Category Archives: Whales

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.

A humpback can be home to a half-ton of barnacles

Published March 21, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott
The Coronula diadema, or whale barnacle, is known to live only on the skin of humpback whales. ©2016 Robert Maughan.

The Coronula diadema, or whale barnacle, is known to live only on the skin of humpback whales. ©2016 Robert Maughan.

On a beach last week, Molokai reader Robert Maughan found a shell he describes as a 2-1/2-by-2-1/2-inch coral-urchin-barnacle. “Never seen the likes,” Maughan wrote. He sent two photos, and I had never seen the likes, either. But I recognized the shape and soon found the answer. Maughan had found the shell of Coronula diadema, a barnacle species that grows only on humpback whales.

Left to its own devices, an adult barnacle is a stationary creature, stuck at home forever. Living on the skin of a whale, however, is like riding a bus through Foodland. As the whale swims, the barnacles on board stick out their feathery feet and snag passing plankton.

Gray whales also have their own distinct barnacle, which begs the question: How do species-specific barnacle babies locate the right whale to ride?

It starts with the basics. Barnacles require internal fertilization, but this is tough when you’re glued to one spot.

Barnacles attached to the ventral pleats of a humpback whale calf (photo taken during necropsy). Alaska, Peril Strait, Baranof Island. 2005 October 18. Aleria Jensen, NOAA/NMFS/AKFSC.

Barnacles attached to the ventral pleats of a humpback whale calf (photo taken during necropsy). Alaska, Peril Strait, Baranof Island. 2005 October 18. Aleria Jensen, NOAA/NMFS/AKFSC.

Barnacles overcome this handicap by bearing both eggs and sperm. The creatures don’t self-fertilize, but because they live in shell-to-shell colonies, each barnacle can snake out its remarkably long penis and fertilize the neighbor’s eggs.

DNA studies show that some barnacles fertilize more distant members by ejaculating into the water. Others of the species catch the drifting sperm.

Fertilized eggs grow into swimming larvae that must find a home in a neighborhood of its own kind or die. This is easier than it sounds because adult colony members release chemical signals that help youngsters find their own species.

Once a young barnacle touches a whale’s skin, the larva uses its antennae to walk around the whale in search of prime real estate on the head or fins. A sticky substance helps the larvae hang on while trekking.

Maughan wrote that when he found the shell, it had a black membrane over its bottom. That was whale skin. Once it’s happy with a location, the developing barnacle gradually draws into its shell prongs of growing whale skin, rooting the barnacle firmly in place.

Whale barnacle, bottom. ©2016 Robert Maughan.

Whale barnacle, bottom. ©2016 Robert Maughan.

An adult humpback whale can carry up to 1,000 pounds of barnacles. But because whales weigh about 80,000 pounds, the barnacle load is no more of a burden than us wearing a sweater.

Thank you, Robert, for sharing your story and pictures. I know that during beach walks a lot of us will now be looking for our own whale barnacles.

Curious minke whale makes a rare offshore appearance

Published October 20, 2014 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2014 Susan Scott

Pacific Ocean, 22 degrees South, 163 degrees East » After sailing thousands of miles through the tropical Pacific, I’m no longer surprised by how few whales and dolphins appear offshore. It makes sense because warm water contains fewer nutrients than cold and therefore supports less life.

Even so. Marine mammals do live in and transit these balmy waters, and it’s a bit disappointing to sail offshore year after year and never once see a fin, fluke or blow.

My dry spell is now broken. About a third through our 800-mile passage from New Caledonia to Australia, where the Coral Sea meets the Southern Ocean, Honu had a distinguished visitor.

One day, as I lay in the cockpit looking back, Craig, looking forward, shouted, “Dolphin off the bow! Or maybe it’s a whale.”

We jumped up to see on the surface a classic whale “footprint,” an unmistakable swirl of flat water caused by a large animal’s dive.

As we stood on the deck, a minute later the creature appeared again near the starboard side of the boat. It was clearly a whale, smaller than a humpback or fin but larger than a pilot. The animal’s breath made a gentle whoosh, but no spray came from its blowholes.

While we were still gaping, the black, smooth-skinned back cut the water, this time behind the boat. Moments later the whale appeared on our port side. There was no doubt about it. This marine mammal was circling Honu and checking us out.

I raced to fetch my camera. Too late. Swimming around the boat once had satisfied the creature’s curiosity, and it disappeared in the deep without a trace.

