Monthly Archives: January 2016

Beachcombers treasure glass floats for fishing nets

Published January 25, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott
glass float

Luke Halpin was the first to see the glass ball he’s holding, and drew his own name in an onboard lottery to become its owner. Courtesy Jim Garrett

For most of us, finding a glass fishing float washed up on a beach is like finding a crystal ball. Collecting them is addicting, and there’s no such thing as having too many.

But the green balls aren’t treasure to everyone. Japanese fishermen think they’re junk. Nor did the Japanese invent them. A Norwegian glass blower began making the floats in 1842 to hold up cod gillnets. Glass proved sturdier than wood and cork, and by the 1940s anglers in Europe, Russia, Asia and North America were all using air-filled glass forms to float their nets and mark their traps.

According to collector Walt Pich, author of several books about Pacific glass floats, Hokkaido glass blower Hisakichi Asahara was the first in Japan to make the floats, in about 1910. Asahara’s hand-blown spheres were a hit with fishers, and orders poured in.

By the 1920s the Asahara family was producing tens of thousands of glass balls in shops throughout Japan. Russian, Taiwanese and Korean glass blowers joined the boom, and by the 1930s millions of glass floats were holding up lines, nets and trawls in the Pacific.

Most Japanese floats are green because the makers used recycled green sake bottles. Other colors reflect glass reused from other sources.

Sizes varied according to need, including shapes that collectors call rolling pins, dumbbells, pumpkins and more. Glass blowers sealed the floats with so-called “buttons,” sometimes pressing trademarks into them. The Asaharas didn’t bother, leaving their buttons blank.

To hold their floats, fishers tied rope around them, often in artful knot-work. When storms tore open their coverings, the glass balls, freed from their day jobs, became drifters.

When cheaper, more durable plastic and foam floats came along, fishermen stopped buying glass ones. Today you can find new glass spheres in curio shops, but to beachcombers those don’t count. The thrill is in the finding. Or the winning. In March my friend Luke Halpin spotted a netted glass ball from the deck of a research vessel off Vancouver Island. The crew retrieved the sphere, and to be fair the captain had the names of everyone aboard put in a hat. Traditionally the person who saw the float first picked the winner. Luke drew his own name.

Those of us who have glass balls know their magic. Looking into them gives us a glimpse of a past era in a distant land and also reminds us that the Pacific Ocean is an enormous pot constantly stirring. And like all crystal balls, the floats show us a bit of our future: We will be looking for more glass balls.

With friends amid the reef, snorkeling becomes social

Published January 18, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott
Trumpetfish

A trumpetfish is counted among the regulars living their lives near a beach along Oahu’s North Shore. ©2015 Susan Scott

While working at Midway, Craig and I made a new friend and invited him to stay with us for a couple of days before he went home to Canada. Because Luke loves snorkeling, and so does Craig’s mother, Claire, visiting from Seattle, we went to my favorite North Shore beach and plunged in.

I know the area well and guided our guests to a turtle spa, where we watched damselfish nibble algae off the turtles’ shells and pluck parasites from their skin. In addition to the usual reef fish, we found a scorpionfish, some marbled shrimp and a yellow-margin moray eel hiding under a rock.

It was a great day, we all agreed, and headed for the beach. But Luke wasn’t done. Calling my name, he motioned for me to come look.

I arrived to find a gray, nearly 3-foot-long trumpetfish standing on its head. The sight is always marvelous, but was even more so because I know that fish. The big predator hangs out near the turtle cleaning station pretending to be a stick. When a gullible fish swims close, the trumpetfish inhales it.

You would think the fish in that area might figure out that that’s no stick in the water, but no. The trumpetfish is huge, healthy and nearly always there.

Cornetfish, close cousins of the trumpetfish, also hang out on that reef. (It has a strong horn section.) Both species have long narrow bodies, but with a notable difference.

From above looking down, and also head-on, trumpetfish look so slim, you can totally miss seeing the fish. But view the same fish from the side and it’s several inches tall, the body broad and beefy.

Cornetfish bodies are the reverse: Their backs are wide enough to be obvious from above, but from the side the fish is flat as a plate and nearly invisible. To further fool their prey, both types can change colors and patterns to blend in with their backgrounds.

Trumpetfish grow about 30 inches long and are like sticks in that they can’t bend their bodies. But cornetfish can. They spring-load their 63-inch-long (maximum length) bodies in an S shape and lunge for their prey.

Trumpetfish and cornetfish are easy to tell apart by their tails. The trumpetfish’s tail is a stubby stalk ending in a fan. The cornetfish’s tail looks like a whip. Both species use the vacuum cleaner method of capture: The fish suck prey into their expandable mouths.

By swimming often in the same place, I recognize some of the undersea locals and consider them friends. As I do 33-year-old Luke and 92-year-old Claire. Snorkeling is a communal ocean sport where neither age nor species matters. What does matter is where you do it.

