Monthly Archives: September 2015

Writer none the worse after close encounter with moray

Published September 28, 2015 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser
 ©2015 Susan Scott

A moray eel is shown here, nestled below a female marbled shrimp. The eel failed to bite the unknowing snorkeler who snapped the picture, even though it easily could have. ©2015 Susan Scott

A moray eel is shown here, nestled below a female marbled shrimp. The eel failed to bite the unknowing snorkeler who snapped the picture, even though it easily could have. ©2015 Susan Scott

To people who fear moray eels: don’t. Unless you accidentally place a hand or foot right in a moray’s mouth, it will nearly always back off. Now I have photographic proof.

While snorkeling recently, I found a female marbled shrimp, one of Hawaii’s most fetching marine animals. The species’ 2- to 3-inch-long body is greenish by day, reddish at night and patterned in a stunning mosaic.

And the splendor doesn’t stop there. Purple and white stripes decorate the marbled shrimp’s legs, and bright spots on the antennae and tail shine yellow.

Marbled shrimp are popular in the aquarium trade because they’re hardy as well as beautiful. Due to the hump on the creature’s back, marbled shrimp are also known as camel, buffalo or broken-back shrimp. Some aquarists call them Saron shrimp, Saron being the shrimp’s first scientific name.


The second scientific name, marmoratus, means marbled, a name referring to the color mix.

Marbled shrimp are common, but we don’t see them often because they hide during the day. At night these walking impressionist paintings roam the reef, eating plants and animals dead or alive.

I knew my shrimp was a female because females’ front pair of legs and bodies contain furry bristles, sometimes so dense the shrimp look like they’re carrying tiny brushes. Years ago while diving with John Hoover, author of several marine animal guides, we came across a dozen of these woolly creatures. “I don’t know their real name,” he told me later, “but I call them Fuller Brush shrimp.”

Male and female marbled shrimp look so different from one another that for years I thought they were two species.

Males never wear fur coats and have a pair of ridiculously long, claw-tipped legs, reminiscent of knights’ jousting sticks. The males use those legs for the same purpose: to fight each other from a distance.


I was thrilled when I found a large female marbled shrimp posing on a coral head in the early morning light. Holding my breath, I lowered my face and camera to the shrimp by hanging onto the underside of the coral rock below it. The shrimp held still for half a dozen shots before she retreated.

Back home I downloaded my pictures — and my eyes nearly popped out of my head. Unknown to me, my darling shrimp had been on the upper lanai of a coral townhouse. So focused was I on the shrimp that I never saw its downstairs neighbor, a yellow margin moray.

I thank the Fuller Brush shrimp for modeling that day and the moray for, amazingly, not biting when my hand was virtually in its mouth. The unlikely pair gave me one of my favorite pictures.

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

©2015 Susan Scott


It’s a fact: A squid’s a squid and an octopus is an octopus

Published September 21, 2015 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser
©2015 Susan Scott

One of Claire’s 3-inch- long squids — not the same as an octopus. ©2015 Susan Scott

One of Claire’s 3-inch- long squids — not the same as an octopus. ©2015 Susan Scott

I have a special reader in the Seattle area who loves ocean animals as much as I do. For years, Claire has sent clippings and Internet links that she thinks will be interesting to me. And they always are.

Last week she sent an online magazine piece, found at, with this headline: “These terrifying squids will freak you out (pictures).” With the link also came Claire’s usual good questions, not about squids, but about octopuses. That’s because her first question was, “Are squid and octopus interchangeable terms?” No. Although the two animals are closely related, they’re different creatures in different families. About 300 species of octopuses and 300 species of squids inhabit the world’s oceans. Both come in miniature versions of their kind, and go all the way up to fearsome giants — fearsome because besides looking bizarre, squids and octopuses are impressive predators.

In most parts of the world, an octopus is called an octopus and a squid a squid. Hawaii octopus hunters, however, use squid for both. Ancient Hawaiians distinguished the two, naming squids muhee and octopuses hee. The word tako, common in Hawaii, is Japanese for octopus.


And yes, Claire, people hunt octopuses here and throughout the world, including species of the Pacific Northwest. Octopus is considered by many a delicacy, both raw and cooked. The demand for octopus as food is spawning aquaculture ventures, a challenging industry given the drifting conditions tiny octopus hatchlings need to get started in life.

Claire wondered about the correct plural for octopus. It’s not octopi. An “i” ending is plural in Latin, but octopus is a Greek word and the plural ending in that language is “odes.” But since “octopodes” never caught on, linguists and researchers have settled on the English ending “es.” And so we say, correctly, sort of, octopuses.

Although they belong to separate families, octopuses and squids have similarities. One is that all have eight suckered arms. These are arms, not tentacles, a necessary distinction because in addition to eight arms, squids have two tentacles, specialized for snatching fast-swimming prey in the open ocean. Squid tentacles can stretch long and retract fast like rubber bands.

To answer Claire’s last question, octopuses can indeed grow an arm back if they lose one. Unlike some starfish, though, the lost arm can’t grow a new octopus.

