Monthly Archives: February 2017

Yap’s gentle giants of the reef prove a bit timid, too

Published February 25, 2017 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

Manta rays are gentle giants that are plankton feeders, swimming forward with mouths open to sift the water for food. Paddlelike flaps on each side of the mouth direct plankton down the hatch. Courtesy Manta Ray Bay Resort

YAP >> Because I had never been to Yap, only a one-hour flight from Palau where I had been snorkeling, I signed up for a three-day visit here. All I knew about this South Pacific island was that it had been a major World War II battle site and that we would see manta rays.

Not exactly.

During the war, the U.S. military did not consider Japanese-occupied Yap a strategic target. American planes were sent to bomb only island airfields. Yap residents fled to the hills while 120 American pilots and crews, and an unknown (to me) number of Japanese lost their lives in aerial fighting.

My other mistaken vision of Yap was that most people come here to dive on crashed planes. That’s part of some tours but not mine. We three snorkelers joined a boat with two divers from Germany and two from Japan, all hoping to see Yap’s manta rays.

Mantas can live 50 years. At least 50 individuals call Yap home. Resident researchers identify each fish by distinct black markings on their white bellies. Workers at my top-notch hotel, the Manta Ray Bay Resort, have posted photos and names of Yap’s well-known mantas. My favorite name is Dotcom.

These rays routinely come to certain cleaning stations, where wrasses nibble parasites off the huge kite-shaped fish. Biologists think the mantas might also congregate there to socialize, perhaps males and females flirting for a future hookup.

Mantas once had hellish reputations, their enormous sizes and black backs spooking old-time sailors, who called the fish devil rays. Most mantas are about 10 feet wide, but some can grow over 15 feet wide.

Whatever their size, the fish are harmless. Manta rays have long tails like their sting- and eagle-ray cousins with one exception: Manta tails have no stingers. Nor do mantas have teeth. Like whale sharks, these gentle giants are plankton feeders, swimming forward with mouths open to sift the water for food. Paddlelike flaps on each side of the mouth direct plankton down the hatch.

On the two days that our boat dropped us off near the cleaning stations, the mantas chose to skip hanging out there. But we snorkelers weren’t disappointed. The reef was exquisite and included some magnificent manta relatives: white-tip, black-tip and gray reef sharks. Sharks and rays are related in that their bodies contain no bones, just cartilage.

I loved Yap’s super-friendly people, entwined mangrove forests and pristine reefs. It wasn’t what I expected but that’s the beauty of travel. You get to generate your own impressions.

Don’t, though, take my word for it.

Colorful reef habitats offer shelter from a storm

Published February 18, 2017 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

Feather stars are related to starfish. Standing a foot tall, they resemble a bouquet of flexible twigs. ©2017 Susan Scott

KOROR, PALAU >> My week in Palau was not what my eight snorkeling companions and I had pictured. Winter is the dry season here, where usually the days are sunny, the water is clear and jumping off the boat is a relief from the tropical heat. But Mother Nature doesn’t care if visitors have only one week to enjoy paradise. An unseasonal storm front moved over Palau and stalled there.

Blustery squalls drove needlelike rain into our faces, preventing the boat from going to reefs exposed to the strong wind and big waves. Not ones to give up, our resourceful guide and driver found two previously unexplored reefs in bays protected from the wind. Because they were surprise discoveries, they were also protected from other tour boats. The areas were ours alone to enjoy.

The first new reef Robin and Matty found we named Oceanic Coral Garden, a place deserving of the name garden. Sponges in brilliant red, yellow, orange and blue squeezed between, and plastered themselves on, a multitude of coral heads.

Sponges look stuck in one place for life, but these filter feeders can walk. When it needs to move to a better food gathering place in the current, a sponge absorbs cells from one side of the body and deposits them on the other.

Sponges’ gradual way of relocating makes snails look like NASCAR racers. But sponge colors, shapes and the fact that they get around at all made sponges a group favorite.

Crinoid Cove is the name we gave our other private place. The peaks and valleys there were of such coral diversity, it looked as if a bunch of patchwork quilts had been draped over tall tables and low chairs. And on top of nearly each rise perched a crinoid, also known as a feather star.

A flamboyant cousin of starfish, a feather star looks like a bouquet of flexible twigs, called arms, standing about a foot tall. On both sides of each twig extend sticky tube feet spaced like the teeth of a comb.

When a piece of animal plankton drifts into a crinoid’s combs, the gluey feet trap it. The animal then covers the gummy meal with slippery mucus and slides it, with beating hairs, down the middle of the arm’s shaft to the central mouth.

Feather stars hang onto their hilltops with rootlike “feet” and are easily knocked off their perch. No worries. A feather star can swim by curling and flapping those twiglike arms and once again be king of the hill.

Crinoids are two-toned, the base of the arms often black with tube feet of green, orange, yellow or white. Not common, feather stars are a sight to behold and along with the sponges were a group favorite.

Bad weather might spoil a trip but for some, but it didn’t for us. Because of the persistent storms, our wonderful Palauan guides found and shared two of their country’s secret gardens.

