Monthly Archives: March 2014

Boat provides a challenge too daunting to sail solo

Published March 31, 2014 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2014 Susan Scott

Honu in Tahiti 2006. Courtesy Scott R. Davis

PAPEETE, TAHITI » Last weekend I flew to Papeete because I left my sailboat Honu here in October to sit out the southern hurricane season. That being over now, it’s time to pack the boat with brie and baguettes, cast off the mooring lines and sail on.

When I mentioned this upcoming voyage to friends and acquain­tances back home, the first thing they asked was, “Are you sailing alone?”

No. I sail alone on short trips, but I don’t go offshore by myself for one simple reason: It’s too scary. But it’s not the open ocean that scares me (usually). It’s the boat.

Cruising sailboats have most of the appliances we have at home, all the machinery of our cars, and an IT worker’s nightmare of computer-driven nautical systems. Towering above all that is an elaborate assortment of ropes, poles and wires supporting flexing masts and flapping sails.

We cram this mass of specialized gear into a small space (37 feet by just over 12 feet in this case) and sprinkle it with salt water while shaking and pounding it for weeks on end.

The sailors’ old joke that the definition of offshore cruising is repairing your boat in exotic places is only funny if you’re good at fixing things. I am not.

But no worries. I’m sailing with my husband, Craig. It will be just the two of us, but having a man who’s been sailing since he was 6, and is good at troubleshooting and repairing all manner of marine systems, is like having an engineer, navigator and sailing instructor all in one.

Oh, and he cooks, too.

The other questions people ask about concern our destina­tion, route, distance and timing.

Craig and I plan on sailing to the Cook Islands, Tonga, Fiji and New Caledonia, where we will leave Honu in a marina and fly home to work. We have two months for this voyage, about 3,000 miles due west. This may seem like plenty of time, but when your vessel averages 5 mph, timing is a concern.

I want to leave Honu in New Caledonia for a while because it seems that whenever I see a photo of a fantastic new (to me) marine species, the location credit says New Caledonia. We shall see.

To answer another question, yes, I’m planning on writing my columns while sailing, sending them through my satellite phone email system — providing the satellite phone, computer and battery charging systems all keep working. I live in hope.

Satellite phones are marvelous inventions but they don’t transmit photos. I’ll try to paint pictures with words.*

The route Craig and I will be following is nicknamed the Coconut Milk Run because the prevailing winds come from behind the boat, making it an easy downwind run. In theory. I sailed this course in 2006 with two friends and had contrary wind directions and, of course, several boat system failures. Fortunately my friends were good sports and clever repairmen.

Now I get to again make the run with Craig, who on the boat is cheerful company and consistently optimistic. And, even given my deficient repair skills, he calls me captain.

Thank you, dear readers, for your caring questions and sincere best wishes. Stay tuned.

Susan aboard Honu during the Coconut Milk Run in 2006

*Susan’s web guy, Scott, was one of the crew on the 2006 voyage and will try to use pictures from that voyage to augment Susan’s painting with words.

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

©2014 Susan Scott


Parrotfish may be a suspect in the case of the weird blob

Published March 24, 2014 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2014 Susan Scott

The Riggins’ blob. Courtesy Heather Riggins

While snorkeling in four feet of water off Kauai’s North Shore, readers John and Heather Riggins found a blob.

John emailed me a slightly blurred photo of it, describing it as “4 to 5 inches in diameter and slightly trans­­parent. It appeared to be pulsating (that could have been from current but nearby algae and sea grasses were not moving). The pulsating made the object appear to be alive.”

John and Heather thought this might be the nighttime cocoon of a parrotfish.

Digging into that subject, I was soon immersed in the extraordinary world of parrotfish where changing sex, manufacturing sand and oozing sleeping bags is all in a day’s work.

Of the 90 species of parrotfish in the world, Hawaii hosts only seven. Of those, three — yellowbar, spectacled and regal — are found only in Hawaii.

Good luck identifying these striking natives.

Parrotfish change colors like Lady Gaga changes hairstyles. A fish’s colors and patterns vary widely in a single species depending on age, activity, surroundings and sex.

To further complicate matters, two parrotfish species occasionally produce hybrids.

And speaking of sex, talk about hormone storms. Some parrotfish females change to males as the need in a population dictates.

Those fish, called supermales, establish territories and keep harems.

