Monthly Archives: April 2017

Australian yabbies draw fishers and stingrays

Published April 29, 2017 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

Freshwater crayfish, or yabbies as they are called in Australia, serve as bait for fishermen. Yabbies are also delectable to stingrays, which smash the burrowed tunnels the yabbies live in, and also to the fish that follow the stingrays. ©2017 Susan Scott

BUNDABERG PORT MARINA, QUEENSLAND, AUSTRALIA >> I’m back in Australia getting our sailboat Honu ready for another Great Barrier Reef adventure.

To answer a common question, no, we do not sail Honu back and forth between Hawaii and here. At Honu’s average speed of 5 miles per hour, it would take 50 days, minimum, to sail the 6,000 miles between Hawaii and Australia. It’s a long, hard voyage that for us is unfeasible, timewise. So, for now, the boat stays Down Under.

That means, of course, Honu is subject to cyclones. To answer another question, Cyclone Debbie did not strike this marina, and Honu survived the torrential rains unscathed.

Because Australia has marine life I don’t know, customs I’ve not seen and language I don’t always understand, during my trips here I have my own endless questions. A recent one was: Why are people sticking hand-pump suction tools into the sand at low tide?

When I asked a friendly angler, he said, “I’m pulling up yabbies.”

I’ve been in Australia enough to know that yabby is another name for edible freshwater crayfish. (Spiny and slipper lobsters are also called crayfish here.) The beach, however, was on the ocean and the suction pipe was small.

“To eat?” I said.

“No, for bait. Look here.”

He stabbed the wet sand, pulled back the plunger and came up with a cream-colored, soft-bodied creature about 3 inches long. “There’s a yabby,” he said, handing it to me. “That big claw means it’s a male. Careful, it can give you a sharp nip.”

It looked like a shrimp to me, but then that’s the problem with common names. (Latin names have their own issues — call a yabby a Callianassa australiensis and the conversation is over.)

Australia’s bait yabbies are found along its east coast where they live in the sand between the high and low tide lines. At low tide, fishers dig near telltale holes in the sand, but that’s no guarantee the creature is there. Each adult yabby has three or four holes joining its main burrow, which can be 2 feet down.

Another question I’ve had for years in Australia is why the sand on some beaches during low tide is pocked with dozens, sometimes hundreds, of perfect stingray outlines including their long tails.

It’s yabbies again. During high tide, the rays swim over the sand flats and “puddle” the sand with strong beats of their powerful pectoral flaps. This collapses yabby burrows, bringing the now-homeless creatures to the sand’s surface. Besides being meals for the rays, the uprooted yabbies also get eaten by fish freeloaders that have followed the rays.

Every time I take a walk here in Australia, I end up with so many wildlife questions, I have to write them down. And I’m still in the marina.

Time nears for plovers to bid aloha to islands

Published April 22, 2017 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

A Pacific golden plover, or kolea, enjoys eating pieces of fish. Most of the birds will head to Alaska soon, except for the weak or sick. Courtesy Robert Weber

We have four days left to admire our kolea friends, so stunning in their spring attire. On or near Tuesday most of the Pacific golden plovers we’ve been enjoying in our yards, parks, golf courses and cemeteries will leave for Alaska to raise their kids in the insect-rich Arctic. Underweight or injured birds will pass on nesting this year and stick around for the summer.

How empty our yard will feel without Jude, the bird that has been brightening our days by dropping in for the occasional breakfast, lunch or dinner.

We live on a golf course, where Jude spends his time foraging. Most days, especially after rain, the pickings are so good in the grass that Jude prefers worms and bugs over eggs. During dry stretches, though, when he sees movement in our house, he flies to the lanai doors and waits patiently for some of the scrambled eggs we keep for him in the fridge.

I say patiently because before the egg toss I sprinkle some birdseed around the corner of the house to divert the mynahs’ and cardinals’ attention. Jude quickly learned that there’s nothing in that offering for him and stands rooted, waiting for me to dole out the yellow protein.

Jude, whom I called Julie before he showed his true colors, cannot swallow a piece of egg bigger than a pea. If I toss a chunk as large as, say, a lima bean, the bird drops it to peck it apart. The loose egg often gains the notice of our mynah-with-the-broken-leg who steals the egg from a surprised Jude’s beak.

This is why I was surprised when biologist-photographer friend Robert Weber emailed pictures of a kolea with a fish in its beak. Robert wrote, “I enjoyed watching (a kolea) fishing in shallow mud flats on Maui. It would wade around in the water, catch a fish, then carry it up the shore to tear it apart where it couldn’t get away. Interesting and entertaining.”

