Monthly Archives: May 2014

Friendly, sedate sea snakes can be lethal but rarely are

Published May 26, 2014 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2014 Susan Scott

Maitre Island, New Caledonia, 2006. ©2014 Susan Scott

MAITRE ISLAND, NEW CALEDONIA » One of my goals in sailing to New Caledonia was to see and admire the many sea snakes that grace this area’s reefs. One in particular answered the call. Honu wasn’t tied to a mooring off this marine preserve an hour before I had one of my best sea snake experiences ever.

New Caledonia is famous not just for its sea snakes, but also for its residents’ fondness of them, particularly one called “tricot raye.”

One of my books translates this French term as “striped sweater”; another says it means “striped T-shirt.” The name refers to the black bands that run around the blue-gray body, and indeed, the snake resembles the striped shirt of the French stereotype. All the snake needs to complete the look is a navy blue beret.

sea snake

Tricot Rayé – on the beach of Amadee Island, New Caledonia, 2006

Some snakes here do wear them. A shop in Noumea called Tricot Raye sells towels, bags, toys and, yes, striped T-shirts embroidered with adorable cartoon drawings of the snake on a bicycle, in scuba gear and taking part in a dozen other activities.

In English these snakes are called kraits, a krait being a snake that hunts on shallow coral reefs but rests, mates and lays eggs on land.

New Caledonia’s much-loved tricot raye is also called the yellow-lipped sea krait, but there’s more yellow to it than the lips. The whole face is yellow, a bead of brightness leading a graceful, winding body, 31 inches long in males, 50 inches in females.

Another species here, called the black-lipped krait, has a black face.

A notice on a popular beach in one of New Caledonia’s many marine preserves reads much like our Hawaiian monk seal and sea turtle signs, informing visitors that the snakes on the beach are resting and protected. Leave them alone, we are told, and enjoy their beauty.

The tricot raye is a docile creature, even when roughly handled. As a result, children here sometimes play with kraits, draping them around their necks like striped scarves.

This is a dangerous game. Sea snakes and kraits produce cobra-related venom so concentrated that a tiny amount can kill a human. Even so, only one sea snake death (that of a child) has ever been recorded in New Caledonia. If undisturbed, sea snakes mind their own business and ignore people.

Tiny Maitre Island hosts a hotel with a pier leading to an open-air lobby and restaurant built on a wooden deck over sand. Craig and I landed Honu’s dinghy at the pier, and right there, poking up through a space in the wooden dock, was the charming yellow face I had come all this way to see.

The tricot raye pulled itself onto the pier, crawled gracefully up five steps and wound its way into the lobby. When it reached a round piling at the center of the deck, the krait, ignored by workers and diners, checked into its own private room, sliding down a snake-size space to the sand below.

sea snake

Tricot Raye – Maitre Island, New Caledonia, 2014 ©2014 Susan Scott

It’s risky to travel to a country with a specific image in mind, because the reality is often disappointing. Not this time. The sea snakes here are even better than I dreamed.

When I get back to Noumea, I’m digging out my credit card and heading straight for that store called Tricot Raye.

Snake skipper

Susan in her Tricot Raye shirt, 2014.

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

©2014 Susan Scott

New Caledonia provides comfort after the storm

Published may 19, 2014 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2014 Susan Scott

Honu’s jib during a similar storm in 2006.

Noumea, New Caledonia » After writing last week about our cushy cruise from Fiji to New Caledonia on our 37-foot ketch, Honu, the Pacific Ocean rose up to remind us who’s boss.

Craig and I could see trouble ahead, solid black clouds that grew taller and wider with each sunny downwind mile we sailed. We’ve sailed through such weather fronts time and again, but even so, it’s sobering business heading straight into such a menacing wall.

We shortened the sails, battened the hatches and zipped on our foul-weather gear just as 30 mph wind, accompanied by driving rain and rising seas, struck us head on, pushing us so far off course we considered making landfall in Vanu­atu rather than New Caledonia.

Honu beat through angry waves that struck the bow, washed over the deck and sprayed us with salt water. It was a long day and longer night, each of us hyper-alert to the boat’s sounds because a new screech, groan or bang requires immediate investigation.

We took two-hour watches that felt like four. What a relief to go below deck and lie in the downwind bunk.

