Monthly Archives: August 1997

Giving back to the ocean can be hard but rewarding

Published August 25, 1997 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1997 Susan Scott

Every once in a while, I get an urge to take things I have collected from the ocean back to where they belong. My inspiration for this comes from a local fisherman who once, years ago, shouted at a public hearing, “Take, take, take! That’s all we ever do in the ocean. When are we going to start giving back?”

No time like the present, I thought, moved by the man’s speech. And so I found myself standing at the shoreline near my home, tossing my seashells, one by one, into the water. Oh, it was hard. But I kept throwing, imagining the joy a hermit crab might experience when finding one of my lovely shells. It would surely be the home of its dreams.

Last week, I gave something living back to the sea.

About five years ago, I received a unique and thoughtful birthday present: a jar containing eight half-inch-long red shrimp from one of the anchialine ponds on the Big Island.

Anchialine shrimp are true treasures of Hawaii, unique in both lifestyle and habitat. The word anchialine (pronounced AN-key-a-lin) means near the sea in Greek and refers to brackish pools close to the ocean. Although the pools have no direct connection with the ocean, enough seepage occurs through the porous ground that water in the ponds rises and falls with the tides.

Tiny shrimp took advantage of this unique ecosystem and, over the eons, evolved into nine or 10 species.

One fascinating feature of these shrimp is their longevity: They can live for 10 years on very little food. Hawaii researchers have kept sealed jars of these shrimp on their desks for years without feeding them. The animals live on algae and bacteria that grow naturally in the brackish water.

Such a cloistered lifestyle may seem odd, but it allows the animals to survive volcanic eruptions. When their ponds fill with lava, the shrimp retreat to underground water pockets, sometimes living there for years with no light and little food. When new ponds form at the surface, the shrimp emerge and start colonies.

Because of this remarkable adaptability, NASA is interested in our shrimp. Perhaps someday these subterranean creatures will boldly go where no shrimp has gone before.

Although Hawaii’s anchialine shrimp are not listed as endangered and are not protected by federal or state laws, they are in danger of extinction. Not only are their ponds dwindling due to coastal development, but people dump alien fish in the ponds, supposedly to eat mosquito larvae. The fish also eat the shrimp.

Ironically, anchialine shrimp too eat mosquito larvae, making the fish additions pointless.

When I first learned about these special shrimp, I couldn’t wait to get to the Big Island to see them. An easy place to visit them is at the Waikoloa Resort. When the building of this resort destroyed some of the natural ponds, developers made artificial ones. True to the shrimps’ nature, they moved right in and began reproducing like mad. Both the natural and artificial ponds there are jam packed.

Years ago, I raved about these shrimp so much that my partner went to a pond, scooped up eight of the beauties and presented them to me as a gift.

What a treat these darting red creatures have been on my countertop these past years. Some died, of course, but since the loss was only about one per year, we figured the deaths were natural. When the population recently got down to two, I decided it was time to let them go.

Last week, we returned to the Big Island and walked to the pond, jar in hand. I opened the lid and dipped the edge into the water. As our shrimp swam free, we said goodbye.

Giving back to the ocean can be hard, but it can also be rewarding. Tossing those shells and lowering that jar will always remain vivid memories.

Camouflaged fish gives scuba divers quite a sting

Published August 18, 1997 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1997 Susan Scott

“Look,” one of my snorkeling partners said, pointing to a bumpy, fist-sized rock in the sand near a large coral head, just feet from the shore. I immediately saw what he had found and showed another friend, new to the islands.

She couldn’t see it.

“Look exactly where I point,” I told her.

“Are we looking under that rock or on top of it?” she asked.

“We’re looking at the rock itself. Look hard.”

We were standing in chest-deep water. She dropped her face to the surface, then after a few moments, popped back up. “I don’t see anything.”

“OK, watch closely.” I dove down and waved my hand near the brown, algae-covered rock. Like magic, it came alive. A pair of yellow, orange and red fins appeared at its sides, like colorful airplane wings. It darted under the coral head in a couple of quick hops.

My friend was laughing when I surfaced. “I could have stood here all day and not seen that fish. What is it?”

The fish was a devil scorpionfish, or nohu omakaha, and my friend was not unusual in missing it. These scorpionfish, common on reefs throughout Hawaii and the tropical Pacific, are masters of disguise, bearing weedy-looking skin and often changing color to blend with their surroundings. Every snorkeler and diver has been just inches from such a fish, many times, and never had a clue.

