Monthly Archives: December 1997

So, why the heck are they called sperm whales?

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

THANKS to e-mail and, I hear from a lot more readers than I used to. Here are a few recent questions and comments:

A reader named Dan writes: “Mahalo for the interesting column on the sperm whale (Dec. 15). You provided many interesting details on the creatures’ physiology, diet, history and commercial uses.

“What’s glaring in its omission, however, is why in God’s name is this creature called a SPERM whale? Inquiring minds deserve to know.”

Indeed they do.

Much of the bulk of a sperm whale’s enormous head is taken up by a barrel-shaped organ called the case. Inside the case is a clear, liquid oil that when cooled, hardens to resemble white paraffin.

Because whalers thought this stuff looked like whale sperm, they called it spermaceti and named the animal a sperm whale.

Spermaceti was used as lubricant and lamp fuel until around the end of the 19th century when petroleum products replaced it.

Another reader, Charles, wrote of an experience he had at Ala Moana Beach Park: Last November, lifeguard Helene Phillips “scooped a strange object into a Styrofoam cup at the water’s edge. She handed it to lifeguard Bill Goding, who called us over. The thing was one piece, not broken off something else, and had no obvious breaks or ruptures.

“It was maybe 15 inches long and an inch or so in diameter, translucent, jellyfishlike, but stronger and didn’t break when held by one end.

“It had no internal organs, but was suspiciously organic-looking…. No, it wasn’t a condom, though a condom closed at both ends and filled with clear Jell-O would be a fair description. What’s your guess?”

A good find!

Although I didn’t see the creature, and I don’t know why it would be closed at both ends, the thing sounds much like a pyrosome.

Pyrosomes are gelatinous, free-swimming relatives of sea squirts. Brilliantly luminescent (pyrosome means “fire bodies”), these white creatures have an opening at one end like a condom.

Individual members of a pyrosome colony lie in the cylinder’s jellylike walls with their mouths facing out. Tiny beating threads in the mouths move water and nutrients inside the tube. This not only provides food and oxygen for the individuals but also propels the colony through the water.

The length of these colonial animals ranges from an inch or so to over 30 feet long. A photo in one of my books shows a scuba diver examining one 3 feet in diameter, and he’s almost completely inside the animal.

My own experience with a pyrosome was with a smaller one, about 2 feet long, in the Galapagos Islands. I was descending on a drift dive when a pyrosome floated into my face and flashed its brilliant white light. I was so startled, I didn’t have the sense to grab it for a closer examination.

When a pyrosome encounters an object, a wave of light moves along its body, which frightens potential predators.

It has been suggested that the 1964 reports of a torpedo attack in the Gulf of Tonkin, which escalated American involvement in Vietnam, might have been pyrosomes, common in the area.

Now there’s a sobering thought.

On a happier note, I’ll end my column year with a comment from an Australian reader, Dieter: “A yabbie in Australia is a small crayfish, not the giant monster you wrote about (Aug. 11). Yabbies live in holes along the banks of any billabong.

“A much larger crustacean called the Murray crab can be found in the Murray River. Both Murray crabs and yabbies are good bush tucker-fair dinkum!”

Oh, I’ll never learn Australian!

Thanks for writing, everyone. Your letters made it a great Oceanwatch year.


Strong winds push weird glob onto Kailua Beach

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

WHEN the strong tradewinds were blowing our doors off a couple of weeks ago, I couldn’t wait to get my work done so I could go to Kailua Beach.

No, not to windsurf.

I went to Kailua Beach for one of my other favorite pastimes — to beachcomb.

When the wind blows onto shore for days like that, the beach has great potential for bearing ocean treasures.

Shivering in the gale-force wind, I headed down the beach, stooping and sorting through heaps of stranded stuff.

An hour later, I picked up a pink jellylike mass.

But it was nothing like any jellyfish I knew.

Rectangular in shape, the thing was a foot long, several inches wide, and almost elastic in texture.

I put it in a cup and went home. There, I paged through my books, looking for a clue.


I called the Waikiki Aquarium. It was Saturday. The people who might know what I had found weren’t there.

Several times that weekend, I examined the mysterious pink thing. I laid it out and poked at the firm bubbles in its jelly wall. They did not break, and in spite of my abuse, the whole thing remained intact.

Finally, on Monday, I reached Carol Hopper, education director at the aquarium. Before I even finished my description, she said, “Sounds like frogfish eggs.”

When I brought the thing to the aquarium, it was confirmed: I had found the egg mass of a frogfish. The people there knew this immediately because the aquarium’s frogfish produce these masses regularly.

EVENTUALLY, an aquarium biologist told me, the jelly breaks up and the eggs (my “bubbles”) hatch. Unfortunately, the tiny hatchlings don’t live long in a tank. No one knows why.

Besides laying weird eggs, frogfish are some of the most bizarre fish on Hawaii’s reefs.

Looking more like a piece of coral than a fish, frogfish can change the colors of their chunky bodies to almost perfectly match their surroundings.

Bearing no sharp spines or poison, these fish rely totally on such camouflage for catching prey and for defense.

