Monthly Archives: October 2014

Tiny velella sail by before stormy seas

By-the-wind sailor is a non stinging relative of jellyfish about 4 inches long and 3 inches wide. ©2014 Susan Scott

BUNDABERG, Australia » After a weeklong passage from New Caledonia, Honu is safely in a marina on Queensland’s south coast. Even so, my body thinks we’re still at sea because I have “mal de terre,” the French phrase for land sickness. This happens when the seas have been particularly rough.

The voyage didn’t start that way. For six days the wind was light, and the boat moved with a pleasant motion.

One day during those mild conditions, Craig noticed shiny disks dotting the water’s surface. They were by-the-wind sailors, the jellyfish relatives in the news recently after washing up on the U.S. West Coast by the millions.

Also known as Velella, the floating, nonstinging (to humans) creatures, about 4 inches long and 3 inches wide, bobbed on the surface as far as we could see.

I had read about enormous numbers of these creatures surrounding sailboats offshore, but this was the first time I saw it. The jelly boats ran downwind with us all day, their clear sails scooting them along while their tiny tentacles trolled for plankton. When a waved capsized them, the bottom-heavy animals popped back up and sailed on.

Because I had only seen these offshore animals dead on the beach, I wanted to see one alive in its element. Craig tied a colander to the end of the boat hook and scooped one up.

The jelly sailor was magnificent, its clear sail and blue hull radiant in the morning sun. After taking its picture, we returned the little boat to its fleet and wished it fair winds.

But none of us were that lucky. As we headed toward a 20-mile-wide pass through the Great Barrier Reef, lightning flashed ahead. With landfall only 100 miles away, we forged on. Soon thunder roared, lightning struck the water around us, and rain pounded with such force the drops felt like hailstones. We had sailed into the center of a storm.

As we breathed a sigh of relief over making it through hours of forked lightning and bellowing head winds, another thunderstorm appeared, lighting the leaping waves like a discotheque from hell.

That night we sailed through storm after exhausting storm, each time thinking it was the last. After four such tempests, the skies cleared, dawn broke and we sailed into the harbor of Bundaberg.

After friendly customs officers cleared the boat for entry into Australia, I walked to the nearby beach. There on the sand lay hundreds of Velella jellies, shipwrecked by the storms.

Even days later the ground still moves beneath my feet, and the sensation gives me a touch of nausea. But that’s OK. I’m just happy that unlike a host of our tiny fellow sailors, Honu made it safely to port.


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

©2014 Susan Scott

Curious minke whale makes a rare offshore appearance

Published October 20, 2014 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2014 Susan Scott

Pacific Ocean, 22 degrees South, 163 degrees East » After sailing thousands of miles through the tropical Pacific, I’m no longer surprised by how few whales and dolphins appear offshore. It makes sense because warm water contains fewer nutrients than cold and therefore supports less life.

Even so. Marine mammals do live in and transit these balmy waters, and it’s a bit disappointing to sail offshore year after year and never once see a fin, fluke or blow.

My dry spell is now broken. About a third through our 800-mile passage from New Caledonia to Australia, where the Coral Sea meets the Southern Ocean, Honu had a distinguished visitor.

One day, as I lay in the cockpit looking back, Craig, looking forward, shouted, “Dolphin off the bow! Or maybe it’s a whale.”

We jumped up to see on the surface a classic whale “footprint,” an unmistakable swirl of flat water caused by a large animal’s dive.

As we stood on the deck, a minute later the creature appeared again near the starboard side of the boat. It was clearly a whale, smaller than a humpback or fin but larger than a pilot. The animal’s breath made a gentle whoosh, but no spray came from its blowholes.

While we were still gaping, the black, smooth-skinned back cut the water, this time behind the boat. Moments later the whale appeared on our port side. There was no doubt about it. This marine mammal was circling Honu and checking us out.

I raced to fetch my camera. Too late. Swimming around the boat once had satisfied the creature’s curiosity, and it disappeared in the deep without a trace.

A photo is the only way to be sure of a species, but lacking that, I think I know the identity of our whale because it so precisely fits the description in my books. Our distinguished guest was a minke whale.

minke

Minke Whale – public domain photo from NOAA

The minke, pronounced MINK-ee, gets its odd name from the men who once hunted whales. The story goes that a novice whaler, Meincke, shouted out sightings of the little whale at a time the species was considered too small to be worth the effort of harpooning and hauling aboard. The other sailors mockingly gave the species the man’s name.

The minke is the sport model of the baleen whales, being sleek, fast and having a distinctly pointed snout. The species name, acutorostrata, means sharp snout.

At an average of 27 feet long, minkes are also the smallest of their baleen relatives and the most abundant. Like all baleen whales, minkes strain the water for krill and small fish.

Minke whales rarely make a visible blow — check — and usually travel singly throughout every ocean in the world. Yep.

But what finalized my guess of minke is that the species is well known for suddenly, without warning, appearing alongside boats, much to the surprise and delight of the people aboard.

A great big affirmative.

Its curiosity satisfied, the minke then swiftly vanishes. Right. Farewell, sweet whale. Your call meant the world to me.

New Caledonia and Australia each claim to have the longest coral reef in the world. But who cares? I’m just happy to be sailing between them.


