Tag Archives: Great Barrier Reef

Sailing trips in great reef marine park never get old

Published June 10, 2017 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

A soldier crab is among several varieties of crabs found in and around the Whitsunday Islands in Australia. ©2017 Susan Scott

BREAKWATER MARINA, TOWNSVILLE, AUSTRALIA >> For the last three years, as often as our work allows, Craig and I have been sailing our 37-foot ketch, Honu, in the stretch of water between the Queensland coast and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

Before I came here, I would have guessed that sailing back and forth in the same area, year after year, might get old. But here, never. The reef’s 1,400-mile length is about the same distance as Kure Atoll is from the Big Island. And the distance from the Australian mainland to the park’s 3,000 reefs and 600 islands ranges from 20 to 155 miles, gaps similar to those between Oahu and neighbor islands.

Given this expanse, plus changes in seasons, tides, storms and wildlife, each trip — even to repeat places — seems entirely new.

This year Cyclone Debbie, a category-4 storm that struck the central area about two months ago, changed both the landscape and reefs of many of the Whitsunday Islands.

As we landed our dinghy at Whitehaven, a 4-mile-long beach made of powderlike silica, a material that doesn’t retain heat, we stood shocked. The majestic trees that had lined the beach now lay in tangles of trunks and branches, their bark releasing tannin in streams that rippled through the white sand with the changing tides.

The beach was still glorious, however, and we walked its length, watching birds peck at exposed worms and snails, and enjoying the firm silica squeaking beneath our feet. The national park service had already pushed back fallen trees, and cleared a trail that looped through the wrecked woods.

Hiking there became a highlight of the trip.

Inside that broken forest, endless tiny leaves sprouted from trunks, branches, air roots and soil, a stunning picture of nature’s resilience. Craig chose that bright green growth in a devastated forest as his favorite moment of the trip.

I cheated in picking my favorite, because I named a whole category of creatures: crabs. Due to persistent strong, chilly winds, we often hunkered down in anchorages, and walked on tidal flats for hours on end.

Australia’s crabs performed brilliantly. Blue-and-white soldier crabs marched in legions of thousands, and tiny sand bubbler crabs left their sand-ball art in acres of designs. When caught out, 3-inch-wide swimming crabs turned to fight us, raising their tiny claws in defiance. En guard, monsters!

I saw spider crabs, seaweed crabs and a brown crab that jumped into a muddy tide pool to hide but kept us in sight (adorably) with its tall, white eyestalks.

On Monday I’ll be back on Oahu. I’m torn between wanting to stay in Australia and longing to get back to Hawaii. How lucky I am to travel back and forth between two of the best places on Earth.

 

Ocean ‘jewels’ encompass life stories of amazing snails

Published June 3, 2017 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

Snail species, or gastropods, are abundant in the waters off Australia. The shell at upper right is from a Conus geographus, a cone snail that can kill a person with its sting. However, the sand-filled shell was indicative that the snail inside was long dead and, therefore, was safe to pick up. ©2017 Susan Scott

BRAMPTON ISLAND, QUEENSLAND, AUSTRALIA >> The combination of afternoon low tides and Cyclone Debbie’s recent stirring up of the ocean floor has sparked a new passion in me: snails.

Like all beach walkers, I’ve always enjoyed finding pretty seashells, and like all biologists, I learned about the animals called mollusks. But never have I seen snails and homes like I have this week.

Australian waters host countless snail species. Really countless. One local book claims that more than 10,000 species live here. Another shell guide reports tens of thousands.

Marine mollusks include octopuses, cuttlefish, squids and sea slugs, but those shell-less creatures don’t leave much of a legacy after they die. What gets us beachcombers excited is finding the jewel-like homes of two-shelled creatures we call clams and oysters (bivalves), and the one-shelled creatures we know as snails (gastropods).

Most people don’t include the word “snail” when talking about a shell they’ve found, but that overlooks the animal that built the stunning piece. Of the billions of empty shells cast ashore on the world’s beaches, each has its own life story.

Most snails begin their lives as tiny hatchlings that swim for days or months before settling on the ocean floor. Soon after, the baby snail’s glands secrete a hard, calcium carbonate covering, the beginning of the adult animal’s shell, around its soft body. As the animal grows, its glands enlarge the shell along its outer edge, often in a spiral.

A snail doesn’t add shell material evenly, but rather lays it down in precise places to create its own species’ shape, thickness, height and diameter. At the same time, the creature’s glands introduce pigments into the calcium carbonate that show up on the shell as spots, lines or other markings unique to the species.

Snails don’t enlarge their shells continuously, but do it in spurts. On some spiral shells you can see growth lines called sutures. In adult snails the inside whorls of broken shells reveal the snail’s nursery and its rooms during adolescence.

Besides being superb architects and sculptors, snails are math geniuses. The complex calculations of depositing each molecule of shell and each speck of color in the precise right place at the precise right time to create a species’ exclusive shell is unfathomable.

