Monthly Archives: September 2013

Cleaner wrasses exfoliate, pick parasites from others

Published September 30, 2013 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2013 Susan Scott

A striped cleaner wrasse in Raiatea nibbles on Susan Scott’s leg. ©2013 Susan Scott

I never imagined that having furry, shedding legs would provide me with a unusual marine animal experience, but that’s the fun of the ocean. You never know what’s going to happen.

One day, while snorkeling in about five feet of water, I stopped to photograph a clownfish in an anemone. I placed the tips of my fins on the seafloor rubble and held very still.

As I watched the clownfish through the viewfinder, I felt a tickle on my shin and then a painful little tug. A 4-inch-long cleaner wrasse was nibbling my skin and pulling my hairs. Apparently I had planted myself in the middle of a wrasse-cleaning station.

This was not an exceptionally bold fish. Cleaner wrasses are common reef fish that make their living picking off mucus, parasites and dead skin from fish, and apparently sometimes off people. The wrasses also eat growth from turtle shells, pick scraps from shark lips and clean the teeth of open-mouthed moray eels.

Fish book photos often show cleaner wrasses poking their pointy snouts inside the gills of grateful-looking fish.

The wrasses’ customers seem to love the service, flocking to the wrasse cleaning stations usually held in an overhang or indentation of the reef.

Often two, and sometimes up to five, cleaner wrasses work a station together. The customers wait patiently, sometimes even lining up one behind the other. When it’s their turn, the fish assume postures that seems to say, “A little higher and to the left, please. Ah, yes, that’s it.”

The cleaner wrasse gets a meal, and the fish gets a spa treatment.

Hawaii hosts one endemic cleaner wrasse, a yellow and purple beauty seen commonly on our reefs.


Hawaiian Cleaner Wrasse, bottom center. Courtesy Scott R. Davis

The South Pacific hosts five species.

All are about 4 inches long, and like all wrasses, they change sex.

Cleaner wrasses begin life as females, and between 1 and 3 years old, depending on the need in the community, they change to males. Each male in a vicinity spawns with up to 12 females.

I’ve been home only a day, and already I’m reminiscing fondly about my two-month voyage through the Society Islands. It seems that nearly everything I do reminds me of some part of that trip.

Even shaving my legs.

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

©2013 Susan Scott

When sailing life gets old, adventure renews spirits

Published September 23 2013 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2013 Susan Scott

ISLE TIPAEMAU, FRENCH POLYNESIA » “Sail or sell?” That was the question a young couple we met in the Tua­mo­tus said they asked each other every morning during their voyage through the South Pacific.

We fellow sailors all laughed, but we knew that they were only half joking. There are days on a boat when all you want to do is hang a “for sale” sign on the bow, fly home and get back to normal life.

I had such a day recently off the island of Tahaa when I ran Honu into a coral head.

Craig had decided to paddle his stand-up surfboard to an anchorage ahead while I drove the boat there. I was following the reef edge when a jutting finger of coral took me by surprise. Crunch! Honu’s keel struck so hard the boat stopped cold.

I was able to back off the reef using the engine, and later we discovered that I had only scraped off bottom paint. Still, I felt awful. Not only could my crash have put a hole in the fiberglass hull and sunk the boat, but I surely killed some of the marine animals I so admire.

Anchoring in tight spots in stormy weather is another time that “sell” can trump “sail.” Last week, during gusty tradewind conditions, Craig and I tucked Honu behind this little crescent island off Raia­tea to wait it out.

“Think we’re OK for the night?” Craig asked as we watched Honu swing between coral heads.

“Why not?” I said. “We’ve been fine here all day.”

Why not? Because boats at anchor tend to go bad at night when you can’t see past the rails to make it right.

Sure enough, waiting until we were sound asleep, Honu swung into a coral head with a sickening crunch. We leaped from bed, our hearts pounding.

The bump was light enough that it did no damage to the rudder, nor, hopefully, to the coral. But hauling up the anchor and dropping it again in a new place in the middle of a blustery moonless night was no fun at all.

