Category Archives: Ocean Watch

Grotesque acorn worm helps clean sand in sea

Published August 19, 2017 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

An acorn worm leaves behind a mound of expelled sand that it has ingested while looking for organic matter. ©2017 Susan Scott

My nephew, Joe, pointed out an area of exposed sand during a low-tide walk in Australia.

“There sure is a lot of poop here,” he said.

“These piles aren’t poop,” I said, of the squiggly pyramids at our feet. “They’re sand cleaned by acorn worms.”

“What are acorn worms?”

“I would have to kill one to show you.”

I wasn’t joking. An acorn worm’s skin is so thin that when it’s full of sand, which is nearly always, the creature bursts open if you pick it up.

Besides, acorn worms aren’t exactly cute and cuddly. Each of the 70 or so species in the world’s oceans looks like a slimy piece of intestine with an acorn for a head and a neck that looks like a cervical collar, the brace people wear for neck injuries.

But even if these marine creatures won’t win any beauty contests, they’re tops in talent. The mushy housekeepers live under the surface from the shoreline to 10,000 feet, cleaning up the ocean’s organic wastes. The worms suck in sand, pick out and eat dead plant and animal material there and discharge the filtered sand in distinctive coils.

Hawaii’s acorn worms grow 1 to 18 inches long, the longer with a body diameter of 1 inch. North Carolina hosts the giant of the U.S., a worm that grows to 8 feet long and digs burrows nearly 10 feet long. The species ranges to Brazil.

An acorn worm’s rounded, muscular head does the digging. The collar serves as an anchor, and the body trails behind. Both head and collar contain glands that produce slick mucus that helps the worm slip through sand and mud.


Other glands make bromine, a chemical with a medicinal smell. This, along with the accumulation of iodine in the body, might protect the worm from infection and/or predators. Given that these slow-moving worms have no teeth or claws, chemicals are their only defense.

In Hawaii, Gould’s auger snail eats only acorn worms. The worm-eating livid cone snail preys on acorn worms.

An acorn worm has no brain, but some nerves. Sensory cells on the head can taste incoming particles. The mouth lies at the junction of the head and collar, and when the worm meets something inedible, it ducks its head into the collar. This closes the mouth like a plug in a drain.

The anus is where you’d expect, on the rear end.

As we walked among the endless acorn worm castings of Queensland’s Pancake Creek, Joe said, “The worms push the sand out from where?”

“From their anuses,” I said.

“Um, Aunt Susan? That’s what people call poop.”

Technically, he’s right. The mounds, called fecal casts, contain the worm’s feces. Still, those are minuscule compared with what was in the sand when the worm ingested it. Call the acorn worm’s sand coils what you will. Given my fondness for marine worms, I call them cool.

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.

Corals’ outer beauty belies fierce battles over territory

Published October 29, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott

A coral micro atoll is formed due to encroachment by several species of clams. ©2016 Susan Scott.

Whitsunday Islands, Australia >> Among these famous islands, fish of every color, shape and size swim among corals of every color, shape and size. And squeezed into virtually every nook and cranny of these underwater gardens are sponges, clams, seaweed and countless other plants and animals.

Floating above this riot of life on a calm sunny day makes me feel totally at peace. But the creatures below me aren’t at peace. They live in a constant state of war.

As with nearly all living organisms on Earth, the fighting is about territory. Millions of offspring of thousands of species must settle down where they can get food, mature and make babies. But space in clear shallow water is mostly taken, making competition fierce.

Stony corals often hold prime spots, and are under constant attack by other coral species trying to get a foothold. Corals, however, can fight. Some use long stinging tentacles that sweep surrounding areas to kill early settlers. Others use guerrilla warfare at night, extending filaments that digest their new neighbors’ soft bodies.

While hard corals defend themselves with strings and strands, soft corals use chemical weapons called terpenoids to hold their borders. Some soft corals are particularly aggressive, growing right over hard corals and smothering them.