At 5 a.m. I woke with a start. “What’s happening?” I said, poking my head into the cockpit.

Craig in foul weather gear, 2014. @©2014 Susan Scott

Craig in foul weather gear, 2014. @©2014 Susan Scott

Snake skipper

Craig in foul weather gear. 2014

“It’s amazing,” Craig said. “We passed through the front like a doorway, and in minutes the wind clocked around to the quarter (the rear of the boat). It’s still blowing hard, but we’re back on course and going downwind.”

Ah, the glory of following seas. On sailboats, direction is everything.

Dawn brightened our day even more, and by midmorning the adverse tide slackened, letting the blustery southeast trades push Honu into Havana Pass. We dropped anchor in a harbor just inside New Caledonia’s barrier reef, thanking Honu for seeing us safely through another storm.

Honu is now moored in Noumea, the capital of New Caledonia, nicknamed Paris of the Pacific. It’s an apt name, the city offering fine French food, superb museums and one-of-a kind shops. Combined with the consistent friendliness we’ve experienced in all these South Pacific nations, Noumea is a great place to stop.

Snake skipper

Susan with New Caledonia in the background, 2014. @©2014 Susan Scott

Captain Cook was the first westerner to come across this island group in 1774, naming it New Caledonia because its hills reminded him of Scotland. (Caledonia was the Roman name for Scotland.) In 1853 the French claimed New Caledonia, using it as a penal colony. The island group became a household name during World War II when the U.S., New Zealand and Australia used it as a military base.

The main island in the cluster, Grand Terre, is the largest by far, about 250 miles long, 31 miles wide. Its barrier reef, along with those edging many small islands and atolls, make New Caledonia a premier snorkeling, diving and sailing area.

We are waiting out strong wind and rain in Nou­mea’s comfy Port Moselle. But the sea snakes, sea turtles, anemones, clown fish and even a dugong (they tell me) that reside right here in the harbor tell me what I already knew: New Caledonia is my kind of heaven.

As soon as the Pacific Ocean gets off its bossy high horse, Honu will be out there exploring.

New Caledonia

New Caledonia from Honu in 2006

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

©2014 Susan Scott

Calm seas and light wind make for a pleasure cruise

Published May 12, 2014 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2014 Susan Scott

Susan in the blustery conditions aboard Honu in 2006. Courtesy Scott R. Davis

In 2006 my friend Scott helped me sail Honu from island to island across the South Pacific.

“When I signed on for that trip,” Scott says, “I imagined baking bread and reading novels under sunny skies in a gently swaying boat.”

Me, too. But that summer the Pacific Ocean didn’t cooperate with our daydreams. Blustery southeast tradewinds and the resulting 8-foot seas made even standing in the galley an ordeal, and drenching squalls barred books from the cockpit. Both above and below deck, we hung on, longing for landfall and wondering who on Earth named this stretch the Coconut Milk Run.

Now I know. It was a sailor who had passages like the one Craig and I are enjoying right now.

We left Fiji nearly a week ago. Because that country’s entry and exit laws make visiting outer islands difficult for those of us with time constraints, we didn’t stop at any of the picture-perfect islands and atolls we passed while sailing to and from Suva.

Instead, we ate in Suva’s many good restaurants and visited the famous open-air market and museum. I don’t know why it ended up in Fiji, but the Bounty’s rudder, retrieved from the ocean floor off Pitcairn Island, is there, a thrilling sight for us sailors.

After a week of city life (and, yes, some boat repairs), we left busy Suva Harbor in a rainstorm, maneuvering between islets and around reefs toward our final destination, New Caledonia. The warm rain was a squeaky-clean relief from the salty state that we cruising sailors usually live in.

The wind was strong enough to sail but not so strong as to build up the seas. Enjoy this, Craig and I reminded one another. It won’t last.

But it has. For five days now Honu has been sliding smoothly downwind at 3 to 5 mph, sometimes propelled only by its billowing green and black sail called a spinnaker. It’s been so mild that I even hauled the boat’s soft salon cushion and our bed pillows to the cockpit, usually risky business for material that isn’t waterproof. Craig calls my cushy corner the princess bed.

