Monthly Archives: July 1997

Banded coral shrimp:  Adorable, entertaining

Published July 28, 1997 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1997 Susan Scott

While diving or snorkeling, it’s a rare moment I fearlessly stick my hand into a dark hole in the reef. Lately, however, I’ve been doing just that. And not just once. I do it over and over, exploring several pukas with my bare hand.

This gesture isn’t some new-found bravery I’m testing. It’s play. I have discovered a treasure trove of banded coral shrimp.

Banded coral shrimp, also called barber pole shrimp, are some of Hawaii’s most adorable and entertaining reef animals. The red-and-white bands on the body and legs of these shrimp give them a vivid, festive appearance. They look like walking candy canes.

Also, if you look carefully, you may see a flash of iridescent purple or blue on the shrimp, especially under the chest where the legs join the body.

Speaking of legs, banded shrimp have some remarkable appendages. Like all shrimp, banded have a total of 10. But unlike most others, these shrimps’ first three pairs of legs bear pincers.

Of these pincered pairs, the third are greatly enlarged and are banded like the shrimp’s body. It’s these long, curved legs that give the shrimp their plucky air. When confronted, the animal stands tall on its big legs, facing even a monster-sized human with amazing boldness.

But be gentle with this spunky shrimp. If it feels threatened, the creature can drop its flashy legs like a gecko drops its tail. The legs grow back, but in the meantime, the shrimp is handicapped.

From the head of this colorful creature flow six delicate white antennae, some of which are two to three times as long as the shrimp’s 2-inch body.

As if all this isn’t enough to give a diver pause, there’s the shrimps’ quaint behavior. If you slowly extend a hand toward these creatures, they don’t back deeper into their holes. Instead, they often come to check you out. One I recently encountered explored my forefinger with its antennae for long moments.

This bold “feeling” behavior comes from the fact that banded shrimp, and several similar species, are cleaner shrimp. Such so-called shrimp crawl over fishes’ bodies, gills and even inside their mouths to eat parasites and dead tissue.

The shrimp sit in their tiny caves waving their whiplike antennae out the door to signal passing fish. When one lingers, the shrimp touches it with the antennae until the fish becomes still. After this soothing “backrub,” the shrimp then crawls over the fish’s body picking off tidbits of food.

Fish seem to love this service. In my secret place, cardinalfish and tangs lingered about like it was the entrance to a favorite spa.

The reason my place is secret is that banded coral shrimp are collected like mad for home aquariums. I want my shrimp to stay where they are.

Banded coral shrimp usually live in male-female pairs. But if you put two that weren’t previously living together into a tank, one often kills the other.

I’ll never tire of watching these little peppermint sticks perform their tricks. It’s well worth putting a hand in a hole.

Glowing shrimp a small yet pleasing discovery

Published July 21, 1997 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1997 Susan Scott

ONE day last fall, I looked up from my desk and gazed out the window of my North Shore office. I pretended I was conjuring up some clever way to phrase a sentence, but actually I was admiring the afternoon light on the surface of the ocean.

It was one of those peaceful days we sometimes get in the fall, after the summer trade winds have stopped but before the winter surf stirs everything up. I stretched, turned back to the computer and then — went snorkeling.

I didn’t get far. About 100 feet from shore, as I was passing a large coral head, a flash of movement caught my eye and then the entire surface of the coral appeared to jerk. I took a deep breath and swam down for a closer look.

What I saw astonished me: The surface of the rock was covered with dozens of shrimp. And not just ordinary shrimp — these were creatures from outer space.

Most were big, their bodies 2 to 3 inches long. Some had bristly fur on their two front legs, like bottle brushes. Others had extremely long, slender front legs. The rear eight legs were banded in black and white, and their bodies glowed a greenish-gold color that flashed in the fading sun.

I had never seen these odd but beautiful animals before.

I visited the rock for the next several days, admiring the shrimp and bringing friends to see them. Then the surf came up, big time. I had to wait for weeks before it was flat enough to swim there again. When I did, my shrimp were gone.

Come spring, though, they were back. I told a friend, John Hoover, who is writing a book on Hawaii’s invertebrates. “They sound interesting,” he said. “I’ll come out some time and photograph them.”

Finally, last week, John and I donned our masks and snorkels and I pointed out my newfound shrimp. But John did not take their picture.

“Fuller brush shrimp,” John announced, when we surfaced. “The females have furry front legs but males’ front legs are smooth and much longer. These shrimp are green during the day but turn red at night.”

“Fuller brush shrimp?” I repeated.

“That’s my own name for them,” he explained. “Their scientific name is Saron marmoratus. Quite common, really.”

What? My extraterrestrial shrimp are common here on Earth? It couldn’t be.

I looked up the scientific name John gave me. He was right. The species is common, found not only in Hawaii but throughout the tropical Pacific.

I found color photos of my shrimp in three books. However, each of the three photographs look different from each other and from my own personal shrimp living at Shrimp Rock. Oh, now that I know, I can see the resemblance. But still, I don’t think the pictures look much like the little guys living near my house.

