Monthly Archives: March 2016

New Oahu albatross colony required a huge team effort

Published March 28, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott
These albatross chicks, with an adult decoy, were raised at James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge in Kahuku. ©2016 Susan Scott

These albatross chicks, with an adult decoy, were raised at James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge in Kahuku. ©2016 Susan Scott

Last week I visited the cutest albatross chicks in the world, balls of down so bottom-heavy they look like beanbag toys.

OK, all baby birds are adorable, but these aren’t your average chicks. They’re subjects in a grand experiment to start a new albatross colony in a protected place.

This story begins in the 1970s when albatrosses began laying eggs at the Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai’s west coast. Besides the big seabirds being aircraft hazards, dogs destroyed their eggs and killed their chicks.

Workers tried shooing the birds away, but the albatrosses came right back. Next, biologists caught the birds and drove them in pet carriers to the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge where other albatrosses nest. Albatrosses, however, raise their chicks where they themselves fledged. Back to the missile base they flew.

So workers collected the birds’ freshly laid eggs and placed them under albatrosses with infertile or lost eggs at the Kilauea Point colony. But because there aren’t enough eggless adults there for all the PMRF eggs, some had to be destroyed.

Conservation workers from multiple agencies thought: Why waste albatross eggs? And they hatched an intricate plan. . Biologists flew the fertile PMRF eggs to Oahu, warmed some in incubators but placed most under chickless adults at Kaena Point.

After a month, long enough for the youngsters to learn they’re albatrosses, biologists collected the foster kids, drove them to the James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge in Kahuku and fed the toddlers fish slurry. Success. Ten chicks fledged from that haven, hopefully to return in two to five years to raise their own offspring.

This year workers are feeding 20 translocated chicks in the locked-gate sanctuary, safe from aircraft and vandalism and elevated enough to protect the colony from sea level rise. A predator-proof fence is on the way.

Last week I watched biologists lovingly feed those 20 butterball babies. Five days later the Navy invited me to tour the Kauai’s PMRF, where I met adult albatrosses, some likely the parents of the James Campbell chicks.

“Go to Oahu,” I wanted to shout to the lingering adults. “Your chicks are there, fat and healthy.”

The planning, money, permitting and hard work involved in creating a secure place for a new albatross colony, and then persuading the birds to use it, required tremendous team effort. But caring people in the Navy, Pacific Rim Conservation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the American Bird Conservancy, additional agencies and countless volunteers got together and made it happen. Now it’s up to the birds.

To donate money or time to this project, see bit.ly/1ShWM5r.

 

A humpback can be home to a half-ton of barnacles

Published March 21, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott
The Coronula diadema, or whale barnacle, is known to live only on the skin of humpback whales. ©2016 Robert Maughan.

The Coronula diadema, or whale barnacle, is known to live only on the skin of humpback whales. ©2016 Robert Maughan.

On a beach last week, Molokai reader Robert Maughan found a shell he describes as a 2-1/2-by-2-1/2-inch coral-urchin-barnacle. “Never seen the likes,” Maughan wrote. He sent two photos, and I had never seen the likes, either. But I recognized the shape and soon found the answer. Maughan had found the shell of Coronula diadema, a barnacle species that grows only on humpback whales.

Left to its own devices, an adult barnacle is a stationary creature, stuck at home forever. Living on the skin of a whale, however, is like riding a bus through Foodland. As the whale swims, the barnacles on board stick out their feathery feet and snag passing plankton.

Gray whales also have their own distinct barnacle, which begs the question: How do species-specific barnacle babies locate the right whale to ride?

It starts with the basics. Barnacles require internal fertilization, but this is tough when you’re glued to one spot.

Barnacles attached to the ventral pleats of a humpback whale calf (photo taken during necropsy). Alaska, Peril Strait, Baranof Island. 2005 October 18. Aleria Jensen, NOAA/NMFS/AKFSC.

Barnacles attached to the ventral pleats of a humpback whale calf (photo taken during necropsy). Alaska, Peril Strait, Baranof Island. 2005 October 18. Aleria Jensen, NOAA/NMFS/AKFSC.

Barnacles overcome this handicap by bearing both eggs and sperm. The creatures don’t self-fertilize, but because they live in shell-to-shell colonies, each barnacle can snake out its remarkably long penis and fertilize the neighbor’s eggs.

DNA studies show that some barnacles fertilize more distant members by ejaculating into the water. Others of the species catch the drifting sperm.

Fertilized eggs grow into swimming larvae that must find a home in a neighborhood of its own kind or die. This is easier than it sounds because adult colony members release chemical signals that help youngsters find their own species.

Once a young barnacle touches a whale’s skin, the larva uses its antennae to walk around the whale in search of prime real estate on the head or fins. A sticky substance helps the larvae hang on while trekking.

Maughan wrote that when he found the shell, it had a black membrane over its bottom. That was whale skin. Once it’s happy with a location, the developing barnacle gradually draws into its shell prongs of growing whale skin, rooting the barnacle firmly in place.

Whale barnacle, bottom. ©2016 Robert Maughan.

Whale barnacle, bottom. ©2016 Robert Maughan.

An adult humpback whale can carry up to 1,000 pounds of barnacles. But because whales weigh about 80,000 pounds, the barnacle load is no more of a burden than us wearing a sweater.

Thank you, Robert, for sharing your story and pictures. I know that during beach walks a lot of us will now be looking for our own whale barnacles.

