Monthly Archives: June 2016

Huge sea life of great reef is too incredible to see solo

Published June 18, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott
A giant clam about 4 feet long was just one of the oversize specimens spotted in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. ©2016 Susan Scott

A giant clam about 4 feet long was just one of the oversize specimens spotted in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. ©2016 Susan Scott

BOWEN, Queensland, Australia >> Where fishing is prohibited here in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, I can describe the animals in one word: big.

I’ve seen turtles, invertebrates and fish so large I was happy I had Craig beside me as a witness or I would have doubted my own eyes.

One day off a Haslewood Island beach, Craig and I saw in the distance a mound of charcoal-black coral. We had never seen such a coral color and swam toward it. Then the hulk rose up and disappeared into deep water. As the enormous creature departed, we saw, to our astonishment, a pair of giant flippers. We both believe our “coral head” was a leatherback turtle.

Although leatherback turtles swim off most of Australia’s coasts, no nests have been found here since 1996. Maybe biologists will find a leatherback nest on a Haslewood beach.

In another area of the massive reef in Waite Bay, Craig and I each followed our own marvels and got separated. When I looked up he was barely visible in the distance, but I could see him motioning for me to come see what he found.

This had better be good, I thought, as I swam and swam, because I was passing some eye-popping-beautiful giant clams nestled in beds of corals as stunning as the most exquisite flower gardens.

We later laughed about my worry of missing the clams, because Craig had found the biggest giant clam either of us had ever seen, so old it had its own coral reef growing on its shells. The gaping mother of all clams was, we guessed, 4 feet long. We weren’t far off. The record shell size here is 3.7 feet long.

On another reef we spotted the father of all stingrays (clams seem female; stingrays, male) resting on a sandy patch in a shallow cave of corals. Stingrays aren’t aggressive, but seeing that the ray could escape its space only by swimming toward us, we slowly back-paddled. Never startle a snoozing stingray, especially one as big as an area rug.

And, oh dear, the fish. Schools of huge, rainbow-colored parrotfish roam the reefs. I’ve seen three 3-foot-long humphead wrasses and once found a giant black trevally hanging out under the boat. Even the squirrelfish are supersized, their dark eyes set like jewels against their brilliant red-and-white striped skin.

The weather has been so calm for snorkeling most of the past five weeks that my mask has given me face-ache. But now we’re having a different kind of adventure: knock-down wind. Honu is holed up at the friendly North Queensland Cruising Yacht Club as we wait out rain and impressive blasts of 30-35 knots. But I’m not complaining. On the Great Barrier Reef, even the tradewinds are big.

Great reef’s coral array, sea castles still awe explorers

Published June 11, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott

coral1HOOK ISLAND, GREAT BARRIER REEF MARINE PARK >> While snorkeling here this week, I found myself thinking that there’s too much coral.

Capt. Cook thought so, too, in 1770, and he didn’t even know that the lagoon he was exploring was a vast channel paralleling the Australian mainland.

The concept of a barrier reef forming a passage came later. The open stretches of this so-called passage are about 100 feet deep. But sprinkled among them are coral-rimmed islands, free-standing reefs, atolls and peaks. Some reefs are visible, but many lie just below the surface.

Today we have GPS charts that point out most of them. But not all. Last week I came within yards of crashing Honu, at speed, into a tiny, uncharted pinnacle.

“Turn right!” Craig shouted from the bow. We avoided disaster only because he was securing the anchor and saw waves breaking ahead.

Today, corals are much loved and a frequent topic in discussions of global warming. But in the early years of exploration, no one knew what they were. Eng-lish Capt. Mathew Flinders speculated that corals were “animalcules” that lived on the ocean floor. When they died, other animalcules (love that word) grew atop, and so on, thus building “a monument of their wonderful labors.” The creatures’ care in building their walls vertically was to Flinders a “surprising instinct.”

What he didn’t know was that stony corals grow upright because they host algae that need sunshine to survive. That fact came to light 30 years later from another explorer, Charles Darwin.

My problem with the corals here isn’t running the boat into one of their “monuments” (although I’m more watchful now), but that I can’t take them all in.

The corals on these reefs look like mushrooms, wheat fields, brain tissue, antlers, cabbage leaves, chicken skin, grassy knolls and endless other shapes, colors and textures.

Some corals are hard; some are soft. Many cover their space like rugs; others wave greetings like anemones.

Among all the coral splendor here, one in particular stands out for me. On a white-sand beach I found pieces of a bright red structure of tubes known as organ pipe coral. In admiring the tiny pipes, which remind me of fairy castles, I’m in good company. Capt. Cook’s naturalist, Joseph Banks, wrote about being overwhelmed by the variety of corals, too, especially one he called Tubipora musica. That’s the scientific name of my organ pipes.

It’s clear to us modern sailors that this labyrinth of coral shoals must have been a nightmare to early explorers. It’s also clear why mariners, past and present, admire them so. What other animalcules build monuments?

Whitsundays offer preview of outer reef, more to come

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

CoralWHITSUNDAY ISLANDS, Australia >> Our cruising guide calls these 74 islands “a tropical paradise in the heart of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.”

It’s no exaggeration.

The Whitsunday Islands, so named by Capt. James Cook because he arrived here the seventh Sunday after Easter, or Whit Sunday, are two mountain ranges cut off from the mainland by ancient geologic events. The teeming coral reefs that now surround the islands can keep a snorkeler busy for months. But beyond the Whitsundays lie the platform reefs most people picture when you mention the Great Barrier Reef. The islands, therefore, are a leg up for sailors who want to visit the outer reef. The nearest, called Bait Reef, is about 20 miles east of the easternmost island, a three- to four-hour voyage for our 37-foot ketch, Honu.

Bait Reef hosts the famous Stepping Stones, 18 flat-topped coral pinnacles lining the southwest side of the reef. Each round tower rises 50 to 80 feet from the ocean floor and stops 3 to 6 feet below the surface.

It’s easy to swim from one backyard-size coral head to the next, and each is a snorkeler’s dream. Confetti parades of tropical fish swim at the pillar tops, and enormous fish such as giant trevally and Napoleon wrasse hang near the drop-offs.

The Great Barrier Reef hosts about 350 species of light-loving coral, making competition for space fierce. When coral-eating fish and invertebrates leave bite scars, the larvae of sponges, worms, crustaceans, clams and corals quickly claim the space.

Every imaginable shape and color of stony corals cover the flat column tops, with soft corals and giant clams elbowing their way between.

An Australian researcher recently surveyed an area of coral reef off Port Douglas, about 300 miles north of the Whitsundays, and reported that 90 percent of the corals he observed have bleached (turned white). I’ve seen no bleaching here, but the study is a stark reminder that this largest living organism on Earth is at risk from climate change.

At the outer reefs, weather is everything. Being submerged and patchy, the coral heads offer no protection from wind and waves. Skippers head out when the wind is light, and keep an escape plan in mind should the weather change.

So, fingers crossed, out we sailed. Soon after our arrival the wind stopped completely, leaving the water so flat and glassy, we were able to spend the night. As we sailed back the next day, two humpback whales, up from Antarctica for the winter, put on a show of breaching.

Our cruising guide for this area is called “100 Magic Miles of the Great Barrier Reef.” I couldn’t imagine a better title.