Monthly Archives: October 2013

Vertical-hanging oarfish renews marvel of the sea

Published October 28, 2013 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2013 Susan Scott

Two weeks ago, several readers emailed me news stories about a snorkeler finding a dead, 18-foot-long oarfish near Santa Catalina Island, Calif. The woman and 15 helpers dragged the enormous fish to the island’s beach for others to see and researchers to study.

Four days later, another oarfish appeared in the news. This one, 14 feet long and also dead, washed up on an Oceanside, Calif., beach about 20 miles from Santa Catalina.

My first reaction was not, “What’s happening to oarfish?” but rather, “What is an oarfish?” But when I Googled the name, I got a surprise: one of my own columns. I wrote about oarfish in 2012.

The reason I forgot was because the subject of that column wasn’t oarfish. It was a review of a fish book I discovered, “Certainly More Than You Wanted to Know About the Fishes of the Pacific Coast: A Postmodern Experience.” The text has since become my favorite reference book because author Milton Love, professor and research biologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, included humor, a nearly unheard of feature in science texts.

While I was paging through the book in 2012, the photo of an oarfish floating vertically in the water column caught my eye, as did Love’s comment about it, which made me smile: “Dude, if your fish is ribbony and has really long posterior dorsal fin rays and really, really long pelvic fin rays, and those rays are bright red, it’s, like, an oarfish.”

This time I read further.

Oarfish live in open water throughout the world’s oceans, swimming from the surface to 5,000 feet. The fish often hang vertically in the water, waving long antennaelike rays on their heads to sense, or perhaps lure, prey. In this head-up position, the fish can probably see potential meals silhouetted against the down-streaming light.

Oarfish have no teeth, and inhale to eat, sucking in krill, fish and squid.

As far as how big these fish get, oarfish are the subjects of typical fish stories. Several news reports said that the fish grow to 56 feet. My college ichthyology textbook, however, says the fish’s maximum length is 26 feet. Love goes a bit bigger at 35 feet, and one of my favorite marine science websites, that of the University of Florida’s Museum of Natural History, reports 36 feet. (See

That’s several surfboards short of 56, but still. Learning that three-story-tall fish hang upright in the water column makes me fall in love with the ocean all over again.

A 36-foot long oarfish weighs about 600 pounds.

If you catch an oarfish, as gill-netters off Baja occasionally do, it seems as if they would have fish meals for months. But no. Love, in his book, explains why: “Scandinavians report that oarfish flesh sucks big time and even dogs won’t eat it. However, I imagine dogs would roll in it, big time.”

After seeing an oarfish swim in the BBC video clip — click here — the oarfish doesn’t look to me like the sea serpent imagined by sailors of old. It looks like streaming ribbons trimming a true gift from the sea. I would roll in an oarfish, too. That I’d remember.

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

©2013 Susan Scott

Kolea’s seasonal journey is a beloved ritual in isles

Published October 21 2013 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2013 Susan Scott

Gracie the Pacific golden plover makes an appearance on Susan Scott’s lanai. The birds, called kolea in Hawaiian, winter in the isles. ©2013 Susan Scott

We Hawaii residents love our kolea, the migratory shorebirds that nest in Alaska in summer and spend winters in the islands.

I use the terms summer and winter loosely because the birds, also called Pacific golden plovers, straddle the seasons, spending only about three months in Alaska. The birds leave Hawaii on or around April 25, usually all heading north within a day or two, and begin returning in early August.

It takes about three nonstop days for the birds to reach their Alaska breeding grounds and nearly four days (against the wind) to get back to Hawaii.

First come the females — pooped, I imagine, from laying four eggs and then chasing after foraging chicks to protect them from Arctic predators such as foxes and jaegers. Males arrive next. Newly fledged juveniles get here last, some as late as October.

Here in Hawaii we sometimes see kolea in the early summer months because if they’re underweight or injured, they can’t make the 3,000-mile nonstop trip over the North Pacific, and therefore sit out the breeding season. Healthy, well-nourished birds (weight: 3 to 4 ounces) make the round-trip flight each year.

The reason we islanders know plovers so well is that individuals return to the same wintering spot year after year. If you have a plover in your yard, get used to it. Kolea have a life span of at least 26 years. My plover, a female I call Gracie after her bal­le­rina­like bearing, showed up a year ago on my lawn, where I tossed her chunks of scrambled egg. She ate so eagerly that I microwaved an egg just for her, keeping it in the fridge to dole out in tiny pieces when she came around. Soon Gracie was prancing onto our tiled lanai, charming my friends and family with her elegant appeal for food, which she received in abundance. Gracie left in April, all plump and golden.

When I got home from Tahiti late last month, there was Gracie touching her beak adorably on my screen door, as if to say, “Got eggs?” For this bold beauty who even allows my gentle old dog to sniff her through the screen, boy, do I have eggs.

To learn more about our Pacific golden plovers, come to Windward Community College tonight at 7, where kolea expert Wally Johnson is giving a free talk and slide show called “Kolea Biology Update, 2013: They Continue to Amaze Us.” This Hawaii Audubon Society and Windward Community College event is open to the public in Room 103 of Hale ‘Akoa­koa.

