Monthly Archives: October 2015

Silence is a rare commodity in the land of the sooty tern

Published October 24, 2015 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2015 Susan Scott

On Lady Musgrave Atoll a black noddy does what it does best. ©2015 Susan Scott

On Lady Musgrave Atoll a black noddy does what it does best. ©2015 Susan Scott

LADY MUSGRAVE ATOLL, Great Barrier Reef >> After a 10-hour sail to this national park, I launched Honu’s dinghy to visit the island inside the circular reef. I expected a tranquil beach walk followed by a peaceful picnic. Instead I could barely hear myself think for the flocks of calling, courting and nesting seabirds.

Loudest were the sooty terns, black-and-white seabirds found throughout the world’s tropics, including Hawaii.

Wildlife workers affectionately call the 13-inch-long birds sooties but because the terns shriek 24/7; their nickname is wideawakes. The distinctive calls are a pleasant nighttime sound at sea when flocks of sooties, attracted to Honu’s mast-top lights, circle the boat. The incessant screeches are so shrill, however, that biologists working in sooty colonies wear earplugs. No one knows whether sooties sleep. A Hawaii biologist told me that she once tried to design a study to answer that question. She failed because the only way you can truly tell whether a person or animal is asleep is to monitor brain waves, and she couldn’t figure a way to attach electric encephalogram leads to the birds’ little heads.

Sooty Turn, AKA Wideawake. At Tern Island but same species. Tern Island was named after the sooties. ©2015 Susan Scott

Sooty Turn, AKA Wideawake. At Tern Island but same species.
Tern Island was named after the sooties. ©2015 Susan Scott

The other major noisemakers in this atoll’s 34-acre island are black noddies. Like sooties, these similar-size black seabirds with white caps are also widespread throughout the world’s tropics. Noddy calls, however, are easier on the ear, being more of a loud twang than a screech. Noddies are the courtliest of seabirds. Their name comes from prospective mates facing one another and nodding. The deep dips look like regal bows. When watching them I imagine one bird saying, “It’s an honor to meet you,” and the other replying, “The pleasure is all mine.”

Sooties are ground nesters but black noddies like trees. As a result, the island’s Pisonia forest is now packed with pinging, curtsying noddies looking for mates and building nests. When I sat on a log to eat lunch, busy noddies hopped around my outstretched feet collecting grass and twigs. The trees, in turn, like black noddies. Some chicks get hopelessly stuck in Pisonia trees’ gooey seeds. After the chick dies, its remains fall to the ground, adding essential nutrients to the soil. Park signs explain this natural process of fertilizing the trees and ask softhearted visitors not to save gummed-up chicks.

Black noddy. ©2015 Susan Scott

Black noddy. ©2015 Susan Scott

Because the Southern Hemisphere’s noddies are just beginning to lay eggs, I didn’t have the temptation. When I sailed here in June, midwinter, the only sounds I heard in the island’s dense forest were fat raindrops plunking onto fallen leaves. What a difference spring makes.


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

©2015 Susan Scott

 

Putting a boat back in water can be adventurous in itself

Published October 19, 2015 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2015 Susan Scott

BUNDABERG RIVER, QUEENSLAND, Australia >> When I left my sailboat, Honu, here in July, it was in a slip in the marina. But while I was home in Hawaii, my friend found a problem that required taking the boat to dry dock. Colin repaired the boo-boos (fix one, find another), and that made my first chore here to splash the boat, meaning get it back in the water.

Splashing a 37-foot sailboat weighing 20 tons is accomplished with a contraption called a Travel Lift, a machine so huge, loud and odd-looking that it reminds me of a movie-style Transformer.

While I stood on the deck with Colin, workers drove this roaring robot over Honu to straddle her and fastened two giant belts under the hull, front and rear. When all was deemed secure, up rose the boat from its land supports, and off we drove to the launch site, Honu swaying in her slings.

