Monthly Archives: May 2017

Spring tides are perfect for strolling among reef

Published May 27, 2017 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

A shrimp at low tide off Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park waits for a spring tide to return and carry it away. ©2017 Susan Scott

BRAMPTON ISLAND, GREAT BARRIER REEF MARINE PARK >> For the past few days, I’ve been choosing walking over snorkeling. That might seem a poor choice given where we’re sailing. This week, however, the new moon has brought spring tides, and here off the Queensland town of Mackay, that means a 15-foot difference between the high and low. So when the tide is out, the reefs are, too.

Spring tides have nothing to do with springtime. The name comes from a centuries-old notion that during new and full moons, the water “springs” up. Here where we’ve anchored Honu, the incoming tide seemed to leap rather than spring, covering the places we walked yesterday afternoon with 15 feet of water. We must wait until this afternoon, when the tide drops to its new-moon low, to stroll with the seabirds on the exposed reef.

It sounds awful to be walking on a reef, but we aren’t. We step in sand lanes that the currents have deposited between coral heads, seaweed tufts and rocky spires. In the late afternoon sun, the smooth, water-carved sand whorls remind me of paintings by Georgia O’Keefe.

Puddles and pools remain in the lowest reef flat depressions, where fish, crabs, shrimp, snails, sea cucumbers and countless other creatures lie motionless, waiting for the tide to turn. Those left high and dry, such as giant clams, anemones and coral polyps, close up tight during their dry time.

Because spring tides occur twice a month, the animals clearly have their ways of surviving in air for hours at a time. Even so, given all the damage we humans have done to animals and their habitats, I like to offer a helping hand to my friends.

During our reef walks Craig waits patiently while I carry starfish from dry sand to water-filled depressions left by awesomely huge stingrays. We saw one of these crater makers from the dinghy on our way to the beach and judged it to be about 4 feet wide.

Craig helps with photos too, reducing ripples on the water’s surface by standing heel to heel upwind of a stunning red-orange shrimp in about 3 inches of water.

In spite of four monster feet near its burrow, the shrimp remained motionless for the photo shoot. With its brilliant colors, it seems that hiding would be a better survival strategy than holding still. Then again, movement might give away the shrimp’s position to the stone curlews, oyster catchers, sea eagles and gulls scouting the flats for food.

When sailing among the hundreds of islands in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, there are no activities I would choose over snorkeling or diving. Except during spring tides. Then, with pleasure, I choose walking.

Platypuses add to thrill of wildlife sightings

Published May 20, 2017 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

A platypus, a mammal of rather ordinary stature with a ducklike bill, is seen at a national park in Queensland, Australia. ©2017 Susan Scott

GREAT KEPPEL ISLAND, QUEENSLAND, AUSTRALIA >> “It’s so small.” That was our group’s first impression of the platypus we saw paddling along the surface of a creek in Carnarvon National Park. When an animal is as celebrated as the platypus, people expect something bigger than a chihuahua.

The weather had continued its stormy streak, making sailing Honu unappealing. But in Australia, to-die-for wildlife is always close by. We rented a car, drove to the national park and were soon hiking with kangaroos and wallabies, laughing with kookaburras and cockatoos, and gasping at a sugar glider’s aerial show. And even though they aren’t marine, three platypuses kindly showed up to give us an aquatic thrill.

Platypuses are freshwater animals that spend their days snoozing in riverside burrows. At dusk the creatures emerge to forage for insects, shrimp, tadpoles, mussels and snails in the streambed. In zoos, keepers often feed their platypuses yabbies, which I now know are freshwater crayfish.

Platypuses have been famous in biology lore since 1799 when an official in Australia sent a hide of the animal to Great Britain.

Scientists there thought that some jokester had sewn a duck bill to a beaver body.

The platypus bill so resembles a duck’s bill that a common name for the animal is duck-billed platypus, even though no other platypus species exits.

Nor is the bill a bill. It’s a single, flat leathery organ containing nerves that detect electrical fields generated by living prey. Sharks and electric eels also use electroreception to find food, but the platypus is one of the only mammals with that ability.

Speaking of mammals, that’s another platypus claim to fame. These little 4- to 6-pound creatures lay eggs and then nurse their hatchlings.

After mating, the female produces two eggs, which she incubates inside her body for about 28 days. Once laid, the mother curls her tail, a fat storage structure, around the eggs for another 10 days. Hatched platypus babies suck milk from two mammary patches (no nipples) on their mother’s belly.

Upon returning to Honu from our adventure inland, the wind lay down, the sun shone brightly and off we sailed to the Keppel Islands, popular anchorages in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. On the voyage another nonmarine species awed us all day long. Streams of exquisite blue-and-brown butterflies called blue tigers passed through Honu’s rigging while migrating from the mainland to the islands of the Great Barrier Reef.

As I write, it’s pouring rain again, but who cares? I’m in Australia.