A photo is the only way to be sure of a species, but lacking that, I think I know the identity of our whale because it so precisely fits the description in my books. Our distinguished guest was a minke whale.


Minke Whale – public domain photo from NOAA

The minke, pronounced MINK-ee, gets its odd name from the men who once hunted whales. The story goes that a novice whaler, Meincke, shouted out sightings of the little whale at a time the species was considered too small to be worth the effort of harpooning and hauling aboard. The other sailors mockingly gave the species the man’s name.

The minke is the sport model of the baleen whales, being sleek, fast and having a distinctly pointed snout. The species name, acutorostrata, means sharp snout.

At an average of 27 feet long, minkes are also the smallest of their baleen relatives and the most abundant. Like all baleen whales, minkes strain the water for krill and small fish.

Minke whales rarely make a visible blow — check — and usually travel singly throughout every ocean in the world. Yep.

But what finalized my guess of minke is that the species is well known for suddenly, without warning, appearing alongside boats, much to the surprise and delight of the people aboard.

A great big affirmative.

Its curiosity satisfied, the minke then swiftly vanishes. Right. Farewell, sweet whale. Your call meant the world to me.

New Caledonia and Australia each claim to have the longest coral reef in the world. But who cares? I’m just happy to be sailing between them.

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

©2014 Susan Scott


Friendly false killer whales known to share their catch

Published February 10, 2014 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2014 Susan Scott

False killer whales have a knotty name, but don’t let the 19th-century label turn you off. There’s so much to love about these animals that after attending whale researcher Robin Baird’s lecture on them at Hanauma Bay last week, I wished I could throw my arms around the neck of a false killer whale and give it a hug.

I mean, what other marine mammal shares its fish not only with others in its pod, but also with swimming humans and people in boats?

The main Hawaiian Islands host about 150 false killer whales that are genetically distinct from other false killer whales of the world. The 11- to 18-foot-long marine mammals (males are larger) spend their lives foraging between Kauai and the Big Island.

Like killer whales, false killer whales are mammals that live in social groups and cooperate in hunts. False killer whales, however, have the charming behavior of sharing their catch.

Researchers know this because false killer whales bring their fish, often a mahimahi, ono or ahi, to the surface. There, pod members pass the prey to each other before eating it.

“Here, you take the first bite,” one seems to be saying.

“No, no, let Grandma have it,” says another, passing it on.

Spotting a researcher photographing such sharing, one false killer whale offered the diver some tuna, too. And when a false killer whale ended up alone in the Puget Sound area (this is normally a tropical and subtropical species), it offered boaters pieces of salmon.

Also, false killer whales really do swim with their grandmas. This is one of only four species in the world whose females go through menopause and live for decades beyond. The other three are orcas, pilot whales and humans.

After reaching their teens, female false killer whales have one calf every six to seven years, experience menopause at about age 40 and live into their 60s.

The false killer whale name came from skull and teeth similarities to killer whales, but the resemblance is superficial. The two are not closely related.

Speaking of researchers, because of Baird and his Cascadia Research team’s 14 years of study, more is known about false killer whales in Hawaii than anywhere else in the world.

Besides discovering that Hawaii has its own population, they also documented an alarming decline in number, to about 150 from 500 in the 1980s. Photos clearly show fishing line injuries to some false killer whales. Necropsies revealed fishhooks in stomachs.

As a result of Cascadia’s publications, the Hawaiian Islands false killer whale was listed as endangered in 2012. In 2013, Hawaii’s longliners switched to circle hooks to stem injury and death.

I doubt I’ll ever get my arms around a false killer whale, but it’s Baird and his team who deserve the hugs anyway. Their research and education efforts got our sharing, ohana-living, funny-named kama­aina whales the break they needed.

For out-of-this-world photos of Hawaii’s false killer whales, as well as coloring pages for kids, check out

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

©2014 Susan Scott

Neptune notwithstanding, beached whales are baffling

Published December 16, 2013 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2013 Susan Scott

A pilot whale surfaces off Hawaii island. Courtesy Robin W. Baird

No one knows whether the living whales returned safely to the open ocean or if they died and got recycled by sharks and other marine scavengers.

Nor does anyone know why pilot whales, many young and seemingly healthy, sometimes beach themselves.

With all the gloomy stories we hear about oil spills, global warming and pollution, it would be easy to blame the whales’ plight on human activity. But while some of those factors may play a part in modern standings, pilot whales swimming to their deaths on beaches is not a new phenomenon.

