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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.

Sharp-eyed fish lurks in the sand stalking prey

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

Hawaii is home to two breeds of sandburrowers. This specimen was found hanging out in the waters off Makapuu. ©2017 Susan Scott

Last weekend I made a dozen new friends. One is Ross Lang-ston, an assistant professor of zoology at Windward Community College. The others are his popeyed fish called sandburrowers.

Although they grow to nearly 3 inches long, my sandburrowers are 1 to 2 inches long — and adorable. They look like they’re wearing swim goggles.

I call the fish Ross’ because he studied Hawaii’s two species for a 2004 doctoral thesis at UH, making him the local expert on the little charmers. When he read my recent column on mole crabs, Ross emailed, wondering if I would like to meet some other shallow-water, sand-dwelling creatures. Yes! Ross brought sieves to a Makapuu beach, and we proceeded to scoop sand in 2 feet of water, as if panning for gold. When the pans hit the air, so did the fish.

We transferred the little leapers to a container filled with seawater and an inch of sand. I don’t know exactly how many we collected, because sandburrower is the perfect name for these fish. After diving for cover, they stay there.

Don’t feel bad if you’ve not seen or heard of these remarkable fish. Most of us haven’t, even though they’re plentiful. In one study off Egypt, researchers found approximately five sandburrowers per square foot, making them one of the most numerous fish in the sandy shallow waters of the Red Sea.

At least 16 species of sandburrowers inhabit the waters of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, some shallow, some deep. Hawaii hosts two, called elegant and Cooke’s. Sandburrowers live only about one year.

A sandburrower resides under the sand with only its spherical eyes above the surface. When a tiny planktonic animal drifts by, whomp! The fish nabs it, traveling four times its body length in 0.05 seconds. Watch Ross’ amazing 15-second video at goo.gl/1HF2UJ. The feeding fish look like shooting stars.

Besides lightning speed, sandburrowers have remarkable vision akin to that of chameleons, each eye moving and focusing independently. During a strike, the fish can turn 185 degrees to avoid objects in its way and still get the meal. Researchers in the Red Sea watched 2,000 strikes in slow-motion video. The fish scored 100 percent of the time.

Ross’ studies centered on the little-known reproduction system of these fish and discovered that Hawaii’s sandburrowers begin life as males and become females as they increase in size. Their floating eggs drift as plankton.

My sandburrowers now lurk in a tank in my kitchen counter, where my brine shrimp offerings cause them to explode from their sand beds. Never before have I had so much fun feeding fish I cannot see.

Thank you, Ross, for introducing us fish lovers to another of Hawaii’s marine treasures.

Moon snails use stealth in the sand to stalk prey

Published January 28, 2017 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

Moon snails lurk beneath the surface of shallow to deep water, burrowing down as much as 7 inches in the sand. ©2017 Susan Scott

I love moon snail shells. They’re marble smooth, patterned in rays of soft colors, and their whirls are classic. But just because the creatures’ homes look inviting doesn’t mean the animals that built them are. Moon snails are a nightmare on clam street.

Not that we, or their prey, usually see the snails in the water. Even after snorkeling on beaches littered with moon snail shells, I’ve never seen one live. That’s because moon snails skulk underwater below the surface of the sand, sometimes as deep as 7 inches. They’re down there hunting for sand-dwelling clams, mussels and most any shelled animal they can catch, including other moons.

Moon snails, and most others, get around by rippling their muscular foot, an organ beneath them that looks like an oval throw rug. When it senses a potential meal, a moon snail can inflate its foot with sea water to four times its shell volume, throw the front over its head and, well, run.

After the foot encloses its prey, the snail drags it to the sand’s surface and goes to work: Drill, baby, drill. That soft-bodied snails can drill holes in shells is hard to fathom. But those squishy bodies hold an arsenal of daggers and chemical weapons.

Moon and other snails have an extendable flexible snout, like a tiny elephant trunk. At the end is the snail’s mouth containing a tongue lined with sharp, curved teeth.