During the short journey, I remembered boatyard tales of belts failing and boats dropping, but all went well and soon Honu was hanging over the water. Because boat engines pump seawater for coolant, you can’t start the motor before the hull is afloat. The driver lowered the slings and boat into the water, and it was time to try the repaired engine. The engine started right up — hooray — but when Colin and I dashed below to check for leaks, we found a geyser of that cooling seawater spurting throughout the engine room.

Quick, get the socket set!

Just as Colin finished tightening two loose hose clamps, plop, into the bilge fell the socket. The marina had assigned Honu a slip, and off I drove. I started out OK, but as I turned in, a gust of wind hit the boat on the side.

As a result, Colin couldn’t throw the rear line to a helper waiting on the dock, so he threw the front (bow) line instead. When the guy pulled on the bow, Honu’s rear end swung far from the dock. Nuts. I was going in sideways.

The result was six men shouting various instructions as Honu drifted askew. Fortunately, the two-slip space was large and empty. Eventually, with the help of my well-working motor and neighbors, I got Honu straightened out and tied up. In the wrong slip, but still.

The boat was afloat, and I didn’t crash it or hurt anyone in the process. Well, I hurt myself a little. I discovered three oozing scrapes on my right shin, a small gash on my left hand and a deep scratch on my thigh. I had no idea how or when each injury occurred, but my friend Alex maintains that if you’re bleeding and don’t know why, it means you’re having a good time.

We borrowed a Shop-Vac to suck up the seawater in the engine pan, and Colin drove to town and bought a replacement socket. When I reported to the office that I ended up in the wrong slip, the worker there did the typical Australian thing. Turning to the marina map grease board, she rubbed out the name Honu from slip 9 and rewrote it in slip 8. “There,” she said. “No worries.”

Now I’m provisioned, fueled up and at anchor in the Bundaberg River, the ideal place for our 2 a.m. departure. Yes, our. My longtime friend Colin, a shipwright and crackerjack boat fixer, said he’s heard enough about Pancake Creek and Lady Musgrave over the years that he wants to see them.

Alex is right about the bleeding. I’m having a blast.


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

©2015 Susan Scott

 

Kangaroos are surprisingly excellent ocean swimmers

Published October 12, 2015 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2015 Susan Scott

A baby kangaroo, or joey, fits comfortably in writer Susan Scott’s hand. ©2015 Susan Scott

A baby kangaroo, or joey, fits comfortably in writer Susan Scott’s hand. ©2015 Susan Scott

BUNDABERG, Australia >> Today is my first day back on my sailboat, Honu, moored here in the Bundaberg Port Marina. Bundaberg is a town in Queensland, the state famous for its offshore neighbor, the Great Barrier Reef.

I say offshore because the closest atoll from this marina to Great Barrier Reef National Park is 50 miles, and in some places the islands and reefs are 100 miles out. If the weather permits and my boat systems work, I plan to sail to the closest atoll, Lady Musgrave. But even if I stay in the marina to wait out strong winds or make repairs, I’ll be having a good time with one of my favorite marine animals: kangaroos.

OK, kangaroos aren’t marine animals. But during past visits to Australia, I’ve had outstanding experiences with these creatures on islands, in beach parks and at shore-side wildlife facilities. Several years ago I sailed solo to Brampton Island, one of the 300 or so islands in the Great Barrier Reef. After anchoring, I rowed my dinghy ashore and headed off on a hike. The island was having a butterfly bloom at the time, and as I stood spellbound in a blizzard of blue wings, the ground began to shake. Earthquake! I thought, heart pounding. Tsunami!

My panic didn’t last long, though, because a moment later, hopping down the trail like a bunch of mutant bunnies, was a family of eastern gray kangaroos.

Hikingwithroos_small

Kangaroos can’t walk backward, so when the dominant male (called a boomer), saw me, he made a wide U-turn. His family followed, and off they bounced, creating another trail tremor.

The eastern gray kangaroo is a heavyweight, not as tall as the red species, but weighting about the same, up to 200 pounds for males, 100 for females.

