Monthly Archives: April 2014

Fascinating anemones, fish are worth a bit of discomfort

Published April 28, 2014 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2014 Susan Scott

Vava’u, Tonga, 2006

VAVA’U, Tonga » I know I’m in a good place when I have fin sores on my feet, and the mask grooves in my forehead are nearly permanent features of my face. Even in my sleep I know I’m in a fine place. The anchorages here have been so still that I awake thinking I’m home.

But I’m nowhere near Oahu. Craig and I are sailing our 37-foot ketch Honu in Tonga.

Specifically, we’re exploring Tonga’s Vavau group, a nearly round archipelago in the northern part of this island nation. Vava’u comprises 60 islands, covering an area 16 by 18 miles.

Massive coral reefs protect Vava’u’s islands from the southeast waves. The result is one of the world’s premier sailing grounds, a cluster of calm waterways weaving around sparsely inhabited islets that look like lush flowerpots. Some have powder-white sand beaches on one side and caves in vertical limestone cliffs on another. Most every islet hosts a vibrant coral reef. And that’s why my snorkel gear is wearing holes in my body.

In some places I don’t kick, but float motionless a few feet above the reef. My presence causes commotion when I’m hovering over a pink, yellow, blue or white anemone. Some anemone tentacles are bubblelike; others remind me of gummy worms. These shag carpets of the reef don’t mind my gaze, but their resident anemone fish do. The little fish act as security guards and take the job seriously.

Anemone fish, Anemone with fish in it. Vava’u, Tonga 2014. © Susan Scott

Anemone fish are the poster fish of symbiosis, living among the tentacles of stinging anemones without being harmed. Researchers believe a mucus coating protects the fish from the anemone’s sting.

As payback for a safe haven, the anemone fish drive off butterflyfish, predators that view anemone tentacles as yummy meals.

But the little anemone fish’s defense maneuvers aren’t limited to butterflyfish. If I get my face too close to their home, the tenant fish show me their frowny faces and sometimes fake a charge. “Get back!” the 6-inch-long Chihuahuas of fish seem say to me, a 68-inch-long monster. “Or what?” I think, smiling. Advancing my camera toward the indignant fish sends them deep into the folds of their wiggly security blanket.

Female anemone fish lay eggs near their anemone’s base, and the male guards them vigorously. Once the eggs hatch, the larvae drift as plankton for a week or two, depending on species. (At least a dozen kinds of anemone fish inhabit the Pacific and Indian oceans, all in shades of orange, brown and white.) After developing fins, the baby fish look for an anemone haven.

All members of this group begin life as males. Usually one monogamous pair of anemone fish share an anemone. If a female is removed from a pair, the male left behind turns into a female.

A dominant juvenile on the anemone’s outskirts then matures and becomes the male of the pair.

The pastel anemones and their plucky companions are so abundant here in Vavau’s warm, clear, shallow waters that I’m snorkeling blisters on my feet and furrows on my face. Never before has pain been so much fun.

Banded Sea Snake. Vava'u Tonga, 2014. ©2014 Susan Scott

Banded Sea Snake. Vava’u Tonga, 2014. ©2014 Susan Scott


Vava’u group of islands, Tonga, 2006

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

©2014 Susan Scott


The sea snakes of Niue are harmless swimmers

Published April 21, 2014 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2014 Susan Scott

Craig in Niue. ©2014 Susan Scott

One of the most satisfying moments in a sailor’s life is tying the boat to a safe mooring in a calm harbor after a long period at sea. Even a day after arriving here at Niue (pronounced NEW-ay), Craig and I are still high-fiving. We’ve completed the longest leg of our two-month voyage across the South Pacific: 1,200 miles in nine days.

Niue is one of the smallest countries in the world. Although the island’s lush green jungles, limestone cliffs and shoreline reefs are stunning to behold, it’s tough to make a living on an isolated island only 100 square miles in area. The population, according to the friendly immigration officer (who attended Brigham Young University in Laie), is about 1,200. Approximately 12,000 Niue­ans live in New Zealand; another 12,000 reside in Australia.

