Category Archives: Book Review

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.

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.

Book about sea creatures offers profiles of the bizarre


Bone-eating snot flower.” That’s the enchanting name that inspired me to dive deep into a new book, “The Extreme Life of the Sea,” by father-and-son team Stephen and Anthony Palumbi (Princeton University Press). The book arrived while I was sailing the South Pacific. Home now, and up to my eyeballs in mail, I was halfheartedly turning pages when those weird words jumped out at me from a caption beneath a picture of a long-dead whale. See Chapter 4? With pleasure.

And so off I set on another of my favorite kinds of voyaging: discovering marine animals new to me and learning new facts about animals I already know.

The authors take a special approach to sharing their admiration of the animals that grace our planet’s oceans. Stephen, a marine biologist at Stanford University, and son Anthony, a novelist and science writer, combined their skills to write a scientifically accurate book using the storytelling narrative of a novel.

The result is a rare hybrid: a funny and easy-to-read book full of accurate science. If, like me, you want to know “says who?” to the facts, the authors include “a tantalizing citation trail for the reader to follow if she chooses.”

The Palumbis focus on the cool stuff: how the animals that live in ocean extremes, from freezing to boiling, shallow to deep, bright to black, do so.

“Life is a carousel of struggle and success,” they write, “of beauty and beautiful ugliness.”

Take, for instance, that bone-eating snot flower. In 2002 researchers discovered a gray whale’s bones lying two miles deep on the ocean floor. Boring into the bones of the carcass were hundreds of thousands of blind zombie worms called Osedax mucofloris. “Ose­dax” means “bone-eating,” and “mucofloris” translates, roughly, as “snot flower.”

Each red worm is a fingernail-size, jellylike mass with green tendrils below that spread out like tree roots. Bacteria in the tendrils make acid that breaks down bone, enabling the worm to extract nutrients. The flower part of the creature is a filament-tipped fleshy stalk that extends into the water, absorbing oxygen like a gill.

Only females of the species eat bones. Dozens of minuscule males, being little more than sperm sacks, cling to the sides of each female waiting for their big moment: to fertilize the eggs of their landlady.

I’ve not met Stephen and Anthony Palumbi, but I would like to because I feel we are kindred spirits. The father and son wrote their book for the same reason that 27 years ago I started writing this weekly column: to share the awe and respect we feel when watching, swimming with and studying marine animals.

I’m reading “Extreme” slowly to savor the details, but I don’t have to memorize them. This book is going on the top shelf in my reference library.

Stephen and Anthony write in their prologue that their aim is to give the reader “a delighted sense of wonder at every mystery, and a spark of joy at each discovery.”

For this reader they succeed throughout. But then, they had me at “bone-eating snot flower.”


Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean
Watch”, for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, www.staradvertiser.com

©2014 Susan Scott

Excellent science that’s reader-friendly as well

Published September 22, 1997 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser
©1997 Susan Scott

A few weeks ago, a fellow ocean-lover called to tell me about a new book. “Every time I open this book, I find another interesting piece of information,” he said. “It’s reader-friendly science that isn’t dumbed down.”

If there’s one way to get my attention, just say the words “reader-friendly science.”

Years ago I diverted from a career in biology to one of writing because it bugged me so to see science conveyed to the public so poorly. Either the jargon left you glassy-eyed or you felt like you were reading a first-grade primer.

I got a copy of the recommended book and found my friend was right. Not only is this book a treasure of good, clear science writing, but it’s the science we Pacific island residents crave: stories of the unique places we live.

“Tropical Pacific Island Environments,” by Christopher S. Lobban and Maria Schefter (University of Guam Press), is full of tales of people living with, studying and making policies about the plants and animals of their islands.

One of my favorites is the crown-of-thorns starfish tale. This starfish has a much larger stomach, relative to its body size, than other starfish, and is so flexible it can wrap its arms around branches of coral. But this is no friendly hug. The crown-of-thorns kills and eats coral by turning its stomach inside out over living polyps, thus dissolving them. The liquefied food is then absorbed through the starfish’s stomach wall.

Usually, crown-of-thorns starfish aren’t much of a problem, being just one of many predators of coral. But in 1962, the crown-of-thorns reached plague proportions on the Great Barrier Reef. In the late 1960s, Guam and Micronesia were stricken.

People were horrified by the destruction of their reefs and designed massive control programs. More than 220,000 crown-of-thorns were killed in the former Trust Territories, and 70,000 in Guam. In Chuk, teams of divers spent thousands of hours in recreation and fishing areas killing the starfish.

Then, in the 1970s, the plague ended. According to one Australian scientist, the control programs had little to do with the decline because no one fully understood the problem.

