Author Archives: sdavissm@gmail.com

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.

Primordial soup brews near active volcanoes

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

A boat tour near Kilauea Volcano started the columnist thinking about the origins of living organisms, especially the theory that life on Earth began in the ocean, where primitive proteins evolved into cells. ©2017 Susan Scott

Last week on a Hawaii island boat tour, I watched Kilauea Volcano shoot its lava off a cliff. Liquid orange rock spurted like a fire hose from a tube 3 to 6 feet wide, plunging 60-some feet to the ocean in explosions of steam, glass particles and hydrochloric acid.

The ocean absorbed this assault with little fuss, cooling the 2,000-degree Fahrenheit lava in great green steamy swirls.

I felt like the protein in a cauldron of primordial soup.

The expression “primordial soup” was coined in 1924 when two scientists theorized that 3.7 billion years ago life on Earth began in the ocean. Chemicals there, the theory went, combined to become primitive proteins that evolved into cells.

Scientists today work with vastly more information, from genetic to cosmic, and that has led to other hypotheses about how life began on our planet. One theory maintains that life started in the ocean, but at the bottom of the bowl, in deep sea vents such as those of Kilauea’s backyard cousin, Loihi.

This active volcano lies about 20 miles off the southeast shore of Hawaii island where it rumbles and erupts 3,200 feet underwater.

Submerged volcanoes create cracks that allow seawater to percolate deep into Earth’s crust. As it descends, the water gets hot enough to absorb minerals from the rocks it passes.

When the mineral-laden water gets hot enough, it floats, rising through seafloor passageways into near-freezing water. The drastic change in temperature causes the minerals to fall out, thus forming chimneys called deep sea, or hydrothermal, vents.

The stacks, standing a few feet to a few stories tall, can be piles of gemstones, containing gold, pyrite (fool’s gold), silver and bornite, an iridescent mineral nicknamed peacock ore.

Crabs, giant clams, tubeworms, fish and more live in and near the chimneys. While life as we know it at the surface depends on sunlight and nutrients to survive, these bottom dwellers have neither. They live on Earth’s heat.

Because the chemicals of living organisms can all be made from simpler chemicals that have nothing to do with life, the theory goes that nooks in deep sea vents concentrated organic molecules and minerals, creating chemical reactions that spawned life.

Given that the hot vents host entire communities of marine animals, many still unknown, the theory makes sense. But if that hypothesis doesn’t sit right with you, there are others, ranging from RNA strands to asteroids.

My friend and I had a safe, friendly experience with a local family business, Moku Nui Lava Boat Tour. You can hike to a lava-viewing place, but I recommend seeing the spectacle by boat, too. If anything can get a person pondering life’s big question, it’s floating in a bowl of primordial soup.

Shoreline gems offer a palatable mystery

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

It’s still unknown how these porcupinefish palates found on the North Shore by a reader change color from white to shades of amber. ©2017 Susan Scott

Last week, reader Chris emailed a photo of some caramel-colored nuggets that she and husband Matt found along a North Shore coastline. Some of the pebblelike pieces are symmetrical, with a centerline. Others are halves of these, and all bear the markings of former ridges.

The ocean had rotated and polished the stony bits into jewels, lovely as the gemstones we call tiger’s-eye. Chris wondered if I knew what they were. I did not — and the search was on. Chris, Matt and I looked in books, queried friends and searched the internet.

The couple’s friend guessed their finds might be parts of parrotfish throats, called pharyngeal mills, that grind up coral rock. They aren’t, but it gave Chris and Matt a search subject that produced a link from Sydney’s Australian Museum. Pictured there is what the museum identified as a spiny pufferfish palate from a beach in the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Hawaii hosts a pufferfish with spines that we call a porcupinefish. The largest grows to a whopping 28 inches long and weighs 17 pounds, 12 ounces (the state record).

Chris and Matt wondered why porcupinefish mouth parts would be concentrated in one area of a long beach.

It’s possible that porcupinefish are abundant in that part of the ocean, but it’s more likely that the deposits are a result of coastal currents. The ocean sorts pebbles and shells according to flow strength, shoreline shape and objects’ weights, and that area is where the water drops off its palates.

I wondered why the roof of the mouth of the big prickly fish outlasts other parts of its skeleton, but I didn’t wonder for long. I have found dead, desiccated porcupinefish on beaches and brought them home.

When I picked one up to examine its palate, the whole thing fell apart, jaw bones included. That made clear that the fish’s upper tooth, shaped like a curved razor, is fused to a ribbed rock-hard palate. The same-shaped lower tooth is also fused to an identical hard floor, an upside-down palate. Both are bone white.

Apparently, after a pufferfish dies, ocean tumbling wears away its softer bones and teeth, leaving only the solid, durable plates. Where they get their rich color is a mystery.

Porcupinefish use their formidable teeth and rock-hard palates to crush snails, sea urchins and crabs. Be wary of a trapped porcupinefish. If caught or cornered, the fish can easily take off a finger, bone and all. Of the fresh bite I once saw, the remaining forefinger was sliced as clean across as if done with a cleaver.