Niue is famous among geologists because it’s the largest of its kind: an ancient sunken atoll raised 220 feet above sea level by a flexing of the tectonic plate below. The result is a saucer-shaped island, the center depression formerly being the atoll’s lagoon.

Niue. ©2014 Susan Scott

Niue. ©2014 Susan Scott

Because Niue’s land consists of porous rock, the island has no rivers and therefore no runoff. The result is perfectly clear water to 100 feet.

The perimeter of Niue consists of steep limestone walls pocked with caves. Below the caves and rocky headlands grow countless dinner-plate-size corals in brilliant pinks, blues, greens and yellows, a sight to behold from the cliffs above.

Getting down to swim in this stunning flower garden is a challenge. Niue has only a few short, narrow sand beaches accessible only where residents have built steps in the cliffs. At the bottom of the steps, the unchecked surf pounds the shore.

But it was well worth the effort to maneuver the surge and haul my body over the rocks. I wasn’t in the water 10 minutes before sea snakes appeared.

Niue is famous for a sea snake known locally as “katu­ali.” Like many Pacific islanders, the residents here are protective of their sea snakes, quickly pointing out that, yes, their bite is poisonous but that these snakes don’t bite humans.

Niue3 resized

“They’re not aggressive, just curious,” said the gracious owner of the Niue Yacht Club. “Our katu­ali don’t bite people.”

It was easy to see why these creatures are revered as I watched three katu­ali ripple near the outer edges of the reef like shimmery ribbons. The banded black-and-white snakes swam straight up the blue water column to the surface, took a breath of air and plunged straight back down 100 feet to resume their fish hunt

Kautali, Niue Banded Sea Snake. ©2014 Susan Scott

Kautali, Niue Banded Sea Snake. ©2014 Susan Scott

Kautali, Niue Banded Sea Snake. ©2014 Susan Scott

There was no missing these standout creatures or mistaking them for eels. Nor did they generate the slightest fear. The three snakes I saw ignored me completely. One curious katu­ali swam to Craig and, like the woman predicted, looked him over and then went on its way.

You don’t have to have a sailboat to visit this distinct island nation. Niue residents warmly welcome visitors by air with charming guesthouses, restaurants (one called Katu­ali Cafe) and a visitor center. Niue may be small, but it’s huge in its blend of Polynesian/New Zealand hospitality. Even the sea snakes here are friendly.

For more pictures of Niue visit this Flickr group:

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

©2014 Susan Scott


Hollywood take on voyaging smoother than in real life

Published April 14, 2014 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2014 Susan Scott

Susan at the Navigation Station (desk) on Honu. In calm seas.

AT SEA IN THE SOUTH PACIFIC » We’re sailing from Tahiti to Niue, a tiny island country of about 2,000 people.

Craig and I have been at sea on our 37-foot sailboat for more than a week now, sailing in brisk 20 to 25 mph southeast tradewinds. As Honu trundles along downwind toward Niue (we skipped the Cook Islands due to wind direction), we grip handholds for our every move, struggle to cook one-handed and joke about Robert Redford’s recent sailing movie, “All Is Lost.”

In that film, we long-distance sailors agree, all is lost about offshore sailing.

Although that movie captured some of the challenges of open ocean voyaging, such as having to repair and improvise when things go wrong, the tale fell flat in its depiction of life on a sailboat at sea. Out here nothing is flat.

During our 1,200-mile passage, the southeast tradewinds have been blowing for days on end, good for covering distance but also the recipe for rough, rowdy waves. These great walls of blue water tumble over in sizzling white foam, smacking, rocking and rolling the boat with utter indifference. Riding on top of these noisy, towering hills can feel like a carnival ride from hell: It’s expensive, it make you sick and you can’t get off.

In most boating films, when people go inside the cabins, all there is calm and quiet. Craig and I laugh about that, too. You might get out of wind and rain below decks, but the motion of the ocean persists.


The view from the cockpit of Honu, on the Coconut Milk Run 2006, during some rougher seas. Courtesy Scott Davis

As I write, I hold my laptop on the desk with the heels of both hands, moving fingers only, and my outstretched legs brace my body in my seat. The teak furniture down here squeaks and groans with the flexing of the Fiberglas hull, and the lines banging on the deck sound as if we’ve hit something. We’ve hit nothing. Craig and I take turns keeping 24-hour watch, but neither of us has seen a single man-made item. No boats, no ships and nothing floating on the surface.