Although I prefer the name Fuller brush shrimp, there are others. One is the spiked prawn. Another is ‘opae kakala, a broad Hawaiian name for all the shrimp, like this one, that have a beaklike projection, or rostrum, extending forward from their heads.

In ancient Hawaii, collecting shrimp was women’s work. A woman would wade out to the reef. Standing in neck-deep water, she would poke one hand into cracks and drive the shrimp into a basket held by the other hand.

I’m impressed. Even in scuba gear, I can barely get a good look at these ‘opae kakala. The thought of blindly sticking a hand into reef cracks gives me chicken skin.

So. It turns out my colorful discovery is a species common and well known. That’s OK. I’m still proud of my own finding of these creatures. It reminds me of all the wonderful and exciting discoveries I have yet to make in the ocean, even here in my own back yard.

It also confirms my belief that sometimes, when the words just won’t come, slipping out for a snorkel is a good idea.


Barracudas dangerous but rarely attack humans

Published July 14, 1997 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1997 Susan Scott

Last week, I saw an enormous barracuda in the Ala Wai Boat Harbor. Usually the barracudas I see in the harbor are babies, less than a foot or so long. This one was so big, though, that, even though I was in a hurry, I had to stop and stare.

Except for an almost imperceptible stirring of the fins to keep its body stationary, the 3-foot-long fish lay motionless near the surface. Several young manini (convict tangs) darted in and out of rocks nearby.

Brave manini, I thought. Or more likely, the barracuda’s “I’m-just-a-floating-stick” act was working well.

I watched for awhile but didn’t see the big fish strike. The one time I did see a barracuda catch a fish, it happened with such swiftness that I couldn’t make out any of the details. A little fish was there; the barracuda jerked; the little fish was gone.

Barracudas eat both large and small fish, striking with lightning bursts of speed. Unlike some fish predators, barracudas can’t expand their mouths to swallow large fish whole. To eat big prey, barracuda slash them to pieces with remarkably sharp teeth. A large barracuda can cut a mature parrotfish in two pieces with a single bite.

Hawaii hosts two species of barracuda: the great barracuda or kaku (Sphyraena barracuda) and Heller’s barracuda or kawelea (Sphyraena helleri).

Kaku, the great barracuda, are the ones we see in the Ala Wai Harbor. These fish are active during the day, using camouflage to catch fish. Juvenile kaku almost always live in sheltered inner reefs and harbors. Adults can live in these places too, but large barracudas usually head offshore to hunt in the open ocean.

Individual kaku can grow to nearly 6 feet long and weigh up to 100 pounds.

Heller’s barracudas are active at night, forming schools near the reef during the day. This smaller species grows to about 2 feet long.

Is it reasonable to be afraid of barracudas? Like sharks, the answer is usually no. Of the 22 barracuda species found throughout the world, the great barracuda is the only one known to attack humans. The risk of being bitten by this fish, however, appears extremely low. In a study of 29 reported barracuda attacks in the United States between 1873 and 1963 (90 years), only 19 were confirmed.

Barracuda attacks have occurred in Hawaii. Two Maui fishermen were bitten in separate incidents in the 1960s.

A 6-foot-long barracuda slashed the leg of one man who was throw-net fishing. The resulting injury to his left foot and leg required five hours of surgery. The second man needed 255 stitches to repair arm wounds.

In the late 1980s, a barracuda attacked a scuba diver at an isolated rock offshore from Kailua. The resulting wound was minor.

In Kailua-Kona, doctors treated two women in separate incidents for barracuda bites to the scalp. Both women were wearing shiny barrettes in their hair at the time of the attack. One, bitten in the 1990s, required surgery to remove embedded teeth.

Because barracudas have two parallel rows of sharp, cutting teeth in both upper and lower jaws, bites can cause deep, slashing cuts, often causing nerve and tendon damage and sometimes severing large blood vessels. Also, barracuda teeth can break off inside wounds.

Some theorize that barracuda attacks occur when the predator mistakes a human for prey. Because a barracuda may view the flash of jewelry or camera equipment as a silvery fish, removing jewelry and avoiding murky water may reduce the chance of a bite.

Usually, barracudas keep their distance from swimmers and divers.

The greatest threat barracuda pose to humans is ciguatera, a poison these fish sometimes carry in their flesh. Ciguatera poisoning comes from eating affected fish.

Onery ono, however tasty, demand respect

Published July 9, 1997 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1997 Susan Scott

I didn’t have to wonder what to write about in my column today. Ono, the gamefish also called wahoo, have been tapping me on the shoulder all week asking for some space.

I hadn’t thought about ono for ages until my partner Craig, an emergency room doctor, told me about an unusual case he had recently. A fisherman came in with a bad bite on the foot and ankle inflicted by a 25-pound ono.

“In the water?” I asked, picturing the fish swimming after the guy.

“No, no. In the guy’s boat. After he landed it, the fish thrashed around and bit him. It was pretty bad. It took a lot of stitches to close it up … a lot of stitches.”