During a stretch of bad weather, we parked Honu in a marina, rented a car and drove to central Queensland to see Australia’s sapphire gem fields. The sapphires in the shops were OK, but I didn’t buy any. I prefer jewels made by snails.

Spring tides are perfect for strolling among reef

Published May 27, 2017 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

A shrimp at low tide off Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park waits for a spring tide to return and carry it away. ©2017 Susan Scott

BRAMPTON ISLAND, GREAT BARRIER REEF MARINE PARK >> For the past few days, I’ve been choosing walking over snorkeling. That might seem a poor choice given where we’re sailing. This week, however, the new moon has brought spring tides, and here off the Queensland town of Mackay, that means a 15-foot difference between the high and low. So when the tide is out, the reefs are, too.

Spring tides have nothing to do with springtime. The name comes from a centuries-old notion that during new and full moons, the water “springs” up. Here where we’ve anchored Honu, the incoming tide seemed to leap rather than spring, covering the places we walked yesterday afternoon with 15 feet of water. We must wait until this afternoon, when the tide drops to its new-moon low, to stroll with the seabirds on the exposed reef.

It sounds awful to be walking on a reef, but we aren’t. We step in sand lanes that the currents have deposited between coral heads, seaweed tufts and rocky spires. In the late afternoon sun, the smooth, water-carved sand whorls remind me of paintings by Georgia O’Keefe.

Puddles and pools remain in the lowest reef flat depressions, where fish, crabs, shrimp, snails, sea cucumbers and countless other creatures lie motionless, waiting for the tide to turn. Those left high and dry, such as giant clams, anemones and coral polyps, close up tight during their dry time.

Because spring tides occur twice a month, the animals clearly have their ways of surviving in air for hours at a time. Even so, given all the damage we humans have done to animals and their habitats, I like to offer a helping hand to my friends.

During our reef walks Craig waits patiently while I carry starfish from dry sand to water-filled depressions left by awesomely huge stingrays. We saw one of these crater makers from the dinghy on our way to the beach and judged it to be about 4 feet wide.

Craig helps with photos too, reducing ripples on the water’s surface by standing heel to heel upwind of a stunning red-orange shrimp in about 3 inches of water.

In spite of four monster feet near its burrow, the shrimp remained motionless for the photo shoot. With its brilliant colors, it seems that hiding would be a better survival strategy than holding still. Then again, movement might give away the shrimp’s position to the stone curlews, oyster catchers, sea eagles and gulls scouting the flats for food.

When sailing among the hundreds of islands in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, there are no activities I would choose over snorkeling or diving. Except during spring tides. Then, with pleasure, I choose walking.

Platypuses add to thrill of wildlife sightings

Published May 20, 2017 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

A platypus, a mammal of rather ordinary stature with a ducklike bill, is seen at a national park in Queensland, Australia. ©2017 Susan Scott

GREAT KEPPEL ISLAND, QUEENSLAND, AUSTRALIA >> “It’s so small.” That was our group’s first impression of the platypus we saw paddling along the surface of a creek in Carnarvon National Park. When an animal is as celebrated as the platypus, people expect something bigger than a chihuahua.

The weather had continued its stormy streak, making sailing Honu unappealing. But in Australia, to-die-for wildlife is always close by. We rented a car, drove to the national park and were soon hiking with kangaroos and wallabies, laughing with kookaburras and cockatoos, and gasping at a sugar glider’s aerial show. And even though they aren’t marine, three platypuses kindly showed up to give us an aquatic thrill.

Platypuses are freshwater animals that spend their days snoozing in riverside burrows. At dusk the creatures emerge to forage for insects, shrimp, tadpoles, mussels and snails in the streambed. In zoos, keepers often feed their platypuses yabbies, which I now know are freshwater crayfish.

Platypuses have been famous in biology lore since 1799 when an official in Australia sent a hide of the animal to Great Britain.

Scientists there thought that some jokester had sewn a duck bill to a beaver body.

The platypus bill so resembles a duck’s bill that a common name for the animal is duck-billed platypus, even though no other platypus species exits.

Nor is the bill a bill. It’s a single, flat leathery organ containing nerves that detect electrical fields generated by living prey. Sharks and electric eels also use electroreception to find food, but the platypus is one of the only mammals with that ability.

Speaking of mammals, that’s another platypus claim to fame. These little 4- to 6-pound creatures lay eggs and then nurse their hatchlings.

After mating, the female produces two eggs, which she incubates inside her body for about 28 days. Once laid, the mother curls her tail, a fat storage structure, around the eggs for another 10 days. Hatched platypus babies suck milk from two mammary patches (no nipples) on their mother’s belly.

Upon returning to Honu from our adventure inland, the wind lay down, the sun shone brightly and off we sailed to the Keppel Islands, popular anchorages in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. On the voyage another nonmarine species awed us all day long. Streams of exquisite blue-and-brown butterflies called blue tigers passed through Honu’s rigging while migrating from the mainland to the islands of the Great Barrier Reef.

As I write, it’s pouring rain again, but who cares? I’m in Australia.