Next stop: Yap.

Palau thinks big with laws that protect its ocean life

Published February 11, 2017 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

The nation of Palau contains 250 islands. The government designated 193,000 square miles of its territorial waters as a marine preserve in 2015. Courtesy Luxtonnerre / Wikimedia Commons

KOROR, PALAU >> This week I’m working (so-called) in this island nation as a naturalist for an Oceanic Society snorkeling tour. I feel honored to represent this organization. Inspired by Rachael Carson’s book “Silent Spring,” San Francisco sailors and scientists founded OS in 1969 as the first nonprofit dedicated to building a healthy future for the world’s oceans.

Over the years, other caring people created dozens of ocean-centered organizations, and in 1990 OS set its sights on marine conservation through informed travel. Its mission is to help wildlife through education and inspiration.

As a former Midwesterner who was once afraid of the ocean and its inhabitants, I’m a poster child for the effectiveness of that tactic. And for novice snorkelers as well as old pros, there’s no better place to get inspired than Palau.

The tiny island nation has it all. A surrounding reef protects the waters around Palau’s stunning Rock Islands, making the inside waters calm. And because the archipelago is 500 miles north of the equator, water and air are pleasantly warm.

Thriving in this delicious water are about 400 species of hard corals and 300 species of soft. One writer describes the coral colors here as “an explosion in a paint factory.” The coral reefs support at least 1,400 species of fish and thousands of invertebrates, many still unidentified.

Palau’s 250 islands total just a bit more land area than the island of Lanai, and the country’s 21,000 residents live scattered throughout. But even though the country is small, when it comes to protecting its natural wonders, people think big. In 2009 Palau created the first shark sanctuary in the world, banning all shark fishing in its waters.

The government took another giant conservation step in 2015 by designating 193,000 square miles, about 80 percent of its territorial waters, a marine preserve. That’s an area bigger than California. The other 20 percent of Palau’s water is open to locals and a small number of commercial fisheries.

Enforcing a fishing ban in such a huge area is tough. But with the help of the Australian navy, the Pew Charitable Trusts and a nonprofit organization called SkyTruth, which tracks and reports foreign vessels via satellite, Palau’s marine patrol can nab poachers. The officers don’t get all trespassers, but Palau officials intend the 2016 arrest of 10 men aboard a Taiwanese pirate ship to be a warning: Palau means business.

Today, eight OS guests and I begin exploring Palau’s exploded paint stores and swimming with 1,400 paint chips. It’s almost embarrassing to call this work.

Sharp-eyed fish lurks in the sand stalking prey

Published February 4, 2017 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

Hawaii is home to two breeds of sandburrowers. This specimen was found hanging out in the waters off Makapuu. ©2017 Susan Scott

Last weekend I made a dozen new friends. One is Ross Lang-ston, an assistant professor of zoology at Windward Community College. The others are his popeyed fish called sandburrowers.

Although they grow to nearly 3 inches long, my sandburrowers are 1 to 2 inches long — and adorable. They look like they’re wearing swim goggles.

I call the fish Ross’ because he studied Hawaii’s two species for a 2004 doctoral thesis at UH, making him the local expert on the little charmers. When he read my recent column on mole crabs, Ross emailed, wondering if I would like to meet some other shallow-water, sand-dwelling creatures. Yes! Ross brought sieves to a Makapuu beach, and we proceeded to scoop sand in 2 feet of water, as if panning for gold. When the pans hit the air, so did the fish.

We transferred the little leapers to a container filled with seawater and an inch of sand. I don’t know exactly how many we collected, because sandburrower is the perfect name for these fish. After diving for cover, they stay there.

Don’t feel bad if you’ve not seen or heard of these remarkable fish. Most of us haven’t, even though they’re plentiful. In one study off Egypt, researchers found approximately five sandburrowers per square foot, making them one of the most numerous fish in the sandy shallow waters of the Red Sea.

At least 16 species of sandburrowers inhabit the waters of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, some shallow, some deep. Hawaii hosts two, called elegant and Cooke’s. Sandburrowers live only about one year.

A sandburrower resides under the sand with only its spherical eyes above the surface. When a tiny planktonic animal drifts by, whomp! The fish nabs it, traveling four times its body length in 0.05 seconds. Watch Ross’ amazing 15-second video at goo.gl/1HF2UJ. The feeding fish look like shooting stars.

Besides lightning speed, sandburrowers have remarkable vision akin to that of chameleons, each eye moving and focusing independently. During a strike, the fish can turn 185 degrees to avoid objects in its way and still get the meal. Researchers in the Red Sea watched 2,000 strikes in slow-motion video. The fish scored 100 percent of the time.

Ross’ studies centered on the little-known reproduction system of these fish and discovered that Hawaii’s sandburrowers begin life as males and become females as they increase in size. Their floating eggs drift as plankton.

My sandburrowers now lurk in a tank in my kitchen counter, where my brine shrimp offerings cause them to explode from their sand beds. Never before have I had so much fun feeding fish I cannot see.

Thank you, Ross, for introducing us fish lovers to another of Hawaii’s marine treasures.