Monthly Archives: July 2017

People love turtles; it’s pretty easy to see why

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

Turtles, with the green ones referred to locally as honu in Hawaiian, are a species of wild animals that are comfortable in the presence of humans. A young turtle barely lifted her head as her photo was snapped and immediately drifted off to sleep. ©2017 Susan Scott

While sitting in traffic last weekend off the North Shore’s Laniakea, one of our green turtles’ favorite hangouts, I saw a young woman sitting cross-legged inches from an enormous turtle. Greens, called honu in Hawaiian, grow to 4 feet long and weigh 400 pounds, and this one was close to the max.

Both creature and person had their eyes shut, the turtle sleeping, the woman meditating. As I watched this peaceful moment between wild animal and human being, I wondered for the zillionth time: What is it about sea turtles that touches so many of us so deeply?

Our love affair begins in the dark, when turtle hatchlings burst from their sand nests like a box of wind-up toys. How we root for the little darlings as they scurry down the beach, the lucky ones dodging crabs, birds and fish that view baby turtles as food. Only 1 in 1,000 hatchlings makes it to adulthood.

As they grow, sea turtle shells turn into 13 little murals called scutes, radiating orange, yellow, brown, black and white. (The green of the name is the color of their body fat.) Sea turtle shells are so lovely that before international trade in so-called tortoiseshell was banned in the 1970s, people made jewelry, combs and endless other decorative items from turtle shells.

Palau women once shaped hawksbill turtle shells into shallow bowls called toluk and used them as money.

Besides admiring their designer jackets, we also love to watch turtles fly. Those long, strong flippers push those bulky bodies through the water with the grace of a deer.

Other wild animals possess poise and beauty, of course, but Hawaii’s honu have another quality that endears them to us like few other creatures: They don’t fear us.

Since gaining protection 44 years ago, green turtles have learned to accept people as part of the scenery. We swim next to them on the reef, glide past them on our surfboards and stand talking, pointing and clicking while they nap.

Even when human admirers swarm, as they tend to do at Laniakea, the turtles remain unruffled. As a researcher once told me when I worried about the crowds, “If the turtles didn’t like it, they wouldn’t come back.”

No law specifies the minimum distance people can approach a sea turtle, but both the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and state Department of Land and Natural Resources recommend that swimmers and beachgoers stay at least 10 feet away.

You can help our honu by reporting harassment or injury to one of these two turtle rescue phone numbers: Weekday days: 725-5730. All other hours: 286-4377. For quick access, I have them in my contacts.

As I watched the meditating woman and slumbering turtle, I remembered a comment a Laniakea visitor wrote in a turtle guest book. Of course, we humans love sea turtles. They are “angels of the sea.”


Pulsating pyrosome lights up dive in Galapagos

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

Smaller versions of pyrosome creatures, pictured, are popping up along the Northwest Coast this summer. ©2017 Susan Scott

Years ago, when I was new to marine biology, I booked a dive trip in the Galapagos Islands. Being a novice scuba diver, it took a while to get geared up for my first dive, and I was the last to jump off the boat. I descended, alone, with visions of hammerhead sharks, marine iguanas and other fantastic creatures that made these islands famous.

Instead, I saw something beyond my imagination. An open-ended cylinder about 2 feet long and 6 inches in diameter pulsed before me in the water column, flashing brilliant blue-white light. It was like swimming with an enchanted light fixture.

I had the good fortune to have crossed paths with a pyrosome.

Pyrosomes have been in the news this summer because masses of them are, for the first time, showing up along North America’s northwestern coast. No one knows why the strobing creatures have multiplied to such numbers, why they’re off the West Coast or whether we’ll ever see such a phenomenon again. Only the creatures know what’s happening, and they aren’t talking.

Ten species of pyrosomes pulse throughout the world’s oceans, each in the shape of a hollow tube. The difference between the species is size. The smallest grow only a few inches long. The ones off the West Coast are about 8 inches long and have the cute nickname of sea pickles.

There’s no canning jar, however, that could hold the biggest pyrosomes. They grow to 60 feet, as long as a six-story building is tall.

A pyrosome cylinder consists of thousands of tiny identical bodies, each held in position mouth-sides out, rear-ends in, by the tube’s mucus wall. Each clone sucks in outside water, eating its plankton and breathing its oxygen. The depleted water exits the rears inside, creating a current that propels the cylinder through the water.