Chris and Matt invited me to come see their pufferfish palates and, seeing my awe, generously gave me a few. Forget diamonds, rubies and sapphires. For us, porcupinefish palates are far more precious than stones.

White terns are at home in the trees of Honolulu

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

Breakfast is served. Courtesy Robert Weber.

Last week I walked into Waikiki with 11 other Oahu residents, zigzagging through tourists, street performers and pamphlet-givers. But we weren’t there to people-watch. We were there to see some of our city’s most charming marine animals: white terns.

Most people don’t think of seabirds as marine animals, but they are among the most remarkable, living entirely off the ocean without living in it.

Some don’t even get wet. In a technique called air dipping, white terns snatch fish and squid from the surface, or in midair when the prey jumps. Although the terns dive to the water, they change direction and speed so fast, they get prey without submerging.

One astonishing white tern trait is the ability to hold fish crosswise in their bills and still catch more. How they open those beaks to grab a fish while keeping hold of several others is a marvel of nature.

White terns usually catch juvenile goatfish, flying fish, flying squid and needlefish but take anything they can carry. Because the birds bring fish to their chicks intact, they have enabled biologists to discover new species. That means a person had to steal a parent tern’s fish intended for its baby.

About this, Spencer Tinker, Waikiki Aquarium director from 1940 to 1972, wrote in his book “Fishes of Hawaii,” “(Gregory’s fish) is known from but a single specimen about two inches in length from Laysan Island, which was brought to the nest of a white tern on May 12, 1923. This is an example of the extreme depravity to which scientists will descend to obtain a new species, namely, taking food from a little bird.”

Regarding humans, some terns have taken the approach of our Pacific golden plovers: If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. The last estimate of white terns gracing our city’s trees is 2,100.

White-tern citizen scientist Rich Downs led our Waikiki walking tour, sponsored by the Hawaii Audubon Society, to show us some white terns raising chicks in the trees of Waikiki. Some of the chicks are so close to people, we bird lovers worry about vandals killing them (who can forget the Kaena Point albatross massacre?). Some of that worry eased, though, when, seeing us 12 staring up at a chick, a man emerged from a nearby building.

“You’re upsetting the parent, standing there like that,” he scolded.

Honolulu’s white terns have a growing number of friends and protectors. Kapiolani Community College biology professor Wendy Kuntz and student Katie Gipson and others set up a live chick-cam on campus, www.twitch.tv/kccmanuoku, enabling us to watch a white tern family from home. Prepare to fall in love.

For maps and information about how to help the white sprites of Honolulu, see whiteterns.org.

Weird Palau find offers a lesson in flora, fauna

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

More than 2,000 tunicate species are found throughout the world, with at least 45 varieties found in Hawaii. Pictured are the green barrel sea squirt variety found in waters off Palau. ©2017 Susan Scott

I’m home from my snorkeling trips to Palau and Yap, and in sorting through my pictures, I came upon a favorite: something so new, I didn’t know whether it was plant or animal. When I showed the real thing to our knowledgeable Palauan guide, he didn’t know either, but guessed it was a kind of alga.

Soft, thimble-size barrels with pores in them didn’t look like any alga I had ever seen, but then, some weird plants grow in the world’s oceans. One common one looks like a small Japanese glass float that filled up with water and sank to the bottom. Some call this one-celled seaweed bubble algae. (Singular is alga, but no one calls it that.) I prefer its more colorful common name: sailor’s eyeball.

After a few tries of describing my mystery organism, Google came up with “green barrel tunicate, scientific name, Didemnum molle” with a photo that matched mine.

Over 2,000 tunicate species are found throughout the world, with Hawaii hosting at least 45.

Years ago, in a zoology course at UH, I learned that these filter feeders have baglike bodies with two openings. One draws water in with tiny beating hairs, and the other directs water out. This human-heart-type image was the picture I had of all tunicates.

But like so many marine invertebrates, tunicates come in various forms. Some exist in colonies, where their bag bodies join at the base. The colonies can spread over coral and rocks in matlike patches with lots of inhalant and exhalant holes for sharing food. Often this spreading, combined with brilliant colors, makes some colonial tunicate species look like sponges.

The barrels in my photos are not visibly attached to one another, but runners creeping along the rock base connect individuals and give rise to new ones.

An individual green barrel sea squirt, also known as the tall urn ascidian (a class of tunicate), can grow to 4 inches in diameter in deep water. Shallow-water communities, such as those in my photos, are less than an inch wide.

The green tinge comes from a bacterium that lives in the tunicate’s tissues. Although not technically a plant, the bacteria produce oxygen, essential to the tunicate, the same way plants do, through photosynthesis. In this symbiotic relationship, the sea squirt produces a chemical sunscreen that protects its bacteria from UV radiation.

I’m not discouraged about not knowing those little barrels were sea squirts, or that I have surely incorrectly identified some tunicates as sponges. Learning new facts about the marine world is the thrill that keeps me dunking my face in water until it hurts.

Now I need to learn another fact: how one tells a tunicate from a sponge.

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.