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Beaches laden with sea life deposited by windy weather

Published March 17, 2014 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2014 Susan Scott

I ended a book I’m working on with suggestions about what concerned citizens can do to help the oceans. One of my ideas is to walk the beaches and, while doing so, pick up trash.

“This is also a good way to discover marine life,” I wrote. “Even after all these years, I’m still finding new (to me) species on beaches.”

To which an editor replied, “What does this mean? Are you recommending that people look for dead animals?”

Well, yes. This close-up look at natural selection has given me some of my most memorable morning strolls.

The best time to find stranded marine animals is during periods of prolonged onshore wind. That’s when wind and waves dislodge young, old or sick creatures residing on the reefs. Strong wind can also overpower creatures that live on offshore surface waters, driving the animals to land.

Enormous numbers of marine creatures spend their lives far from land drifting on the ocean’s surface. Known as the “wind drift community,” these are Portuguese men-of-war, violet snails, nudi­branchs (snails without shells), insects, crabs, barnacles, jellyfish relatives called by-the-wind sailors and blue buttons, and countless others.

And remember to look at marine debris as possible treasure troves of life. I once found an offshore blue-and-brown crab with a 3-inch-wide shell residing inside a Nike sneaker that had washed ashore. Other remarkable finds: a piece of baleen from a whale’s mouth, a Spanish dancer nudi­branch that had danced its way too close to the shorebreak and got stranded, a mole crab chowing down on a fantail filefish, and a hundred more.

One of my favorite finds occurred at Kai­lua Beach amid 30 mph wind and occasional downpours. I enjoyed the blustery weather and walked from the beach park a couple of miles to the bottom of the bay. There on the beach lay my reward: a live baby frogfish.

When exposed, frogfish often inhale air that gets trapped inside the fish’s body, and this is what happened to my frogfish. It lived for a few days in my makeshift “hospital” aquarium, but it couldn’t stay submerged without struggling, so it died a day later.

It may be survival of the fittest out there, but even so, the beleaguered wildlife of our planet can use all the help they can get. So when my beach finds are alive, I do my best to save them by transporting my creatures to a better place. Most of my rescue attempts probably fail, but I feel good in trying.

When the animal is already dead, I view it as an animal whose time had come and see it as an ambassador for its species.

My friend Alex, a Hawaii biologist, called me last week to tell me about an unknown animal, about 2 feet long, that he saw burrowing under the sand at the waterline on a Kaa­awa beach. We discussed what the creature might be (conger eel, snake eel), but neither of us had ever seen such a thing.

“Amazing that you don’t even have to get wet to find marine animals,” Alex said. “All you have to do is walk the beach.”

It’s natural to hunker down indoors during our recent wet and windy weather. I recommend, however, a walk on the beach.

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

©2014 Susan Scott