The one time I saw a frogfish, I was scuba diving near the blow-hole on Oahu.

The fish was so invisible that my diving buddy could not see it even when I pointed it out just inches from her face.

But frogfish don’t always blend in like that.

When their background is changed, the fish sometimes turn a bright yellow, orange or black, and stay that way for a long time. You can see this in the aquarium’s frogfish.

ANOTHER name for a frogfish is anglerfish. This comes from the fleshy fishing pole and lure the fish dangles over its mouth. When prey comes to inspect, the frogfish engulfs it with lightning speed.

Frogfish get around by jet propulsion, taking water in through their big mouths then forcing it out through the gills.

I’m still thrilled by my windy day beach find.

Not only did I find something I didn’t know about, but it turned out to be something unusual and interesting.

It’s unlikely shark killed whale at North Shore

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

Last week, a 20-foot-long juvenile sperm whale washed up dead at a beach park on the North Shore.

Biologists said they didn’t know the cause of death, but that didn’t stop people from speculating. One observer said, “I think a shark did it, because you have plenty of sharks out there.”

Good guess but probably wrong. Sharks aren’t that stupid. Because to mess with a healthy sperm whale, even a young one, is asking for big trouble.

Sperm whales are the largest of all toothed whales. Males grow up to 60 feet long and weigh up to 58 tons. Female sperm whales are smaller, growing to “only” 37 feet long.

Although they are big and have a mouth full of enormous teeth, sperm whales also find safety in numbers. These are sociable animals, usually traveling in groups of up to 50. During peak breeding season, from late winter to late summer, sperm whales can gather in groups of up to 150 whales.

Such groups consist either of bachelor bulls, or of females and their young accompanied by one or more large males. When not traveling with their harems, these large males roam the world’s oceans alone.

And roam they do. Sperm whales cover a tremendous area, traveling from the tropics all the way to the ice packs of both Northern and Southern hemispheres.

They can also be found at a wide range of depths, from the surface, where the spray from their blow hole is distinctively angled, to 10,000 feet down.

What are sperm whales doing at those cold, dark depths? Eating giant squid and octopuses. These whales sometimes bear round sucker marks on their skin from their battles with the big cephalopods. A 36-foot long squid was once found in a sperm whale’s stomach.

Although squid and octopuses are sperm whales’ main food, an amazing variety of other things have been found in their stomachs: seals, lobsters, sponges, crabs, jellyfish, rocks, sand, glass fishing floats, coconuts, wood, apples, fishing line, shoes, and of course, the ubiquitous scourge of the ocean, plastic bags.

Researchers also recovered a 10-foot blue shark from the stomach of a large male.

And that’s why it isn’t likely sharks caused the death of the young Oahu sperm whale. Any whale that can swallow a 36-foot giant squid or a 10-foot shark isn’t likely to fall prey, or let its offspring fall prey, to a shark, even a big one.

Sure, the carcass of this 20-foot-long whale had several shark bites on it, and sharks were spotted in the vicinity. But that’s normal for any carcass drifting in the ocean. Sharks are part of nature’s recycling system.

Even though sharks may not be much of a threat to sperm whales, the whales do have two formidable enemies: killer whales and people.

Since killer whales can eat just about anything they come across, they occasionally attack and kill a sperm whale.

People once attacked and killed sperm whales relentlessly, but sperm whales didn’t usually go down without a fight. This is, after all, the legendary species that sent sailors flying through the air, smashed their whaleboats and killed Captain Ahab.

Commercial hunting of sperm whales began in 1712 when people discovered that the material in the whales’ heads made good lamp oil. The most intense hunting came during the Yankee whaling era of the 1800s and the factory ship whaling of this century.

The good news is that although certain populations have been depleted, the sperm whale today is the most abundant of all the great whales.

Sperm whales are spotted occasionally around the main islands but are more common in the waters of Hawaii’s northwest chain.

Ancient Hawaiians carved pendants from the teeth of whales that washed ashore but did not hunt sperm whales.

Common sense is best in encounters with whales

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

Confused about what to do if a humpback whale swims up to your boat, surfboard or windsurfer? Join the club.

Several years ago, a few friends and I were sailing back to Oahu from Lanai when the wind suddenly died. It was such a glorious morning, no one wanted to start the noisy, smelly engine. Instead, we pulled down the sails and let the boat drift.

Lying back in the cockpit, my friends and I proceeded to enjoy a peaceful moment on the ocean.

A few minutes later, however, a call from a person on the aft deck startled us from our daydreams. We looked back just in time to see a full-grown humpback whale swim right up to the boat’s stern, then drop down underneath. Astounded, we rushed to the bow and peered over the pulpit, waiting.

Sure, I was nervous. Here was a 40-foot-long, 80,000-pound wild animal swimming directly beneath our 37-foot-long boat. It could rise up and capsize us with little effort.

But as usual, such worry was a waste of time. A moment later, the whale surfaced directly in front of the boat, then kept going.

Either the animal had been simply checking us out or we had been in its path and it had slipped under, rather than around, the obstacle.

After that close encounter, we wondered how to interpret the law about keeping your distance from whales.