Another “sell” moment comes when I’m up to here with salt. Limited fresh water means clammy clothes and crystal-lined dishes since we wash most everything in seawater. And even those items we try to keep isolated, such as pillows and blankets, eventually get salt sprayed and stay damp.

But every time I think seriously about selling Honu, something happens that turns me around. Whether it’s the sight of Bora Bora’s jagged volcanic peaks jutting from its turquois lagoon, a school of 3-foot-long needlefish striking prey while I watch from the deck, or a humpback whale rising just feet from Honu’s stern, I remember that this sailing thing is not a beach vacation. It’s a marine adventure.

Having marine adventures, and sharing them in this column, keeps me fit, makes me learn new things and gives me new horizons to aim for. Not many vehicles offer such gifts.

I’ll be back on Oahu in a week, and I know from past experience that for a while I will love driving my car that goes where I steer it and stays parked where I left it. I will also actually enjoy doing laundry and washing dishes in my home that can’t sink. And then I’ll start planning the next leg of this voyage west.

Sail or sell? Definitely sail. But not until I get my fill of long, hot showers.

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

©2013 Susan Scott

Picture-perfect anemone triggers happy thoughts

Published September 16, 2013 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2013 Susan Scott

A pink anemone with tan tentacles is home to a damselfish, peeking out on the upper right. ©2013 Scott R. Davis

UTUROA, RAIATEA, French Polynesia >> In 2006 I spent two weeks here aboard my 37-foot ketch, Honu, waiting for friends to arrive for a voyage to Australia. After hours of boat work each day, I would climb over the breakwater, don my mask and fins and go snorkeling among the coral heads.

That reef was my magic carpet, transporting me from sweltering boat chores to a fairy-tale landscape that reminded me why I was there. Among the wonders was an anemone with tan tentacles rising from its bright pink disc about 3 feet in diameter. The anemone waved in rhythm to the sea as a dozen or so three-spot damselfish darted in and out of its tentacles.

Anemones are close relatives of corals, and like those varied species, some pack a powerful sting.

The stinging cells of the types of anemones that harbor clown fish and other kinds of damselfish aren’t strong enough to hurt healthy human hands.

Gently I touched my anemone’s 2-inch-long tentacles, which felt like tiny, narrow water balloons. The resident damselfish dived for cover, the anemone wiggled and my fingers felt fine.

When my friend Scott arrived with a new underwater camera, off we went to find the anemone. I tickled its tentacles, and the creature curled up a portion of its bright pink underside, practically posing for a photo.

Back on the boat we found bad news. Scott’s new camera had flooded. It was dead, but its memory card lived, recording one good anemone shot.

Later, Scott framed the image and hung it in his Hawaii apartment, where it generated fond memories of the disappointing camera, the amazing marine life of the Society Islands and a remarkable summer of sailing. When I visited Scott two months ago in his current home in Oakland, Calif., there hung the anemone picture, still conjuring up stories about good times with old friends.

Last week I went snorkeling off the same marina, and to my utter delight there was our anemone, looking all plump and healthy and clinging to the same rock.

Running into my old friend shouldn’t have surprised me so. Giant anemones don’t usually move from their home base and can live for a century.

I’ve been sailing in the Society Islands for six weeks and am a tad weary of boat life. Once again, though, the anemone reminded me of why I’m here.

It also generated another story. I hope this lovely carpet continues to work its magic for decades to come.

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

©2013 Susan Scott

Sharp teeth, aggressive ways turn triggerfish into a terror

The titan triggerfish defends itself with sharp teeth. ©2013 Susan Scott

The titan triggerfish defends itself with sharp teeth. ©2013 Susan Scott

TAHAA, FRENCH POLYNESIA » Here in the Society Islands, I swim with black-tipped reef sharks, free-dive on giant moray eels and float inches above venomous, spine-waving sea urchins, all without worry.But when I come face to face with a titan triggerfish, I pay attention. Snorkelers and divers do not mess with these mamas.

Triggerfish get their name from a fin on the back that the fish can raise and lock in place with a shorter second fin.At the first sign of danger or to bed down for the night, the triggerfish ducks into a hole in the reef, raises its trigger and locks in.