From the reports of marine pollution, you might imagine Honu plowing through a sea of bobbing water bottles and foam cups. Not so. The ocean out here is a clean, sparkling desert of blue dunes marching over the horizon.

Like terrestrial deserts, marine deserts host animals, sparse and hard to spot but remarkable in their adaptability to a harsh environment. Several species meet here at the border of air and water.

From below, malolo (flying fish) burst up and skip astonishingly long distances over the surface, often plowing right through waves and popping out the other side.

Malolo are pupu for seabirds, the other creatures we see flitting between the waves in jerks like puppets on strings.

“Look,” one of us says, “a tropicbird (or booby or shearwater).” Because only one or two birds appear per day, a sighting is always worth a shout.

Weather forecasts are calling for declining winds, but even if it becomes glassy calm, the ocean will not be flat. Great smooth swells generated by distant storms will be rolling under Honu as we motor into Niue.

We’re looking forward to the change in sea state.

When it comes to sailing, it’s all about the ride.


In glassy seas motoring Honu towards Bora, Bora, 2005. Courtesy Scott Davis

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

©2014 Susan Scott


Captivating stony corals get a reluctant au revoir

Published April 7, 2014 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2014 Susan Scott

Coral, lionfish, urchin, in the Marina on Raiatea, 2006. Courtesy Scott Davis

Honu is once again moving west through the Society Islands. Although I’m happy to be sailing again, it was hard to say goodbye to Tahiti, with its jagged green mountains, friendly people and perfect french fries. But what I really hated to leave was Papeete’s Marina Taina, a boat basin that made me feel I was floating in a world-class aquarium.

When I was sweaty, tired and frustrated from boat preparations, all I had to do was step from the boat to the pier to get a spirit lift. The rock of the boat and my shadow on the water sent a confettilike shower of fish scurrying for cover. If I waited there motionless, out peeked those busy little color chips to see if the danger had passed. Deciding it had, the fish emerged and went back to grazing.

Boat harbors aren’t usually equated with excellent fish watching because their water is often dark and dirty. Not this one. In most places inside the breakwater, I could see the bottom of the pilings. (I could see fairly deep at night, too, due to the nearby superyachts’ underwater lights.)

But it wasn’t bare pilings that attracted all those fish. The posts and piers that secured our boats looked like candy dishes of marine goodies. With water temperatures 80-some degrees year-round, visibility to 50 feet and daily tides moving water in and out, the conditions in and around Marina Taina are ideal for growth of stony corals.

Stony corals don’t care about boats, people or even floating paper and plastic. All they want is clear warm water, lots of sunlight and a space to stick to. Leave them alone in those conditions and off they go, building the bases of the most diverse and concentrated gatherings of marine life on the planet.

Coral clumps start small. Each head, branch or plate begins as one individual produced by the union of an egg and sperm. Typically fertilization takes place in the water where the parents release their sex cells.

If it isn’t eaten, the fertilized egg develops into a larva that drifts for days or weeks as it matures. When full grown, the tiny pioneer settles down, sticking to one spot where it immediately begins secreting a protective calcium carbonate skeleton around itself.

The coral expands its new homestead by making clones of itself, budding off genetically identical roommates that remain attached to each other. The clones make more clones, and on and on it goes with individuals growing up, out and over one another. As a result, only the outermost layer of a coral head is alive.

All clones in a colony are connected by a thin layer of tissue that allows them to share food. That’s why stepping on, or grabbing, living coral damages the entire colony.

Stony corals get their colors from tiny plants that live inside the skeleton cups. The corals in and around Marina Taina included blue rice, yellow lace, pink cauliflower and brown antler, so stunning it was hard to walk without stopping.

I felt sad saying goodbye to Tahiti with its charming marina full of coral heads packed together like a farmers market display, complete with pushy fish shoppers. My consolation is that more magic lies ahead.

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

©2014 Susan Scott