Around 350 B.C. Aristotle wrote about beached whales (species unknown, but pilot whales, the species most commonly stranded, are found in the Mediterranean): “It is not known why they sometimes run aground on the seashore: for it is asserted that this happens rather frequently when the fancy takes them and without any apparent reason.”

Ancient Romans believed that grounding was Neptune’s punishment to whales that behaved badly.

Whether naughty or nice, pods of pilot whales and other species, such as sperm whales, have likely been swimming to their deaths in the shallows since whales have been in the sea, about 50 million years. And not because it strikes their fancy. There’s a reason it happens. We just don’t know what it is.

That’s not for lack of trying. Researchers have been studying pilot whale carcasses for decades, and although no one knows why entire pods of the 13- to 18-foot-long whales occasionally end up on beaches, scientists have theories.

The most probable is that the whales’ navigation system malfunctions. This might be from a viral or bacterial disease that infects the pod, heavy metal pollutants, an undersea earthquake, magnetic field anomalies, unusually warm or cold oceanic currents, getting lost while fleeing predators or chasing prey, or some combination of these. Or none of the above. Research is ongoing.

There is, however, some good news. A 2012 study showed that five Australian pilot whales guided back to sea after stranding survived. This suggests that although not all individuals in a pod can be saved, some can.

Mass strandings of marine mammals touch our hearts, moving a wide variety of officials and volunteers to launch rescue attempts. It’s good to know that some of those efforts succeed.

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

©2013 Susan Scott

So, why the heck are they called sperm whales?

Published December 29, 1997 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1997 Susan Scott

THANKS to e-mail and, I hear from a lot more readers than I used to. Here are a few recent questions and comments:

A reader named Dan writes: “Mahalo for the interesting column on the sperm whale (Dec. 15). You provided many interesting details on the creatures’ physiology, diet, history and commercial uses.

“What’s glaring in its omission, however, is why in God’s name is this creature called a SPERM whale? Inquiring minds deserve to know.”

Indeed they do.

Much of the bulk of a sperm whale’s enormous head is taken up by a barrel-shaped organ called the case. Inside the case is a clear, liquid oil that when cooled, hardens to resemble white paraffin.

Because whalers thought this stuff looked like whale sperm, they called it spermaceti and named the animal a sperm whale.

Spermaceti was used as lubricant and lamp fuel until around the end of the 19th century when petroleum products replaced it.

Another reader, Charles, wrote of an experience he had at Ala Moana Beach Park: Last November, lifeguard Helene Phillips “scooped a strange object into a Styrofoam cup at the water’s edge. She handed it to lifeguard Bill Goding, who called us over. The thing was one piece, not broken off something else, and had no obvious breaks or ruptures.

“It was maybe 15 inches long and an inch or so in diameter, translucent, jellyfishlike, but stronger and didn’t break when held by one end.

“It had no internal organs, but was suspiciously organic-looking…. No, it wasn’t a condom, though a condom closed at both ends and filled with clear Jell-O would be a fair description. What’s your guess?”

A good find!

Although I didn’t see the creature, and I don’t know why it would be closed at both ends, the thing sounds much like a pyrosome.

Pyrosomes are gelatinous, free-swimming relatives of sea squirts. Brilliantly luminescent (pyrosome means “fire bodies”), these white creatures have an opening at one end like a condom.

Individual members of a pyrosome colony lie in the cylinder’s jellylike walls with their mouths facing out. Tiny beating threads in the mouths move water and nutrients inside the tube. This not only provides food and oxygen for the individuals but also propels the colony through the water.

The length of these colonial animals ranges from an inch or so to over 30 feet long. A photo in one of my books shows a scuba diver examining one 3 feet in diameter, and he’s almost completely inside the animal.

My own experience with a pyrosome was with a smaller one, about 2 feet long, in the Galapagos Islands. I was descending on a drift dive when a pyrosome floated into my face and flashed its brilliant white light. I was so startled, I didn’t have the sense to grab it for a closer examination.

When a pyrosome encounters an object, a wave of light moves along its body, which frightens potential predators.

It has been suggested that the 1964 reports of a torpedo attack in the Gulf of Tonkin, which escalated American involvement in Vietnam, might have been pyrosomes, common in the area.

Now there’s a sobering thought.

On a happier note, I’ll end my column year with a comment from an Australian reader, Dieter: “A yabbie in Australia is a small crayfish, not the giant monster you wrote about (Aug. 11). Yabbies live in holes along the banks of any billabong.