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

©2014 Susan Scott

 

Rescued dugongs thrive with help from aquarium

PublishedOctober 13, 2014 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2014 Susan Scott

An excited child reaches toward Wuru, a dugong. ©2014 Susan Scott

Signal Island, New Caledonia » As Craig and I sit on Honu in this marine preserve teeming with fish, snails and sea snakes, I only have eyes for dugongs.

That’s partly because I had glimpses of two dugongs while anchored near here last spring, so I know they’re in the vicinity. I’m also freshly enamored with the South Pacific’s sea cows because I recently met two at the Sea Life Sydney Aquarium.

It happened when our immigration documents got mixed up and we had to spend an unexpected day in Sydney. As we arranged for an airport hotel, an ad caught my eye: “VISIT DUGONG ISLAND.”

That’s all it took. We dropped our luggage and boarded the train to the aquarium in Sydney’s Darling Harbor. There, visitors walk through clear tubes while tropical fish swim above, below and around them. The fish were mesmerizing, but dugongs Pig and Wuru, rescued separately along the Queensland coast, stole my heart.

Dugong face

In 1998, Pig, a male, was found as a week-old orphan who would have died without human help. After being hand-raised for three years, Pig was deemed healthy and released him back to the ocean. Eight months later people found poor Pig emaciated and wounded by other male dugongs. His second rescue was for life.

Because Sydney’s water is too cold for these tropical mammals, Pig lives with other warm-water creatures in an enormous heated tank the facility calls its Oceanarium.

Wuru’s story is similar. In 2005, at a month old, she too lost her mother. Human helpers nursed Wuru to adulthood in the Oceanarium, where she and Pig are now stars, loved by staff and visitors alike. Judging by the animals’ curious and playful behavior toward people, it appears the feeling is mutual.

dugong

Dugongs eat only sea grass in the wild, and in their aquarium home they eat only romaine, the nutritional equivalent of sea grass. Sea grass and lettuce are so low in calories that the animals eat 12 hours a day.

Four workers do nothing else but put romaine leaves in special trays and lower them to the Oceanarium floor every 10 to 15 minutes. Together, the two dugongs eat 176 to 265 pounds of lettuce per day, coming up for breaths of air every 3 to 12 minutes.

I watched the friendly sea cows eat and play (Pig prefers a soft, orange traffic cone; Wuru has a boogie board she likes to push around) for 30 minutes, feeling enormously privileged to see dugongs up close for as long as I liked.

Now, as we wait on our sailboat for a good weather window to shove off for Australia, I have dugongs on my mind.

I’m happy that Pig and Wuru’s rescues ended well and also that I goofed up our New Caledonia paperwork.

It’s the best flight I ever missed.

dugong


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

©2014 Susan Scott

The graceful green turtle inspires name for sailboat

The 37-foot French ketch. ©2014 Susan Scott

Noumea, New Caledo­nia » I’m on the road again, my road being the Pacific Ocean and my vehicle being my old friend Honu.

Craig and I bought the 37-foot French ketch in 1984 on the East Coast with the plan to sail it home to Hawaii. The first thing we did to prepare for the voyage was give the boat a Hawaiian name.

In nautical lore, changing a boat’s name is supposed to be bad luck, but that idea came from men who thought bathing made you sick and that women on ships caused storms. We ignored the superstition, registered the boat as Honu and had an artist paint a sea turtle on the transom.

We picked the word for sea turtle because the boat reminded us of those graceful grazers, their shells heavy and wide yet efficient and seaworthy. Green turtles can weigh up to 400 pounds with shells 4 feet long, yet, like Honu’s Fiberglas hull, they glide through the water like angels on wings.

It took us nearly a year, but the two of us sailed the boat to its new home in the Ala Wai Boat Harbor. As Honu’s original blue paint, cushions and sail covers wore out, we replaced them in green, even though green turtle shells aren’t green, but shades of gold and brown. The “green” in the name comes from turtles’ green fat, once prized in soup.

When we named the boat Honu, the word wasn’t widely used. But in testimony to the success of federal and state wildlife protection laws, today “honu” is common in Hawaii, both in term and turtles — but not in soup.

Honu Sailing

Honu Sailing

Honu and I have had some momentous passages together, and not just those of the sea. When I was 55 I sailed to Palmyra, Tahiti and across the South Pacific to Australia.

During my voyaging I discovered that the word “honu” also sailed throughout the Pacific. In addition to Hawaii, “honu” also means “green turtle” in the native languages of Tahiti and New Zealand. Cook Islanders call turtles “onu,” in Tonga they’re “fonu” and Fijians say “vonu.”

In all places, though, including here in New Caledonia, where Craig and I are preparing Honu for a passage to Australia, our boat’s name gets smiles of recognition. OK, it’s probably the turtle on the transom that draws the smiles, but the picture defines the boat’s name.

By 2012, in Mexico, Honu needed new hull and deck paint. I hired out the huge job, flew home and returned months later to find the painting top-notch — with one exception. The boat’s transom had a lovely new turtle painted below the name, but the O in “Honu” angled oddly to the right.

As I stared at the word, thinking, I must get this fixed, the American contractor said, “The O is a halo because turtles are angels of the sea.” He shrugged. “That’s what the artist said.”

Honu’s halo remains intact.

The previous pain on the transom. Courtesy Scott R. Davis

The previous pain on the transom. Courtesy Scott R. Davis

honu

Honu from the side. Courtesy Scott R. Davis

 


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

©2014 Susan Scott