Monthly Archives: April 1997

A night swim brings on 2 kinds of goose bumps

Recently, I did something I haven’t done in ages. I went night swimming.

I didn’t intend to do this, but an afternoon hike with friends ended later than planned, leaving us dusty and hot. “Let’s jump in the ocean,” someone said. It sounded good. We donned our suits and headed for the beach.

It wasn’t until I got chest deep in the inky water and saw the sky turning black that I remembered why I don’t do this anymore: It’s cold and it’s scary.

Even on this balmy night in 80-degree water, in a minute or two I was covered with chicken skin. Soon, I knew, my lips would turn blue and I would start that miserable shivering.

Since water conducts heat away from the body about 30 times faster than air, this drop in body temperature happens to most swimmers, especially at night when there’s no sun to help rewarm us.

Vigorous swimming helps regenerate this lost heat, but for me, at night, it’s almost always a losing battle. Without the sun, I’m a miserable, quaking mass.

Besides night swimming being chilly, I also find it spooky. Normal objects seem creepy in dark water, even when I know exactly what those objects are.

One time in the Philippines, several friends talked me into going swimming with them on a dark night. The water was amazingly still and clear. “Look,” someone said, as we stood together in chin-deep water. “You can see our feet.”

I looked down and will never forget the almost shocking sight of 40 or 50 wiggly white toes half sunk in the black sand. They looked amazingly like worms. “Mmmm, interesting,” I said. I was the first to leave.

I agree that being spooked by my own toes is silly. So is jumping a foot when a mangrove pod or glob of seaweed touches my skin. But I can’t help it. No matter how hard I resist it, and regardless of how illogical it is, I’m stuck with a persistent fear of being in the water in the dark.

Oh, I’ve tried. Once I forced myself to go on a night dive off a boat in the Great Barrier Reef. Each of us fastened a chemical light stick to our mask, turned on our dive light, then jumped in after the dive master.

I hated the constricted view my narrow beam of light offered and spent the entire dive waving the flashlight around to see where I was. Once during this streaming, I spotted a parrotfish sleeping soundly inside its self-made mucus cocoon. That was wonderful. But the rest of the time, I just followed the other lights, shivering like mad and waiting for the dive to be over.

But this nocturnal wimpiness doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes enjoy the nighttime ocean. I do.

I’ll never forget the night a pod of dolphins came bounding toward our sailboat, their skin covered with greenish bioluminescent organisms.

I was asleep in the aft cabin when my partner called me from the cockpit. I tried to ignore him, knowing it was not yet my watch, but he persisted. “Hurry, hurry,” he yelled. “It’s fantastic!”

I stumbled to the cockpit. “What,” I grumped. And then I saw them off the bow, sparkling and glowing in the dark water like a pack of leaping ghosts.

We watched these day-glo dolphins for about 15 minutes, then they were gone. I don’t know the how, what or why of this phenomenon, but those creatures burned a permanent bright spot in my memories of nights at sea.

I have other good nighttime marine moments: watching the stars during a channel crossing, seeing the prop churn up glow-in-the-dark plankton, enjoying moonbeams on the water. However, these are from an above-the-water perspective, not in it.

Last week, I left the ocean shivering and hurried to the pool area of my condominium building. I’ll take my ocean adventures during the day. At night, I prefer the lighted hot tub.

Tumors cripple young turtles here, in Florida

 “I was diving in Kaneohe Bay recently and I saw a sea turtle with enormous tumors around its eyes,” a diver told me last week. “The poor thing looked completely blind. Do they know what’s causing this horrible disease?”

This is a common question both here and in Florida where half or more of the immature green turtles of some areas have tumors on their skin.

These ugly growths are heartbreaking to see because they so cruelly cripple these gentle creatures. Lumpy masses around the eyes often cause blindness; befouled flippers, necks and tails impede swimming. As the tumors grow, some reaching 10 inches across, the affected turtle can’t get food. Gradually, the animal weakens and dies.

The answer to the divers’ question — what causes these tumors — is not known. But that doesn’t mean no one is working on the problem.

