Category Archives: sharks

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/

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, (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.

Expedition to spot shark encounters spotty shark

Published November 12, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott
Epaulette sharks, named because of the large black patches near their “shoulders,” are found in waters off Australia and New Guinea. ©2016 Susan Scott

Epaulette sharks, named because of the large black patches near their “shoulders,” are found in waters off Australia and New Guinea. ©2016 Susan Scott

Ravens Cove, Hook Island, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park >> To mark exceptional snorkeling spots, the cruising guide for this area shows happy faces wearing mask and snorkel. Tiny Ravens Cove gets three.

In spring when we anchored Honu here, I took 163 pictures in a single winding pass over the cove’s 100-yard-long reef. As a bonus, besides the bay’s breathtaking coral garden and its confetti fish parade, Craig saw a wobbegong shark.

To my regret, I missed it — but I didn’t forget it. One of my goals this time was to sail Honu back here and look for the rare shark. The odds were low but the three species of wobbegong sharks, ranging from 3 to 9 feet long, are bottom-dwelling homebodies, so I had high hopes.

Although wobbegongs are also seen in nearby New Guinea, these unusual spotted, speckled and banded sharks are mostly found in Australian waters.

Wobbegong sharks are famous for frills of skin around their heads, giving them the appearance of fish-shaped doilies. The lacy flaps contain sensors that enable the shark to find food buried in sand or rubble.

Wobbegongs usually don’t attack people, but they aren’t entirely harmless. Like stingrays, the sharks are easy to miss while walking or snorkeling in shallow water. If startled, they can sink their sharp teeth into a hand or foot.

Craig and I snorkeled over Ravens Cove reef until our masks dented our foreheads and numbed our lips. And then, just as we were about to call it a day, there it was: a striking 3-foot-long shark with stubby fan-shaped fins. Black dots covered its pale body, and two large, white-ringed spots on its back stood out like giant eyes.

It was a stunning shark, not a wobbegong, but just as good. Back on the boat with my books, I learned we had seen an epaulette shark, another species found only in Australia and New Guinea.

No worries about swimming with this little cutie. A local fish guide author writes: “(Epaulette) sharks are quite fearless. I have had them come between my feet in the glare of my flashlight, questing single-mindedly for food. The shark ‘walks’ on its four bottom fins, resembling a long-bodied dog moving along on very short legs.”

A photo shows the man holding the shark, its black “epaulettes” clear.

The guide gives Ravens Cove three smiley snorkel faces. Add two sore-but-smiling sailors’ faces to make it five.

There’s no place like home for Internet, photo sharing

Tthe 5-foot-long black-tipped reef shark that grazed her belly with its dorsal fin. ©2013 Susan Scott

Even with dozens of South Pacific visions dancing in my head, my own island still dazzles. During a Lani­kai beach walk at dawn last week — the first since my return — I watched great frigate birds and red-footed booby birds glide over my head, tripped over ghost crab sand pyramids and nodded hello to a dozen Homo sapiens come to marvel at sunrise on Oahu. Home rocks don’t get better than that.

Nor does my email. Because I was using a satellite phone program while sailing, I was unable to access my usual email and therefore came back to a treasure trove of comments from readers regarding my Pacific voyaging.

Thank you, everyone, for taking the time to offer encouragement, share stories and gently point out errors.

The mistakes that got the most attention were my misspellings of the place name Tua­motu and the wind force measurement Beaufort, as in the Beaufort scale.

My apologies to motu residents (a motu in French Polynesia is an island inside an atoll’s coral reef) and to Sir Francis Beaufort, the British Royal Navy officer who created the 12-category wind- and sea-state scale.

Another email topic among readers was questioning the lack of photos in my South Pacific columns.

When my underwater camera stopped working, Craig brought with him to the Marquesas a new waterproof Nikon CoolPix that I carried with me on every snorkeling occasion. It took fine pictures, but I couldn’t send them because my sat phone sends text only.

xmastree worm

That’s another joy in being home. I can now share my favorite Tua­motu photos of a fish and a worm.

The fish is the 5-foot-long black-tipped reef shark that grazed my belly with its dorsal fin as it swam beneath me. The Christmas tree worm was one of hundreds that looked trimmed for a holiday, including its purple “hat,” the creature’s trap door called an operculum.

Besides enjoying Oahu’s reefs and beaches this week, I’m also loving my home office, where high-speed Internet sends pictures in a heartbeat and spell-checking is automatic.

Thank you, kind readers, for the warm welcome home.

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

©2013 Susan Scott

Swimming with reef sharks not fearful, but fun events

Small Black Tipped Reef Shark. Mopelia, French Polynesia, 2006. See picture below for size reference. Click on the image for full sized view.©2006 Susan Scott

FAKARAVA ATOLL, Tuamoto Archipelago » To pass the evenings at anchor here in the South Pacific’s winter, Craig and I often watch movies on the boat’s computer. Last week while shuffling through the dozens of DVDs I’ve collected over the years on my sailboat, Honu, I found one I forgot I had.

“Here’s ‘Jaws,'” I said, thinking we might find this old film funny.

“No,” Craig said. “I’m not watching a cheesy mechanical fish that portrays sharks as monsters.”

I agreed. It’s hard to have a sense of humor about a film that unfairly demonized sharks and produced lifelong shark phobias among millions of people.