One bay here consists nearly entirely of such single-minded softies, mostly rubber and leather corals that are flexible to the touch. Between them are other soft corals, some with fluttering tentacles resembling dust mops and palm fronds. Others look like spilled pancake batter, lace doilies and pink pansies, all swaying in the current.

The pretty pastels and slow movements are so serene, it’s hard to remember that these creatures have knocked off an entire bay of stony corals to live there.

Stony corals are also under constant assault from noncoral organisms. Christmas tree worms, clams, sponges and snails set up housekeeping on hard corals. Starfish, butterflyfish and parrotfish eat them, and seaweeds grow over them.

As much as stony polyps fight back, the colony gradually loses ground over time and becomes what’s called a micro atoll. The original coral species struggles around the edges, but a mixed community thrives in its center. Eventually, a new species dominates, becomes king of the hill, and the cycle starts all over again.

Such winning and losing of space creates the diversity we see on coral reefs as well as on the entire planet.

Recalling that fighting for territory is a natural part of life on Earth helps me cope. Perhaps the end result of human warring will be something as beautiful as the Great Barrier Reef.

Diverse array of ‘pennies’ comes from marine critters

Published May 28, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott
Australians call these foram shells mermaid’s pennies; they’re common on the Great Barrier Reef. ©2016 Susan Scott

Australians call these foram shells mermaid’s pennies; they’re common on the Great Barrier Reef. ©2016 Susan Scott

Goldsmith Island, Queensland, Australia >> While sailing north through the reefs and islands of Great Barrier Reef National Park, our routine is to sail in the morning, choose one of the nearly endless protected island anchorages, stop there for the night and explore. Although each island is rich with its own charming gangs of kangaroos, parrots and coral-ringed islets, we rarely spend more than one night in the same place. We just never know what this amazing park has in store for us down the line.

One day last week, for instance, after anchoring in a picture postcard bay, we headed to shore in our dinghy and struck it rich. Countless pennies lay scattered over the white sand.

Mermaid’s pennies, that is, according to Australians. To me they were puka shells, but odd ones. It looked as if someone had spilled a truckload of washers on the beach.

The shell washers ranged in diameter from so tiny I could barely pick them up to about an inch wide. The holes in the center also varied from none to most of the shell. Nor were these disks pure white and wavy like puka shells. Their flat surfaces came in all shades of gray, brown and cream. The shells are from a species of marine creature called a foraminifera, foram for short. Being close to the beginning of the food web, forams are vital for healthy oceans, and to human enterprises as well. Egypt’s pyramids are made of zillions of calcium carbonate foram shells squished together over geologic time. Geologists also use foram deposits as clues to the location of underground oil.

Forams deliver beauty as well, decorating some of the most exquisite shorelines on the world. Beaches in Hawaii, Palau, Bermuda and more are carpets of forams finely ground by ocean waves.

Forams are animals like bacteria are animals. They eat, reproduce, walk around, prey on other organisms and die. But even the largest ones are only a single cell. They’re like amoebas with shells arranged in countless shapes of disks, spheres, spirals and tubes. Most are too small to see with the naked eye, which is what makes the mermaid’s pennies (and the white puka shells of the South Pacific) special.

Forams line all ocean floors and drift in marine plankton in astronomical numbers. In his study, one researcher found an estimated 70,000 forams per square yard on the ocean bottom. The number is on the low side for some areas. In one place, “foram ooze” was 6,600 feet thick.

At this writing, we’ve explored beaches and reefs of about 10 islands and found shells of snail species we know and many we don’t. Curiously, we’ve seen no more mermaid’s pennies, but the handful I have make me feel rich indeed.

