Author Archives: sdavissm@gmail.com

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.

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.

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.