Monthly Archives: June 2017

30 years bring many adventures for Ocean Watch columnist

Published June 24, 2017 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

Columnist Susan Scott is photographed in front of her natural habitat: the water. Some of Scott’s adventures over the years that have made their way into Ocean Watch. ©2017 Susan Scott

Thirty years ago this week, I wrote my first Ocean Watch column for what was then the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. It was an exciting day that I thought would never come. Then it did and, well, it never ended. I’m still sharing, with pleasure, my marine adventures with readers.

My funniest Ocean Watch moment came early in 1988 when I walked into the newsroom, and several people started laughing.

“What?” I said.

“Did you see your headline today?” the city editor said. (Columnists and reporters don’t write their own headlines; copy editors do.)

I had written about a pair of red-footed booby birds that landed on Honu’s rail during a long, offshore passage. The birds’ antics entertained us for 48 hours before they took off. The headline? “Two boobies win the hearts of lonely sailors.”

The editors changed it to a less colorful headline for the next edition.

Writing is a lonely job, and churning out a column week after week was no exception. In the early days I often wondered whether anyone was even reading it. Then in the 1990s the internet and email breathed life into Ocean Watch. Readers started sharing stories, telling me which columns they liked and asking good questions. Over the years, thoughtful people have sent gifts of appreciation.

My office is no longer a lonely place.

Most readers who email me are as friendly as can be, but when I make a mistake, I hear about it in no uncertain terms. I complained to an editor about that once, and he said, “At least you know they’re reading you.”

In the early ’90s I stuck a toe into ocean politics and nearly got it bitten off. People who disagreed with me about creating marine sanctuaries, making stricter fishing regulations and such wrote hateful letters, called for my firing and even threatened me.

“What should I do?” I asked an editor. “I feel awful.”

“Susan,” he said, “just write about fish.” It was good advice.

My saddest column moment arrived in 2010, the day editors announced that the Star-Bulletin was shutting down. But after a week of moping, my happiest moment arrived. The Star-Bulletin lived on by buying, and then merging with, the Advertiser. Ocean Watch made the cut and gained a lot of new readers.

I can’t count the number of friends this column has brought or the doors it has opened. I also appreciate that it keeps me up to date in the world of marine science.

Occasionally I get frustrated churning out a column week after week, year after year. But whenever I decide to quit, I feel depressed and quickly get over it.

“You have the world’s perfect job,” people often say to me.

I agree. Thank you, kind readers, for making it so. Here’s to another 30 good years.

Peculiarity above water in Australia also amazes

Published June 17, 2017 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

I’ve been home from Australia nearly a week, and I’m still smiling over some of the comments locals there made about Hawaii.

One day we anchored Honu in a picturesque bay in the lee of Hummocky Island. Because it was late in the day, and it takes time and effort to inflate our rubber dinghy and attach its outboard, we jumped in the water and swam ashore for a snorkeling excursion and beach walk.

About an hour or so after swimming back to the boat, our distant boat neighbors motored toward us in their dinghy. When the Australian couple saw our home port, Honolulu, on the transom, they called out, “Hello! We came over to see what crazies were swimming in shark-infested waters. Now we see. You’re from Hawaii!”

They sped away, leaving us puzzled. Did they think that Hawaii residents are braver than Australians? Or that we foreigners don’t understand the risk? Or that Hawaii residents are foolhardy? We never found out.

Nor could we find information anywhere that Hummocky Island is more “shark infested” than anywhere else in Great Barrier Reef waters, or in Hawaii.

On average, three people die from shark attacks in Australia annually. Given the number of people in the water, the chances of an attack are so minuscule I never even think about it.

No sharks showed up on this trip, but we could not shake the sharp teeth of politics.

While checking Honu into a marina during stormy weather, I slid her official certificate over the counter. In big, bold capital letters, the heading says, “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.”

“Sorry,” the manager said, pushing the paper back. “We’ve stopped accepting these.”

I was speechless. This vessel documentation is as official as it gets. No other boat papers exist.

“Relax,” the manager laughed. “I’m just kidding you. But, really, what were you thinking, electing that clown?”

How does one answer such a question? “We’re from Hawaii,” I said. “It wasn’t us.”

“Hawaii! OK, then. You can stay.”

That guy was joking, but a young convenience store clerk was dead serious.

“I always wanted to go to Hawaii,” she said, “but I saw a TV show on tsunamis and now, forget it, I’ll never go there.”

Rendered speechless again.

The friendly woman at Townsville’s Breakwater Marina, where we left Honu, gave us a farewell that made us laugh.

“Have a good trip back to America,” she said as we finished up the paperwork. “Sorry! I mean Hawaii.”

And finally, as I folded up the last of Honu’s laundry and said goodbye to another marina worker, she said, “You’re not leaving us?”

“Yes. I love Australia, but I love my home in Hawaii, too,” I said. “I’m going from one good place to another.”

“Fair dinkum,” she said.