With seas so flat, the marine life at the interface of air and ocean is crystal clear. As if shot from a gun, flying fish burst from the water, sculling along the surface to escape the tunas below. We know the predators are tunas because in their pursuit, they too leap clear, their heavy bodies splashing back to the water with loud belly-flops.

The commotion attracts booby birds and shearwaters, which appear like magic, snatching up the unfortunate fish trapped between carnivores above and below.

At night we have our own planetarium, with moonlight glistening on the water half the night and meteorites zooming across the pearly Milky Way the other half.

Honu’s running lights attract raucous sooty terns that announce their arrival by screeching their nickname, “Wide-awake! Wide-awake!”

With bunny rabbit clouds drifting over our rock-a-bye-baby boat, we’re devouring Kate Atkinson novels (highly recommended) and thinking that the Coconut Milk Run is well named.

All we need now is Scott to bake us some bread.

Scott in the galley of Honu, cutting warm bread; starfish potholder.

Scott in the galley of Honu, cutting warm bread; starfish potholder.

Scott in the galley of Honu, cutting warm bread; starfish potholder.

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

©2014 Susan Scott

Reefs, rocks and wrecks punctuate sail into Suva

Published May 5, 2014 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2014 Susan Scott
Honu at the Royal Suva Yacht Club, Suva, Fiji, 2006

Honu at the Royal Suva Yacht Club, Suva, Fiji, 2006

SUVA, FIJI » Officially Fiji consists of 322 islands, but if your definition of island includes underwater atolls, coral banks and partially submerged islets, the number rises to 844. And although our nautical charts note every (we hope) island, atoll and reef, some are so small that they look like mere smudges on a map. As a result, it feels as if we’re running a giant obstacle course with our much-loved 37-foot ketch, Honu.

Last week as Craig and I left Tonga, we drew our route on our GPS chart plotter to Fiji’s capital, Suva. What’s that? we wondered, squinting at a speck along our course line. When we increased the map’s scale, it showed an atoll with a central lagoon but no visible islands.

Navigating through Fiji requires vigilance today, but it’s a cakewalk compared with the pre-GPS era. As Craig and I picked our way through a 4-mile-wide pass, we recalled a story a former Ala Wai Small Boat Harbor neighbor told us about sailing in Fijian waters in the 1970s.

“I was in the cockpit one night watching the depth finder,” Park said. “In seconds the gauge went from 100 feet to 75 to 50. Before I could stop the boat, it showed 10 feet, 5, and crunch! We hit the reef.”

Park and his wife, Gloria, were lucky: The coral didn’t puncture their Fiberglas hull, and they were able to winch the boat off the reef using their anchors. Except for frazzled nerves, they sailed away undamaged.

Sailors now use GPS maps to avoid dangerous reefs in tropical waters, but even so, it’s easy to be fooled.

“Look, there’s a fishing boat,” Craig said as we skirted a safe distance from one of several smidgens of reef we found along our route.

“It looks like a lighthouse,” I said, squinting into the distance, “or some kind of navigational tower.”

“There are two separate peaks,” Craig said, when Honu drew a bit closer. “Maybe this atoll has rocky spires like La Perouse Pinnacle” (in Hawaii’s French Frigate Shoals).

We sailed on, Honu racing downwind in 25 mph tradewinds as we watched 8-foot seas hit the reef edges in big white explosions. Two hours later the identity of our mystery mounds was clear: They were two enormous ships, one wrecked on each side of the atoll.


Wreck, coming into Suva, Fiji, 2006.

As we passed wreck after wreck, we appreciated more than ever the Pacific Seafarers Net, a group of volunteers who keep track of sailors via ham radio.

When underway, we check in daily with these friendly folks, two of whom are Hawaii residents. Throughout the Pacific, recreational mariners report their boat’s coordinates, sea conditions and destination. The volunteers post this information on the Internet for friends and families, and diligently monitor, and report, our safe arrivals.

When you’re no more than a minuscule piece of plankton floating past a speck on a chart, it’s great to know that someone is listening.

Fiji might not be the easiest place to navigate, but the exceptional hospitality we’re receiving at the Royal Suva Yacht Club, where we’re waiting out bad weather, makes us know that it’s well worth the effort. The reefs await.


Suva, Fiji, 2006

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

©2014 Susan Scott