This law says that in Hawaiian waters (out to 200 miles from the main islands) you must not approach, by any means, within 100 yards of any humpback whale. Also, you must not, by any act, disrupt the normal behavior of a whale.

What does that mean, exactly? Did we violate both rules out there on our morning drift? What should we have done? What do we do in the future?

Last week, I attended a public meeting on this subject, held by representatives from the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.

There, I told my story. Lifeguards at the meeting told other stories. Soon, it became apparent that the list of possible scenarios is endless, the answers for each case different.

So how do law-abiding animal-lovers decide what’s right when meeting humpback whales at sea?

“Intent is everything,” NMFS law enforcement officer Victor Honda said. “The point is to protect the whales.”

Here are some guidelines for unclear situations:

  • Use common sense. Remember that these wild animals are busy raising young and mating.
  • Don’t engage your propeller if a whale is near your boat and don’t shout to nearby whales. Never jump in the water to swim with passing animals.
  • If you spot a whale nearby, take a moment to assess the situation. Watch for awhile. See what it’s doing, how it’s behaving.

If the animal seems like it’s staying pretty much in one place, or is heading away from you, you can approach it. If you do this, be sure to stop at least 100 yards away.

If you’re within 100 yards, back off if you can do so safely, without disturbing the whale. Otherwise, stay put and be quiet.

How to judge 100 yards? A football field is 100 yards. If you don’t have a sense of that distance, try this: Figure out how many boat (or board) lengths 100 yards is and use that as a guide. For my sailboat, it’s about 9 boat lengths. That’s close enough for excellent viewing.

Humpback whales haven’t always wintered in Hawaiian waters, which leaves open a disturbing possibility: They could choose to go elsewhere. Hopefully, if we treat them with respect, these whales will continue to grace our island waters.

To report violations, call NMSF enforcement, 541-2727 or 879-3699, the U.S. Coast Guard, 541-2500, or the state’s Department of Conservation Resource enforcement, 587-0077.

Graceful eagle ray a joy to watch in island waters

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

Last ast week, while strolling through the Ala Wai Boat Harbor, a movement from the water caught my eye.

To my astonishment, there was a spotted eagle ray gracefully winging its way along the edge of the rocks, nibbling here, tasting there.

The truly amazing thing about this sighting was that the ray was in the scummy, trash-laden water of the inside harbor, nicknamed the Slough of Despond by my boater friend.

But the ray didn’t seem to care about the human garbage floating on the water’s surface. Its only interest was in eating what lay beneath it.

A few days later, I was telling an acquaintance about the unusual sighting.

“An eagle ray? What’s the difference between an eagle and a manta ray?” he asked.

“About 20 feet,” quipped a friend who was listening.

He was right.

But there are other differences, and some similarities, between Hawaii’s manta and eagle rays.

Mantas are, by far, the largest of all rays, growing to 20 feet across and weighing up to 3,000 pounds.

These rays differ from the other kinds in that mantas are the only ones that eat zooplankton, tiny animals that drift freely in the open ocean.

Watching manta rays eat is a sight to behold, and you don’t even have to get wet to do it.

Often, on dark, no-moon nights, the lights of several hotels along the Kona coast attract swarms of plankton, and therefore, mantas.

Swimming forward by flapping their huge pectoral fins, manta rays shovel this plankton into their open mouths using two flaps, one on each side of the mouth.

You can stand on shore and watch, or get into the water for a thrilling close-up view.

Swimming with manta rays doesn’t require much bravery because mantas are gentle, shy creatures that don’t have stingers on their tails.

Their bad reputation is undeserved and comes from old-time sailors who feared them because of their great size.

Unfortunately, the sailors’ dark nickname of devilfish stuck.

In contrast, spotted eagle rays are usually welcomed and admired by everyone who sees them.

These rays grow to about 6 feet across and sometimes swim together in a graceful group as they search the reef and ocean floor for snails, shrimp and crabs.

There are fewer sights more breathtaking than several of these rays together, looking like a formation of sparkling blue and white kites. Even spotting a small one, alone, is thrilling.

Eagle rays have extraordinarily long, thin tails, up to 18 feet long.

These tails have venomous stingers on them, but swimmers or waders rarely get close enough to get stung. Stings from eagle rays are mostly inflicted upon fishermen who haul the thrashing fish from the water by a line or spear.

Speaking of hauling rays from the water, a boat owner who years ago lived in the Ala Wai Harbor told me a sad story. He said people used to spear passing eagle rays for fun, then leave them flopping in the parking lot to die.

He said it happened often, and he believes it’s the reason there are so few rays around now.

Eagle and manta rays are different sizes and different colors, but their gentle natures are similar.

There is nothing to fear from these beautiful, odd-shaped fish.

Stingrays, on the other hand, have a quirk in their lifestyle that makes them harder for us humans to get along with.

Unlike eagle and manta rays, stingrays, when resting, lie motionless on the ocean floor, burying themselves in sand or mud. Getting stepped on by a human wader startles them, to say the least, and they drive their venomous stinger into the offending foot or ankle.

It hurts but is not lethal. Fortunately, stingrays are few and far between in Hawaii.