Monthly Archives: September 1997

Use vinegar for jellyfish stings, not for men-of-war

Published September 29, 1997 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser
©1997 Susan Scott

A reader named Jeremy recently sent me an interesting e-mail: “After 10 years in Hawaii, I’m still confused about what to call our jellyfish! What are the purplish-blue ones? Are they box jellyfish? My 6-year-old son and I recently got stung by two of these guys on the same day at Bellows Beach. Ouch! I used vinegar, which helped some. What do men-of-war look like? Aren’t there two varieties here?”

I also used to be confused about Hawaii’s jellyfish, and I’m sure others are too. The identification of jellyfish types and treatment of their stings is a public-health issue that Hawaii ocean-goers should know about. I am currently working on a jellyfish research project — which means I know the answers to Jeremy’s questions.

The purple-blue critters are Portuguese men-of-war, named by 18th-century English sailors after the warships of the Portuguese.

Because these offshore creatures float on top of the water, they are driven by wind. When the wind blows onshore, the creatures sometimes drift to Hawaii’s shores.

To determine the likelihood of a Portuguese man-of-war sting, ask a lifeguard. If a lifeguard is not available, stand facing the water. If the wind blows in your face, beware. The stronger and longer the wind blows onshore, the more likely men-of-war will be around.

Some researchers believe two species of Portuguese man-of-war exist and that the application of vinegar makes the sting from one worse. Since no one can tell which of the two types stung them, doctors recommend no vinegar be applied to stings.

Jellyfish are bell-shaped animals that swim underwater. The transparent box jellyfish usually appear on Hawaii’s south shores eight to 10 days after the full moon.

Researchers recommend applying vinegar to all jellyfish stings.


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

Excellent science that’s reader-friendly as well

Published September 22, 1997 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser
©1997 Susan Scott

A few weeks ago, a fellow ocean-lover called to tell me about a new book. “Every time I open this book, I find another interesting piece of information,” he said. “It’s reader-friendly science that isn’t dumbed down.”

If there’s one way to get my attention, just say the words “reader-friendly science.”

Years ago I diverted from a career in biology to one of writing because it bugged me so to see science conveyed to the public so poorly. Either the jargon left you glassy-eyed or you felt like you were reading a first-grade primer.

I got a copy of the recommended book and found my friend was right. Not only is this book a treasure of good, clear science writing, but it’s the science we Pacific island residents crave: stories of the unique places we live.

“Tropical Pacific Island Environments,” by Christopher S. Lobban and Maria Schefter (University of Guam Press), is full of tales of people living with, studying and making policies about the plants and animals of their islands.

One of my favorites is the crown-of-thorns starfish tale. This starfish has a much larger stomach, relative to its body size, than other starfish, and is so flexible it can wrap its arms around branches of coral. But this is no friendly hug. The crown-of-thorns kills and eats coral by turning its stomach inside out over living polyps, thus dissolving them. The liquefied food is then absorbed through the starfish’s stomach wall.

Usually, crown-of-thorns starfish aren’t much of a problem, being just one of many predators of coral. But in 1962, the crown-of-thorns reached plague proportions on the Great Barrier Reef. In the late 1960s, Guam and Micronesia were stricken.

People were horrified by the destruction of their reefs and designed massive control programs. More than 220,000 crown-of-thorns were killed in the former Trust Territories, and 70,000 in Guam. In Chuk, teams of divers spent thousands of hours in recreation and fishing areas killing the starfish.

Then, in the 1970s, the plague ended. According to one Australian scientist, the control programs had little to do with the decline because no one fully understood the problem.

Today, experts are diametrically opposed in their interpretations of crown-of-thorns data. One side says this is a natural occurrence that does not threaten the reefs. The other says it is an unnatural phenomenon and could cause total reef destruction.

What’s a government to do about a potentially catastrophic situation for which the cause is still unknown? The authors of this book devote several pages to this question, detailing the dynamics, and reality, of scientific research.

They also point out that even though this problem is complex with no scientific certainties, the media and public tend to favor the “catastrophe model.” It’s more dramatic, more appealing and gives the impression that something is being done to remedy the problem. But is it right?

This book is packed with stories like this, and I can’t pick it up without learning something new or getting a new perspective on something I thought I knew most everything about.

The authors write in their preface that they believe science can be explained clearly. This book is a good example.

Teachers, high school and college students, policy makers, environmental lawyers and everyone else interested in our island environments should read this book.