The fish is small, but still. It seems a kolea would quickly lose a fish to bandit birds before it could break it into beak-sized bits. But maybe our Jude is a first-year, inexperienced bird. Or he’s just slow.

I sent Robert’s photo to plover expert Wally Johnson, who emailed back, “We knew the little guys occasionally took fish, but had no images. Am very pleased to have these!”

We all are. Thanks, Robert.

The plovers’ signal to fly to Alaska is triggered by length of day. No one knows how the birds coordinate their actual departure. Over a few days they will gather in flocks, then suddenly fly to a great height and disappear.

A good place to see kolea assemble — and, with luck, witness the start of their incredible journey — is Kualoa Regional Park.

Fair winds, sweet birds. We await your return.

Snapping shrimp pop to send alert and nab food

Published April 15, 2017 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

Petroglyph shrimp channels are etched in lobe coral off Lanikai Beach. ©2017 Susan Scott

Decades ago, when Craig and I boarded a friend’s boat in the Ala Wai Boat Harbor, the crackling sound below deck made us wonder if the boat was falling apart. I later learned that the big noise comes from a small package: 1-inch-long snapping, or pistol, shrimp.

We oceangoers rarely see the little gunslingers because they live in burrows. But we hear them. The split-second closure of each shrimp’s single, oversize claw makes a popping sound. When the creatures pop by the thousands, as is often the case, it’s like snorkeling in a giant bowl of Rice Krispies.

The crackling is so loud that submarines can hide among shrimp colonies and go undetected by sonar.

The shrimp snaps for food, sending out a bubble bullet that stuns passing prey. The snaps can also be warning shots to trespassers, and perhaps a come-on to members of the opposite sex.

Most snapping shrimp dig, and live in, mud or sand burrows. We rarely see these basement apartments because they’re under rocks and rubble. One kind, though, lives in exposed sand burrows guarded by a pair of gobies. The shrimp digs while the fish keep watch. When a predator or curious snorkeler gets too close, the team dives into the hole together.

Other snappers, called petroglyph shrimp, set up housekeeping in living coral heads by making channels. No one knows how the shrimp creates the cracks. Either the animal is able to inhibit coral growth at the chosen site, or that big claw is an all-purpose tool that, in addition to firing lethal bubbles, can also dig.

Petroglyph shrimp (usually Alpheus deuteropus) create wavy, U-shaped crevices, the largest about a quarter-inch wide and 10 inches long. These are not the shrimps’ burrows, but rather boulevards lined with crops and cops.

The crops are seaweed, veggie meals for the shrimp. The cops are white hydroids, stinging jellyfish relatives that look like tiny trees. The hydroids protect the lane but might also eat the shrimps’ babies when they hatch. Security guards don’t come free. Gobies are carnivores, too.

The deepest parts of petroglyph channels bear cul-de-sacs that precisely fit each shrimp’s body. When it’s threatened, the shrimp retreats to its den, blocking the entrance with its large claw. Channels 2 inches or less usually house a single resident. Longer ones can accommodate two to four shrimp, each with its own separate burrow.

Hawaii’s petroglyph shrimp have pink eyes encircled by red dotted lines. The bodies are transparent with red surface dots.

So they say. I’ve not seen one. But I often see, and stop to admire, the shrimps’ plant-lined streets with twiggy sentries. The neighborhoods deserve a feature in Better Homes and Gardens.

Tetiaroa a fine spot for Obama to pen book

Published April 8, 2017 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

The Honu, bottom left, shared “The Brando” buoy with a catamaran at Tetiaroa atoll in 2015. @©2015 Susan Scott

The news that Barack Obama is writing his memoir in Tetiaroa caused excitement at our house. In 2013 we sailed the Honu 40 miles from Tahiti to Tetiaroa, when the luxury hotel hosting the former president was still under construction.

Tetiaroa, often called an island, is an atoll, consisting of a 4.5-mile-wide lagoon surrounded by 13 small islands, encircled by one huge coral reef. Onetahi Island houses the Brando Resort, so-named because Marlon Brando’s estate owns the atoll.

Because Tetiaroa’s reef has no channel, getting into the atoll’s lagoon by sailboat is impossible, and the sheer drop-off outside the reef is too deep for anchoring.

Arriving at the atoll off Rimatuu island, we saw a tourist catamaran tied to a giant, flat buoy labeled “The Brando.” The friendly Tahitian captain invited us to share the mooring, and soon the Honu was secure outside the break.