Today, experts are diametrically opposed in their interpretations of crown-of-thorns data. One side says this is a natural occurrence that does not threaten the reefs. The other says it is an unnatural phenomenon and could cause total reef destruction.

What’s a government to do about a potentially catastrophic situation for which the cause is still unknown? The authors of this book devote several pages to this question, detailing the dynamics, and reality, of scientific research.

They also point out that even though this problem is complex with no scientific certainties, the media and public tend to favor the “catastrophe model.” It’s more dramatic, more appealing and gives the impression that something is being done to remedy the problem. But is it right?

This book is packed with stories like this, and I can’t pick it up without learning something new or getting a new perspective on something I thought I knew most everything about.

The authors write in their preface that they believe science can be explained clearly. This book is a good example.

Teachers, high school and college students, policy makers, environmental lawyers and everyone else interested in our island environments should read this book.

More Info

 TITLE: Tropical Pacific Island Environments
 AUTHORS: Christopher S. Lobban and Maria Schefter, pen-and-ink drawings by Rick L. Castro
 PUBLISHER: University of Guam Press, 1997
 PRICE: Softcover, $50; hardcover, $70
 AVAILABLE: UH Bookstore, Bishop Museum gift shop, Honolulu Book Shops, Bess Press, Hawaii Geographic Maps and Books.

Don’t bite the shark who bites you, ocean-lovers say

Published December 2, 1996 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1996 Susan Scott

RECENTLY, while working as a volunteer in the remote Hawaiian Island National Wildlife Refuge in Hawaii’s northwest chain, two other volunteers and I decided to go snorkeling.

“Every time I’ve been snorkeling here, I’ve seen a shark,” I told my companions, both new to Hawaii, as we walked to the beach.

“What kind?” one asked.

“Gray reef. They’re no problem if you stay out of their space,” I said boldly. “They’re territorial.”

We sat in the blinding-white sand, put on our gear and soon took the plunge.

Seconds later, my prophesy came true. A gray reef shark appeared in the clear blue water of the drop-off before me.

Although every rational cell in my brain told me this was OK, my fear won the moment. I motioned to my friends to follow me, then swam like crazy for the beach.

“I saw a shark,” I said when we got back. “It scared me.”

They accepted this. I was the experienced ocean person with local knowledge. If I were out of the water, so were they.

The two women began examining shells on the beach, but I sat staring out to sea. How could this happen? I love to snorkel and dive in interesting places like this. And I’ve often done it with sharks and did fine. But not this time. Today I was afraid.

How do we ocean-lovers cope with such unwanted fears? Star-Bulletin reporter Greg Ambrose attacks this question head-on in his new book, “Shark Bites, True Tales of Survival” (Bess Press). Greg’s approach to the complicated and controversial fear-of-sharks issue is to tell the stories of people who were attacked and survived. Kevin Hand, Star-Bulletin artist and marine enthusiast, illustrates each incident with flair.

Don’t pretend it doesn’t happen, the pictures and stories say. Face it. The ocean is the sharks’ home. Sometimes, sharks bite people. It’s frightening, but victims usually survive. Now get over it, and go enjoy the water.

When I read these stories, I saw a pattern. The sharks in these attacks weren’t interested in actually eating people. They saw something that appeared to have potential as food and checked it out. It wasn’t right. They left.

This supports a theory that Greg discusses in his introduction. Most shark attacks are cases of mistaken identity. Sharks evolved millions of years before humans even existed, thus, “We aren’t on the menu. Humans are an oddity rather than a meal.”

This rationale and the stories in “Shark Bites” won’t work for people who are so afraid of sharks they can’t relax in, or even enter, the ocean. I know several of these dry-landers.

But for the rest of us, the tales are an inspiration. Nearly all of the attack victims still surf and dive (although they have their moments) and believe the attack held a message. “It changed my living patterns and exposed me to other things. … In some ways, it added to my life,” one survivor said.

“I walked out onto the front yard and saw blue ocean like I had never seen it before,” said another after an attack. “You just have to be thankful and enjoy every day, every moment.”

Speaking of enjoying the day, I sat on that Tern Island beach brooding about sharks for about 10 minutes. Then I donned my mask and fins and led my friends back into the water.

Each of them got a thrilling look at the curious shark, then it disappeared.

It was a wonderful day of snorkeling, complete with finding a place where six turtles were grazing. One was missing a rear flipper from a shark bite. Oddly, this encouraged me. Predator-prey relationships are the driving force of the marine world, and we humans are not a natural part of it.

I’m proud of myself for taking Greg and Kevin’s advice that day: I faced my fear of sharks, then got over it and had fun.