More Info

 TITLE: Tropical Pacific Island Environments
 AUTHORS: Christopher S. Lobban and Maria Schefter, pen-and-ink drawings by Rick L. Castro
 PUBLISHER: University of Guam Press, 1997
 PRICE: Softcover, $50; hardcover, $70
 AVAILABLE: UH Bookstore, Bishop Museum gift shop, Honolulu Book Shops, Bess Press, Hawaii Geographic Maps and Books.

Jellyfish swarms are not of their own doing

Published September 15, 1997 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser
©1997 Susan Scott

Do Hawaii’s jellyfish swarm?

I received an E-mail earlier this summer from Pangolin Pictures in New York City. “We produce programming for National Geographic, the Discovery Channel, Audubon Society, etc.,” wrote a company researcher. “Currently, we are working on a documentary film about SWARMS and would love to ask you a few questions about jellyfish.”

I had never heard the term swarm used for these wind- and current-driven creatures. Unlike bees or locusts, jellyfish don’t cruise in a crowd. Mostly, they’re solitary individuals that occasionally become pushed together by wind and currents.

I enjoyed exchanging notes and phone calls with the people at this film company. They were pleasant, well informed and interested in getting the facts right. My only problem with their project was I didn’t think Hawaii ever had what you’d call swarms of jellyfish, and I told them so.

Several days later, thousands of jellyfish arrived in Hawaii’s bays and beaches, stinging a record number of swimmers.

For reasons unknown, on July 30, leeward beaches were inundated with box jellyfish. It was the worst invasion recorded here, so bad that lifeguards, police and volunteers walked the beaches with bullhorns, warning visitors in Japanese and English to stay out of the water. Even so, at least 800 people were stung.

The next day, Pangolin Pictures’ Eric Taylor arrived in Hawaii to interview people about jellyfish. “I looked up the word swarm in the dictionary,” he said. “I’m comfortable using the term with jellyfish here, especially after yesterday.”

A swarm, Webster says, is (among other things) “a large number of animate or inanimate things massed together and usually in motion.”

That pretty much describes what happened here in July with the box jellies. But it was interesting to me that not one of the local newspaper accounts I saw used the word swarm. Invasion, infestation and influx were the reporters’ words of choice.

Why do I care about the word swarm? I’m uneasy with its tone. Maybe I saw too many horror movies when I was young, but to me, a swarm usually means hundreds or thousands of creatures moving with a single, sinister purpose: swarms of angry bees delivering stings; locusts moving over crops and devouring everything in sight; ants or flies swarming over dead bodies.

Jellyfish don’t get together for that kind of organized carnage. The box jellies we see in Hawaii mostly drift with the currents, alone, trailing four stinging tentacles behind them to catch tiny pieces of food.

Hawaii’s box jellyfish usually show up in leeward waters 8 to 10 days after a full moon.

When the numbers get large, all hell breaks loose, both for people, who get stung by trailing tentacles, and for the jellyfish, who die in droves on the beach. And even though the sting is accidental, the creatures become animal outlaws, reviled and feared.

I’m not saying their stings don’t hurt and aren’t sometimes severe enough for an ER visit. It’s just that here in Hawaii, fear of a jellyfish sting doesn’t justify permanently staying out of the water. In spite of all the talk about allergic reactions and so-called “shock” from stings, no deaths from jellyfish or Portuguese men-of-war have been reported in Hawaii.

Heed the lifeguards’ calls and you’ll rarely get stung. If you do, the burning sensation is usually short-lived.

OK, maybe thousands of jellyfish on one side of an island constitutes a swarm. But they don’t mean to be bad. Jellyfish are victims of circumstance, just as we are when we connect with their tentacles.

Late this fall, look for “Deadly Swarms,” a one-hour special on FOX television.


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

Coloring book educates about Pacific coral reefs

Published September 8, 1997 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1997 Susan Scott

 When the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary was created in Hawaii, some people argued we didn’t need it. “Why add a federal agency to protect that which is already protected?” they asked.

There were several good answers, but one that rang clear was the promise of marine education. Federal dollars, proponents said, would go into much-needed teaching programs about preserving our humpback whales and their habitat, the ocean.

One product of that promise is the Pacific Coral Reef Coloring Book, one of the sanctuary’s responses to 1997 being designated the International Year of the Reef.

This is no run-of-the-mill coloring book: The text, written on the left, explains coral reef biology and ecology in English, Samoan and Hawaiian. The pictures, on the right, were drawn by Hawaii resident Kathleen Orr and have a distinct local flavor.

