Monthly Archives: February 2015

Town harbors mixed views over its sea lion population

Published February 23, 2015 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2015 Susan Scott

turtle

Astoria, Ore. » During my current road trip from Seattle to San Francisco, I stopped in this picturesque town at the mouth of the Columbia River to watch the cargo ships, trawlers and recreational boats I had glimpsed while crossing the river’s 4-mile bridge.

At the waterfront, furry brown heads dipped, bobbed, glided and called. This surprise encounter with marine mammals thrilled me — but not everyone is so enamored.

To many Astoria residents, the California sea lions that have moved into their harbor are a curse.

I knew the animals were sea lions because of the visible ear flaps on their heads. I also identified the species from their racket.

sea lions

California sea lions are a noisy bunch that bellow and bark as they jockey for space among themselves.

The dull roar I heard at the waterfront, though, came from far more than the sea lions in sight. I set out to find the source of the commotion.

California sea lions are native to the Pacific Coast from Vancouver Island to the southern tip of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. These marine mammals with doglike faces are playful and intelligent.

Most of the trained “seals” in marine parks, including Hawaii’s Sea Life Park, are Cali­for­nia sea lions.

sea lions

In the early 1970s the species numbered about 10,000. Since the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972, the sea lion population has steadily increased. Approximately 300,000 individuals live along the coast today.

About a mile up the river, I saw, heard and smelled the cause of the commotion. It seemed as if half of Astoria’s 2,000 or so molting sea lions lay draped over one another on most of a marina’s floating docks, while the other half tried jumping onto the jam-packed platforms.

Those already on the pier roared their outrage.

Most of this marine mammal mass arrived to feast on an influx of smelt. The animals will stick around, biologists believe, for the spring salmon run.

Talk about an uproar. Fishers, marina owners, slip holders and nearby residents are on one side of this stinky situation, while conservationists, animal rights activists and some in the tourism industry are on the other.

sea lions

There are no easy fixes. Wildlife managers are considering options ranging from killing some of the creatures to building resting platforms strictly for the sea lions. Studies are ongoing.

Astoria is a fine place to visit for lots of reasons, one being its sea lions. The easy viewing of these animals is a time to think about ways humans can live in harmony with the wildlife we have chosen to protect.


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

©2015 Susan Scott

 

Here is one cephalopod that will be tough to forget

Published February 16, 2015 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2015 Susan Scott

turtle

Port Angeles, Wash. » While spending a few days in this town on the Olympic Peninsula, my friends took me to the Feiro Marine Center, where I fell in love with a giant Pacific octopus named Obeka.

“Giant” is part of the animal’s common name because this North Pacific species is the largest in the world. Adults grow to 110 pounds and, when spread out like an umbrella, can measure 20 feet across from arm tip to arm tip.

This female octopus isn’t fully grown.

She weighed 1 pound when brought to the center a year ago. Now she weighs 35 pounds with a span of nearly 7 feet.

Obeka is a striking life form. When I first saw the vivid-orange octopus, she was resting, her head hidden behind huge suckers stuck on the aquarium glass.

octopus

A giant octopus has about 1,600 suckers. The largest on an adult are 2 1⁄2 inches across and can support about 35 pounds each.

The outer edge of the sucker contains ridges that help prevent slipping when clamped down. Muscles control the shape of the inner wall, creating the suction force for each individual sucker. But these suckers do more than suck. They taste what they touch.

With hundreds of round “tongues,” the octopus can hunt in total darkness and find food under rocks and in cracks.

octopus

Food in this case is anything the creature can catch, including birds. A giant octopus once astonished Washington state ferry workers by hiding under a rock near the terminal.

When a gull landed on the exposed surface at low tide, a suckered arm appeared from below, grabbed the unsuspecting bird and hauled it below for a meal.

The stories about giant octopuses slithering out of covered aquarium tanks to go hunting in a neighboring tank are true. Even though the boneless animals look like slimy blobs out of the water, their muscular arms and suckers still function on dry surfaces and can pull the body along for short distances.

Obeka so impressed me that I bought a book about giant octopuses. After reading a bit and chatting with the center’s workers, I revisited Obeka’s tank to tell her how extraordinary and beautiful I thought she was.

octopus

As if hearing me, she woke up, looked at me with intelligent eyes and crawled around her tank seemingly posing for pictures.

Before Obeka grows to full size, the marine center will return the potential mother to her ocean home to reproduce. She’ll die soon after her 68,000 eggs hatch (giant octopuses live about four years), but she will have left more than baby octopuses. In saying hello to a writer who can share the glory of the giant Pacific octopus, she has helped people appreciate these remarkable animals. Your species thanks you, Obeka. As does ours.


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

©2015 Susan Scott

 

Readers’ stories illustrate concern for marine animals

Published February 9, 2015 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2015 Susan Scott

turtle

My recent turtle and albatross columns, plus a fish bloom, prompted readers to email me some of their own encounters with marine animals.

