Category Archives: Ocean Watch

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.

Tahitian prawns gain foothold in local waters

Published December 10, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott
Tahitian prawns, also known as giant freshwater shrimp, can be found in streams and waters off all Hawaiian Islands since their introduction to the state in 1956. Courtesy Wikipedia

Tahitian prawns, also known as giant freshwater shrimp, can be found in streams and waters off all Hawaiian Islands since their introduction to the state in 1956. Public Domain photograph courtesy Wikimedia.

I had the pleasure of spending the long Thanksgiving weekend on Molokai with friends. After exploring that island’s remarkable beaches, we signed up with a local family for a guided hike up Halawa Valley to its waterfalls. On the walk along the stream, I found, to my surprise, an outstanding marine animal: a Tahitian prawn.

The other common name for this prawn is giant freshwater shrimp, which begs two questions. Is the creature a shrimp or a prawn, and does it live in salt or fresh water?

Both and both.

The words shrimp and prawn are not scientific names. They’re regional. People in the U.K. and other Commonwealth countries usually call the small edible species shrimp and the large ones prawns. In the U.S. most all are called shrimp, although large, freshwater ones might be called prawns.

The genus of the Tahitian prawn is Macrobrachium, meaning large arms. Males’ second pair of walking legs are long, thin and end in curved pincers. From head to tail the creature grows to 6 inches.

Despite the common name Tahitian, the species is native to East Africa, the Indian Ocean and throughout Indonesia to the Marquesas Islands. But it’s not native to Hawaii.

In 1956 state workers brought to Hawaii 340 of the prawns from Guam, releasing 94 in Pelekunu Stream, today a spectacular preserve on Molokai’s north shore. A year later state workers released 27 prawns in Oahu’s Nuuanu Stream.

For the next nine years, no one found a single prawn, causing people to believe the introduction a failure. Then in 1965 a fisher caught a large Tahitian prawn in a Big Island stream. By 1969 people had spotted the prawns in 42 streams on all islands.

The prawn had spread throughout the islands on its own. It could do that because the creature has a remarkable oceangoing phase in its life cycle.

After prawn eggs hatch, they wash to the sea. The tiny swimming larvae spend three to four weeks in the open ocean growing molt by molt. After 22 to 31 molts, the creature reaches the last molt before it becomes a proper prawn. But if it hasn’t found the fresh water it needs for its adult form to thrive, the baby is able to delay that last molt until it finds a stream.

The well-intentioned introduction of Tahitian prawns to Hawaii succeeded in establishing a new food source, but as usual, it came at a cost. The prawn eats anything it can find, including Hawaii’s native stream animals.

When during our Halawa hike I found a perfect large molt on a rock next to the stream, our guide said, “Tahitian prawn. We get them by the basketful. They taste great.”

That’s good, because Tahitian prawns are clearly here to stay.


Some reef encounters captured in blink of eye

Published November 26, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott

One of the pleasures of being home after an adventure is sorting photos of the trip. But as I go through pictures of my recent sailing trip in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, I’m also enjoying the images my mind took when it was too dark or too distant to shoot, or when I didn’t feel like looking at something marvelous through a lens.

One late afternoon, after sailing all day, the weather took a turn, and we raced for shelter in a mainland waterway called Island Head Creek. As our boat turned the corner of the large island protecting the creek’s entrance, the world, like magic, changed from screaming wind and bucking boat into flat, calm silence.

Craig dropped the anchor, and we stood on the deck watching herons, cormorants and other water birds hunt for fish.

“Look!” Craig said, “A crocodile!”

The estuaries along the northern Queensland coast are famous for salties. But no. When the brown back Craig had seen reappeared, the creature also raised its head to take a breath. It was a dugong.

Dugongs are the Southern Hemisphere’s version of the manatee, both called sea cows and both endangered species. Like manatees, dugongs are slow, harmless vegetarians that graze on sea grasses in tropical creeks, rivers and estuaries.

When another of these rare marine mammals appeared on the other side of the boat, we watched the two pop up for air and dive down for food for a glorious half-hour. In the meantime the setting sun turned the water pink, then orange, then dark red. Island Head Creek — a dugong sanctuary, we later learned — became one of our favorite anchorages.