Clever honeyeaters boast bold hues, big sweet tooth

Published May 21, 2013 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott
A blue-faced honeyeater is a tropical bird about the size of our mynahs but with the striking colors typical of many Australian birds. This honeyeater finished the latte behind it and then stole a packet of sugar. ©2016 Susan Scott

A blue-faced honeyeater is a tropical bird about the size of our mynahs but with the striking colors typical of many Australian birds. This honeyeater finished the latte behind it and then stole a packet of sugar. ©2016 Susan Scott

KEPPEL BAY MARINA, Yeppoon, Australia >> Craig and I are back in Australia to collect our 37-foot ketch, Honu, and explore more of the Great Barrier Reef.

We’ve sailed here before, but with over 1,000 miles of reef, 300-some islands and Queensland’s east coast packed with national parks, we’ve barely scratched the surface.

Just hours after we arrived in this marina where we had left Honu, three thieves appeared. We were sitting outdoors in the marina’s restaurant, The Waterline, recovering from jet lag with double lattes, when down they swooped. They were so adorable they didn’t need to steal. I would have given them the entire restaurant.

The bandits were blue-faced honeyeaters, tropical birds about the size of our mynahs but sporting the eye-popping colors typical of so many Australian birds.

The honeyeaters’ yellowish-green backs and black-and-white chests glowed in the morning sun, but it’s their striking faces that gave these birds their name. Bright blue patches encircle yellow eyes that are constantly on the alert for food. And not just any food: Blue-faced honey-eaters are crazy about sweets including flower nectar, honey and bananas. Given this sweet tooth, the birds that live around the marina’s restaurant have learned the contents of the brown paper tubes that servers place on tables when customers order coffee or tea: delicious raw sugar.

Blue-faced honeyeaters also love milk, and have been seen regurgitating milk to their nestlings. That makes the birds also interested in leftover liquids inside cups.

The clever birds sat silent and nearly invisible in the trees above the courtyard tables, waiting for the coffee drinkers to leave. Because the staff is onto the robbers, the birds must be quick.

And quick they are. Seconds after the family next to us left, three honeyeaters swooped down, ducked their heads into the cups for the milky leftovers, grabbed a sugar packet each and were gone.

The good-natured waitress saw me taking pictures and let the birds have their prizes.

“They’re polite,” she said of the honeyeaters. “Once they get a packet, off they go.” Straight to the shoreline, we learned. The birds take the sugar packets to the water’s edge, wetting the paper for easier opening. The beach there is often littered with brown paper tubes.

As I write, Craig and I are sailing north from the area, but reluctantly, agreeing that Rosslyn Bay and the Keppel Islands are so fantastic we could spend our entire month right here. That’s why they call this barrier reef great.

Common name for this fish is in need of an origin story

Published February 22, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott
The Moorish idol is an omnivore that has a relatively large brain. Courtesy Russell Gilbert

The Moorish idol is an omnivore that has a relatively large brain. Courtesy Russell Gilbert

While snorkeling I recently saw five Moorish idols zipping along from one coral head to another. With their triangular body shape and black-and-yellow markings, the 8-inch-long fish reminded me of the traffic signs warning drivers of a possible animal encounter: CAUTION: MOORISH IDOL CROSSING.

Watching the perky fish commute made me wonder where they got that odd name. If Moors are a historical Muslim group, and if “idol” is taken to mean a false god, the name Moorish idol for a fish seems offensive. But looking into the name on the Internet opened a can of worms. The Hawaiian name, kihikihi, was easier. It means angular, curved or zigzag.

The Hawaiians chose this versatile word to describe three fish, the Moorish idol, kihikihi; hammerhead sharks, mano kihikihi; and threadfin jacks, ulua kihikihi. The Moorish idol’s scientific name, Zanclus cornutus, is also straightforward. The first name comes from the Greek “zancion,” meaning sickle, referring to the white, sickle-shaped filament that trails behind the fish’s upper fin. Because of this long fin, people often mistake Moorish idols for angelfish or butterflyfish. They are not related. The Moorish idol is its own unique family of one.

