Monthly Archives: March 1997

Yes, Virginia, there are killer whales off Hawaii

Published March 31, 1996 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1997 Susan Scott

ABOUT two weeks ago, a Hawaii fisherman called the Star-Bulletin to report the sighting of a killer whale about six miles off Kaneohe Bay.

“Can this be true?” a reporter asked me.

Yes, killer whales do swim in Hawaii waters. In fact, orcas are the most cosmopolitan of the world’s whales, present in all oceans and seas, from the ice floes of both hemispheres to the warm waters of the equator. Sometimes, killer whales even swim up rivers.

Most of us don’t think of killer whales as ramblers because of the close-knit family units some orcas form in places like Puget Sound. Such groups, called resident pods, are present in specific areas year-round and travel only short distances to find food, mostly fish.

Usually, these family-oriented whales spend their entire lives within the same group, with population gains and losses coming only from births and deaths. This social structure is the only one of its kind among the world’s mammals.

But another type of killer whale exists, called transients. These whales roam in and out of resident whales’ boundaries but don’t mix with resident populations.

Both types of orcas live in pods ranging from 1 to 55 individuals, but transient pods tend to be smaller than resident pods.

Transient orcas are different from their resident cousins in other ways too. Transients are quieter animals and have pointed tips (as opposed to rounded) on their distinctive dorsal fins. Also, it is the transients that sometimes eat marine mammals, a practice that gave the whales their common name, killer.

In spite of this malevolent name, documented attacks on humans are rare. In those attacks that have occurred, the whale was provoked either by harpooning or by an attempt to capture it or a member of its family. Collisions between whales and boats are usually accidents.

This doesn’t mean that orcas can’t sometimes be pests. Hilo fishermen once reported a whale “with an 8-foot sail” raiding and destroying fishing lines. The description is likely that of a male orca.

Other orcas have been spotted off the Waianae Coast and near Kauai in 1979.

The orca sighting two weeks ago was by Hawaii resident David Shane, owner and captain of the 50-foot trawler Moana Mele.

“It was a male orca, about 25 feet long,” he told me. “It swam right up to the side of the boat, then rolled up to look at us. It stayed for about 10 minutes, then took off. We were so mesmerized, we didn’t think to take its picture.”

Because sightings of killer whales are so rare in Hawaii, researchers believe that these mammals are not residents but transients, merely passing though from time to time.

This recent sighting was a lucky, rare moment for David Shane and his passengers.


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

Dolphin sighting a bonus of trip along the Ganges

Published March 24, 1997 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1998 Susan Scott

“Look, there’s something big — it’s right here,” my friend said, pointing. A large circle of disturbed water rippled just feet from the ferry we were riding.

“Someone probably threw something overboard,” I said shrugging.

Normally, I would have been peering over the side anxiously waiting for a glimpse of whatever it was that made such a big splash. This time, however, I dismissed the incident almost instantly. I had several good reasons.

First, my attention was being strongly diverted. We were in Bangladesh crossing the Ganges River on a bustling ferry. Bangladeshi music shrieked from tape players, pungent smells filled the air and bus drivers honked their horns even though parked on the boat.

While I stood on deck, vendors sold cigarettes, a betel nut chew called pan and a variety of food items. At the same time, beggars tapped my arm gesturing weakly to their empty mouths.

Besides this sensory bombardment, there was the water of the Ganges itself. It looked so murky with mud and pollution that I figured not much could live in it. And even if I did see whatever managed to survive there, I had little chance of identifying it given my limited knowledge of river creatures in Asia.

Oh, how wrong I was.

When we were well under way, the splash occurred again. Then again. This time, a flash of gray glistened near the edge of my vision.

“Shishu …” cried a local person, pointing to the water. I hurried to our English-speaking Bangladeshi acquaintance with whom we were traveling. “What’s shishu?” I asked.

He closed his eyes, conjuring up the English word. At that instant, I got a clear view of the gray gamboling animal. Then we spoke the marvelous word together: dolphin!

I gazed at the river, overwhelmed by my good luck. Ganges River dolphins were frolicking right before my eyes. It was one of those unforgettable moments.