Often the moon turns its catch so the hinge is closest to its mouth. This may be the handiest way to grip the doomed bivalve, or it may be that drilling the hole directly over the bulk of the soft tissue inside makes for efficient dining.

While the snail hangs on with its foot, it curls its tongue, teeth outward, and pushes and pulls at the site while secreting acid. When it breaks through, the mouth sucks out the prey’s organs.

You can tell a moon snail hole from other drillers, such as drupes, whelks and murexes, because moons’ are countersunk. The empty moon snail shells we find on beaches are particularly attractive because the snails spent their lives plowing through sand, which polished the shell and prevented encrusting organisms from growing on it.

The drilling skill of moon snails, and other drillers, is visible on some beaches, where countless shells bear perfect pukas.

About 250 moon snail species live in shallow to deep waters, from tropics to poles. Hawaii hosts nine species, ranging from one-half to 1-1/2 inches tall. The largest moon snails live on the North American West Coast where they grow 5-1/2 inches tall. The day I find one of those, I’ll be over the moon.

Ugly bottom dweller has its charms, slime and all

Published January 21, 2017 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

Susan Scott’s Christmas tree was made of painted hagfish traps, which frequently wash ashore in Hawaii. ©2017 Susan Scott

Hagfish get no respect. And they should. The eel-shaped, bottom-dwelling creatures, averaging 20 inches long, provide humans with food, clothing, wallets, a crackerjack recycling system and snot. Not many fish are so giving.

Hagfish are best known for producing great gobs of clingy mucus that reminds nearly everyone, including workers at Scripps Institute of Oceanography, of snot (goo.gl/VxDz1L).

Hagfishes’ copious slime, however, isn’t just for grossing people out. It frustrates predators. Deepwater videos show that when a shark or grouper bites a hagfish, it secretes a cloud of mucus. Because fish breathe by taking water in the mouth and out the gills, the slime clogs the gills, choking the attacker: goo.gl/Yn9Apt.

Because hagfish are blind, however, they don’t see the shark coming, and it has its teeth in the hagfish’s skin before the slime fills its gills.

But hagfish live inside a bag of loose skin, which attaches to the body in one line down the creature’s back, and in flexible connections to the mucus glands. If shark teeth puncture the skin, they don’t get the muscle beneath. Since hagfish have low blood pressure, skin bites bleed minimally and don’t appear to slow the fish down.

Baggy skin also helps hagfish, using body contortions, to squeeze through openings half the size of its diameter. This is essential because the bottom-dwelling fish wiggle into the eyes, gills and anuses of dead whales, seals and fish, eating from the inside out.

To help push itself into a puka and wipe slime off its body, a hagfish ties itself in a moving knot. If goo fills its one nostril, the fish sneezes.

Hagfish slime could save us from polyester. Its protein threads are strong as spider silk, meaning it might be a natural and renewable alternative to synthetic fibers, such as nylon and spandex, made from petroleum.

The West Coast has an active hagfish fishery. The main marketplace is Korea, where people eat them and use the skin for so-called eel-skin wallets and purses.

You might think you don’t know hagfish traps, but all Hawaii’s beachgoers do. They’re those black plastic cones with frills that come to a point. Fishers fasten these to a hole in a closed, baited bucket. The fish swim in but can’t get out. Endless numbers of these floating traps come loose from their buckets and end up on Hawaii’s beaches.

Hagfish were a frequent topic of discussion at my house recently. We had several guests over the holidays who all wondered what was up with my weird Christmas tree. It’s made of washed and painted hagfish traps.

Attempt to aid crab heals faith in humanity

Published January 14, 2017 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

Tiny mole crabs live in Hawaii, just below the sand and often along the water’s edge. A deceased female’s belly shows a mass of orange eggs clinging to it. ©2017 Susan Scott

One morning last week the news of hate crimes, science denial and war atrocities left me feeling hopeless about the human race. Wanting to block out the whole wretched world, I plugged my ears with headphones, pulled a hat down to my eyes and walked to the beach.

