocean a safer place to play.