Ganges River dolphins survive in the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Karnaphuli river systems and their tributaries in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Bhutan. Also called susu, these mammals inhabit the main river channels, where I saw them. During monsoon seasons, they also venture into flooded lowland areas.

We weren’t sure how many dolphins were following our ferry, but there were at least two. The animals generally live in groups of 10 or less. It’s common to see them alone or in pairs. Several distinct features of these animals make them look different from their marine cousins. Susu have unusually long, narrow beaks with chunky, flexible bodies and necks.

Because they live in muddy water where sight is nearly useless, these animals have extremely tiny eyes that can only detect light levels. The animals make up for this near-blindness by constantly emitting echolocation clicks.

Another unusual feature of Ganges River dolphins is their preference for swimming on their sides.

Several thousand Ganges River dolphins are left in the world but damming, pollution and hunting threaten their existence.

I never thought much about these rare and unusual dolphins before I saw them. Now they hold a special place in my good memories of Bangladesh.


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

Of turtles, Ireland and St. Patrick’s Days past

Published March 17, 1997 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1997 Susan Scott

WHEN I was a little girl, I was crazy about St. Patrick’s Day. For weeks in March, I would cut shamrock shapes out of bright green construction paper, make green lapel decorations for my family members and agonize over what green outfit to wear to school on THE day.

Since I have no Irish heritage that I know of, and at that time had never met anyone from Ireland, this enthusiasm seems a little odd. But there was a good reason for this early awe of the Irish: I love the color green.

Anyone who visits my sailboat knows this immediately. It’s trimmed in green from mast top to waterline. Inside are green cushions, green towels and green blankets. On the transom is a picture of the boat’s logo, a green sea turtle above the animal’s Hawaiian name, HONU.

The irony here is that green sea turtles aren’t actually green, although if you look carefully, you can see a shade of olive among the black, brown and gold colors of their lovely mottled shell.

It’s from the color of their body fat, once prized for soup, that these reptiles get their ‘Irish’ name.

I know about such soup from personal experience. Back in the early ’70s, before I knew better, I let a traveling companion talk me into ordering a bowl of turtle soup in Mexico. When it came, bearing a greenish tinge, my small-town tastes balked and I refused to eat it.

Now I’m not sure which was worse: That I was willing to waste a meal made from a turtle killed specifically for food or that my friend went ahead and ate it.

The incident sticks in my mind, especially when I hear something like, “But I had no idea I wasn’t supposed to stand on the coral.” However innocent, the damage is already done.

Another vivid green memory I have from the early ’70s is crossing the Irish Sea. After months of hitchhiking through Europe, I finally made it to the Liverpool ferry headed for Dublin. I stood by the rail nearly the entire passage, watching the dark green water of the Irish Sea swirl around the boat.

I didn’t know it then, but the greenish color of seawater there, and in other cold-water places, comes from the abundant growth of tiny green plants called phytoplankton. This floating marine garden is the basis of the all-important food chain that fuels so much life in the ocean.

Clear warm waters, such as those surrounding Hawaii, are relatively empty of such plants. Here coral reefs are the backbones of marine life.

But back to Ireland.

After arriving in Dublin, I headed south to the seaside town of Wicklow where I met two friendly young women who invited me to go to the beach with them.

When we got to the beach park, the women opened the trunk of their car, pulled out their very conservative swimsuits and then shocked me silly by stripping naked.

They weren’t naked long because they immediately put their suits on. But still.

I looked around.

Everyone was doing the same, changing out in the open, near their cars. I shrugged, peeled and donned my suit.

After a wonderful day of exploring the beach and swimming in that cool, green water, we went back to the car and repeated our exposure in reverse.

No one gave us so much as a glance.

Now, here at home, when I see swimmers struggling to change clothes underneath bulky beach towels, I remember those Wicklow folks and their unusual combination of modesty and practicality.

Today the color green reminds me of sea turtles, sailboats and fertile seas.

It also keeps vivid my memories of early adventures and friendly people in Ireland.

And I love it more than ever.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day.