And something wonderful happened. Standing near the shore break, an elderly couple peered down at a tiny white object in the sand.

“We wanted to help it,” the man said, when I approached, “but we didn’t know if it could sting. It seems to be tangled in something orange.”

The creature they were trying to rescue was a charming little mole crab.

Hawaii’s cream-colored mole crabs, about 1.5 inches long, live under the sand along some shore breaks, moving up and down with the tides. The little crabs manage to survive in this turbulent area because their egg-shaped bodies are smooth, allowing water and sand to slide over them with minimal resistance.

With its strong back legs, a mole crab can dig a hole in wet sand and back into it in a split second. This happens so fast that even while watching you can lose the crab’s location. If you know what to look for, though, it’s sometimes possible to find buried mole crabs.

The crabs position themselves upright in their burrows, facing the incoming waves with two stalked eyes peeking out and a pair of feathery antennae lying flat and forward, as a kind of brace. Another pair of plumed antennae stand upright, directing water to the gills for breathing.

All four antennae filter the water washing over them, gathering tiny plants and animals, dead or alive, for food.

The mole crabs’ organs are so tiny, and the wave action so swirly, that the minuscule dimple they make in the sand is barely visible. One easy tell, though, is when a crab has found a Portuguese man-of-war. Even as waves wash back and forth over the shipwrecked creature, it looks as if its long blue tentacle is stuck in the sand.

It is. A mole crab is reeling it in to eat at its leisure. I’ve found crabs with blue tentacles rolled up on the crab’s belly like a bright skein of yarn.

The mole crab the couple found was alive, but barely. I picked her up, explaining that these filter feeders have no pincers and don’t sting. I say her because the orange mass on the abdomen was a bundle of eggs. Small holes, likely a bite, in the crab’s back proved to be fatal.

To remember those kind people, who not even knowing what it was tried to save a tiny crab’s life, I took the creature home and gave it a photo memorial. The pictures remind me to try to focus on the good side of human beings — and to take more beach walks.

Splendid pictures, research propel book

Published January 7, 2017 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

The University of Hawaii Press published Robin Baird’s book “The Lives of Hawaii’s Whales and Dolphins” in November. Cover photo of resident rough-toothed dolphins by Deron S. Verbeck/iamaquatic.com

Over the years, when I had a question about Hawaii’s whales or dolphins, I would email Robin Baird, a researcher at Cascadia Research Collective. Although this nonprofit scientific and education organization is based in Olympia, Wash., Robin and his team have been traveling here about four times a year since 1999 to study our little-known whales and dolphins.

Robin always replied quickly to my queries with the latest information and generously offered me the use of photos from the Cascadia website, cascadiaresearch.org (This site has so many out-of-this-world photos and thought-provoking articles that often hours would pass before I wrote one word.)

When Robin and I met for the first time two years ago at Hanauma Bay, we talked about how good it would be to have a book that reported Cascadia’s research and showed off those fantastic pictures.

Now we have one. In November the University of Hawaii Press published “The Lives of Hawaii’s Dolphins and Whales,” by Robin W. Baird.

This is no coffee table book, but the pictures are so amazing I can almost hear the photographers’ whoops of joy when they got many of these shots. There’s the orca carrying a bigeye thresher shark in its mouth, a family of pilot whales carrying, and grieving for, their dead calf, a false killer whale about to bite a mahimahi that was trying to hide behind the photographer — and on and on.

One of my peeves in science writing is that many researchers use jargon and passive verbs to describe what happened: “The diverse time course of the observed subjects …” Not only is this dull reading, but you don’t know who did what to whom. Not Robin. This is marine biology at its finest, detailed science told in everyday language, often in story form.

One of my favorites is the tale, with photo, of a false killer whale offering a researcher a 100-pound ahi (yellowfin tuna). This whale species has the unusual habit of sharing food, not just with each other, but with humans too if they’re nearby.