Not all the stories were positive. One man threatened to sock a turtle lover with a sinker for asking the angler to fish somewhere besides a turtle hangout. Even so, all the stories are encouraging. They show that people care.

In my turtle rescue column I gave two phone numbers (725-5730 and 288-5685) to call to report injured turtles. But those Oahu numbers left neighbor islanders wondering who they should call. The following website gives current turtle rescue numbers for all islands: 1.usa.gov/1uy2piC.

Our monk seals have a different team of guardians and therefore different phone numbers. The Marine Mammal Stranding Hotline for monk seals injured or in trouble is 888-256-9840. Phone numbers for specific islands are at 1.usa.gov/1ysKPN8.

Now my cellphone contacts named “Turtle” and “Seal” have websites, too.

One reader saw a Japanese tour group taking pictures not 5 feet from a monk seal at Kaena Point. She explained that people must stay at least 150 feet from resting seals, but the visitors didn’t understand. Her good suggestion is that the English signs in the preserve should also be in Japanese and Chinese.

seal

Another Kaena Point concern was that nesting albatrosses were being disturbed by students weeding and planting inside the closed area. The reader worried because the birds were flying and vocalizing far more than in the past.

Having worked with albatrosses, I’m confident that the planters were not disturbing the nesting birds. Albatrosses evolved without predators and don’t fear humans — or hardly anything else.

Years ago on Midway, when the Navy still managed the atoll, I watched nesting albatrosses sit calm and collected as workers rode roaring lawn mowers in circles around the birds’ nests.

albies

The exuberant activity at Kaena right now is from young albatrosses singing and dancing to attract a lifetime mate. The partying is a sign the colony is growing because the birds that pair off at Kaena this year will return next year to raise chicks.

gurnard

And finally, several readers wrote to report sightings of flying gurnards. The fish don’t fly. Their name comes from winglike fins that fan the ocean floor to uncover shrimp and crabs.

Last fall Hawaii’s flying gurnards had such a population explosion that in some places they were washing ashore.

Think of the pictures you took of these usually rare fish the way I do my letters from readers: as gems to save.

Thank you all for taking the time to write.


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

©2015 Susan Scott

 

Tiny, hearty crustaceans thrive in muddy road ruts

Published February 2, 2015 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2015 Susan Scott
Triops means three eyes. The creature’s tiny third eye lies between its larger two. ©2015 Susan Scott

Triops means three eyes. The creature’s
tiny third eye lies between
its larger two. ©2015 Susan Scott

Last week, in a muddy car rut puddle on the road to Kaena Point, I found one of the most amazing animals on the planet.

I had no idea the creature even existed until Bruce Carlson, the former Wai­kiki Aquarium director, sent an email describing what he and his biologist wife, Marj Awai, found. Bruce said the animals would die when the puddle dried up, so I hurried to the potholed road that leads to the Kaena Point Nature Preserve. And there, just as Bruce and Marj reported, were hundreds of Triops longicaudatus.

The common name for this creature, which resembles a horseshoe crab, is tadpole shrimp, but it’s not a crab or a tadpole and doesn’t look like a shrimp. The 11⁄2 -inch-long Triops is an ancient crustacean all its own, considered a living fossil because it hasn’t changed in eons. The animals in our puddles exactly match their 70 million-year-old fossils.

Triops aren’t particularly rare. They live in puddles here and there throughout the world. You can even buy Triop egg kits on the Internet to raise your own. Sellers call the creatures aquasaurs, magic sea monsters and, in Australia, billabong bugs.

The road rut Triops are easy to spot in their puddles. The swirling silt clouds they make come from the creatures’ beating legs that direct a stream down a groove at the center of their undersides.

Tadpole shrimp tracks

Silt and water escape through the groove’s sifting hairs, but larger plant and animal pieces remain. Inner lobes on the legs direct the trapped food to the mouth.

As you might expect from animals that live only in patches of muddy water, Triops eat anything and everything, including each other.

mud

Each animal can be male, female or both, handy for reproducing when you’re stuck in a puddle. A female deposits her egg batches in the mud.

When the water evaporates, the adults die, but the thick-shelled eggs can live dry for up to 20 years. When rain makes puddles again, the eggs hatch and the cycle repeats.

triops

Adults live up to 90 days if their water holds out and birds don’t pick them off. Tracks around the Kaena Point puddles showed that birds were eating the Triops. Fish also eat them, which is why you’ll never find Triops in fishponds.

Kaena Point Nature Reserve hosts some of Hawaii’s most remarkable native animals. And who knew? So do the ruts in the road that lead there.

Thanks, Bruce and Marj, for sharing your discovery (see their video at bit.ly/1GSSI9c). I never had so much fun playing in the mud.

Playing in mud penalty

———


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

©2015 Susan Scott