Storm allows closer look at wildlife on reef isle

Published May 13, 2017 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

Sticky Pisonia seeds are matted in the rear feathers of this immature silver gull that appeared near the Heron Island Resort during a storm on Heron Island, off the Great Barrier Reef. The storm lent itself to the discovery of how wild animals protect themselves in harsh weather as well as ample opportunities to see such creatures in their natural habitat. ©2017 Susan Scott

HERON ISLAND, Capricorn Cays National Park, Great Barrier Reef >> After voyaging from Pancake Creek to the Gladstone Marina, where we planned to set sail for Heron Island, a gale appeared. Not only did it pack sustained winds of more than 30 mph, the storm front promised to stick around for a week.

Since sailing Honu was out of the question in that weather, I booked two nights at the Heron Island Resort, traveling the 42 miles to the island aboard the resort’s fast ferry.

Heron Island Resort, operating since 1932, is well known in Australia because it’s one of the few places, besides a boat, where people can stay out on the reef. The oval island, about a half-mile long and quarter- mile wide, also hosts the Great Barrier Reef’s first marine biology research station, built in 1951.

Coral reef encircles the island, creating a turquoise lagoon that laps onto a continuous white-sand beach, and the island’s center supports a lush tropical forest. All of the area is much loved by researchers and visitors alike because of the abundant marine animals that peacefully share their space with humans.

When the storm proved to be the edge of a cyclone that struck nearby New Caledonia, the ferry ride back to the mainland was deemed unsafe. Two nights on Heron Island became a glorious three.

Soon after we arrived, we walked the beach around the island and in one area saw a carpet of rays in the shallow water. “I stopped counting at 81,” a man said as we passed, gaping. Eagle rays, shovel-nose rays and several species of stingrays come near the island at high tide, wiggling into the sand to eat buried shrimp, crabs and snails.

The forest side of the beach contained endless craters dug months ago by female green and loggerhead turtles to lay their eggs. Walking the beach at sunset to see turtle hatchlings race to the water was a popular, if heartbreaking, activity. Silver gulls snatched the baby turtles as fast as they appeared.

Another of Heron’s harsh wildlife scenes comes from the island’s carnivorous tree, called a Pisonia, which bears sticky, branched seeds. Seabirds called noddies nest by the thousands (200,000 at peak) in the tall leafy trees. When the seeds tangle chicks’ feathers, the birds fall, and their decomposing bodies fertilize the trees.

We saw struggling wedge-tailed shearwater fledglings lethally entangled in Pisonia seeds.

Craig and I went snorkeling twice in that blowy weather, and even with wind and sand blasting our legs and rain pelting our clothes, we walked around and around the island as often as possible, watching wild animals cope with a storm.

How extraordinary is Heron Island? As we left on the ferry for the mainland, we promised we would be back.

Australian snakes keep residents on steady alert

Published May 6, 2017 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

A lace monitor lizard tasting the writer’s toes at Aircraft Beach, Eurimbula National Park. ©2017 Susan Scott

Pancake Creek, Queensland >> Australia has a national phobia about snakes.

We started our latest Australian adventure by sailing to this national park estuary that has no access by road. At Pancake Creek the beaches are huge (one is called Aircraft Beach because small planes can land there), the wildlife abundant (soldier crabs, stone curlews, friendly monitor lizards), and the hiking possibilities are nearly endless.

Pancake Creek is Australian wilderness at its best, so good I feel lucky to once again be visiting this magnificent country. So what’s the first thing several locals said when I told them we were sailing here? “Watch out for snikes.” (They mean snakes.)

The Pancake Creek region has no more snakes than anywhere else in the country, but OK, I’ll give Aussies the fact that most of the world’s venomous snakes are found in Australia. Of the country’s 172 species, 115 are venomous.

Most of the world’s pythons are Australian, the longest being the scrub python at 23 feet, as long as a two-story building is tall. I have a book aboard Honu with an amazing picture of an olive python — only about 16 feet long but bulkier than a scrub python — trying to haul a drowned wallaroo up a cliff for a meal.

In the Darwin area, homeowners have to protect their dogs, chickens and cats from olive pythons that squeeze the pets until they stop breathing, and then swallow them.

During dry spells some snakes seek out water and have been found bathing in residents’ toilets. One 7-foot-long snake worked its way through an overhead light fixture in an apartment bathroom. Roommates walked in to find the snake dangling, giving them an updated version of the “Psycho” shower scene.

My favorite Australian snake story happened in 2013 when a passenger aboard a Qantas flight pointed out a snake on the wing to a flight attendant. The scrub python bravely held on for the entire hour-and-50-minute flight. People rooted for the plucky animal, but the wind and cold were too much for it,and, sadly, the hitchhiking python died.

All snakes have forked tongues that they flick in and out to taste or smell potential food. Only Australia’s goanna lizards, called monitor lizards in other countries, share this forked tongue trait with snakes. (Goanna is the Australian version of the word iguana, a group of lizards from the Americas unrelated to monitor lizards.)

So far, we’ve encountered no snakes while hiking around Pancake Creek, but I did manage to hold still in a picnic area while a goanna (lace monitor lizard) flicked its forked tongue over my toes.

In the meantime, we Americans are looking forward to meeting some Australian snikes.