Tag Archives: dolphins

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/iamaquatic.com

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, cascadiaresearch.org (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.

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.

Hungry trumpetfish sticks close to turtle at dinnertime

Published May 16, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott
A huge trumpetfish rests near the ocean floor, under a turtle that it uses in a kind of symbiosis called commensalism. ©2016Susan Scott

A huge trumpetfish rests near the ocean floor, under a turtle that it uses in a kind of symbiosis called commensalism. ©2016 Susan Scott

While snorkeling last week I thought I saw a remora stuck to the belly of a big turtle.

Remoras are like the family dog standing under the kitchen table waiting for a dropped tidbit, except remoras are lazier. Using the suction cup on top of their heads, remoras, or suckerfish, stick to sharks, dolphins, whales and turtles, getting free food scraps and free rides as well.

The fish swimming closely under the turtle, however, was not a remora, but a huge trumpetfish about 30 inches long. But trumpetfish are not scavengers. They’re ambush predators. In cozying up to the turtle, the trumpetfish was hiding from damselfish nibbling algae and parasites off the turtle’s shell and limbs. When one of the damselfish moved to the side of the turtle, whomp! It was gone, sucked into the trumpetfish’s expanding mouth.

Reef fish eating algae and parasites off turtles is a type of symbiosis called mutualism because both the turtle and the fish mutually benefit. One gets food. The other gets cleaned.

Famous examples of mutualism are cleaner wrasses, 4-inch-long territorial fish dressed in flashy yellow, black and purple stripes. The pattern and colors of these little fish are like neon shop signs advertising the wrasse’s service station.

Fish needing parasite removal or wound debriding come to the site and hold still while the wrasse does its work. Sometimes fish without parasites or wounds visit wrasse cleaners, letting them eat body mucus. This might gain favor with the cleaner wrasse for future visits. Or maybe it just feels good.

Wrasses don’t have a monopoly on the cleaning business. At least 111 fish and dozens of shrimp species eat parasites and tend wounds on fish. In appreciation, barracuda, moray eels, snappers and other predators don’t eat their cleaners.

Still, reef fish should trust no one. A couple of sneakers called saber-toothed blennies mimic the colors and behavior of the cleaner wrasses. When a gullible fish approaches, the blenny sinks its teeth in, getting a chunk of fin or body. The ruse works only on youngsters. Older fish know the con and steer clear of the biting blennies.

My turtle and trumpetfish were engaged not in mutualism, but in another kind of symbiosis, called commensalism. In this relationship, one species benefits (trumpetfish), and the other is neither helped nor harmed (turtle).

Before I left the water, I saw the turtle resting near the bottom, her buddy fish positioned so centrally underneath it looked like the turtle had grown a trumpetfish tail. So cute, those two. I love marine biology more every day.

Dolphins frequent shoreline to snack and let us interact

Published November 3, 2014 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2014 Susan Scott

©2014 Susan Scott

Tin Can Bay, Queensland, Australia » Last week I visited one of the friendliest, most lovable families in Australia: the dolphins of Tin Can Bay.

Even if a group of Indo-Pacific dolphins hadn’t come to the shoreline each day to play with people and eat free fish, a visitor just has to stop at a place named Tin Can Bay. After putting my sailboat up for the cyclone season, I rented a car and drove to the cove.

Tin Can Bay is a fishing town of about 2,000 residents located in a deep, narrow inlet of the same name. The name has nothing to do with canned goods, but arose from the indigenous word “tuncanbar,” meaning dugong, another species that frequents the harbor’s calm water.

The dolphin phenomenon began in the 1950s when an injured male dolphin languished near a restaurant pier. Residents fed the animal, and after he recovered he remembered the kindness (and free food) and returned daily for a meal.

Eventually a female also came to the pier, and in 1991 she brought her baby. Today four dolphins from four generations arrive every morning at about 7 a.m. They have fun with people until 8 a.m. and then get one 6-inch-long fish from each person waiting in line for the privilege (about 30 when I was there).

