Monthly Archives: June 2014

Cone snails are beautiful but also potentially lethal

One of JP’s cone snails, Conus striatus. Siphon can be seen on the left. ©2014 Susan Scott

Last week at UH-Manoa I met 45 cone snails, each living in its own saltwater condo. The healthy mollusks are safe from predators (rays and some crabs), receive catered meals with vitamin supplements, enjoy a regular cleaning service and occasionally get visits from a member of the opposite sex. If snails wore team shirts, this group’s would say “Life Is Good.”

The cone snails are the stars of biochemistry professor Jon-Paul (JP) Bingham’s research lab. There JP, his 11 graduate students and two undergrads study toxins in the snails’ venom.

While resting in their tanks or on the ocean floor, cone snails look harmless. All, however, carry concealed weapons, needle-sharp harpoons that shoot a cocktail of poisons so potent that some species can kill a human.

Most cone snail stings occur when people drop a live snail in a pocket or tuck one in a wet suit. No deaths have been reported in Hawaii from a sting, and most are mild. Even so, it’s safest to look but not touch.

But cone snails aren’t out to poke people. The creatures’ goal in injecting venom is to paralyze prey, either worms, snails (including other cones) or fish, depending on the cone species.

With more than 600 species, cone snails compose one of the largest families of marine snails in the world. Hawaii hosts at least 64.

Cone snails get their name from the shape of their shells, wide at one end, narrow at the other. Names such as leopard, marbled, oak and textile cone (all found in Hawaii) suggest the lovely patterns on some species’ shells.

After a cone snail dies, its shell often gets tumbled by waves and scoured by sand until all that’s left is the tip of the shell’s round wide end. When it has a hole in the center, we call it a puka shell.

Live cone snails can be hard to find because many species burrow in sand or rest in reef cracks during the day. At night, though, these predators hunt.

The snails find food by smell, waving their long flexible “nose,” called a siphon. (The siphon also directs water over the gills.) After smelling prey, the snail extends a long thin tube that can reach twice the length of the shell, and fires a harpoon connected to a venom sac. Like a disposable needle, the harpoon is single-use only and the animal grows replacements.

Each cone snail makes a blend of multiple poisons, called conotoxins, different in each species. The creatures deliver one kind of toxin for prey and another for defense.

The wide spectrum of conotoxins in each snail is of great interest in pharmaceutical and medical research due to their affect on nerves. This characteristic has the potential of tackling a variety of diseases.

Besides studying conotoxins, Bingham and his team are also working on cone aquaculture to enable researchers to raise their own snails.

Bingham, cone snails are no mere lab subjects. This upbeat biochemist admires cone snails’ remarkable hunting methods, the complexity of their venoms and the beauty of their shells.

“Amazing animals,” he said, smiling as we looked into the bubbling tanks of snails.

A “Life Is Good” T-shirt would suit JP, too.

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

©2014 Susan Scott

Maimed cornetfish defies odds with lengthy survival


A cornetfish suffered a severe cut but kept swimming. ©2014 Susan Scott

While snorkeling last week, I came across a 3-foot-long bluespotted cornetfish bitten nearly in half. Amazingly, the severely injured fish was swimming along just fine. Six days later I went snorkeling in the same area and couldn’t believe my eyes. There was the same wounded cornetfish, slower now but still swimming.

That fish had such gumption I wished I could take it to an emergency room and have it sewn up. But as there are no fish hospitals that I know of, I’ll salute that fish by writing about its kind.

One unusual feature of the cornetfish family (four species, two in Hawaii) is that the body is wider across the back than it is deep, meaning from back to belly.

In the bluespotted cornetfish, Hawaii’s most common, snorkelers from above see a long, blue-spotted and blue-lined back several inches wide. In front of the body stretches a long, narrow snout and behind trails a long, streaming tail. (The key word for this fish is “long.”) The tail filament has sensory pores, but no one knows what they sense.

If you alarm a cornetfish, or if it’s stalking prey, the blue spots and lines covering the back turn to dark bars in a kind of plaid pattern that blends well against a pebbly reef floor.

When viewed from the side, cornetfish look like a silver slat, something similar to a side view of an aluminum yardstick. Make that nearly two yardsticks. Including the tail streamer, bluespotted cornetfish grow to over 5 feet long.

Both top-down and side-on camouflage comes in handy for an ambush. The cornetfish can drift toward a fish or shrimp undetected and, with lightning speed, suck the meal into its expandable mouth.