Here are some facts I learned from this book:

The reefs with the most biodiversity (different kinds of plants and animals) are in the far western Pacific and southeast Asia. The farther you go from this rich center, the fewer species you see.

Australia, close to this coral core, has about 2,000 species of fish. American Samoa, farther away, drops to about half that with 1,000 fish species. And Hawaii, thousands of miles away from the coral reef center of the world, has less than 500 kinds of fish.

Triton’s trumpet snails (whose shells you see in every souvenir shop from here to India) are great allies of the coral reef, both in life and in death.

In life, one of the trumpet snails’ favorite meals is the crown-of-thorns starfish, a species notorious for eating coral. After death, the trumpets’ enormous shells provide homes for equally enormous hermit crabs. Crabs are scavengers that clean the reef floor of dead plant and animal material.

We can help the reefs by never killing snails for their shells nor buying such shells in shops.

Jacks, called ulua in Hawaiian, are often seen on coral reefs. For these strong swimmers, the reef is a hunting ground.

In contrast are butterflyfish, commonly seen on coral reefs. Some species spend their entire lives near a single clump of coral.

The sanctuary has come through with its promise of marine education. Now all we citizens have to do is take advantage of the offer.

To request these free coloring books, call 541-3184 on Oahu, 879-2818 on Maui.

Labor’s reward found in offspring, one or many

Published September 1, 1997 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1997 Susan Scott

My longtime readers may remember my story about a Labor Day many years ago when my mother gave birth to my baby brother. The event was such a sensation in my 11-year-old mind that, since then, Labor Day has had a double meaning to me.

Besides commemorating workers, the day also honors those who perform the supreme labor: that of perpetuating life on Earth.

In the world of fish, this labor comes in many forms, ranging from the release of eggs and sperm into open water and leaving the rest to nature, to the provision of nutrients to embryos developing inside a female fish’s body.

Tunas are typical of the first hit-and-miss type of reproduction. These schooling fish spawn in the warm upper layer of the open ocean. Each female tuna releases about 50,000 floating eggs per pound of body weight, and each male releases millions of sperm in the vicinity. The eggs that get fertilized hatch in about 30 hours.

It’s a lonely, perilous world these youngsters face. When the tiny tuna, only 0.1 inch long, begins its life in the marine world of fish-eat-fish, its parents are long gone. The mortality rate is staggering.

Although not many tuna hatchlings make it to maturity, not many have to. Of the millions, only two need to reach adulthood to keep the tuna population stable.

This type of reproduction may seem easy on the parents, but the cost is high.

Producing millions of eggs and sperm at each spawning requires tremendous amounts of energy.

At the opposite extreme are sharks, which produce fewer eggs and less sperm but use considerable energy giving their offspring a head start.

All sharks have internal fertilization, meaning the males deliver sperm directly inside the female through extensions of their pelvic fins. In many species, the female retains her eggs inside her body until they hatch, then gives birth.

Some kinds of sharks, such as sand tigers, threshers, makos and maybe great white sharks, have a unique way of nourishing their unborn pups.

One embryo remains in the mother’s body, eating its later-arriving siblings. The young of these sharks have the advantage of entering the world already fairly large.

Most sharks found in Hawaii have a more familiar way of feeding their unborn babies. A tube, called a pseudo-umbilicus, connects each embryo to the mother’s tissue. When the embryos are large enough to survive, the little sharks are born.

Between these extreme reproductive labors lie variations as vast as the ocean itself:

 Flying fish lay eggs bearing sticky threads that attach to floating seaweed. This natural cover likely gives hatchlings more protection than they have simply floating free in the open ocean.

 Pipefish and seahorses are a human female fantasy. In these fish, it is the males who become pregnant. The female deposits her eggs into the male’s stomach pouch, then takes off. The distended male incubates the eggs for 10 to 50 days, after which his tiny babies pop out.

In seahorses, the youngsters immediately head to the surface for a gulp of air, which helps them swim upright.

 Cardinalfish are also a female dream-come-true as far as the work goes. During the spawning season, females lay masses of eggs. Males fertilize them, then collect them in their mouths, holding them until they hatch. Sometimes the males’ mouths are so full of eggs, they can’t close their jaws completely.

 Then there are the female wrasses and parrotfish that get tired of all that egg-laying and simply turn into males. Many wrasse species spawn in groups, releasing eggs and sperm in a rapid upward rush. I’ve watched this happening and it looks like pure fish ecstasy. Procreative labor does have its rewards.