Claire, by the way, is my mother-in-law, and at 92 is still a great snorkeling buddy. The last time we snorkeled together on the North Shore, she found something I’ve never seen before or since: three baby squids.

Thank you, Claire, for questioning and keeping me current.

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

©2015 Susan Scott


Yellowstripe goatfish use spiky beard to detect prey

Published September 14, 2015 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser
©2015 Susan Scott

Weke are yellowstripe goatfish; when they are under 7 inches long, like the fish shown here, they’re oama. Courtesy Scott R. Davis

Weke are yellowstripe goatfish; when they are under 7 inches long,
like the fish shown here, they’re oama. Courtesy Scott R. Davis

At my favorite snorkeling spot recently, I found a line of anglers blocking my usual beach entrance. I hadn’t seen them there before but I recognized the scene. In August and September, it’s common around the islands to see men, women and children fishing near one another with short poles in knee-deep water, white buckets waiting on the beach. Years ago, I didn’t know what this configuration meant so I asked an angler who explained that they were fishing for oama.

“My wife fries them up,” he said. “Delicious.”

Besides being good eating, the man told me that some anglers use oama as bait for papio.

“What are oama?” I asked.

“Baby weke,” he said.

Papio are the young of members of the jack (ulua) family and weke are yellowstripe goatfish. When weke are under 7 inches long, they’re oama.

Ten species of goatfish of various Hawaiian names swim in Hawaii’s waters. All are bottomfish that cruise the ocean floor poking two stiff chin whiskers into the sand and sediment. When the fish finds a shrimp, crab, worm or snail, it shoves its snout in the sand to nab it.

Goatfish are experts at finding the goodies because taste buds cover the wiggly extensions, which apparently reminded someone of a goat’s beard. Jacks and wrasses sometimes take advantage of the goatfish’s hunting tools and tag along, hoping to filch a flushed prey.

Weke are familiar to us snorkelers because these 14-inch-long fish like to forage in shallow water. The buttery yellow stripe running down the cream-colored body makes yellowstripe goatfish hard to spot at first, but when hunting, the fish blow their cover. The busy whiskers, called barbels, leave puffs of sediment in their wake.

Male goatfish also flutter their barbels to court females. (Look! I can waggle my whiskers!) When not eating or dating, goatfish tuck their goatees out of sight under their chins.

Weke spawn at the edge of the reef and the resulting young hatch at sea. In late summer, the youngsters return to the reef, often hanging together by the hundreds.

Because I couldn’t politely get past the dozen or so oama fishers standing at my snorkeling spot, and didn’t want to risk getting hooked, I walked down the beach and entered there.


And whoa! There beyond the sand, tucked into the corner of two coral heads, hung a thousand resting oama, maybe more. Their yellow-striped bodies shimmered in the morning sun and they moved in that beautiful fluid synchrony of schooling fish.

I hope they made a run for it.


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

©2015 Susan Scott


Cyclones present obstacles to the Pacific golden plover

Published September 7, 2015 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2015 Susan Scott

An adult wedge-tailed shearwater. Courtesy Alex Wegmann

An adult wedge-tailed shearwater. Courtesy Alex Wegmann

We humans feel the effects of these storms in sweat, mosquito bites and high electrical bills. But what effect do cyclonic winds and torrents of rain have on migrating kolea? Some readers have been wondering via email how, and if, the birds flying from Alaska to Hawaii manage.

According to plover researcher Wally Johnson, the year-to-year differences in the survival rates of Hawaii’s Pacific golden plovers are probably due to weather. Severe winds during migration probably cause some mortality.

But never underestimate these extraordinary birds. In spite of storms, Arctic predators and enormous expanses to navigate, the survival rate of kolea is high.

“We know the birds have the capacity to fly for very long distances,” Johnson said in email. If blown off course, he continued, “they likely can re-orient and get back on target. We see lots of zigs and zags in our geolocator tracks and these must be wind-related.”

So for those still waiting for their feathered friend to return, there’s hope. And if an adult bird doesn’t make it back, natural selection might fill the vacancy. An empty territory is a bonanza for summer offspring that survived the flight to Hawaii and are now searching for food.

Another reader emailed that he recently hiked to Kaena Point to see wedge-tailed shearwaters (nickname: wedgies) but saw only some downy feathers and an unhatched egg. Because he saw rat traps, and concrete poured along the base of the fencing, he wondered whether predators were getting in.

Wedgie researcher Michelle Hester replied to my question, “The predator fence is working. Low trapping efforts will always be necessary inside the fence, as the ocean edges are open to critters..

The best time to see wedgies is July to November at dusk, when adults fly to the colony. Chicks begin fledging around Thanksgiving. Chicks aren’t usually visible because they wait deep inside their burrows for their parents to deliver food. But there are so many wedgies at Kaena that some parents nest under bushes or in burrows with skylights. You might see these chicks at any time..

After Thanksgiving the chicks wander around, giving admirers a good look at these native treasures. People from the mainland often say that Hawaii has no seasons. Tell that to the birds.

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

©2015 Susan Scott