“A much larger crustacean called the Murray crab can be found in the Murray River. Both Murray crabs and yabbies are good bush tucker-fair dinkum!”

Oh, I’ll never learn Australian!

Thanks for writing, everyone. Your letters made it a great Oceanwatch year.


Yes, Virginia, there are killer whales off Hawaii

Published March 31, 1996 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1997 Susan Scott

ABOUT two weeks ago, a Hawaii fisherman called the Star-Bulletin to report the sighting of a killer whale about six miles off Kaneohe Bay.

“Can this be true?” a reporter asked me.

Yes, killer whales do swim in Hawaii waters. In fact, orcas are the most cosmopolitan of the world’s whales, present in all oceans and seas, from the ice floes of both hemispheres to the warm waters of the equator. Sometimes, killer whales even swim up rivers.

Most of us don’t think of killer whales as ramblers because of the close-knit family units some orcas form in places like Puget Sound. Such groups, called resident pods, are present in specific areas year-round and travel only short distances to find food, mostly fish.

Usually, these family-oriented whales spend their entire lives within the same group, with population gains and losses coming only from births and deaths. This social structure is the only one of its kind among the world’s mammals.

But another type of killer whale exists, called transients. These whales roam in and out of resident whales’ boundaries but don’t mix with resident populations.

Both types of orcas live in pods ranging from 1 to 55 individuals, but transient pods tend to be smaller than resident pods.

Transient orcas are different from their resident cousins in other ways too. Transients are quieter animals and have pointed tips (as opposed to rounded) on their distinctive dorsal fins. Also, it is the transients that sometimes eat marine mammals, a practice that gave the whales their common name, killer.

In spite of this malevolent name, documented attacks on humans are rare. In those attacks that have occurred, the whale was provoked either by harpooning or by an attempt to capture it or a member of its family. Collisions between whales and boats are usually accidents.

This doesn’t mean that orcas can’t sometimes be pests. Hilo fishermen once reported a whale “with an 8-foot sail” raiding and destroying fishing lines. The description is likely that of a male orca.

Other orcas have been spotted off the Waianae Coast and near Kauai in 1979.

The orca sighting two weeks ago was by Hawaii resident David Shane, owner and captain of the 50-foot trawler Moana Mele.

“It was a male orca, about 25 feet long,” he told me. “It swam right up to the side of the boat, then rolled up to look at us. It stayed for about 10 minutes, then took off. We were so mesmerized, we didn’t think to take its picture.”

Because sightings of killer whales are so rare in Hawaii, researchers believe that these mammals are not residents but transients, merely passing though from time to time.

This recent sighting was a lucky, rare moment for David Shane and his passengers.


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

Kaena Point is cleaner, safer than it was before

Published February 3, 1997 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1997 Susan Scott

 Last week, I took some family members on a hike to Kaena Point. This was my first visit there since my car was trashed in the parking lot a year ago. Determined not to let paranoia spoil the walk, I removed everything from the car, left the doors unlocked and headed down the road.

My precautions were probably unnecessary because changes have occurred in this state park over the past year. Neat boulders line the parking lot and beginning of the trail, prominent signs forbid littering and motor vehicle riding, and the area looked cleaner than I had seen it.

Most important, the new Kaena Point ambassador, Reuben Mateo, was an obvious presence. When I met him, he was sitting near the entrance of the park greeting visitors in his state pickup.

I complimented him on the improvements. “I haven’t done much,” he said. “I’ve only been here two months.”

Still, the attendance of this friendly man with the big smile made all the difference. The message is that this jewel of a park is worth spending some money and effort to protect.

Mateo agreed that the number of vehicles in the park is still a problem. A future permit system may fix that.

But my family and I didn’t dwell on the noise and dust of the trucks and vans. We hiked past them in a brisk two-mile walk, then entered the nature park. There we enjoyed one of the best whale shows I’ve ever seen from shore.

Several groups of humpback whales were as active as they get. Two whales held their pectoral fins high out of the water as if “sailing” in the strong winds. Several others began tail-slapping. Others occasionally leaped from the water in spectacular breaches.

What a show it was, made even better by our having viewed the new IMAX film “Whales” the night before in Waikiki. “I’m so glad we saw that movie,” my sister said as we watched one whale slap its tail on the surface over and over. “Now I know what’s going on under the water too.”

The film, produced and partly written by former Waikiki Aquarium director Leighton Taylor, is well worth seeing. The footage of Hawaii’s humpbacks, both here and in their summer Alaska feeding grounds, is superb. The exciting coverage of right whales reminded me that there are other whales in the world to visit. Argentina’s Peninsula Valdez is now on my list of must-see places.