Parrotfish are grazers, scraping algae off rocks and dead coral, and sometimes eating live coral. Big parrotfish (Hawaii’s largest, the spectacled, grows to 26 inches long and weighs nearly 15 pounds) have powerful jaws and strong dental plates that remove bits of coral skeleton as they eat.

When snorkeling, you can hear the crunch as nearby parrotfish bite down. Their “beaks” leave distinct marks on the rock.

Parrotfish. Courtesy Scott R. Davis

Parrotfish. Courtesy Scott R. Davis

The stony material that a parrotfish swallows gets ground into fine particles in the fish’s throat, passes through the digestive system and out the anus. In this way, parrotfish are major producers of sand.

Come dusk, some parrotfish make themselves a sleeping bag for the night. Glands near the gills produce mucus that exits through the mouth. It takes a parrotfish about 30 minutes to encase itself in this clear, 3-inch-thick sac that has two holes for breathing.

Researchers believe the cocoon protects the parrotfish from nighttime parasites as well as predators, such as moray eels, that hunt by smell. Come dawn, parrotfish abandon their sleeping bags, which, being made of mucus, dissolve in the water.

I don’t know what’s more remarkable: transgender fish, pooping sand, mucus pajamas or that after all my searching, I still have no clue about the identity of John and Heather’s blob. Help is welcome.

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

©2014 Susan Scott


Beaches laden with sea life deposited by windy weather

Published March 17, 2014 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2014 Susan Scott

I ended a book I’m working on with suggestions about what concerned citizens can do to help the oceans. One of my ideas is to walk the beaches and, while doing so, pick up trash.

“This is also a good way to discover marine life,” I wrote. “Even after all these years, I’m still finding new (to me) species on beaches.”

To which an editor replied, “What does this mean? Are you recommending that people look for dead animals?”

Well, yes. This close-up look at natural selection has given me some of my most memorable morning strolls.

The best time to find stranded marine animals is during periods of prolonged onshore wind. That’s when wind and waves dislodge young, old or sick creatures residing on the reefs. Strong wind can also overpower creatures that live on offshore surface waters, driving the animals to land.

Enormous numbers of marine creatures spend their lives far from land drifting on the ocean’s surface. Known as the “wind drift community,” these are Portuguese men-of-war, violet snails, nudi­branchs (snails without shells), insects, crabs, barnacles, jellyfish relatives called by-the-wind sailors and blue buttons, and countless others.

And remember to look at marine debris as possible treasure troves of life. I once found an offshore blue-and-brown crab with a 3-inch-wide shell residing inside a Nike sneaker that had washed ashore. Other remarkable finds: a piece of baleen from a whale’s mouth, a Spanish dancer nudi­branch that had danced its way too close to the shorebreak and got stranded, a mole crab chowing down on a fantail filefish, and a hundred more.

One of my favorite finds occurred at Kai­lua Beach amid 30 mph wind and occasional downpours. I enjoyed the blustery weather and walked from the beach park a couple of miles to the bottom of the bay. There on the beach lay my reward: a live baby frogfish.

When exposed, frogfish often inhale air that gets trapped inside the fish’s body, and this is what happened to my frogfish. It lived for a few days in my makeshift “hospital” aquarium, but it couldn’t stay submerged without struggling, so it died a day later.

It may be survival of the fittest out there, but even so, the beleaguered wildlife of our planet can use all the help they can get. So when my beach finds are alive, I do my best to save them by transporting my creatures to a better place. Most of my rescue attempts probably fail, but I feel good in trying.

When the animal is already dead, I view it as an animal whose time had come and see it as an ambassador for its species.

My friend Alex, a Hawaii biologist, called me last week to tell me about an unknown animal, about 2 feet long, that he saw burrowing under the sand at the waterline on a Kaa­awa beach. We discussed what the creature might be (conger eel, snake eel), but neither of us had ever seen such a thing.

“Amazing that you don’t even have to get wet to find marine animals,” Alex said. “All you have to do is walk the beach.”

It’s natural to hunker down indoors during our recent wet and windy weather. I recommend, however, a walk on the beach.

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

©2014 Susan Scott


Gars, unevolved for eons, can breathe and store air

Published March 10, 2014 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2014 Susan Scott

This Texas gar was gifted to Susan Scott. @©2014 Susan Scott

I spent the last New Year’s holiday with friends at their lake house near Austin, Texas. Due to prolonged drought, the water level in this man-made lake, created by damming a river in 1938, was so low that a good part of it was bone-dry. We didn’t let that stop the fun. Instead of boating on Lake Buchanan’s surface, we hiked across its dirt floor.