Pyrosomes are famous for light flashes created by bacteria in each of the body’s two light organs. (“Pyro” is Greek for fire; “soma,” for body.) When a colony runs into a solid object or polluted water, individuals sparkle, a warning signal to neighbors, which pass it on. An alert results in waves of light that might frighten away a predator.

The following theory about pyrosomes has implications that should give us all stomachaches: Although impossible to prove, it’s possible that reports of a 1964 torpedo attack in the Gulf of Tonkin, which escalated U.S. involvement in Vietnam, may have been the flash of harmless pyrosomes. The creatures are common in that area.

During that Galapagos dive I had no idea what a pyrosome was, and, being separated from my guide and fellow divers, the encounter gave me a jolt of fear. Today the memory gives me a jolt of joy. I got to swim with a living, breathing crystal chandelier.

Haleiwa Arts Festival Fundraiser

Last weekend Susan participated in the Haleiwa Arts Festival as a fundraiser for the Aloha Medical Mission in Bangladesh. The sales of her fishing float turtles netted about $850, with 100% going to the school & clinic that Susan and her husband Craig founded.

Turtle migration via Honda Fit. ©2017 Susan Scott

Booth setup. ©2017 Susan Scott

Booth setup complete. ©2017 Susan Scott

Susan in the booth on day 2. ©2017 Susan Scott

 

Albatross killings at Kaena Point were slaughters of innocents

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

On Dec. 27, 2015, two male Punahou students and one alumnus drove to Kaena Point Natural Area Reserve with a baseball bat, machete and air gun and proceeded to butcher 15 Laysan albatrosses, smash their eggs and steal researchers’ equipment. Parts of this atrocity were posted on social media.

There are so many things wrong with that paragraph, it boggles the mind. But one reason so many people are so upset about this planned act of violence is that these are not little-known birds in a run-of-the-mill park. Kaena Point is like a constellation outlining an extraordinary corner of our island, the albatrosses nesting there its twinkling stars.

It was not always so. In 1983, Craig and I walked to Kaena Point to see our first Laysan albatrosses. There we found roaring vehicles tearing around wrecked dunes, spewing sand on hikers and drowning out the sound of the ocean. We were thrilled, however, to find three albatrosses, standing together on a rise, their white chests gleaming in the noonday sun.

And then someone in a pickup shot them. The photo our friend took just before the killing haunts me to this day.

For years I watched the Kaena Point battle between conservationists and off-roaders. When the state piled up boulders to block vehicles, someone would drive a backhoe out there and open a passage.

Eventually the state got big enough rocks, and without trucks the reserve quickly began to blossom with native plants and animals. A few albatrosses chose to nest there, and gradually a colony was reborn.

Private and public workers have worked diligently for decades to protect and improve Kaena Point, and today it’s a must-see place for both visitors and residents.

Besides being angry over the criminals’ defilement of this special place, we albatross admirers are outraged over the slaughter because bludgeoning albatrosses is like bludgeoning golden retriever puppies.

Laysan albatrosses evolved with no land predators and therefore are not afraid of humans, making the birds a delightful blend of tame and wild. At Midway a curious albatross once untied my shoelaces as I stood talking. When I squatted down to take a picture, another bird pulled a tissue from my gaping pocket.

While working at Tern Island, I once wrote the following: “Cradling a Laysan albatross in my arms was a joy like no other, the bird’s feathers so soft that my work-calloused hands could barely feel them. But my lips could. When it was my turn to hold, I would lower my face to the bird’s head, inhale its fresh smell of the open ocean, and press my lips to its velvety feathers. With this touch, I delivered to the bird a message: You are magnificent and I adore you.”

The Kaena Point incident is a stark contrast to the aloha spirit we enjoy in Hawaii, but the sentencing is done and it’s time to move on. I look forward to November when our albatrosses return to Kaena Point and once again I can walk in the cluster of our island’s brilliant stars.

Snorklers see red with slate pencil sea urchins

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

A slate pencil sea urchin is tucked into a tight place for a daytime nap. This type of urchin can be found in the Indian and Pacific oceans. ©2017 Susan Scott

Last week when I arrived at one of my favorite snorkeling spots, I found fishermen lined up near the waterline. To avoid their hooks and lines, I had to enter the water far down the beach and swim in an area different from my usual.

It caused me to see red. Not red as in anger, but red as in scarlet.