To get a better understanding of the disease, Hawaii researchers examined 222 tumored turtles found dead or dying between 1991 and 1995. Of those, 136 (61 percent) had tumors inside their mouths. Many of these oral tumors clearly hampered normal breathing and feeding in the turtles, likely contributing to their deaths.

In another study, researchers captured, examined and released 236 living turtles with tumors in Kaneohe Bay. Of these, 94 (40 percent) had mouth tumors.

In contrast, researchers have found no tumors in the mouths of affected Florida turtles, either living or dead.

No one knows why such a notable difference exists between the two populations. One guess is that perhaps marine parasites found in Hawaii but not Florida make tiny sores in the mouths of our turtles, setting them up for infection.

This new discovery doesn’t provide solid answers to the turtle tumor problem, but it does give clues for further study.

In other turtle news, a traveling friend recently brought me an interesting brochure from a dive shop in Bali, Indonesia. There, thousands of sea turtles are killed yearly for food or sacrifice in religious ceremonies. The pamphlet, “Proyek Penyu” (The Turtle Project), explains what a local village is doing to help Bali’s turtles.

In 1994, a local fisherman netted a sea turtle. To save its life, Chris Brown, who was opening a dive shop nearby, bought the weakened animal. During the day, Brown tied a rope to the turtle’s neck and let it graze on the reef. In the evening, he brought it in to a small protected pond.

Soon Brown rescued another netted turtle. Guests and locals, taken with these creatures’ plight, donated money for the turtles’ care.

Brown built tanks for his turtles. Later, someone sold him some turtle eggs originally intended for eating. Brown learned how to hatch these rescued eggs, then fed the hatchlings fish for six months, giving the youngsters a head start.

And the Turtle Project was off and running.

Now, only a few years later, more than 800 turtles of several species have been released into the ocean from this effort. For a donation, which helps fund the project, you can set a turtle free, a thrilling experience, I’m sure.

But Brown’s vision is broader than raising a few hatchlings for release. His aim is to encourage local protection of wild turtles and put a stop to (or at least diminish) their senseless slaughter.

A large part of the energy and money in this project, the brochure says, goes to educating the local people to conserve this precious living resource. Brown believes that seeing how much visitors love and support the turtles is a powerful statement in itself.

Sea turtles near and far are in trouble from disease and hunting. But people do care and are trying.

You can help Hawaii’s sea turtles by reporting abuses or ill, stranded turtles to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Interesting questions from readers via e-mail

Not long ago, I was visiting John Flanagan, the editor and publisher and computer wizard of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. We were discussing what to write in the little blurb at the end of my column.

“Why don’t we print your e-mail address?” he suggested.

No, no, please not that, I thought. The last thing I need in my life is another level of conflict with my computer.

But I hesitated a tad too long, and to my dismay, saw appear on John’s computer screen. The deed was done.

Oh, well, I thought, as I left the office. Probably no one will write me anyway.

How wrong I was. People from all over the country are reading the paper on the Internet ( and dropping me cybernotes. Now I can’t wait to check my e-mail each day. The questions and comments are usually thoughtful, sometimes challenging and always interesting.

One reader from Ohio State University wrote, “I was wondering if it’s legal to bring black coral into the U.S. from other countries?”

Good question. I called the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and learned that black coral is protected under CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species).

This means that if a person brings it in to sell, a CITES permit is required. Local U.S. Fish and Wildlife offices have the details on permits.

Eight pieces of coral is the cutoff number for personal use. Customs officials consider more than eight pieces a commercial enterprise.

It is illegal to bring any kind of coral into the United States from some countries, such as the Philippines. Others may or may not be OK legally. You have to check each.

Besides the legality of the practice, there’s a moral issue to selling coral. Corals are extremely slow-growing animals that people are killing in ever-increasing numbers throughout the world. This depletion threatens not only corals but other marine species that depend upon coral for survival.

This is a good reason not to do it.

Another reader from South Florida asks if I know a remedy for stings from creatures called thimble fish larvae.

Despite varied opinions, there seems to be no great cure for any kind of jellyfish sting.

Currently, Honolulu City and County lifeguards are testing different substances and temperatures on jellyfish stings. By next year, there should be some new recommendations based on this scientific study.