Another remarkable aspect of “blackfish,” a 17th-century fishermen’s name for five mostly black whale species, is that the females of three — killer, pilot and false killer — stop reproducing when around 40 years old and live 10, 20 or even 50 more years. The theory is that long life after menopause, which as far as we know occurs only in those whales and humans, provides experienced aunties and grandmothers to guide younger generations.

This book is a rare treasure: easy-to-read marine biology with precise science that is also a dazzling picture book. Bravo, Robin.

Peace, hope graced city on wings of white, gold

Published December 31, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott

White terns have a ring of black feathers around their eyes, giving them a wide-eyed appearance. About 2,000 of them live in the Honolulu area. ©2016 Susan Scott

Most of my email this year was for the birds, specifically Pacific golden plovers (kolea) and white terns (manu-o-Ku), the native species that choose to grace our city.

The birds are doing what it takes in this era to survive on planet Earth: adapting to the presence of humans. And these animals aren’t just tolerating us. They’re using our stuff.

Plovers stand on our roofs, forage in our streets, and some even eat from our hands. (If you decide to feed your kolea, offer it healthy food such as mealworms or bits of scrambled egg.) Kolea prance around our yards helpfully gobbling up the roaches, beetles, worms, millipedes, spiders and slugs we’ve been introducing to Oahu for decades.

There’s a possibility that Hawaii’s kolea are here in greater numbers than before humans arrived. Since historical records are sketchy, there’s no way of knowing for sure, but we do know that plovers share our fondness for expanses of grass. And we mow it for them, too.

One of my favorite emails this year came from a reader who saw a kolea watch TV for days on end. The reader’s neighbor had placed a broken TV on the curb for pickup, and when a kolea saw its reflection in the glass, it stuck around, peering into the set for days.

White terns also landed in my inbox. For reasons known only to them, about 2,000 (and counting) white terns have decided to call Honolulu home, picking the most human-altered parts to raise their chicks. Their current range goes from Bishop Street to the Waikiki Aquarium, with a few of the brilliant ones going to the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Although nearly any tree will do, white terns’ favorites to balance their egg and raise their chick are kukui, monkeypod, mahogany, banyan and shower trees, all introduced species. As a result, urban dwellers can watch adorable chicks teeter on a bare branch while its parent stuffs an astonishing number of fish down its throat.

This year several readers emailed me pictures and tern stories. One woman described a “maternity branch” outside her condo window, and a worker at UH Manoa wrote that his favorite break-time activity was white tern gazing. “Just watching them,” he wrote, “made me relax.”

This year Pacific golden plovers and white terns gave us some priceless gifts: treasured moments of peace and glimmers of hope for the future.

You can give back to our special city terns by joining Hui Manu-o-Ku at whiteterns.org, and if you want to learn more about kolea, you can help Oahu’s plovers by buying their new book from the Hawai‘i Audubon Society at hawaii audubon.org.

Sea turtles are wonders to witness everywhere

Published December 24, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott

urtle biologists measure a known loggerhead female as she lays her eggs in Mon Repos park in Queensland, Australia. ©2016 Susan Scott

This year I’ve already had the best Christmas present ever: a boost in appreciation of living on Oahu. For this gift I thank my visiting relatives from Portland and friends from Vancouver who couldn’t wait to go snorkeling. They were at the door with masks and fins while I was still looking for my wet suit. (It’s winter, for heaven’s sake.)

And then we got in the water and saw the turtles, some large, some small. They didn’t actually approach us, but neither were they fearful, and sometimes we had to maneuver to get out of a grazing turtle’s way. Hawaii’s honu, the Hawaiian word for green sea turtle, made each of my visitors’ snorkeling experiences remarkable.