The species name, cornutus, comes from the Latin “cornut,” meaning horn. Adult Moorish idols have a tiny hornlike spine in front of each eye, larger in males.

Along with surgeonfish, Moorish idols are the Einsteins of reef fish, having large brains compared with body size. Both fish families need high IQs because they’re roving omnivores without harems and therefore must distinguish colors, shapes and patterns to find food, mates and places to hide from predators.

After learning verifiable facts about the Moorish idol, I returned to my search of its name. A Wikipedia entry said the Moors of Africa believed the fish brought happiness, but with no reference cited, the statement is void.

I read nearly endless opinions, conjectures and rants about the word “Moor” and settled on academia, the Oxford Islamic Studies Online website. Moor, the authors write, is a medieval term once used to describe dark-skinned Muslims of Arab or Berber decent who invaded Spain in 711. The origin of the term is uncertain, but it probably meant people from Mauritania or Morocco.

So the name Moorish idol might indeed be insensitive. Or not. I went again with Oxford and read their dictionary’s second definition of idol: “a person or thing that is greatly admired, loved or revered.”

Could this mean the name might have come from early Moroccans who greatly admired the fish? Not likely. Moorish idols are found only in the Indian and Pacific oceans.

Some fish enjoy the perks of a committed relationship

Published February 15, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott
Hawaii divers have plenty of opportunities to see synchronized swimming butterflyfish: Of the 25 species of the fish in isle waters, at least a dozen are known to live in pairs. Courtesy Russell Gilbert

Hawaii divers have plenty of opportunities to see synchronized swimming butterflyfish: Of the 25 species of the fish in isle waters, at least a dozen are known to live in pairs. Courtesy Russell Gilbert

Last week I watched two fourspot butterflyfish glide around a coral head so close together they were almost touching. Was this a male and female? I wondered. Whenever I’ve seen two butterflyfish together, I’ve always assumed they were male and female, but to what end? Because butterflyfish release their eggs and sperm into open water, these parents don’t have to feed or protect eggs or offspring.

So with plenty of fish in the sea, as they say, and the kids drifting off before they’re even born, what’s the advantage of lifetime liaisons?

It’s clearly a benefit in some butterflyfish species. The world’s coral reefs host about 130 kinds of butterflyfish. Some hang together in schools; others live solitary lives. But at least 78, or about two-thirds, form pairs.

My idea that butterflyfish couples are male and female is mostly accurate. Researchers haven’t studied each species yet, but they have looked at the behavior of some that live in pairs.

One benefit to being a fish couple is that no romancing is required. Neither male nor female has to waste energy searching for a partner or performing elaborate courtship rituals. In one butterflyfish species, couples swim to the reef’s outer edge to spawn during periods of strong tidal currents. This sweeps the precious sex cells away from the reef’s many plankton eaters. And that’s that. The two go back to eating, while trying to avoid being eaten themselves. It’s here that monogamy has other perks. Butterflyfish have varied diets. Some species eat tiny shrimp and crabs, others prefer plankton and many graze on the soft bodies of live corals. One theory about butterflyfish pairing is that when it comes to finding shrimp and crabs hiding in sand and reef cracks, four eyes are clearly better than two.

Another notion is that because the minuscule animals and corals that certain butterflyfish eat live scattered across large areas of the reef, the fish have to travel far and wide to dine. Such roving prevents a male from creating and guarding a harem. But a monogamous male doesn’t have to. He simply keeps his female with him.

Researchers have also noted that some couples watch each other’s back. While one nibbles, the other functions as lookout, signaling when to flee from an approaching predator.

Of Hawaii’s 25 butterflyfish species, at least 12 live in pairs, giving us snorkelers and divers lots of chances to watch synchronized swimming in fish. It’s a marvelous sight to behold, two bright fish waltzing together in matching outfits of yellow, black and white, with the occasional blue or orange accessory. And that may be another reason some butterflyfish pair up. They love ballroom dancing.