In the meantime, rinse off the tentacles with vinegar for box jellyfish and either fresh or sea water for other species, then ice the sting for pain relief.

A former Hawaii resident now living in Michigan liked my St. Patrick’s Day column on things green and marine. Sounds like he misses Hawaii.

My Kaena Point column reminded another former resident, now in Texas, of her fondness for Hawaii. “Kaena Point will remain in my mind forever. The starkness of the black rocks with salt crusts on them surrounded by broken white coral is remarkable. One time we saw Laysan albatrosses nesting and at sea. Thanks for the column, it makes my day much happier.”

Some readers ask questions that stump me. A New Mexico reader asks which big game fish makes a motorboat type of sound. I’ve never heard of that, but I’ll ask around.

For a report, a sixth-grader wants to know how many sea otters die each year from oil spills. Oops, no clue. Anyone?

I’m now grateful that John dragged me kicking and screaming into the world of e-mail. It makes an already great job even more fun.

And besides, how else would I ever get a one-line message about my ambergris story that says, “Long live whale poop!”

Please don’t stop writing.

Slinky ell, hungry fish highlight Hanauma visit

Published April 7, 1997 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1997 Susan Scott

ALL Nature wears one universal grin. (Henry Fielding, 1730)

Last week, my Michigan visitor and I were at the Waikiki Aquarium watching a snakelike creature worm its way through the rocks of its tank.

My friend Gail shuddered and stepped back. “I have this thing about snakes,” she said.

“This isn’t a snake,” I told her. “It’s an eel — a spotted snake eel.”

“It doesn’t matter what you call it. It looks and acts like a snake.”

I looked at the eel. Its cylindrical, whitish body with brown spots slithered through the holes with all the agility and creepiness of a snake.

Sure, the creature had a full-length fin running down its back, the sure sign of an eel. And its water-breathing gills definitely made it a fish.

But Gail was right — the critter looked acutely snakeoid.

“We should keep moving,” I said. “We want to get to Hanauma Bay while the sun is still high.” As we left the exhibit, Gail eyed the spotted eel warily.

“Don’t worry,” I assured her. “You couldn’t see one of these things if you tried all day.”

The aquarium was fun. We spent more time there than we planned, making it late afternoon when we arrived at Hanauma Bay.

We plunged into the water and headed straight outside the reef. There, the first creature we saw was, of course, a spotted snake eel. It was slinking its way in and out of the rubble about 20 feet beneath us.

Gail took it well, but you can bet she was not one of the group to dive down for a closer look.

We were lucky (I thought) to see this usually hard-to-find creature because of our tardy arrival at the bay.

Spotted snake eels are mostly nocturnal, coming out in the late afternoon or early evening to sniff around the bottom for small fish and invertebrates.

Eels are common residents of Hawaiian reefs. But even though all eels are called puhi in Hawaiian, not all eels are alike.

In Hawaii, members of three eel families are the most commonly seen: conger and garden eels, moray eels and snake eels.

Of the snake eels, the spotted is the only one I’ve seen while snorkeling or diving. This was my second viewing.

The other was near Magic Island, a prime spot for the eels in the late afternoon.

Spotted snake eels are also called magnificent snake eels, a name that reflects their scientific one: Myrichthys magnificus. It’s also descriptive of these true beauties.

Known as puhi laau in Hawaiian, individuals grow to about 3 feet long.

After the snake eel sighting, we swam back inside the reef. Gail wondered why so many fish seemed to be following her.

“They’re used to being fed,” I said.

“Oh? What do you feed them?”

“Wait here.” I hurried to shore, bought some approved fish food at the concession stand, and returned to distribute the packets.

“What do we do now?” Gail asked.

“Just swim out a little way, tear open the package and sprinkle the food around,” I said.

“Is it safe?”

“Sure,” I said. “People do it all the time.”

As Gail headed to a deeper spot, the biodegradable wrap on her fish food began to disintegrate in the water. At the same time, an enormous, aggressive chub (also called rudderfish or nenue) spotted the bag’s puka in Gail’s trailing hand, zoomed in for a snack and bit her thumb.

The injury was minor, and again, Gail was a good sport. Still, I felt terrible.

After that, I took her to a bookstore.