Monthly Archives: May 2013

Tuamotos’ marine life vies for attention, but worms win

Published May 27, 2013 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2013 Susan Scott

Blue Christmas Tree Worm by Tim Sheerman-Chase used under Creative Commons License.

What’s this? A big orange cushion star with its own pair of shrimp! I must write about them.

But oh, the fish! I have to describe humbug damselfish. Shrimp gobies. Lemonpeel angelfish.

Then again, the giant clams glow so brilliantly in the noontime sun they practically hurt my eyes. They must be my first subject.

But how can I skip the multiple sharks that are almost begging to be better understood?

To clear my mind of its saltwater delirium, back on my sailboat, Honu, I rinsed off with some precious fresh water, opened my books and made a commitment to share the joy of worms.

During an early snorkeling excursion, I found a stand of coral as splotched with color as the brightest aloha shirt. So full of tropical flowers was the coral head that I could barely make out its lime green base.

As I swam nearer I saw the creatures responsible for the lovely garden: a dense colony of Christmas tree worms.

These tropical marine creatures look more like plants from a Dr. Seuss book than worms. Their tentacles’ shape is similar to that of stubby pine trees except the branches spiral around a center trunk and come in a stunning array of colors. Some are solid reds, yellows, blues and greens; some wind around in stripes and others are almost plaid.

Mature Christmas tree worms’ tentacles are as big around at the base as they are tall, from 1 to 2 inches here in the South Pacific. Hawaii’s Christmas tree worms grow to only about a half-inch high and across.

The worm begins life as a tiny top-shaped larva that swims, drifts and eats other plankton. After a few weeks of wandering, the maturing worm settles down on a living coral head. There it secretes a calcium carbonate tube around its body. This kills the coral polyps below.

The worm keeps up with new coral growing around it by secreting, in rings, new “floors” to its home base.

These worms never leave their dwellings. To get food and oxygen, the worm holds its pair of treelike tentacles into the current, snaring tiny organisms that drift past.

These gorgeous appendages are supersensitive to light and nearby water pressure. Get close enough, as I do when taking pictures, and the worm withdraws its branches in a flash, slamming its door shut. (Sorry, the satellite phone I use to send my stories from sea can’t do photos.) The door is a round hard shell similar to that of a snail’s operculum, commonly called a cat’s eye.

Seconds later the worm peeks out. If the coast is clear, the two tentacle trees emerge like a fast-frame film of a flower blooming.

The sight is so inspiring it makes me want to design my own Christmas tree worm aloha shirt — including, of course, cushion stars, shrimp, gobies, angelfish, clams and sharks.

Christmas Tree Worm. By Nhobgood Nick Hobgood (Own work)
[CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean
Watch”, for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser,

©2013 Susan Scott

Childhood dream realized at anchor in Tuamoto isles

Published May 20, 2013 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2013 Susan Scott

KAUEHI, Tuamoto Archipelago » With laundry done, the galley loaded with mangoes and a crew change (my husband, Craig, replaced friends John and Alex), it was time for my 37-foot boat Honu to sail on.

I was sad to leave the Marquesas after a year of planning and dreaming of those islands. But as stunning as their volcanic jungles are, the Marquesas were not my dream place. The islands’ steep drop-offs leave few places for coral reefs to grow, and river runoff clouds the bays’ waters.

No, heaven for me was the teeming Tuamotos.

Not that I had ever been there. When I was 12 years old in Wisconsin, I checked out of my town library the book “Kon Tiki,” Thor Heyerdahl’s account of his 4,300-mile raft voyage from Peru to the Tuamoto Archipelago. The story didn’t speak to me, it roared as loud as the 10-foot surf breaking on the coral reef in front of Honu.

The Tuamoto Archipelago is a chain of 76 atolls lying between the Marquesas and Tahiti Nui. At 1,000 miles long, the group is similar in length and layout to Hawaii’s Northwest chain, but with a significant difference. Here dense stands of coconut palms cover the islands that ring the lagoons.

The towering trees are important to sailors because we can see them from a safe distance. Our radar mounted high on the mast detected the palms, at night, about 16 miles away. After day broke, Craig and I could see the trees eight miles ahead.

At the palm’s bases, and in spaces between the atoll’s islands, we watched, soberly, as 10-foot surf broke like white fireworks against Kauehi Atoll’s encircling reef. Shipwrecks lying here and there are graphic reminder of the atolls’ name of old: the Dangerous Isles.

With GPS, radar and depth sounders, sailing to the atolls is safer, but far from risk-free. A skipper must sail close enough at night to make it to the narrow, current-driven channels in sunlight, crucial for maneuvering into the wave-protected but coral-strewn lagoon.

The four-day passage from the Marquesas to the Tuamotos started fine but the last 24 hours was a nightmare for me. Tradewinds began to blow hard, causing the sea to resemble that of Hawaii’s channels. The autopilot couldn’t steer in such steep waves and stints at the wheel left my hands and arms aching. Waves broke in the cockpit and sprayed the cabins, salting our bed, sofas and even my precious books.

All that plus killer reefs.

I was so miserable and anxious I considered canceling the Tuamoto leg and going straight to Papeete.

Fortunately, I now share the helm with my lifetime-sailor husband. Craig generously took my shifts (meaning he steered all night), singing boisterously for hours on end while drinking salty coffee and reassuring me that all was well.

Today Honu is anchored in a calm lagoon of clear turquoise water behind a palm-studded, white-sand island.

After getting the Tuamoto bug over a half-century ago, I am finally there.

“Purgatory was a bit damp,” said one of Kon Tiki’s crew after washing into a Tuamoto atoll. “But heaven is more or less as I’d imagined it.” I agree.

Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean
Watch”, for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser,

©2013 Susan Scott

Adult jacks bump to grind the juveniles of their kind

Published May 13, 2013 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2013 Susan Scott

NUKU HIVA, Marquesas Islands » I have so many fish under my sailboat, Honu, that I can hear them from inside the cabins. At first the sounds were gentle splashes, but at dawn several loud bangs against the hull sent me flying out of my bunk to see what I hit.

Except the boat wasn’t moving. It’s at anchor in a calm bay.

Peering into the water from the back of the boat, I saw the astonishing source of the crashes. Five 3-foot-long silvery jacks, called ulua in Hawaii, were banging into the boat during strikes on a school of baby jacks trying to hide under the hull.

The whole thing started several days earlier with a community of gooseneck barnacles, offshore crustaceans whose larvae can stick to just about any floating object. It’s common to see these white-shelled, almond-shaped barnacles with the fleshy stalks on bottles, driftwood and plastic debris washed onto Hawaii’s windward beaches.

Before I left Mexico, I had the boat’s hull cleaned of barnacles. After 26 days, though, Honu arrived in the Marquesas Islands with several hundred goosenecks attached to her hull at the waterline. (Anti­-fouling paint kept them off the hull.)

Much as I admire the hardy creatures, barnacle bodies slow boats considerably, and Honu is slow at the best of times. Her top speed is a whiplashing 8 mph. The goosenecks had to go.

My crew member Alex volunteered to help me clean them off, so with apologies to the barnacles, we jumped into the deliciously warm water and started scrubbing. Seconds after the barnacles started falling, baby jacks appeared.

“Over here!” I imagined the little fish calling to one another. “It’s raining pupu.”

As we worked, several hundred juvenile jacks gathered beneath the boat, hovering around the propeller and shaft, in the rungs of the boarding ladder and under the rubber dinghy. The bravest of the 4- to 5-inch-long fish swam close to our arms and faces, darting to catch the detached barnacles. I swear those fish were smiling.

Viewing the boat as shelter and a source of free food, the school stayed there, making pleasant little splashing sounds as they changed positions within their school.

And then the big boys found them.

Large ulua are scarce in the main Hawaiian Islands due to overfishing, but here in the Marquesas, as well as in the protected Northwest Hawaiian Islands, fast, strong ulua are abundant.

What a privilege it was to watch these magnificent fish hunt. The five silver-blue ulua below my boat seemed to work as a team, using speedy charges with sudden direction changes to confuse and separate their prey. As the school panicked and broke up, the hunters nabbed the stragglers.

In those drives, the big jacks occasionally slammed into the boat. I had no idea that ulua would smash solid objects during their breakneck hunts. Later I read that ulua have been known to grab and rip away divers’ snorkel tips and fins, and also ram reef crevices during a drive, coming out with coral scrapes on their skin.

Before I sailed to the Marquesas, I didn’t know jacks. I’m learning fast.

Ulua in Hanauma Bay, Oahu, Hawaii

Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean
Watch”, for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser,

©2013 Susan Scott

Long, arduous voyage dims against Marquesas’ dazzle

Published May 6, 2013 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2013 Susan Scott

TAIOHAE BAY, NUKU HIVA, Marquesas Islands » Twenty-six days after leaving Mexico on my 37-foot sailboat, Honu, I dropped anchor in a bay so stunningly beautiful I felt I had landed in the middle of a movie set. Jagged mountains separated by jungled valleys surround a former volcanic crater filled with warm blue water, bright tropical fish and about 40 resting sailboats. A tiny storybook town (population about 1,200) filled with friendly people lines the bay.

But this is no make-believe place. It’s the administrative center of the islands we call the Marquesas, the most northerly group of French Polynesia.

The Marquesas consist of six large and six small islands. Compared with Hawaii, though, the Marquesas are all small, the 12 island totaling only 492 square miles. The land area of Hawaii is 6,425 square miles.

All the Marquesas Islands are ancient volcanic mountains rising steeply from the sea to about 4,000 feet. As I sailed in, the jutting basalt columns of Nuku Hiva’s windward side reminded me of Easter Island statues. Here the wind, rain and sun have carved their own colossal moai.

With their Spanish-sounding name, I always wondered whether the Marquesas had a Spanish flavor to them. But no. The Spanish link is in name only, bestowed by a 1595 Spanish explorer. He named the group after his sponsor, a marquess married to the viceroy of Peru.

Two centuries later other European explorers came upon the islands, and in 1842 France declared them a French protectorate.

Today the Marquesas are a charming mix of French and Polynesian culture. Both baguettes and breadfruit accompany lunch plates. You buy tapa cloth and pandanus hats with Polynesian francs.

French is the official language, but many locals also speak Marquesan, a language that sounds similar to Hawaiian but with significant differences. For instance, there is no “L” sound in Marquesan. Even so, the sights and sounds of the ancient Polynesian culture here feel so familiar to this 30-year Hawaii resident that even though I can’t understand a thing people are saying, I feel oddly at home.

The fish and seabirds make me feel welcome, too.

Soon after I checked in with immigration, I went snorkeling. From my little dinghy, I watched fairy terns hover over the water fishing, while above them soared my favorite pirates, magnificent frigate birds.

Back-flipping from the dinghy into the deliciously cool water near some shoreline coral heads, I found myself in the middle of a school of flagtails, called ahole­ahole in Hawaiian.

During the day these silver 12-inch-long fish rest in dense schools near reefs. I kept my movements slow and easy, and they allowed me to swim among them.

A moment later I got a thrilling reminder that I am not at home. A dozen or so neon damselfish passed below. The blue of these South Pacific fish is so bright, they look plugged in.

Being one with the fish hours after arriving proved to me that this adventure is going to be well worth the tremendous effort it took to get here. I will never star in a movie, but by sailing here I’ve done better. I’m the star of my own dream.