Ghost crabs keep low profile along atoll’s sandy beaches

Published February 8, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott
The horn-eyed ghost crab, the larger of Hawaii’s two species of ghost crabs, is known to dig M-shaped burrows. ©2016 Susan Scott

The horn-eyed ghost crab, the larger of Hawaii’s two species of ghost crabs, is known to dig M-shaped burrows. ©2016 Susan Scott

While walking a beach at Midway recently, I noticed a lot of ghost crab holes with flat smooth sand around them, no mounds, sprinklings or claw prints in sight. Ghost crabs (also called sand crabs) are famous for building large, complex burrows. So what, I wondered, had these crabs done with their sand?

You can see ghost crab holes on nearly every tropical, subtropical and temperate beach on the planet. But good luck seeing the holes’ architects. The world’s 22 ghost crab species make their mansions mostly at night and hunker down in them during the day. Ghost crabs use their burrows the way we use houses. The dwellings provide refuge from predators and bad weather, are a private place to change clothes (in the crab’s case, to molt), and when the time is right, they’re love shacks. A crab hole generally has a funnel shape at the top leading to a tunnel that ends in a chamber. Depending on species, ghost crab burrows look like the letters Y, J, I and U. The larger of Hawaii’s two species, the horn-eyed ghost crab, sometimes digs M-shaped burrows. This is usually the result of a new resident re-excavating an abandoned burrow.

The side branches of Y and M shapes are either escape routes or places to hide from predators that dig, such as coyotes, foxes, mongooses and dogs. How deep a crab’s tunnel goes depends on the sand’s moisture. The drier the sand, the deeper the burrow, because ghost crabs have lungs and gills that both need water to absorb oxygen. When we see ghost crabs taking dips in the surf zone, they’re wetting their breathing organs.

Here in the main islands, ghost crabs often leave evidence of their quarries, either throwing excavated sand willy-nilly or piling it in mounds. During the reproductive season, Hawaii’s horn-eyed males build copulation burrows in an S shape. To advertise their bachelor pads to females, males shape their scooped-out sand into pyramids.

Scattered sand, mounds and pyramids, however, are like arrows directing predators to a crab’s location. And that’s where those Midway crabs’ holes with no tailings make sense. To mask their whereabouts, ghost crabs sometimes trample their excavated sand, expertly erasing all traces of digging.

In addition to eating dead plant and animal material that washes up, ghost crabs are ecosystem engineers. Their burrows create passageways for air and water to mix sand, bacteria, soil and sediment, crucial factors in maintaining healthy beaches.

Besides being useful, ghost crabs are fun to watch and beautiful to behold. Please be kind to these native species. Our beaches need them.

Starfish that dines on coral is a management challenge

Published February 1, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott

A crown-of-thorns starfish eats rice coral in New Caledonia. Research is inconclusive on whether the animal does lasting harm to coral reefs. ©2015 Susan Scott

Published February 1, 2015 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2015 Susan Scott

‘If I see one in an area, I leave it,” a knowledgeable Palauan dive guide told me recently. “But if there’s two or more, I kill them.”

This was the reply to my query about whether crown-of-thorns starfish have been a problem on reefs in Palau. The guide’s explanation didn’t answer my question, but it made clear one fact: Most people see the crown-of-thorns starfish as a coral killer that deserves the death penalty.


Crown of thorns. ©2015 Susan Scott

But before giving this native Indo-Pacific reef animal a lethal injection, we should consider the 1,200 observations on the subject. That’s the approximate number of crown-of-thorns-starfish-related research papers published, most since the 1960s and ’70s outbreak that devastated Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

Because that amount of data is so large, it’s been hard to ferret out the facts. So workers from James Cook University joined workers with the Australian Institute of Marine Science to consolidate the studies. Their resulting 2014 report draws only one sobering conclusion: “Many questions about the biology of (the species) remain unanswered, which greatly limits the understanding and hence the potential to manage outbreaks.”