Years ago a triggerfish researcher told me a memorable story.Wondering how strong the spines were on a reef triggerfish (known in Hawaii as the humuhumu­nukunukuapuaa) and how long the fish would keep its trigger up when threatened, he reached into the hole, grasped the body and pulled. And pulled.The fish died locked in.

The researcher did his experimental tugging from the tail end because a triggerfish’s other defense is a pair of strong jaws and 14 chisel-sharp teeth.

Triggerfish use their formidable teeth to crunch up snails, crabs and sea urchins. Females also use their teeth to defend their fertilized eggs.

Among damselfish, blennies and some other reef fish, the males defend nests.Male triggerfish, however, have harems, making egg protection at each site impossible.

Offspring defense is therefore left to the females, which, like all mothers, take the job seriously.Get close to an egg patch, and female triggerfish of all species will charge and bite.

Such high security requires high energy, but guard duty doesn’t last long.Female triggerfish lay eggs and males fertilize them at dawn. The larvae hatch the next night.

The well-named titan triggerfish, not found in Hawaii, grows up to 30 inches long.This beefy giant is more than twice the size of Hawaii’s common triggerfish.

It’s easy for snorkelers and divers to know where a triggerfish’s eggs lay.Get too close and a titan triggerfish female will make a high-speed bluff charge or two before she bites a leg or attacks a camera.

After coming face to face with the teeth-baring titan triggerfish in this photo, I heeded her unmistakable message. I left the area to snorkel with safer reef residents, sharks, eels and urchins.

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

©2013 Susan Scott

Reef flat stymies efforts to reach Tetiaroa’s shore

Published September 2, 2013 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2013 Susan Scott

Society Islands, French Polynesia » My crew (husband Craig, niece Sarah and friend Brian)
and I decided to sail Honu to Marlon Brando’s island, Tetiaroa. Even if we
couldn’t get ashore, we wanted to see the atoll.

Upon arriving, we found three tourist catamarans tied to buoys attached to the ocean floor. One of the friendly captains let Honu share a mooring, a huge flat float labeled “Brando.”

After tying up, we watched waves break over the reef flat a few feet wide. The cruising guide was correct, we thought. There will be no going ashore here.

A moment later, however, we watched astonished as a catamaran skipper, standing in his dinghy with one hand on thebowline, the other on the outboard handle and a cigarette dangling from his lips, zoomed straight toward that killer reef.

He waited for the swell to hump up over the coral shelf, goosed the engine and rode the white water as it rumbled over the flat. He was in. Minutes later, he was out again, jumping the reef wave with several tourists in the boat.

If this aquatic cowboy could get a dinghy in and out with such ease, surely we could swim in and out with masks and fins. Right?

Wrong. Craig went first but the outflow at the outer edge was such that he couldn’t get close enough to body­surf in. And then we spotted another catamaran worker in mask and snorkel walking on the reef flat 100 yards away.

OK, we would walk in, then. Snorkeling to the spot, we approached the break. What we failed to notice, however, was that the guy wore reef shoes.

As I tumbled in over the reef, I lost one of my new floating fins, which disappeared in the white water. I tried to stand. A wave knocked me over. Coral scraped my elbow and the toes of my bare foot.

Finally, all four of us were inside the break, panting, adjusting our masks and snorkeling in the calm clear water with dozens of yellow-banded pipefish. I had arrived in a pipefish haven.

An hour later, I plunged into those breaking waves rolling across the reef flat and made it back to Honu. And there on the deck lay my lost fin. Smiling, the skipper of our catamaran neighbor flashed me a shaka sign.

“I would call that a successful adventure,” Craig said as he examined bleeding elbows and toes. “No lost gear and minimal lost skin.”

After Marlon Brando died in 2005, his family gave developers rights to build an eco-resort on the atoll’s main island. The Brando hotel is slated to open in 2014.

Next time I’m in the Society Islands, I may follow my cruising guide’s advice: “If you want to go to Tetiaroa,” the author writes, “fly there.”

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

©2013 Susan Scott