I’m so accustomed to seeing Hawaii’s honu that I sometimes forget how lucky we are to have so many turtles swimming unafraid in island waters. Because Hawaii’s green sea turtles are the only population in the world that routinely come out of the water to rest and sunbathe, residents and visitors also get to watch them sleep on some North Shore beaches.

At a state park in Queensland, Australia, people get to see sea turtles lay eggs, a miracle I witnessed during my last visit there. The park, called Mon Repos, supports the largest concentration of nesting marine turtles in the eastern Australian mainland and is also the South Pacific’s most significant nesting population of the endangered loggerhead turtle.

You can imagine my excitement, then, when I learned that I could buy a ticket to watch a loggerhead lay her eggs. After a turtle crawled up the beach, dug a hole and started laying her eggs, a ranger biologist propped a small light behind the turtle. Another ranger then arranged us ticket holders in a wide circle he had drawn in the sand around the nest. In silence we shuffled clockwise so everyone got a chance to see the eggs drop. Sea turtles get trancelike while laying, and this one didn’t seem to even see us. When she finished her life’s grand mission, we backed off as instructed and watched the loggerhead return to the ocean.

This extraordinary education effort, appropriately called “Miracles on Mon Repos,” by the Queensland government heavily promotes attendance by our only hope for the future of sea turtles and our oceans: schoolchildren. The kids in my group were absolutely awestruck. Ticket proceeds support the program, turtle research and Mon Repos’ inspiring education center.

Because most of our honu nest at remote French Frigate Shoals, it’s not possible to watch them lay eggs. We have our own miracles, however, in that we can watch, swim and sunbathe with them. To help share Oahu’s great gift of turtles, see the “Help the Honu” tab at malamanahonu.org/index.asp.

New book chronicles decades of kolea studies

Published December 17, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott

In the mid-1990s I wrote a column about the Pacific golden plover, Oahu’s favorite shorebird, known here as kolea. Soon after, I received in the mail several journal articles about these birds from ornithologist Oscar Wally Johnson of Montana State University. Someone had mailed Wally a copy of the column, and though we had not met, he sent me his publications.

“Nice piece on the kolea,” he wrote. “I think you’ll find these interesting.”

And so began a 20-year (and counting) friendship among Wally, me, the kolea and their many admirers.

As his research revealed more and more of this bird’s astonishing capabilities (flying, for instance, 3,000 miles nonstop in three days while occasionally reaching 100 mph in favorable wind), Wally began giving annual talks on Oahu.

Readers of this column increasingly emailed me questions about the kolea they saw in their yards, parks, golf courses and streets. I would email Wally the questions, he would email back the answers and I would write another kolea column.

Finally, last year, when Wally’s Oahu lectures were drawing standing-room-only crowds, and my kolea email became so abundant it got its own folder, we decided it was time to write a book.

The University of Hawai‘i Press agreed. Wally and I worked together to put his scientific articles into everyday terms and illustrate them with his photos and maps. As a result, he and I recently became the proud co-authors of “Hawaii’s Kolea: The Amazing Transpacific Life of the Pacific Golden-Plover.”

Wally, an affiliate research scientist at Montana State, became fascinated with kolea in 1979 while working in the Marshall Islands, and has been studying them since. His research continues to take him from his home in Bozeman to Hawaii, Alaska and throughout the Pacific.

Wally is the undisputed world expert on Pacific golden plovers.

The book contains pretty much everything everyone knows about kolea, and as you would expect, Wally’s photos during his 38-year pursuit of kolea facts are out of this world.

Before his death in 2006, Bob Krauss of The Honolulu Advertiser chronicled the comings and goings of Oahu’s kolea. I never met Bob, but I read his columns and am happy to accept the title that many readers have bestowed upon me: the new Bob Krauss. My kolea email is now more numerous than all my other column subjects combined.

The Hawaii Audubon Society is a longtime supporter of Wally’s kolea research. You can help Hawaii’s plovers and other native birds by buying the book from that nonprofit organization. Go to Hawaii Audubon Store.

Have a kolea Christmas.