We weren’t sure how to get inside the reef, but our neighbor had a system. The skipper stood in a rubber dinghy steering the boat’s outboard with one hand and grasping the bow line with the other. His six passengers hung on, three to a side. Driving back and forth outside the break to time the breaking waves, the man seized his moment, opened the throttle and surfed into the lagoon.

Tetiaroa from above. By Supertoff – Own work, Creative Commons: BY-SA 3.0,

After dropping his charges on the beach, the captain zoomed back toward the break, riding the mass of water rushing seaward. The collision of the outgoing water with the incoming wave launched the dinghy skyward. With a cigarette dangling from his mouth, this Polynesian Marlboro Man flew up and over the peak, and zoomed back to his boat for more guests.

After watching several of these astonishing performances, we decided to body-surf in. I lost a fin in the tumble, but Craig found it and off we went snorkeling.

Coral formations in that part of the lagoon had formed a kind of pond that hosted a large number of pipefish, relatives of sea horses. Somewhat rare, and usually alone or in pairs, the charming pipefish hung out in nearly every nook and cranny of that reef pocket.

Later, during my panicky exit through the surf, I again lost a fin. It seemed a price worth paying for snorkeling with packs of pipefish and surviving a dive through the washing machine wave.

When I got back to the Honu, my fin lay on the deck, found and delivered by the catamaran cowboy.

Tetiaroa Atoll is the perfect place for Hawaii-born-and-raised Barack Obama to write his memoir. For breaks he can snorkel with pipefish and body-surf the reef.

Map of Tetiaroa. Public Domain image.

A precious skeleton is found amid many birds

Published April 1, 2017 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

An aama molt is seen at Moomomi beach on Molokai. The shell of the Hawaiian black rock crab shows its true colors detached in the hot sun. The crustaceans molt their exoskeletons by separating skin from shell, then cracking a rear seam to exit from. ©2017 Susan Scott

While visiting Molokai last weekend, friends and I went to Moomomi Preserve, a 912-acre coastal area shaped by tradewinds so gusty they sandpapered our legs. It was worth the prickles.

Behind the beach stands a mile of dunes, wind-sculpted into bluffs of rippled sand. Since 1988, when the Nature Conservancy and the state’s DLNR began fencing Moomomi, several hundred wedge-tailed shearwaters have claimed the land above and behind the bluffs. Protected from predators, the seabirds dig their ground nests in peace, and the 22 native plants that grow there get their sandy soil aerated.

During our walk through this picture of ancient Hawaii, flocks of shorebirds called out over the roar of crashing waves, and turtles left behind their signature tracks.

Surprisingly, amid all this burrowing, booming and blowing, I found a fragile but intact remnant of a remarkable marine animal: the rock crab.

Hawaii’s rock crabs, also called aama, are the flat, black crabs we see hanging out on Hawaii’s basalt beaches and concrete breakwaters. When startled, the crabs skitter into cracks or jump into the water so fast you wonder what you really saw.

One Hawaii blogger calls our rock crab a “hot-rod decapod,” decapod meaning 10 legs.

Aama’s close relative is the well-named Sally Lightfoot crab, found on coasts in the eastern tropical Pacific. Sallys are easy to find because they’re bright red. Aama shells turn red, too, but never while they’re still wearing them.

Because crustaceans carry their skeletons on the outside of their skin, and those skeletons don’t expand, the creatures have to shed their shells to grow. The process resembles science fiction.

When it’s time to go up a size, the crab starts absorbing calcium carbonate from its old shell and begins secreting enzymes that separate skin from shell. The absorbing and secreting can take a few weeks.

On the big day the crab sucks seawater into its body and swells up like a balloon. This cracks the old shell along a rear seam, creating a backdoor exit. The crab pulls its body through the slit, taking its legs, eyestalks, antennae, mouth parts and gills with it.

As the crab recycles its absorbed calcium carbonate to make a new shell, it gradually replaces the inhaled seawater with protein.

When the sun hits the paper-thin molt left behind, the heat destroys the cells’ dark proteins. We then see the aama’s true colors: red and white.

We don’t see them for long. Sun and rain quickly break down the delicate molts, and soon they’re gone with the wind.

Finding a perfect, whole aama molt reminded me of the marvelous way our little hot-rod decapods grow.

Thank you, Nature Conservancy and state DLNR, for having the foresight to preserve and protect this extraordinary place.