The devil scorpionfish grows up to 12 inches long and usually looks like a rock or blob of dead coral that might make a good handhold. But be sure and wave a hand or fin over any rock before you grab it. Scorpionfish get their name from the eight-legged land creatures, whose painful tail stings are memorable. In the fish, the sting is delivered by venomous spines on their back and belly fins.

Devil scorpionfish (and all other types of scorpionfish) use their venomous spines for defense only, never initiating attacks. If you threaten one of these fish, however, it erects its spines and flares out others in warning.

That bright flash of yellow and red from inside the pectoral fins of our little friend in the above story was one of those warnings: “I am dangerous and I am getting annoyed.” Predators, including humans, stung by these scorpionfish, don’t forget that colorful flash — or the pain of the sting.

Fortunately, the sting of the devil scorpionfish is not deadly, nor is any scorpionfish sting in Hawaii. Although they are closely related to the South Pacific’s potentially lethal stonefish, ours don’t pack such a powerful punch.

(Only four deaths, ever, have been recorded worldwide from stonefish. None of these occurred in Australia, where stings from these fish are fairly common.)

Although stings from Hawaii’s scorpionfish won’t kill you, you might feel like you’re dying. These stings hurt like mad, making pain relief a high priority in first aid.

Because heat inactivates at least one of the toxins in the venom, it also relieves some of the pain. If you are stung, soak the hand or foot in nonscalding hot water. (Have someone not in pain check the temperature of the water.)

After the pain is relieved, clean the wound thoroughly. See a doctor for redness or swelling, signs of infection.

After our devil scorpionfish dashed under the coral, my friends and I went snorkeling in deeper water. When we returned an hour later, we found the fish returned to its previous place. There it lay once again, waiting for unsuspecting prey to pass by. When that happens, the fish lunges with lightening-speed and gulps it down whole.

“This is like one of those pictures hidden in a pattern,” my friend said. “Before, I couldn’t see the fish at all; now I can’t NOT see it.”

Maybe the next time, she’ll spot a devil scorpionfish on her own. But then again, maybe she won’t.

Eat yabbies or snappers, but let sleeping seals lie

Published August 11, 1997 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1997 Susan Scott

In my June 23 column, I wrote about the difference between crayfish and lobsters. In this part of the world, the animals we call crayfish live in freshwater lakes, ponds and streams. Lobsters live in the ocean.

But things are always a little different down under. In Australia and New Zealand, I’ve heard people call lobsters crayfish. While visiting Auckland once, a friend took me out for a crayfish dinner. We ate lobsters from the sea.

To make things even more confusing, there’s a giant freshwater crayfish in Southern Australia and Tasmania that grows to about 10 inches long. I’ve never seen one, but in a picture I have, it looks almost exactly like a Maine lobster.

Now for the helpful e-mail I received from Beverly Kai: “In Australia’s Victoria state, the local name for their giant crayfish is yabbies. They are supposed to be very good eating and the appetite appears reciprocal. The body of a drowning victim near a dam was never found. The local verdict: The yabbies got him.”

I don’t know the origin of the word, but yabby sure is fun to say. It’s a name I’ll use in the future for these giant crayfish, who apparently aren’t picky eaters.

Speaking of eating, on June 16 I wrote a column about ta’ape, the French Polynesian name for a type of snapper the state Division of Fish and Game (now DLNR) introduced into Hawaiian waters in the 1950s. Officials believed this species would be a valuable commercial fish here. Unfortunately, the idea didn’t catch on. Now, some believe the ever-expanding ta’ape compete with our native snappers for food and space.

We’re stuck with these hardy fish. I mentioned that the state might help the situation by promoting the eating of these aliens.

They have, I was informed by a worker at the Division of Aquatic Resources, DLNR. In 1989, Jo-Anne Kushima developed the “Ta’ape Market Development Project.” Included were cooking demonstrations at supermarkets, free recipe cards, a consumer survey and a promotional campaign at several supermarket chains and fish distributors.

This project may have been responsible for raising the price of ta’ape, a good thing for fishermen.

Also in June, I noticed a one-paragraph news story about Mediterranean monk seals dying off the coast of Mauritania. This West African country, near the center of the western bulge of the continent, borders the Atlantic Ocean.

The news item said that more than 60 seals were killed by a toxic algae bloom. The seals apparently ate fish that had swallowed the algae.