Kaena Point is a must-see place too, and not only for humpbacks. When we could finally tear our eyes from the sea, we discovered that other marine animals were practically sitting at our feet.

A group of Laysan albatrosses stood on a hill singing and dancing up a storm. We lowered our voices and kept our distance so as not to disturb them. Then along came a family with a big dog on the loose. We cringed, hoping it would not find and kill the albatross sitting on an egg near the path.

Such deaths will continue until people stop bringing unleashed dogs into the park.

I wished there was some way to shoo the courting albatrosses to the other side of the island. There, off Sea Life Park, private and public agencies have set up a little seabird paradise at Kaohikaipu Island.

On our way home, goat-like braying echoed from the cliffs above. These are the unusual calls of white-tailed tropic birds nesting on the mountainside. Despite years of looking, I have never seen one of these seabirds here.

This day was different. When I looked up, I spotted one of these lovely white birds flying toward the ocean.

“Now I understand why you like to hike so much,” my sister said when we returned to my untouched car. “With places like this around, walking is really fun.”

Walking to Kaena Point is fun. And with increased protection, it’s getting better all the time.


Ambergris was a treasure in bad old whaling days

Published October 14, 1996 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1996 Susan Scott

I recently received a call from a reader. “I want to write a book about ambergris,” he said. “Would you tell me, please, what you know about it?”

I opened my mouth to speak. Nothing came out. Ambergris. Hmm. Something about sperm whales and perfume? What was it about ambergris?

The silence on the line lengthened.

“Are you there?” my caller asked.

“Yes. I’m thinking,” I said. “I can’t tell you anything about ambergris.”

He seemed almost happy to hear this. “So that means it would be a good subject for a book, right? If people don’t know about it?”

“Maybe. If people want to know about it.”

We discussed book writing for a while, then he was off to the library.

I was left with a nagging suspicion that people might not flock to buy a book about ambergris. Ambergris, I soon learned, is whale poop.

To put it more scientifically, ambergris is a waxy substance occasionally produced in the large intestine of sperm whales. The stuff usually looks like lumpy, large potatoes – smooth and dark brown outside; pale yellow to gray inside. The lumps are firm but break apart easily.

Often, parrotlike beaks from squid are embedded in the center of ambergris chunks.

People usually find ambergris either floating on the water’s surface, or on a beach. Rarely, masses have been found weighing several hundred pounds.

If you find some disgusting, foul-smelling lump of excrement on the beach, forget it. Fresh ambergris has its own smell, neither pleasant nor unpleasant. Old ambergris smells like musty base ment. An easy way to identify ambergris is to pierce it with a hot needle. Ambergris melts like chocolate, leaving a tacky coating on the needle.

Back in the bad old days of whaling, ambergris was highly prized as an ingredient (called a fixative) in perfume to keep it from evaporating.

Whalers discovering ambergris in the intestines of dead sperm whales had found treasure. Ambergris sold for $15 an ounce, a fortune in the 1880s. Today, even though the perfume industry now uses synthetic fixatives, ambergris is still worth several dollars an ounce.

Sperm whale bodies contained other once-coveted, commercial treasures. The characteristic blunt, squarish snouts of sperm whales contain a barrel-shaped organ, known to whalers as the case. Inside the case is a clear liquid oil called spermaceti.

When it hardens, spermaceti looks like white paraffin of a consistency that reminded sailors of whale semen. And that’s where these magnificent animals got their common name, sperm whale.

Spermaceti made excellent candles and ambergris made good perfume. A third sperm whale commodity was the animal’s body fat, cooked to make oil for cosmetics, soap and machine oil.

Sperm whale hunting began in 1712 in New England. The first Yankee whale ships arrived in Hawaii in 1819. They spotted and killed a sperm whale off the Big Island.

Little whaling was subsequently done in the vicinity of the main islands but news of sperm whales in Japan triggered a rush of whaleboats to Hawaii. By 1822, 60 ships were here. For the next 18 years, Hawaii’s economy was fueled by provisioning these ships and entertaining their men.

There’s good news at the end of this sperm whale tale. Although certain populations are depleted, sperm whales remain the most abundant of all the great whales, swimming the world’s high seas.

Therefore, it’s possible to find ambergris on a Hawaii beach. But regardless of its elegant uses and colorful history, when you pick it up, remember: It’s still whale poop.

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,