When doing so, the mouth opening flares, resembling the end of a cornet. The brass-horn name also comes from a gooselike honk the fish makes if startled at night.

On Day 7 I couldn’t find my maimed cornetfish and felt relief. I know, of course, that the ocean is one huge fish-eat-fish world, but even so, it’s hard to watch an animal die a long, painful death.

My guess is that a barracuda, common in my snorkeling area, bit the large cornetfish’s back. That the fish escaped and went on to live for a week is a tribute to a remarkable species.

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

©2014 Susan Scott

Book about sea creatures offers profiles of the bizarre

Bone-eating snot flower.” That’s the enchanting name that inspired me to dive deep into a new book, “The Extreme Life of the Sea,” by father-and-son team Stephen and Anthony Palumbi (Princeton University Press). The book arrived while I was sailing the South Pacific. Home now, and up to my eyeballs in mail, I was halfheartedly turning pages when those weird words jumped out at me from a caption beneath a picture of a long-dead whale. See Chapter 4? With pleasure.

And so off I set on another of my favorite kinds of voyaging: discovering marine animals new to me and learning new facts about animals I already know.

The authors take a special approach to sharing their admiration of the animals that grace our planet’s oceans. Stephen, a marine biologist at Stanford University, and son Anthony, a novelist and science writer, combined their skills to write a scientifically accurate book using the storytelling narrative of a novel.

The result is a rare hybrid: a funny and easy-to-read book full of accurate science. If, like me, you want to know “says who?” to the facts, the authors include “a tantalizing citation trail for the reader to follow if she chooses.”

The Palumbis focus on the cool stuff: how the animals that live in ocean extremes, from freezing to boiling, shallow to deep, bright to black, do so.

“Life is a carousel of struggle and success,” they write, “of beauty and beautiful ugliness.”

Take, for instance, that bone-eating snot flower. In 2002 researchers discovered a gray whale’s bones lying two miles deep on the ocean floor. Boring into the bones of the carcass were hundreds of thousands of blind zombie worms called Osedax mucofloris. “Ose­dax” means “bone-eating,” and “mucofloris” translates, roughly, as “snot flower.”

Each red worm is a fingernail-size, jellylike mass with green tendrils below that spread out like tree roots. Bacteria in the tendrils make acid that breaks down bone, enabling the worm to extract nutrients. The flower part of the creature is a filament-tipped fleshy stalk that extends into the water, absorbing oxygen like a gill.

Only females of the species eat bones. Dozens of minuscule males, being little more than sperm sacks, cling to the sides of each female waiting for their big moment: to fertilize the eggs of their landlady.

I’ve not met Stephen and Anthony Palumbi, but I would like to because I feel we are kindred spirits. The father and son wrote their book for the same reason that 27 years ago I started writing this weekly column: to share the awe and respect we feel when watching, swimming with and studying marine animals.

I’m reading “Extreme” slowly to savor the details, but I don’t have to memorize them. This book is going on the top shelf in my reference library.

Stephen and Anthony write in their prologue that their aim is to give the reader “a delighted sense of wonder at every mystery, and a spark of joy at each discovery.”

For this reader they succeed throughout. But then, they had me at “bone-eating snot flower.”

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

©2014 Susan Scott

Navigating through customs can be frustrating, comical

Craig raising the quarantine flag, 2014.

What happened with the customs officer in Tonga?” a reader emailed, referring to a comment I made in last week’s column about a misunderstanding Craig and I had after arriving in that country by sailboat. “Perhaps other cruisers would like to know so they don’t make the same mistake.”

If only it were that simple. Countries’ entry and exit laws regarding foreign boats can be as hard to get right as sailing there in the first place.

It’s easy to read a country’s official policies online and in cruising guides. But because sailing schedules are ruled by the weather, boats sometimes arrive, or must leave, on weekends, holidays and during off hours. Often it’s not clear what to do at those times.

In addition, not all workers are up to date on their governments’ latest regulations. And even if they are, some officials view the check-in and checkout procedures more as guidelines than laws.

In 2006, for example, after arriving in the Cook Islands on a Sunday, I followed protocol and insisted that my crew stay aboard, at anchor, until Monday. After a difficult, upwind passage, this was like a jail sentence.

By Monday, however, after my radio calls went unanswered and no one came, we inflated the dinghy and went to the harbor’s administrative center.