Researchers restrict the number of fish the dolphins are given, making the feeding a light snack before a day of normal foraging.

Standing in the water with the dolphins costs $5, and another $5 buys a fish. The money supports research on the pod and supervision of human-dolphin interactions.

Cheerful volunteers had us turn off our ring tones and camera flashes and explained that touching is forbidden. As with most wildlife encounters, though, if the animal wants to touch you, that’s fine.

I waded knee-deep into the water, immersed my hand and waited. I was the first one there (surprise, surprise), and the exuberant 2-year-old, Squirt, nudged my hand with her snout. Then, ever so gently, she took my fingers between her long, narrow jaws. The thrill of feeling a wild dolphin’s roundish teeth on my hand will stay with me forever. I’m smiling just writing about it.

Some people don’t approve of this feeding and mingling, but I do. This mom, dad, daughter and auntie are ambassadors for all Indo-Pacific dolphins, a coastal and estuary species threatened by just about everything we humans do, from fishing to development to pollution.

To protect an animal we have to love it, and to love it we have to know it. Because of these special dolphins and their hospitable guardians, each day 30-some people from all over the world meet and fall in love with Indo-Pacific dolphins. It just may save them.

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

©2014 Susan Scott

Dolphin sighting a bonus of trip along the Ganges

Published March 24, 1997 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1998 Susan Scott

“Look, there’s something big — it’s right here,” my friend said, pointing. A large circle of disturbed water rippled just feet from the ferry we were riding.

“Someone probably threw something overboard,” I said shrugging.

Normally, I would have been peering over the side anxiously waiting for a glimpse of whatever it was that made such a big splash. This time, however, I dismissed the incident almost instantly. I had several good reasons.

First, my attention was being strongly diverted. We were in Bangladesh crossing the Ganges River on a bustling ferry. Bangladeshi music shrieked from tape players, pungent smells filled the air and bus drivers honked their horns even though parked on the boat.

While I stood on deck, vendors sold cigarettes, a betel nut chew called pan and a variety of food items. At the same time, beggars tapped my arm gesturing weakly to their empty mouths.

Besides this sensory bombardment, there was the water of the Ganges itself. It looked so murky with mud and pollution that I figured not much could live in it. And even if I did see whatever managed to survive there, I had little chance of identifying it given my limited knowledge of river creatures in Asia.

Oh, how wrong I was.

When we were well under way, the splash occurred again. Then again. This time, a flash of gray glistened near the edge of my vision.

“Shishu …” cried a local person, pointing to the water. I hurried to our English-speaking Bangladeshi acquaintance with whom we were traveling. “What’s shishu?” I asked.

He closed his eyes, conjuring up the English word. At that instant, I got a clear view of the gray gamboling animal. Then we spoke the marvelous word together: dolphin!

I gazed at the river, overwhelmed by my good luck. Ganges River dolphins were frolicking right before my eyes. It was one of those unforgettable moments.

Ganges River dolphins survive in the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Karnaphuli river systems and their tributaries in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Bhutan. Also called susu, these mammals inhabit the main river channels, where I saw them. During monsoon seasons, they also venture into flooded lowland areas.

We weren’t sure how many dolphins were following our ferry, but there were at least two. The animals generally live in groups of 10 or less. It’s common to see them alone or in pairs. Several distinct features of these animals make them look different from their marine cousins. Susu have unusually long, narrow beaks with chunky, flexible bodies and necks.

Because they live in muddy water where sight is nearly useless, these animals have extremely tiny eyes that can only detect light levels. The animals make up for this near-blindness by constantly emitting echolocation clicks.

Another unusual feature of Ganges River dolphins is their preference for swimming on their sides.

Several thousand Ganges River dolphins are left in the world but damming, pollution and hunting threaten their existence.

I never thought much about these rare and unusual dolphins before I saw them. Now they hold a special place in my good memories of Bangladesh.


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