Sailing trips in great reef marine park never get old

Published June 10, 2017 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

A soldier crab is among several varieties of crabs found in and around the Whitsunday Islands in Australia. ©2017 Susan Scott

BREAKWATER MARINA, TOWNSVILLE, AUSTRALIA >> For the last three years, as often as our work allows, Craig and I have been sailing our 37-foot ketch, Honu, in the stretch of water between the Queensland coast and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

Before I came here, I would have guessed that sailing back and forth in the same area, year after year, might get old. But here, never. The reef’s 1,400-mile length is about the same distance as Kure Atoll is from the Big Island. And the distance from the Australian mainland to the park’s 3,000 reefs and 600 islands ranges from 20 to 155 miles, gaps similar to those between Oahu and neighbor islands.

Given this expanse, plus changes in seasons, tides, storms and wildlife, each trip — even to repeat places — seems entirely new.

This year Cyclone Debbie, a category-4 storm that struck the central area about two months ago, changed both the landscape and reefs of many of the Whitsunday Islands.

As we landed our dinghy at Whitehaven, a 4-mile-long beach made of powderlike silica, a material that doesn’t retain heat, we stood shocked. The majestic trees that had lined the beach now lay in tangles of trunks and branches, their bark releasing tannin in streams that rippled through the white sand with the changing tides.

The beach was still glorious, however, and we walked its length, watching birds peck at exposed worms and snails, and enjoying the firm silica squeaking beneath our feet. The national park service had already pushed back fallen trees, and cleared a trail that looped through the wrecked woods.

Hiking there became a highlight of the trip.

Inside that broken forest, endless tiny leaves sprouted from trunks, branches, air roots and soil, a stunning picture of nature’s resilience. Craig chose that bright green growth in a devastated forest as his favorite moment of the trip.

I cheated in picking my favorite, because I named a whole category of creatures: crabs. Due to persistent strong, chilly winds, we often hunkered down in anchorages, and walked on tidal flats for hours on end.

Australia’s crabs performed brilliantly. Blue-and-white soldier crabs marched in legions of thousands, and tiny sand bubbler crabs left their sand-ball art in acres of designs. When caught out, 3-inch-wide swimming crabs turned to fight us, raising their tiny claws in defiance. En guard, monsters!

I saw spider crabs, seaweed crabs and a brown crab that jumped into a muddy tide pool to hide but kept us in sight (adorably) with its tall, white eyestalks.

On Monday I’ll be back on Oahu. I’m torn between wanting to stay in Australia and longing to get back to Hawaii. How lucky I am to travel back and forth between two of the best places on Earth.

 

Ocean ‘jewels’ encompass life stories of amazing snails

Published June 3, 2017 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

Snail species, or gastropods, are abundant in the waters off Australia. The shell at upper right is from a Conus geographus, a cone snail that can kill a person with its sting. However, the sand-filled shell was indicative that the snail inside was long dead and, therefore, was safe to pick up. ©2017 Susan Scott

BRAMPTON ISLAND, QUEENSLAND, AUSTRALIA >> The combination of afternoon low tides and Cyclone Debbie’s recent stirring up of the ocean floor has sparked a new passion in me: snails.

Like all beach walkers, I’ve always enjoyed finding pretty seashells, and like all biologists, I learned about the animals called mollusks. But never have I seen snails and homes like I have this week.

Australian waters host countless snail species. Really countless. One local book claims that more than 10,000 species live here. Another shell guide reports tens of thousands.

Marine mollusks include octopuses, cuttlefish, squids and sea slugs, but those shell-less creatures don’t leave much of a legacy after they die. What gets us beachcombers excited is finding the jewel-like homes of two-shelled creatures we call clams and oysters (bivalves), and the one-shelled creatures we know as snails (gastropods).

Most people don’t include the word “snail” when talking about a shell they’ve found, but that overlooks the animal that built the stunning piece. Of the billions of empty shells cast ashore on the world’s beaches, each has its own life story.

Most snails begin their lives as tiny hatchlings that swim for days or months before settling on the ocean floor. Soon after, the baby snail’s glands secrete a hard, calcium carbonate covering, the beginning of the adult animal’s shell, around its soft body. As the animal grows, its glands enlarge the shell along its outer edge, often in a spiral.

A snail doesn’t add shell material evenly, but rather lays it down in precise places to create its own species’ shape, thickness, height and diameter. At the same time, the creature’s glands introduce pigments into the calcium carbonate that show up on the shell as spots, lines or other markings unique to the species.

Snails don’t enlarge their shells continuously, but do it in spurts. On some spiral shells you can see growth lines called sutures. In adult snails the inside whorls of broken shells reveal the snail’s nursery and its rooms during adolescence.

Besides being superb architects and sculptors, snails are math geniuses. The complex calculations of depositing each molecule of shell and each speck of color in the precise right place at the precise right time to create a species’ exclusive shell is unfathomable.

During a stretch of bad weather, we parked Honu in a marina, rented a car and drove to central Queensland to see Australia’s sapphire gem fields. The sapphires in the shops were OK, but I didn’t buy any. I prefer jewels made by snails.