We are particularly sensitive to this issue here in the Tuamotos, where residents view sharks as a natural and welcome part of the atolls’ healthy coral reefs.

Visitors from all over the world come to snorkel and dive with Tuamoto sharks, making reef sharks a significant part of the economy.

Since we arrived by sailboat a couple of weeks ago, we have been wading, snorkeling, diving, surfing and kiting with sharks daily. All our encounters have been positive, thrilling but not scary, close but not unnerving.

Last week a 6-foot-long black-tip reef shark passed so close beneath me that I thought I felt a touch of dorsal fin on my belly. But even that wasn’t frightening. The shark nearly ran into me because it was going about its own business of fishing.

The three kinds we routinely see here are the three most common on healthy coral reefs around the world: black-tip, white-tip and gray reef sharks. (There are black-tip and white-tip oceanic sharks, but those are different species.)

When we wade in shallow water, juvenile black-tips swim nearby in twos and threes looking for dinner. The slightest movement, such as raising a camera, startles the little sharks, and in a flash they dash far from the two-legged monsters.

One day Craig dived to a coral head base to explore a cave, and a white-tip reef shark cruised out of an adjacent cave. If it was miffed about having its nap disturbed, we didn’t know it. The shark disregarded the humans milling about and slipped into another crevice to resume its rest.

The gray is a bolder species. During one snorkeling excursion, a 4-foot-long gray reef shark swam straight toward me. After a few seconds of eye-to-eye contact, the shark satisfied its curiosity and disappeared in the deep blue. Silently I thanked the sleek and graceful fish for practically posing for pictures.

Here in Fakarava’s south channel, a World Heritage Site, where currents rush like river rapids in and out of the 200-yard-wide gap, those three species hang out by the hundreds. The nutrient-rich water bathes great walls of multicolored corals from the surface to about 100 feet deep, and those in turn feed and shelter just about every kind of reef fish in the South Pacific.

These well-fed sharks are used to sharing their fish paradise with people and ignore us completely.

To celebrate the joy of swimming on reefs where sharks are respected and admired, and to tune up our sense of humor about fish, tonight we’re going to watch “Finding Nemo.”

shark with legs

Susan’s website guy wtih fierce Black Tipped Reef Shark, Mopelia, French Polynesia, 2006. ©2006 Susan Scott

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

©2013 Susan Scott

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.

Irresistible adventure with the whale shark

Published May 13, 1996 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1996Susan Scott

ABOUT a year ago, a friend called to invite me to join a small group traveling to Western Australia to swim with whale sharks. I wasn’t sure where this was exactly, I didn’t know much about whale sharks and the trip was expensive.

Just say no, my sensible self told me. I signed on and went back to work.

Then, last week, that far-off day finally arrived. I was on a dive boat in the Indian Ocean off Western Australia, speeding toward whale shark territory.

But rather than being exhilarated, I was jumpy, and fighting a nervous stomach.

What have I gotten myself into? I wondered. In moments, I would be jumping into the water with an enormous shark that people knew little about.

Oh sure, I knew whale sharks were plankton feeders. And I had seen pictures of people swimming with them. But looking at pictures was one thing; snorkeling alongside the creature was another matter entirely.

As I fretted, a spotting plane droned in the sky above our boat. This was part of the routine. When the pilot saw a shark, he radioed its position to several boat captains.

The boat captains then sorted out who would drop how many passengers into what area of the ocean.

SUCH details are strictly set by Western Australia’s Department of Conservation and Land Management, the agency responsible for this unique marine park. Managers and users alike are determined to preserve and protect this rare marine treasure.

And rare it is. The unique combination of coral spawning events, marine currents and nearshore location makes Ningaloo Reef off Exmouth one of the few places in the world humans can see whale sharks.

It also creates one of the few places where biologists can study the little-known creatures.

One such researcher from Perth University hitched a ride on our boat and answered questions as we waited for the plane to radio good news about spotting sharks.

WHALE sharks are the world’s largest fish, growing to about 50 feet long and ranging throughout tropical waters.

These sharks have thousands of tiny teeth but neither bite nor chew their food.

Like manta rays, whale sharks eat by drawing water in their mouths and out their gills, straining plankton in the process.

And that’s about it. No one knows how these big fish reproduce, how long they live or how many exist.

Our biology talk was cut off by the excited shout of our dive leader. “Get ready,” he called. Then, “Quick, JUMP IN!”

Frantically adjusting masks and snorkels, 10 of us fell into the water, kicking like mad to keep up with our leader.

And then suddenly, there it was, a 40-foot shark just a few feet from my face. The creature bore the familiar dorsal and tail fins of most sharks, but there the resemblance ended. This shark was a luxurious velvety blue adorned with symmetrical white spots.

THE whale shark’s mouth was working rhythmically, sucking in water like a giant vacuum, then pushing it out through its gill slits.

We watched the shark for what seemed like seconds but was actually about 30 minutes. At one point, the creature pivoted on its tail, feeding in such slow circles that each of us had thrilling views of the entire animal, over and over again.

Chicken skin covered my body, and my contact lenses got sticky from staring. But I wasn’t afraid. Instead, every cell in my body was exquisitely attuned to the moment.

Floating face to face with this magnificent animal was an exceptional example of one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences. I’m glad I can’t say no.

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