I never imagined that while walking to a former island across a desiccated Texas lake bed that I would discover a fish completely new to me, but that’s the fun of traveling. The lake had gars.

Gars are living fossils, unchanged for more than 100 million years. My fish textbook calls them relict fish, creatures from earlier eras that have persisted to this day. These hardy fish survive because they’re big, they have heavy scales that act like armor and, when push comes to shove, they can breathe air.

Inside their bodies, gars have a bladder they can fill with air by gulping at the surface. When its water is warm or polluted, and thus low in oxygen, the fish breathes from this air-filled bladder.

Gar fossils have been found throughout the world, but today the seven species of gars that remain are found only in North and Central America. Most gars live in fresh water, but they are also found in brackish estuaries and near oceanic coasts.

The largest of these prehistoric predators grow to monstrous sizes: 6 feet long and up to 300 pounds. Depending on species, gars live for 20 to 50 years.

The name “gar” comes from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning “spear.” This is apt, given the fish’s snout, a ferocious-looking lance filled with short, sharp teeth.

Gars eat fish. The predator drifts motionless near the surface waiting for prey to swim close. With a sideways strike, the gar nabs the fish with its needlelike teeth. Yet even with all those sharp teeth and bulky bodies, no attack on a human has ever been recorded.

Gars are edible, but they’re so bony few people eat them. Anglers fish for gars because they put up fierce fights when hooked.

Once abundant in their native ranges, the ancient gars are scarce today due to dams and fishing pressure. In certain areas some species are now protected.

I didn’t find any gars on my hike, but my friend Greg had found several gar skeletons during his lake bed walks and displayed them on his back porch.

I had nearly forgotten about gars, but last week a large box arrived on my doorstep. Remembering how I admired his gar skulls, Greg sent me one.

Not many people would appreciate getting a fish head in the mail, but I sure did. My new desk decoration is a fine gift from a thoughtful friend.

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

©2014 Susan Scott


Reef lobsters’ antennae make them easy to spot

Published March 3, 2014 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2014 Susan Scott

Hawaii’s lobsters, including the spiny lobster, are easy to capture, but they’re scarce because of overfishing. Courtesy Russell Gilbert

During one of those muggy Kona weather days, I went snorkeling off Lanikai Beach in water that was calm, clear and refreshing. I swam over the dense coral heads off the center of the beach, looking for fish and invertebrates to brighten my day.

After about 30 minutes I had seen only flashes of fish diving for cover and little else. Discouraged over the lack of marine life, I turned toward the beach to swim home.

It was a good place to turn. Two telltale signs of a marine animal that I rarely see while snorkeling moved and caught my eye. I dived down and looked into the big, googly eyes of a young spiny lobster.

Lobsters are like giant shrimp with two main differences: Lobsters have thicker, harder shells, and all live on the ocean floor.

Lobsters come in two main groups: one with big pincers on the end of their front legs, called “true lobsters,” and one without.

The most familiar true lobster is the American lobster, the big-clawed species familiar to diners. Hawaii doesn’t host the cold-water American lobster, but we have seven species of true lobsters in miniature, called reef lobsters.

All are only 4 to 5 inches long and, although fairly common, are not often seen by daytime snorkelers.

Lobsters of all species hunker down during the day, and venture out at night in search of just about any small creature they can catch. Occasionally lobsters add a bit of seaweed salad to their diet.

The lobsters without weapons up front are slipper and spiny lobsters, both found in Hawaii. Slipper lobsters have unusual front antennae that look like two flat paddles.

This is Hawaii’s most common lobster but blends so well against rocky sea floors, it’s often hard to see.

Spiny lobsters are easier to find. What they lack in front pincers they make up for in a pair of thickset antennae longer than the creature’s entire body.

It’s these antennae poking out of ledges that expose the lobsters’ daytime resting places.

Hawaii’s lobsters are easy to catch and have been so overfished they’re now scarce.

To enable these animals to recover, state law prohibits spearing, taking any females with eggs and hunting lobsters from May through August.

Even so, my first thought upon seeing that lovely little undersize lobster, was: Tuck in those antennae! Hide!

Swimming over that nearly empty coral reef drove home a fact that Oahu’s snorkelers, divers and anglers already know: Our island needs more marine sanctuaries. Only then will life return to Oahu’s near-shore reefs.

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

©2014 Susan Scott