Another series of events I downloaded in brain only were endless flocks of shearwaters and black noddies. Soon after I wrote that I missed seeing flocks of seabirds at sea, we sailed to what’s known as the Bunker Group, the line of atolls that form the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef. The Bunkers’ coral reefs encircle sandy, wooded islands where black noddies build nests in trees and wedge-tailed shearwaters dig burrows for their eggs and chicks.

Near these outer reefs and islands, the water swarmed with seabirds, the shearwaters riding the air currents above the waves, and both species gathering in thousand-bird feeding frenzies, called bird piles in Hawaii, over schools of small fish.

Usually when one of us spots a bird pile, we point it out to the other. Not in the Bunkers. The birds were so abundant that we just sat in the cockpit, marveling in silence as Honu sailed through the feathered masses.

Near the end of the trip, three bottlenose dolphins came rushing to Honu to ride its bow wave. I made my way to the bow, purposely leaving the camera in the cockpit. I wanted to look at the dolphins the way they look at me. And it happened. As I looked down, a dolphin turned on its side to look up. Eye to eye, we shared a moment.

In this age when the phone I carry in my pocket is a camera as well, I often feel compelled to take pictures of everything that happens. No need. Without photos my experiences are as bright and animated in my memory as if I were watching a video. Fortunately, my senses record in high def.

Mesmerizing sea ‘squash’ part of reef mod squad

Published November 19, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott
The baler snail lives in small communities, never traveling very far from the area in which it is born, quite often in isolated areas in Black Island, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. ©2016 Susan Scott

The baler snail lives in small communities, never traveling very far from the area in which it is born, quite often in isolated areas in Black Island, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. ©2016 Susan Scott

Black Island, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park >> While anchored off this small, round, wooded islet, Craig and I started snorkeling on its leeward coral side and later emerged to walk the sand beach on its windward rocky side. As time passed, the tide rose so high we had to abandon the beach walk and swim over the rock bottom.

Thank heaven for big tides.

Craig touched my arm and jabbed his finger below us. “Wait,” he said, raising his head. “I lost it.”

We peered down and saw only gray rocks. And then there it was, a spaghetti squash creeping along on a black-and-white carpet. Its leading organ resembled an elephant trunk. It was hard to keep track of the animal because its appearance changed depending on viewing angle. One side of the creature’s bulbous oval shell was yellow, but the other was a rocklike gray.

The animal was a big, breathtaking snail, but what kind I did not know.

Thank heaven for field guides.

Our crawling beauty was a baler snail. “Baler” is a misspelling of the word “bailer,” dating to when Europeans first saw islanders use the shells to bail water from their canoes. The scientific name for this snail family of over 50 species is Volutidae, shortened to the common name volute.

Volutes are famous for their dramatically patterned shells, feet and tentacles, each different from one another. One endemic species here on the Great Barrier Reef is described as “a carnival of colour, the stripes and spots of its shell pale in comparison to its luridly painted foot and tentacles.”

Volutes are also famous here for species being isolated, each found on only one reef or a small group of reefs. That’s because these snails, as opposed to most others, have no planktonic stage. Their eggs hatch on the bottom as crawling juveniles that stay in the neighborhood where they were born. Being a species in only one small area makes volutes exceptionally vulnerable to extinction through pollution, cylcones and over-collecting.

Each volute walks around the ocean floor on its large muscular foot looking for clams and other snails to dig up and eat. The photos of our volute clearly show a digging claw on each side of its carpetlike foot. Its “trunk” is a water siphon through which the animal circulates water over its gills, extracting oxygen and releasing carbon dioxide.

For half an hour we watched the 12-inch-long creature slide gracefully among the rocks of its own little island.

The experience of seeing and learning about this rare creature was a highlight of our exploration of the Great Barrier Reef.

Thank heaven for baler snails.

‘Pompom’ corals create a colorful ocean delight

Published October 22, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott
This soft coral contains no symbiotic algae to help feed it, as other corals do. The red polyps catch and eat animal plankton adrift in the current. ©2016 Susan Scott

This soft coral contains no symbiotic algae to help feed it, as other corals do. The red polyps catch and eat animal plankton adrift in the current. ©2016 Susan Scott

Orpheus Island National Park, Australia >> When a local sailor heard we were sailing to the Palm Island Group, he kindly fetched his cruising guide to show us the best places to go. The anchoring spots were fairly straightforward, but he added a gem. “There’s a channel between Orpheus and Fantome Islands that has a strong current always running the same direction. It’s a good place to take the dinghy for a drift snorkel.”