A couple of days later, we ran into a fisherman friend and told the ER story. “I didn’t know ono could hurt you like that,” I said.

“Oh sure,” he said. “Those fish have teeth like razors. I’ve heard of them cutting a person even after the fish is dead. You barely have to touch those razor teeth to get injured.”

Imagining rows of shiny little razor blades, I wondered what those sharp teeth looked like.

I didn’t have to wonder long. Later that week, Craig and I were strolling through the Ala Wai Boat Harbor when we were stopped in our tracks.

There in the back of a pickup were four freshly caught ono, about 25 pounds each. They were dead, but one had its mouth wide open.

We leaned close. The teeth were not metal rectangles; they were tiny white triangles, closely set and scalpel sharp.

“Hello?” said the owner of the truck, wondering what we were doing.

“We’re admiring your catch,” I told him. “These fish have pretty fierce-looking teeth.”

“Like razors,” he said.

“So we’ve heard.”

“They’re also good to eat,” he added. “That’s why they call them ono.”

To newcomers, the word ono also means delicious in Hawaiian. And these fish have good reason to be delicious: They’re close relatives of tunas and mackerels. You can easily see the family resemblance of all these fish in the tiny finlets on the upper and lower side of the bodies, just ahead of the tail.

Ono are distinct in the family for their narrow bodies, up to 6 feet long, and sharp-pointed heads.

These strong, fast-swimming meat-eaters feed on squid and other fish. Ono have been known to take bites from the sides of tunas.

Anglers fish for ono in Hawaii’s channels where these fish swim alone near the surface.

Ono are found throughout the world’s tropical and subtropical waters. The world record for ono is 149 pounds, caught in the Bahamas in 1962. Most catches, however, are around 20 to 30 pounds.

I hope ono haven’t yet finished demanding my attention. I’d now like to see one on a menu.

Jacques Cousteau: a fan’s appreciation

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

While driving to town on the freeway two weeks ago, I heard on the radio that Jacques Cousteau died. I felt sad at first, but talk of his extraordinary life, which included the invention of scuba gear, soon brought forth a flood of pleasant memories.

When I was a kid in the late 1950s, I used to sit cross-legged in front of our little black-and-white television, mesmerized by a show called “Sea Hunt.” I can still see it clearly: Lloyd Bridges swimming boldly underwater, fighting bad guys who routinely yanked his regulator out of his mouth or cut his air hose with a wicked-looking dive knife.

It was scary stuff, but, oh, how I loved the show’s exotic thrills.

Later, along with millions of others, I became a great fan of Jacques Cousteau’s television specials. The marine animals were fascinating, but the divers held me spellbound. How do they breathe through that thing in their mouths? Why doesn’t water get up their noses? Isn’t it terrifying to be deep in the cold, dark water with all those weird animals lurking?

I am tempted to say that it was these television shows of my youth that inspired me to study marine biology and learn to scuba dive, but it isn’t so. The concept of ocean diving was so far from my small-town Midwest existence, I didn’t think it even remotely possible for an ordinary person like me to do it. It was a sport for men, and special men at that.

In my heart I didn’t believe any of it was real. Fish don’t swim up to people like that, I thought, and you can’t be comfortable underwater. It had to be a setup.

It was a long time before I changed my mind. That change came from a marine sanctuary in Mexico.

A friend persuaded me to rent gear and try snorkeling while we vacationed there. I’ll always remember the moment I put my face in that sparkling Caribbean water. A school of bright-blue chromis happened to be passing, close to my face. Giant parrotfish crunched coral nearby, and purple sea urchins littered the sea floor beneath me.

I was dumbfounded. Fish, when they’re protected from fishing, do swim up to regular people, even first-timers like me. Also, I felt warm and was breathing just fine, face down in the water.

Suddenly the possibilities of exploring this new world seemed endless. I vowed to learn the names and habits of these lovely, friendly fish and invertebrates. In a move as brave as anything I’ve ever done, I learned to scuba dive.

My first dive was in Kaneohe Bay, a simple descent from a boat into 20 feet of water. There, with my instructor, I breathed for the first time through a regulator. I, a wimpy Wisconsin woman, could do it! I emerged grinning from ear to ear feeling like Ms. Sea Hunt. (But don’t yank my regulator from my mouth, please.)

Since he died, a lot has been said about Jacques Cousteau. He was a poet, an innovator and a renaissance man. He spoke for a silent world, brought the wonder of the ocean into people’s homes and invented the regulator, a device that allowed nearly anyone to descend and experience the marine world for oneself.

He also spent much of his life trying to save the world’s oceans from ruin. Cousteau preached conservation and strongly encouraged the creation of marine sanctuaries. Perhaps because of his message, that small underwater park in Mexico that so changed my life came into existence.

The only negative words I ever heard about Cousteau were that he was not a scientist, meaning he did not have any graduate degrees in marine biology. Some biologists said his views of the marine world were “popular,” not real science.

Pure jealousy, I believe. Jacques Cousteau probably did more for the advancement of marine science than all the Ph.D.s on Earth put together.

His vision changed my life. I will remember him fondly.