The recent study of studies, however, did answer one question: Do the starfish search out a particular kind of coral or go for whatever is in their paths?

Crown of thorns close-up. ©2015 Susan Scott

Crown of thorns close-up. ©2015 Susan Scott

Both, it turns out, an answer that shows the difficulties researchers have in learning about the starfish and planning its management.

According to seven studies across the Pacific, given a choice, the starfish have, by far, two favorites: rice coral (Montipora) and plate and staghorn coral (Acropora). Although Hawaii has several species of both types, the starfish hasn’t caused much damage here.

If not given a choice, however, such as when corals are scarce and the creatures are starving, they’ll eat any and all corals they can find.

One fact I know about these giant (18 inches across) starfish that wasn’t mentioned in the 2014 report is that they’re beautiful. The color variations are endless, but often the tops of the bodies bear circles of green, red and blue; and the spikes that rise from them often have orange or purple bands. And on its thousands of fat tube feet below, the creature wears pretty yellow socks.

Like sharks and jellyfish, myths about crown-of-thorns starfish live on. And also like sharks and jellyfish, these native species have vital roles in the health of coral reefs. Until scientists know what causes the crown-of-thorns starfish to out-reproduce their coral resources, we should grant the creatures parole.

Crown of Thorns. Courtesy Scott R. Davis

Crown of Thorns. Courtesy Scott R. Davis

Beachcombers treasure glass floats for fishing nets

Published January 25, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott
glass float

Luke Halpin was the first to see the glass ball he’s holding, and drew his own name in an onboard lottery to become its owner. Courtesy Jim Garrett

For most of us, finding a glass fishing float washed up on a beach is like finding a crystal ball. Collecting them is addicting, and there’s no such thing as having too many.

But the green balls aren’t treasure to everyone. Japanese fishermen think they’re junk. Nor did the Japanese invent them. A Norwegian glass blower began making the floats in 1842 to hold up cod gillnets. Glass proved sturdier than wood and cork, and by the 1940s anglers in Europe, Russia, Asia and North America were all using air-filled glass forms to float their nets and mark their traps.

According to collector Walt Pich, author of several books about Pacific glass floats, Hokkaido glass blower Hisakichi Asahara was the first in Japan to make the floats, in about 1910. Asahara’s hand-blown spheres were a hit with fishers, and orders poured in.

By the 1920s the Asahara family was producing tens of thousands of glass balls in shops throughout Japan. Russian, Taiwanese and Korean glass blowers joined the boom, and by the 1930s millions of glass floats were holding up lines, nets and trawls in the Pacific.

Most Japanese floats are green because the makers used recycled green sake bottles. Other colors reflect glass reused from other sources.

Sizes varied according to need, including shapes that collectors call rolling pins, dumbbells, pumpkins and more. Glass blowers sealed the floats with so-called “buttons,” sometimes pressing trademarks into them. The Asaharas didn’t bother, leaving their buttons blank.

To hold their floats, fishers tied rope around them, often in artful knot-work. When storms tore open their coverings, the glass balls, freed from their day jobs, became drifters.

When cheaper, more durable plastic and foam floats came along, fishermen stopped buying glass ones. Today you can find new glass spheres in curio shops, but to beachcombers those don’t count. The thrill is in the finding. Or the winning. In March my friend Luke Halpin spotted a netted glass ball from the deck of a research vessel off Vancouver Island. The crew retrieved the sphere, and to be fair the captain had the names of everyone aboard put in a hat. Traditionally the person who saw the float first picked the winner. Luke drew his own name.

Those of us who have glass balls know their magic. Looking into them gives us a glimpse of a past era in a distant land and also reminds us that the Pacific Ocean is an enormous pot constantly stirring. And like all crystal balls, the floats show us a bit of our future: We will be looking for more glass balls.