“You should have come ashore,” the exuberant customs officer said when I told him when we arrived, “and enjoyed our beautiful island (Aitu­taki)!”

Other workers toe the official line. Last month we arrived in Vavau, Tonga, on Maundy (Holy) Thursday. Warned in Niue that everything in these devoutly Christian nations would be closed until Tuesday, we asked the locals who helped tie the boat to the entry dock what do to.

“Go there,” two men said, pointing to a nearby building.

Wrong building. A harbor official drew us a map to another building six blocks away. Wrong again. When we got back, an angry customs officer was at the boat.

“No one leaves the boat before being cleared!” he said. “Where did you go?”

The officer scolded us as we explained, apologized and groveled. Eventually the hand-drawn map convinced him that we had been misled, and he started us on our trek through Tonga’s customs, immigration, quarantine and health clearances, each division with its own inspector, forms and fees.

We were lucky. Customs officers can fine you, impound your boat or have you arrested.

Leaving a country by boat can be as tricky. In Suva it took us no less than four visits, each 2 miles round trip, walking, to the immigration office to check out. But the Fijian workers were so cheery about the time mix-ups — Oops, lunch time. Three o’clock? Sorry, we meant 6 — all we could do was laugh. Besides, after being on a 37-foot boat for most of a month, exercise felt good.

Worldwide, when arriving at a foreign port, vessels must request clearance by flying a yellow quarantine flag. It seems straightforward enough, but seasoned sailors know that hoisting a Q flag often signals the beginning of another memorable experience.

But having memorable experiences is why we go cruising.

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

©2014 Susan Scott


All over but the recounting, trip had plenty of highlights

Resized marina fish

Fish in the marina , New Caledonia, 2006. ©2006 Susan Scott

Craig and I have been traveling together for 34 years now, and at the end of each journey, he asks me the same question: What was your favorite part of the trip?

After eight weeks of sailing 2,771 miles across the South Pacific, I had so many events, animals and places to choose from that days later I’m still coming up with answers to variations of the question.

The funniest moment of the trip, for instance, occurred in Suva. When you sail to a foreign port, customs, immigration and quarantine officials come aboard to clear the occupants and boat to enter the country. This can be easy and brief, or not.

After a mix-up in Tonga, where we angered the customs officer, in Fiji we were on high alert.

We soon lightened up, though, when the customs officer asked Craig his one and only question: “How long have you two been married?”

After a moment of silence, Craig said, “Um, I don’t know. Susan?”

The three officials in our cockpit burst out laughing.

“Man,” said the immigration officer as he stamped Craig’s passport, “you are in big trouble now.”

We laughed a lot in Suva, where nearly everyone greeted us with a warm “bula,” Fiji’s equivalent of “aloha.” For smiles, friendliness and just plain fun, Suva was my favorite city.

Sea snakes topped my list of must-see animals for this trip, and at least a dozen of those marine reptiles answered the call. One, a 4-foot-long blue and black banded snake, called a black-lipped krait, surfaced to breathe between Craig and me, snorkeling not 2 feet apart. It ignored us, but we will remember that little black face forever.

I felt even happier that I made this voyage when New Caledonia’s dugongs showed up. Dugongs are the Southern Hemisphere’s sea cows, gentle half-ton mammals that graze on sea grasses growing in shallow coastal waters of the Indian and Southwestern Pacific oceans. (Manatees, dugongs’ close relatives, live only in the Northern Hemisphere.)

In New Caledonia, where sea grass beds are extensive and marine sanctuaries widespread, dugong sightings are routine. We saw four, all brief glimpses of broad, brown, curved backs.

It was enough. Just knowing that these rare and endangered animals were feeding around the boat was a thrill like no other.

After Craig asked me to name my trip favorite, I put the question to him.

Craig likes sailing at night, especially during a new moon when the stars sparkle with intensity. He also likes full moons that turn the ocean silver.

During one of his night watches, he came below deck and touched my arm. “Sorry to wake you,” he said, “but you have to see this.”

The full moon was slowly turning a deep burnt orange as stars popped out like lights on timers. We had sailed into the splendor of a total lunar eclipse, Craig’s perfect night at sea.

We choose different highlights of our travels, but on one point we always agree: Oahu is the best place to live. No matter how good the journey, we’re happy to go home.

Especially by plane. Honu will stay in New Caledonia until our next adventure.

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

©2014 Susan Scott