I waited for more news but none came. Last week I called Tim Ragen, a seal expert with the National Marine Fisheries Service, who told me that not all Mediterranean monk seals live in the Mediterranean. These seals are spread out in many different countries, many of which are hostile toward one another. Because of this, coordinating research or sharing information is difficult at best.

The details of the seal poisoning are still sketchy because of violence in Mauritania. (One seal researcher there was killed by a land mine; two others were reportedly fired at with a machine gun.) But 60 seals killed is probably an underestimation. More likely, the number is around 200. Out of a local population of 270-300, this is a true disaster for the species.

Although no one knows the exact cause of death or the precise number of seals that died, Ragen says there’s a lesson for Hawaii: When dealing with endangered species, things can go horribly wrong in a very short time.

Hopefully, this isn’t the end of our Hawaiian seals’ long-lost cousins. The last sighting of a Caribbean monk seal was in 1952.

The best way to help Hawaii’s monk seals is to spread the word that people should stay well away from seals resting on beaches. It’s perfectly normal for them to lie in the sun and sleep. Never disturb a monk seal in any way.

A few risks can’t spoil beachcombing pleasures

Published August 4, 1997 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1997 Susan Scott

Last week I took one of my favorite walks on the island — I strolled the long, white beach of Kailua.

Here, the wind usually blows from sea to land, often pushing floating stuff from the ocean into the bay and onto the beach.

Oh, the treasures I’ve found here. Once I spotted a piece of black comblike material ahead of me on the beach. At first I thought it was indeed a large comb, chewed up by sun and surf. When I picked it up, however, I discovered it was a special find: baleen from the mouth of a whale.

Baleen allows humpbacks (and several other species) to hold planktonic food in their mouths while pushing out excess water that came in with it.

Because baleen is part of the animals’ bodies, like teeth, the whale had probably died.

Not everything I find on Kailua Beach is dead, however; nor is it so safe to pick up. About 15 years ago, a month or so after I moved to Hawaii, I picked up a lovely blue bubble on Kailua Beach. “Look,” I said as I showed it to my marine-savvy friend. “Isn’t this interesting?”

“Not a good thing to carry around,” he said. Then he explained what it was.

It’s how I learned it’s safe to touch the float of a Portuguese man-of-war as long as you keep its trailing tentacles, the stinging end of the animal, from blowing onto your skin.

I still like to pick up Portuguese man-of-wars on the beach, not to examine, but to find mole crabs.

Ever notice that a day after a man-of-war invasion, lots of blue floats are still lying on the beach, but they’re all missing their tentacles? I wondered about this until one day I picked one up that seemed stuck to the sand.

At first, I thought the tentacle had simply been buried in the sand by the surf action. But no. As I dug to investigate, I found a mole crab (sometimes called sand turtles in Hawaii) winding that tentacle around its legs like a ball of yarn.

These little one-inch crabs live buried in the sand near the shore break. When a morsel of food, such as a tasty man-of-war tentacle, drifts past, the mole crab grabs it and starts reeling it in. It doesn’t take long for the entire tentacle to be gone, a good thing for us humans, since stinging cells on the tentacles can fire even after the creature is dead.

More dangerous, though, are bees. Honey bees cause more deaths in the United States every year than snakes, sharks or jellyfish. Most people have only minor discomfort from bee stings, but a few are allergic. In these cases, a sting can quickly kill a person.

It’s common to see honey bees tumbling in the Kailua surf or staggering near the waterline, especially in the summer when bee activity is high. Entomologist Michael Kliks of the Manoa Honey Co. said these bees are probably senile foragers that got confused about where they were going.

Yes, honey bees get senile. As they near the end of their busy lives, 6 to 8 weeks long, worker bees get mixed up and sometimes wander out to sea, where wind and spray bring them down.

This probably happens on all island shores, but we see them at Kailua and other windward beaches for the same reason we see other creatures on these shores: The tradewinds push them there.

Although Portuguese man-of-war can sting even after they’re dead, bees cannot. Bee stings are active acts of defense, with the bee thrusting its stinger into a victim. It’s rare to get stung by stepping on a dead bee, but those yet moving may still have enough oomph.

It you do get stung, remove the stinger as quickly as possible. Even after it’s detached from the bee, the stinger’s poison sac continues to pulsate and inject poison.

Stinging creatures don’t spoil the walking at Kailua Beach — it’s always a good experience. Every time I go, dozens of others are there, getting exercise, enjoying Hawaii’s beauty and looking for those special gifts from the sea.