I wouldn’t miss it for the world. See you there.

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

©2013 Susan Scott

Wana spines offer refuge for tiny domino damselfish

Published October 14, 2013 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2013 Susan Scott

Baby damselfish sheltering among the spines of each of these wana are black with white spots. ©2013 Susan Scott

Interesting, yes, because I have never seen a fish that looked like a pipefish or a trumpet fish hiding among wana spines. I have, however, seen lots of baby damselfish sheltering among those needlelike spines.

While snorkeling in about four feet of water, I spotted several long-spined sea urchins (wana in Hawaiian) with iridescent blue patterns so dazzling in the morning sun that I stopped to take their picture. Only after I downloaded the photos to my computer did I realize that a couple of “spines” had spots on them. Without realizing it, I had photographed two tiny domino damselfish.

The disklike, black-and-white-spotted damselfish that showed up in my picture are common in the South Pacific. Their common name is three-spot or domino damselfish.

Hawaii has its own similar species, called the Hawaiian domino damselfish or Hawaiian dascyllus (pronounced da-SILL-us). (Dascyllus is the scientific name of this damselfish group.)

Domino damselfish swim in small schools on the reefs of Hawaii, the South Pacific and Indian Ocean like perky poker chips, hovering in the water column as they eat passing plankton. The largest are about 4 inches in diameter; the smallest are thumbnail-size.

Juvenile domino damselfish are fun to play with. At the approach of a snorkeler, the entire school rushes into the folds of a branching coral head. First there are dozens of cute little fish in front of you; then there are none.

Looking into the coral’s arms, all you see are pairs of dark eyes peeking out. Hold still a moment and the curious fish venture out. Any fast movement, though, will again send them into hiding.

Domino damselfish will also take cover among crown-of-thorns starfish spines, bury themselves in sea anemone tentacles and seek protection between wana spines.

I don’t know which creature Gordy meant when he wrote that his fish looked like a sea urchin spine, but I think he might have seen a long, narrow shrimp commonly found on wana.

I’ve never spotted these shrimp or anything that looks like a pipefish among wana spines, but you can bet I’ll be looking more carefully in the future. Thanks, Gordy, for the heads-up.

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

©2013 Susan Scott

Storm was full of menace but is now a grand memory

Published October 7, 2013 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2013 Susan Scott

What was your favorite part of the trip?” my husband asked after we left our 37-foot ketch Honu in a Tahitian marina and flew home.

After two months of sailing around the Society Islands, I had trouble choosing. So I asked him to tell me his favorite.

Without hesitation he replied, “The beauty and power of that storm.”

I stared at him. Here I was trying to decide between the tiny shrimp I found on cushion stars and the charming little pipefish with the sea horse heads, and there’s Craig fondly remembering a gale that scared me out of my wits.

Craig didn’t have to tell me which storm he spoke of because we encountered only one. It struck at the end of a 90-mile passage between Hua­hine and Moo­rea. During that overnight trip, wind gusts were up to 25 mph, and squalls prowled the sky like battleships. Honu did well for a cruising boat, sailing against the wind at 4 to 5 mph. It would be a long night of smashing into waves in the heeling boat, but this is typical of beating, a point of sail named well.

Craig, a lifetime sailor who never gets seasick, knew I was feeling queasy and offered to keep watch in the cockpit for the night while I lay below. Since he could steer better than the autopilot in those conditions, he also drove.

As dawn began to break, a flash of lightning had me poking my head out.

“There’s a squall to the south, but we’re fine,” Craig said. “Look. There’s Moo­rea.”

And then Moorea disappeared.

Neither of us had ever seen a storm move with such speed or strike with such ferocity. The wind peaked at 53 mph, driving rain into our faces like tiny needles. Lightning flashed. Thunder boomed. Waves rose like great gray walls, breaking over the decks and into the center cockpit.

“I’m afraid the mainsail will tear,” Craig said, starting the engine. “You’ll have to steer while I take it down.”

Craig crawled to the mast, dropped the sail and in seconds was back in the cockpit, taking the wheel from my white-knuckled hands.

“I’m really scared,” I said, heart pounding.

“We’re fine,” he said. “The boat’s doing well.”

He paused. “And just look at this ocean!”

THE storm raged for three hours. And then, as suddenly as Moo­rea had disappeared, it reappeared. We motored into the protection of Opu­nohu Bay, dropped anchor and wondered aloud. What just happened? Was that a microburst? A gale? The mother of all squalls?

“I feel like I just woke up from a bad dream,” I said.

“I feel lucky to have witnessed such an amazing act of nature,” Craig said.

“Well, yes. It was amazing and beautiful,” I said. “Now that it’s over.”

Part of the fun of traveling with Craig is that he causes me to look at events from his typical “macro” point of view. Now, as well as remembering that storm as frightening, exhausting and nauseating, I also see it an awesome ocean experience that we will talk about for years to come. It’s like getting a vacation twofer.

Even so, my first focus will always be on the “micro.”

Now about those starfish shrimp and baby pipefish.

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

©2013 Susan Scott