A good place? It was snorkeling heaven. As our 2-horsepower outboard slowly carried us up-current in our rubber dinghy, we donned masks and fins, ready to jump off the boat as soon as the motor stopped. “How does one check for salties?” I said to Craig, remembering last week’s advice to keep an eye out. Orpheus Island’s park sign also posted a crocodile warning.

“You go in first and look,” Craig joked.

Hands on our masks, we backflipped into the water and instantly forgot about crocs. The flow, going about 3 mph, sent us zipping down-current, an exhilarating sensation that felt like flying. More exhilarating, though, was the sight 5 feet below: a strip of soft coral bushes so red and fluffy it made me feel like shouting, “Thank you! I love you!” The highway-wide gap separating the islands has exactly what this soft coral species loves: a stretch of sparsely populated (with coral) water with swift, plankton-rich current. How the tiny drifting larvae got anchored in the white sand to start their eye-popping colonies is a mystery of the marine world.

The current was so strong I could not get a good look at the exquisite red corals, but that’s the beauty of pictures — if you can get close enough and hold the camera still. Kicking as hard as possible, I could stay over a red bush for only about one second before losing ground.

Craig saw me struggling and pushed me forward, no small favor given that he was towing the dinghy. The brief boost allowed me to get off a few snaps. Seawater and visible white needles of calcium carbonate support the clear flexible stems of this soft coral that also comes in pink, purple and yellow. It has no common name, but since its genus name, Dendronephthya, is so unfriendly and clumsy, I call it pompom coral.

The genus has several species, so similar that scientists can identify them only by examining the supporting calcium bits.

During our fourth pass over the crimson coral clusters, the current swept us over a slightly different spot, and we found another pompom garden we hadn’t seen before.

What a wonderful world.

Australians have learned to coexist with crocodiles

Published October 15, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott
A crocodile gives a hitchhiker a ride at the Australia Zoo. ©2016 Susan Scott

A crocodile gives a hitchhiker a ride at the Australia Zoo. ©2016 Susan Scott

TOWNSVILLE, AUSTRALIA >> We arrived in the Townsville marina to find a notice from the Queensland government. On the gate of Honu’s pier, a sign read, “WARNING! ACHTUNG! Recent crocodile sighting in this area. Crocodile attack can cause serious injury or death. Keep out of the water and well away from the water’s edge.”

Craig’s reaction: “Why write ‘attention’ in German?” I wondered what triggered the notice since crocodiles are native to the area, and the sign wasn’t here when we left. As it happens, a 15-foot-long crocodile was sighted about 150 feet off the city’s popular beach and walkway called The Strand. Because crocodiles have been a protected species in Australia since the 1970s, if a croc is over 6 feet long and in a high-use area, rangers don’t kill the animal, but rather relocate it.

State rangers were called to catch the Townsville salty, so called because although crocodiles usually live in rivers and estuaries, they swim from one to another via the ocean. And sometimes, if the fishing is good, a croc will stick around a particular island. We once anchored off Hope Island, where a large sign said, “Crocodiles inhabit this area. Do not enter the water.”

We skipped snorkeling. People here call Australia’s second croc species “freshies,” but this and “salties” are misleading names. Both can live in either fresh or salt water. They go where the food is.

Males are larger than females, reaching about 20 feet long and weighing over a ton. Females grow to about 9 feet. The male off Townsville — estimated to be age 50 — had lived a hard life fighting other males for territory. He had lost an eye and all but a few teeth.

Saltwater Crocodile. Courtesy Scott R. Davis

Saltwater Crocodile. Courtesy Scott R. Davis

But the geriatric titan got a break. After a period of rest to get over the stress of capture, the grand old croc went to a zoo or farm to live the rest of his days in peace.

The day after our Townsville arrival, a friendly local sailor showed us the best anchoring sites off Townsville’s nearby islands.

“Here’s a lovely reef,” she said, pointing at the chart. “And here, and here.”

“Is it safe to swim there?” Craig asked.

“People swim there all the time,” she said.

“What about the crocodile warnings?”

“Oh, we just keep an eye out while we’re in the water,” she replied. Such tolerance for an apex predator is the result of Queensland’s “Croc Wise Education Campaign,” developed to inform the public about the value of crocodiles and how to live with them. It’s working. In discussions of crocs here, “No worries” is the general attitude. So, OK. We’ll go snorkeling, pay attention, and if we see a salty we’ll call out, “Achtung!”