People didn’t bring these kangaroos to the island. Surprisingly, kangaroos are excellent swimmers and do just fine in the ocean, even maneuvering around stand-up paddlers: bit.ly/1PdBV2T.

Another time here, I visited a beach-side trailer park known for kind residents rescuing orphaned roos when their mothers are hit by cars. To escape early-evening mosquitoes, the kangaroos there hop to the beach and stand in the water. Afterward the animals spring back to their human friends for dinner, served in dog dishes at the door of each person’s home.

P1120772_small

Last year I visited a private wildlife facility and arrived to find a worker bottle-feeding a baby kangaroo. That nice woman had no idea what a joyous moment she gave me when she handed the joey to me and let me feed it.

Now I’m back in Australia looking for more roo delights. I don’t have to look far. Kangaroos might not be marine animals, but (thank you!) they routinely visit this marina.

DSCN0118_small


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

©2015 Susan Scott

 

Puffer fish armed with toxin in addition to its spiny body

Published October 5,, 2015 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2015 Susan Scott

A dead ulua, or jack, washed up on Kailua Beach recently after having tried to ingest a porcupine puffer fish, which inflated and stuck in its throat. ©Greg Turnbull

A dead ulua, or jack, washed up on Kailua Beach recently after having tried to ingest a porcupine puffer fish, which inflated and stuck in its throat. ©Greg Turnbull

Kailua resident Greg Turnbull sent a picture of a freshly dead, 36-inch-long fish he found on Kailua Beach during a recent dawn walk. Greg thought the fish was an ulua (jack), and I agree. Although it’s unusual for a big jack to wash up on an Oahu beach, that’s not what drove Greg to take the picture. The gaping ulua had an inflated porcupine puffer fish stuck in its throat.

The puffer fish made a fatal mistake. Swelling up in a predator’s throat is a good ploy to prevent being swallowed, but step two is crucial. The puffer must shrink and run before the suffocated fish washes ashore.

People call the 120 or so species of puffer fish several names — balloon fish, blowfish, globefish, toadfish — all referring to their famous defense: an elastic stomach. When threatened, a puffer engorges its stretchy stomach with water or, if a predator drives the puffer to the surface, air.

Susan holding a puffer fish. Courtesy Craig Thomas

Susan holding a puffer fish. Courtesy Craig Thomas

The idea is to grow too big for a predator’s mouth. If the pursuer has a really big mouth, the puffer sticks in the fish’s throat. Because fish breathe by taking water in the mouth and expelling it out the gills, a throat full of puffer fish is deadly.

Another deadly puffer defense is the ability to store a poison called tetrodotoxin. In the ocean, puffers eat plants and animals that contain naturally occurring bacteria that manufacture tetrodotoxin. By choosing food that doesn’t contain those bacteria, aquaculturists can raise poison-free puffer fish.

Tetrodotoxin is well known for being so potent that a tiny dose can kill a person in minutes. The poison blocks sodium channels in nerves, and when sodium can’t enter a nerve cell, it can’t tell muscles what to do, such as breathe. There’s no antidote to the toxin, but, because it wears off by itself, artificial breathing can save a victim.

Ulua (Jack). Courtesy Russell Gilbert

Ulua (Jack). Courtesy Russell Gilbert

So, I wondered, are jacks immune to tetrodotoxin?

Hard to say. Puffer fish have been found in tiger shark stomachs, and the Internet has pictures of a snapper, frogfish, loggerhead turtle and duck eating a puffer fish, but it’s unstated whether the animals lived or died. What I did learn, however, is that the sodium channels in some snails, crabs and presumably tiger sharks are unaffected by tetrodotoxin.

I also learned in my reading that 19th-century warriors from the Gilbert Islands (today Kiribati) wore what a British explorer in 1847 called “an extraordinary looking apology for a helmet.” The illustration shows a porcupine puffer fish skin on the head of a warrior. Apparently the man mistook a fish for a hat.

Thanks, Greg, for sharing your picture. It’s great food for thought.


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

©2015 Susan Scott