The outer reef in this North Shore area takes a beating from the surf every winter, and is therefore riddled with cracks and crevices. Wedged tightly into one of the smaller holes, in about 3 feet of water, was a large, red slate pencil sea urchin.

Slate pencil urchins are found throughout the Indian and Pacific oceans, but they are only abundant in Hawaii’s clear shallow waters. Lucky us. In some island areas these sea urchins decorate the reef like glorious gaping flowers. To see some of Hawaii’s exquisite red sea urchin gardens, click here.

Slate pencil urchins have blunt, paddlelike spines that reminded someone of the chalk sticks people once used to write on slates. Unlike their cousins, the long-spined black sea urchins, or wana, the slate pencil’s blunt spines can’t pierce human skin.

Even so, for the sake of the animal, you don’t want to touch these red beauties. Covering each of the creature’s “pencils” is a thin layer of tissue that inhibits the growth of algae and other marine organisms. Handling these animals, even gently, can damage their natural protection.

At night the slate pencil sea urchin uses its suction-cup tube feet to walk around the reef, scraping up algae with its underside mouth. During the day the creature tucks into reef holes for rest and protection.

Really tucks in. Often the animal looks so crammed into the space with its paddlelike spines pointing every which way, it’s hard to imagine how the urchin got in there and, come dusk, how it will get out.

These creatures are more flexible than they look. The sea urchin can’t bend its spines, but can move them in most any direction because each is attached to the body with a movable ball-and-socket joint.

Red isn’t a common color on the reef. Because the sun’s red wavelength doesn’t penetrate water very far down, red looks red only in shallow water. At about 30 feet deep, red looks brown. Continue to 60 feet and below, and red turns black.

Most slate pencil sea urchins hang out on the top and sides of shallow reefs, displaying their stunning paddles for all to see.

I admit that I get grumpy about fishermen casting into shallow reef areas, because when their lines get stuck, the anglers cut them, leaving yards of monofilament to wrap around coral heads and strangle turtle flippers. This time, though, the shoreline anglers gave me a gift: a new place to see red.

Turbulent waters draw crowd of sea cucumbers

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

Sea cucumbers don’t use muscles to tighten and relax their body walls, so they expend little energy to stay anchored. ©2017 Susan Scott

Two weeks ago I picked up a flu bug that knocked me sideways. Aching muscles and violent coughing kept me down for days. Then one morning last week, I had enough. Sick or not, I had to get in the water.

The calm blue water off Lanikai felt soothing in the hot afternoon sun. Not feeling like swimming hard, I drifted over the sand in the shallows and, of course, discovered something marvelous.

The walls that some people have built in front of their beach houses cause the waves to reflect back and forth, creating swirls of bumpy water that stirs up the bottom. I don’t usually swim there because the surface is rough and the water cloudy with sand. But I’ve been missing out.

Black sea cucumbers have anchored their bodies under the rocky rubble there with their head ends poking out. And extended from the heads were the creatures’ feathery tentacles, happily vacuuming up the nutrients in the turbulent water.

I say happily because as I floated around the area, I found dozens of the creatures tucked under rocks and Hoovering away.

Sea cucumbers are easy to pass by because they usually look like plump, sand-covered sausages lying motionless on the ocean floor. But these leathery creatures can walk, some species moving slowly on sticky tube feet, and others inching along in waves, like worms.

When the water is too rough for the sea cucumber to keep its place, it crawls under or leans against a rock and molds itself there, using a remarkable feature in its body walls.

Sea cucumber skin contains microscopic bones shaped like anchors, buttons, tables and tripods. No one knows why the bones’ shapes are so varied, but each species has its own set. Researchers can identify one sea cucumber from another by studying its tiny skin bones.

At rest on the ocean floor, the sea cucumber’s little bones connect with one another with medium tension. But startle the animal, such as by picking it up, and the connections between the bones quickly tighten, turning the sea cucumber into a hard, solid mass.

The opposite occurs when the creature needs to squeeze into a small space. The tiny skin bones spread far apart, and their connections loosen, making the skin soft and flexible. Once the animal gets in the gap, the skin turns firm again, mooring the sea cucumber for as long as it wants to stay there.

Because sea cucumbers don’t use muscles to tighten and relax their body walls, the creatures use little energy to stay anchored.

Some practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine use sea cucumbers as a remedy for various illnesses, but I didn’t have to swallow any sea cucumber to get well. Just watching those animals clean up the ocean floor made me feel better than I had in days. Now that’s powerful medicine.