Monthly Archives: October 1998

Spooky night dive rivals Halloween chills and thrills

Published October 26, 1998 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1998 Susan Scott

Halloween is the time of year people invest a lot of energy and money into getting scared.

We don uncomfortable masks and bulky outfits, then creep down dark corridors of haunted houses waiting for monsters to leap out and scare us half to death.

This is fun because, although the fear feels real, we know in our hearts we’re actually quite safe.

To me, the whole thing is akin to night diving.

I remember my first night dive vividly, and that memory still gives me chicken skin worthy of any Halloween fright.

It was a moonless night on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

I was on a live-aboard dive boat and had had marvelous diving all day. Now it was time to do my first night dive.

As I struggled into my cold, clammy wet suit, I peered into the black water. I had seen a sea snake down there that day, and a couple of fearsome-looking moray eels.

Both my shoulders and heart slumped as the dive master deposited my tank onto my back.

“Here,” he said, handing me a chemical light stick. “Tuck this into your mask strap after you get in.”

With shaky fingers, I fastened my weight belt around my waist, lowered my mask and watched the others jump in.

I knew if I hesitated one moment longer, I could never muster the courage to leap into that dark, spooky water. I stepped off the rail.

The water was cold and my mask popped off. After some sputtering and fumbling, I finally got organized enough to shine my dive light into the water beneath me.

I know this sounds silly, but I was shocked that I could see nothing on either side of that narrow line of light.

I jerked the flashlight right, then left. Why, a great white shark could be right behind me and I would never know it, I thought, knowing that the odds of this were about the same as having Dracula bite my neck.

While I was still waving my dive light all over the place, I suddenly noticed that all the other glow-in-the-dark sticks were rapidly dimming. My second fright of the night was occurring: The other divers were leaving me.

I yanked my purge cord and down I went.

Ahead of me, all I could see of my companions were disembodied glow sticks bobbing like tiny, greenish ghosts.

I was so intent upon staying close to these people, I could barely look around. Occasionally, however, I would shine my dive light under a ledge or into a crevice.

Once, I spotted a glob of mucus about the size of a football.

Leaning into the hole, I soon recognized a parrotfish snoozing inside this sleeping bag of slime. Each night, these fish produce copious amounts of mucus, then rest in the center. Apparently, the substance masks the smell of the fish from would-be predators.

For the umpteenth time, I circled my light in the void in front of me, then flashed it over my shoulder.

I wished that I, too, could secrete a protective coat of goo around myself and take a nap.

As we headed back toward the boat, I looked closely at the white stuff in the water that had been reflecting off my light.

It was billions of tiny, wiggling worms.

Countless animals live on, in and around the Great Barrier Reef, and these larvae were some of their offspring.

Knowing this didn’t help.

When I saw my wet suit covered with the creepy things, I bolted up the ladder.

Safely on the deck of the boat, my anxieties fell away with my gear.

I pulled on my warm sweats and sat back, enjoying a peaceful, post-adrenaline glow.

“Good dive?” the captain asked.

“Great dive,” I beamed.

Getting a little scared is fun, especially when it’s safe — and always when it’s over.

Happy Halloween.

 

Eye an octopus, tail an eel at Maui Ocean Center

Published October 12, 1998 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1998 Susan Scott

My marine biologist friend gave a talk with a book-signing recently at a Maui bookstore.

“I’ll be there,” I told her the evening before. “I’m going to check out the new aquarium first, then I’ll come.”

I missed her entire event.

But I had a good excuse, one my friend accepted cheerfully: The aquarium was so wonderful, I couldn’t bear to rush through it. I spent most of the day there.

The fun of Maui’s aquarium, called the Maui Ocean Center, starts at the entrance. Perched on the shores of Maalea Bay, the building has swooping curves in the walls, floors and walkways, which wind both indoors and out. The effect is remarkably marine.

Once inside, I was completely hooked. Not only were the large display tanks full of prime Hawaii marine life, but some animals were doing things I had never seen before.

One such behavior came from several Hawaiian Dascyllus, or alo’ilo’i.

These members of the damselfish family change colors as they grow. When young, the 1/2-inch fish are black with a white spot on each side and a brilliant bluish-white bar on the forehead. It’s common to see these striking baby damselfish hiding in the arms of branching corals in calm, shallow waters.

When the fish grow up, they lose their forehead bars, their black bodies lighten to gray, and the white side-spots fade.

When I stopped at a tank to admire these colorful Hawaii natives, I noticed one youngster nestled among a large anemone’s waving tentacles. As I watched, other young alo’ilo’i joined in, and soon five or six of these little black-and-white fish were rolling in and rubbing against the anemone’s stinging appendages.

I had never seen this species do this before. I watched for a long time and remembered seeing orange clownfish, also members of the damselfish family, doing the exact same thing. The clownfish don’t get stung by their anemone buddies, and neither did the Hawaiian Dascyllus.

Apparently, when given an anemone, Hawaii’s damsels like to cuddle up as much as their South Pacific clownfish relatives.

Soon after I left the damsels, I stopped in front of a tank of garden eels. My jaw hung open as I watched one fully emerge from its sandy home and hang in midwater.

Garden eels live in large groups beyond the reef in about 80 feet of water. There, they back into the sand, and stretch from their holes into the current to eat passing plankton. The scene looks like a weird stem garden.

When a diver approaches such an eel patch, the eels duck into the sand, then pop up behind you, like whack-a-moles. It’s a fantastic sight, one that for me has been too rare.

But now here they were. Not only was this the first time I’ve seen garden eels in an aquarium, but it was the first time I’ve seen one emerge completely from its hole.

I moved on, enjoying each exhibit. Even the octopus here sat up and stared me in the eye, something that rarely happens in an aquarium. I later learned this was no accident. Due to some creative glasswork in the octopus’s tank, the creature usually faces forward.

Maui’s new aquarium does have some bugs to work out. Fish identification signs are sorely lacking, and residents need family passes to afford this pricey place. Also the superb restaurant and gift shop are off limits to non-aquarium users, a policy that doesn’t make sense.

That said, I loved my visit to the Maui Ocean Center. This novel facility is shaped like the ocean, blends in with the ocean, and made me feel part of the ocean.

There’s nothing like it on Oahu — but there should be.