Workers find plenty to like about their feathery friends

Published January 4, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott
Albatross

Albatrosses at Midway are curious about volunteers on the atoll, but because they evolved without land predators, are unafraid. ©Susan Scott

MIDWAY ATOLL >> Why do 18 people with a range of backgrounds pay their own expenses to count albatrosses on a remote atoll over the holidays? We’re nature lovers, of course, but we have another link: We think living with albatrosses is fun.

Everyone marvels at the goose-size birds’ boisterous songs and delirious dances, but albatrosses have nearly endless endearing behaviors. When I asked each of my five team members to name their favorite, the response was the same: “I have to pick just one?”

Martha chose egg talk. Every once in a while a brooding bird stands up, lowers its beak to the egg and murmurs, “Eh, eh, eh.” No one knows what this means, but it’s likely voice recognition between parents and offspring, crucial when mom or dad return with a meal to a colony of hundreds of thousands of wandering, identical-looking chicks.

Craig likes shift change. For the 63-day incubation period, albatross couples take turns keeping their egg warm, the on-duty bird sitting for up to three weeks. Yet even though the sedentary bird’s digestive tract is empty after the first few days, the sitter hates to quit work. The resulting circling, murmuring and nudging by the relief partner goes on for so long that witnessing the actual transfer is a noteworthy event.

Ann-Sheree is fond of the way couples groom each other’s feathers in affectionate nibbles with those big sharp beaks. The recipient closes its eyes and turns its head and neck as if getting a massage. Then it’s the other’s turn for a tender feather fix.

Breck and Luke picked as their favorite behaviors some albatrosses’ show of utter indignation when annoyed. Each bird has its own personality, and a few are quick to issue a snappy bill-clacking warning to back off when a bird dances too near a nest or a human steps too close. A few plucky individuals deliver a peck.

These seldom connect, but when they do it’s a pinch of a pant leg or, at worst, a scratch on the skin. Afterward the bird looks smug, as if to say, “Well, I warned you.”

As for me, I love that albatrosses, lacking natural land predators, aren’t afraid of me. When I sit on the road taking pictures, young walkers often stop by and gently touch my shoe, shirt, camera or arm. What are you? I imagine them thinking as they stare up at my face. Looking into the eyes of an albatross as it calmly gazes back makes me happy to be alive. I know I speak for us all when I say that working at Midway is the privilege of a lifetime. It’s also really fun.

Check out volunteer opportunities at Get Involved.

Mystery of Midway kolea remains unsolved for now

Published January 11, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott
web1_11-a2-kolea

Some Pacific golden plovers, or kolea, spend their winters on Midway. ©LUKE HALPIN

I’m home from Midway, where I learned a lot about albatrosses. But one highlight of my visit came as a surprise: a flock of kolea.

I knew a few Pacific golden plovers wintered on Midway, and saw the occasional bird hopping around our living quarters. What I didn’t know is that they sometimes graze together there in large numbers.

Every day, kolea gathered among morning glory vines growing over a stretch of cement rubble that lies between runway and ocean. I wondered what the birds found so tasty in that one spot. And because our Oahu plovers so ferociously fight other birds with the nerve to trespass on their territory, I was also curious about how close together these individuals foraged. I rode my bike to the place to find out. The kolea had other ideas. From 100 to 200 birds immediately rose up and flew off together toward the ocean. Having never seen a flock of plovers in flight before, I was thrilled. But I needed to see birds on the ground.

I sat down and waited. And waited. After an hour not one bird had come back. Clearly, to see what these kolea were up to, I would have to be sneaky.

The next day, I stopped my bike far from the area and walked toward the vines. As I drew closer, I could make out the birds’ busy heads bobbing among the rocks and leaves in that stab-run-stab gait so familiar to us Hawaii residents.

I slowed my pace, taking one small step every 15 seconds, figuring the birds wouldn’t notice that I was drawing closer. Wrong. One danger call — “CHU-EET!” — and they were all gone.

The following day, after again flushing the birds, I sat atop sharp cement shards and leaned against a naupaka bush staying as still as I could. One kolea landed on the rusty breakwater, then another and another. Gotcha, I thought. But as I raised my camera for a picture, a bird raised the alarm. Gone again.

The next day, I dressed in dark clothes and took with me a padded beach chair that I nestled inside the branches of the little naupaka. Not a single bird landed in the vines, the slabs or even atop the distant breakwater. I sat there so long I nodded off; when I awoke there was still not a single bird in sight.

Before I admitted defeat, I crawled on hands and knees among the green vines and cement chunks but didn’t see a single living grub or insect, or evidence of anything eating the leaves or flowers.

The mystery of the morning glory plovers remains unsolved, but my efforts weren’t entirely in vain. The Midway birds’ wariness made me appreciate even more our Oahu plovers’ remarkable adaptation to human presence in urban settings. At the beach park next time, I’ll thank them.