Ke Kai Ola is a healing place for Hawaii’s rare monk seals

Published March 14, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott
Monk seal pups Pearl and Hermes are nearly back to full strength at Ke Kai Ola. Courtesy Julie Steelman / NOAA 16632-00-932-1905-01MA-009526-1

Monk seal pups Pearl and Hermes are nearly back to full strength at Ke Kai Ola. Courtesy Julie Steelman / NOAA 16632-00-932-1905-01MA-009526-1

In 2014 I heard that a monk seal hospital opened on Hawaii island’s Kona Coast. I didn’t know any more about it until a year later when I picked up a friend returning from Midway Atoll. His seatmates on the plane had been two monk seal pups found at Pearl and Hermes Atoll in Papahanau- mokuakea National Marine Monument.

The curious and adorable youngsters, each resting in its own crate, sniffed us human admirers before workers whisked the babies away. The hungry pups, abandoned by their mothers, were going to Ke Kai Ola, Hawaii’s monk seal hospital.

The next time I’m on the Big Island, I vowed, I’m going to this place and see what it’s about. The time arrived. During my visit last week, I learned that Ke Kai Ola is an arm of the Marine Mammal Center, a nonprofit veterinary research hospital and educational facility in Sausalito, Calif. Its Kona branch is in the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority, a site where deep, pristine seawater is available for various projects.

Hospital manager Deb Wickham welcomed me warmly. Deb showed me not only an education center, but a state-of-the-art operating room, a kitchen to prepare seal meals, the water circulation system and four saltwater recovery pools.

We talked in the building’s central office, which looks like a miniature mission control.

To prevent recuperating seals from becoming accustomed to people, hospital staff don’t let the seals see them more than necessary. Four closed-circuit cameras provide live coverage of the pools, enabling workers to observe the seals’ activity on large monitors.

A one-way window also lets caregivers watch the seals’ behavior undetected.

In its 21 months of operation, Ke Kai Ola has rehabilitated 15 injured, sick and emaciated monk seals. With 1,200 Hawaiian monk seals left in the world, that’s a significant 1 percent of the population.

Monk seals spend two-thirds of their time at sea, hunting for fish, lobster and octopus. When not hunting, seals nap on sandy beaches and rocky shores. If you see a monk seal, stay at least 50 yards away and, please, be quiet. Let the tired animal rest.

I was happy to learn that the pups I met at the airport, named Pearl and Hermes, are fat, healthy and will soon go back to their ocean home. Five other recovered monk seals are also nearly ready to go.

I enjoyed visiting this place of healing and discovering what it’s about. This gift to Hawaii’s seals, one of the rarest seal species on Earth, is about caring.

As a nonprofit group, Ke Kai Ola needs volunteers and donations. To contribute go to marinemammalcenter.org. It’s a great way to show that we care.

Naming sea creatures sometimes had odd results

Published March 7, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott
 A ghost crab has a turtle hatchling caught in its pincers. The tiny turtles must pass the crabs to make it to the ocean. ©2016 Susan Scott

A ghost crab has a turtle hatchling caught in its pincers. The tiny turtles must pass the crabs to make it to the ocean. ©2016 Susan Scott

In my Feb. 22 column, I wondered about the origin of the odd fish name “Moorish idol.” About that, Honolulu reader Ned Conklin emailed an excerpt from a 2007 book, “When Languages Die,” by K. David Harrison (Oxford University Press).

The author writes that early European explorers and naturalists disregarded native names for plants and animals, and instead gave them English names relating to something the species reminded them of back home. For instance, on Capt. James Cook’s third voyage, 1776-80, the naturalist aboard named a damselfish with stripes a sergeant, because a British sergeant’s uniform had stripes.

Scientists later learned that the sergeant fish was actually three species. Fish namers stuck with the historic term “sergeant” but added other words to tell the species apart. Hawaii’s endemic sergeant became the Hawaiian sergeant. The damselfish with wider and longer stripes and a wide range is the Indo-Pacific sergeant. And the fish with stripes that lighten and darken, and that has a black spot on its rear, was named the blackspot sergeant.

As to the Moorish idol, Harrison writes, “A fish with a dark-colored face spotted by Capt. Cook’s crew off Hawaii received the exotic name ‘Moorish idol.’”

Another reader, Utah biologist Robert Schmidt, emailed about my Feb. 8 column on ghost crabs. Robert thought he read that ghost crabs blinded or maimed turtle hatchlings before pulling them into their burrows, thereby preventing the hatchlings from escaping. He can’t find a reference to these behaviors and asked, “Do you know anything about this?”

Only what I saw. On Tern Island I watched turtle hatchlings run the ghost crab gauntlet in their race to the ocean. If the crab got hold of only one flipper, the turtle usually got away. But when the crab got a flipper in each of its two pincers the turtle couldn’t escape.

I rescued several hatchlings before they got dragged down a crab hole, and they ran away seemingly uninjured. But I got there too late for some. Lifting one turtle from a crab hole entrance, I found its head missing and the entire body hollowed out. Efficient, those crabs.

Besides being occasional crab food, turtle hatchlings are pupu for seabirds from above and fish from below. Only about 1 hatched turtle in 1,000 makes it to adulthood.

On the bright side, healthy adult turtles are common in Oahu waters, as are ghost crabs performing their daily beach cleanups and sand aeration.

Ned and Robert, thanks for the interesting emails. But I still don’t understand why a naturalist linked the term “Moorish” with “idol.” An exotic name indeed.