Australian yabbies draw fishers and stingrays

Published April 29, 2017 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

Freshwater crayfish, or yabbies as they are called in Australia, serve as bait for fishermen. Yabbies are also delectable to stingrays, which smash the burrowed tunnels the yabbies live in, and also to the fish that follow the stingrays. ©2017 Susan Scott

BUNDABERG PORT MARINA, QUEENSLAND, AUSTRALIA >> I’m back in Australia getting our sailboat Honu ready for another Great Barrier Reef adventure.

To answer a common question, no, we do not sail Honu back and forth between Hawaii and here. At Honu’s average speed of 5 miles per hour, it would take 50 days, minimum, to sail the 6,000 miles between Hawaii and Australia. It’s a long, hard voyage that for us is unfeasible, timewise. So, for now, the boat stays Down Under.

That means, of course, Honu is subject to cyclones. To answer another question, Cyclone Debbie did not strike this marina, and Honu survived the torrential rains unscathed.

Because Australia has marine life I don’t know, customs I’ve not seen and language I don’t always understand, during my trips here I have my own endless questions. A recent one was: Why are people sticking hand-pump suction tools into the sand at low tide?

When I asked a friendly angler, he said, “I’m pulling up yabbies.”

I’ve been in Australia enough to know that yabby is another name for edible freshwater crayfish. (Spiny and slipper lobsters are also called crayfish here.) The beach, however, was on the ocean and the suction pipe was small.

“To eat?” I said.

“No, for bait. Look here.”

He stabbed the wet sand, pulled back the plunger and came up with a cream-colored, soft-bodied creature about 3 inches long. “There’s a yabby,” he said, handing it to me. “That big claw means it’s a male. Careful, it can give you a sharp nip.”

It looked like a shrimp to me, but then that’s the problem with common names. (Latin names have their own issues — call a yabby a Callianassa australiensis and the conversation is over.)

Australia’s bait yabbies are found along its east coast where they live in the sand between the high and low tide lines. At low tide, fishers dig near telltale holes in the sand, but that’s no guarantee the creature is there. Each adult yabby has three or four holes joining its main burrow, which can be 2 feet down.

Another question I’ve had for years in Australia is why the sand on some beaches during low tide is pocked with dozens, sometimes hundreds, of perfect stingray outlines including their long tails.

It’s yabbies again. During high tide, the rays swim over the sand flats and “puddle” the sand with strong beats of their powerful pectoral flaps. This collapses yabby burrows, bringing the now-homeless creatures to the sand’s surface. Besides being meals for the rays, the uprooted yabbies also get eaten by fish freeloaders that have followed the rays.

Every time I take a walk here in Australia, I end up with so many wildlife questions, I have to write them down. And I’m still in the marina.

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.

Corals’ outer beauty belies fierce battles over territory

Published October 29, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott
web1_1029-ocean-watch-picture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘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.

Heading Down Under again, this time like the bird flies

Published October 8, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser
©2016 Susan Scott
A wild sulfur-crested cockatoo pays a visit to the Honu at anchor off Hook Island, Whitsunday Islands National Park. ©2016 Susan Scott

A wild sulfur-crested cockatoo pays a visit to the Honu at anchor off Hook Island, Whitsunday Islands National Park. ©2016 Susan Scott

As you read this, Craig and I are on our way to Australia once again to explore the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park on our sailboat, Honu. People assume we’re setting sail when I say that and ask, “How long will it take to get there?” As the bird flies, Australia is about 5,600 miles southwest of Hawaii. Because Honu averages 5 mph, a voyage from here to there nonstop would take six to seven weeks.

In our dreams. At 64 million square miles, the poorly named Pacific Ocean generates endless variations of tradewinds, doldrums, currents and storms that can add weeks to a long offshore voyage.

But few skippers sail directly from Hawaii to Australia, or vice versa. We do it in hops. For my first voyage Down Under, I sailed via Palmyra Atoll, Tahiti, the Cook Islands, Tonga, Fiji and New Caledonia. The second time I added the Marquesas, the Tuamotus and Niue to the westward run. Because I took my time visiting those South Pacific islands and flew home during cyclone seasons, my answer to how long it took to sail to Australia is, “Ten years.”

Now Honu is in Australia to stay. The decision to keep the boat there was made easy by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, or GBRMPA. For sailing, snorkeling, diving, beachcombing and hiking among friendly hosts who make great food (meat pies, yes!), it’s as good as it gets.

That coral wall we all picture when we mention the GBR is superb, but getting out there in a 37-foot sailboat can be a challenge.

Usually we must leave the night before so we arrive in high sun, critical for dodging coral heads. And because the submerged reefs offer little protection from the open ocean’s wind and waves, flat, calm water is essential. That means motoring, which is fine as long as we have plenty of diesel fuel. And if the wind and swells start up while we’re out there, we hightail it back.

But not going to the outer reefs is an excellent option because the more user-friendly parts of the park — atolls, islands and mainland rivers — offer calm anchorages, drop-dead scenery, astonishing marine life and charming avian visitors.

Honu waits for us now in a marina in Townsville, the headquarters of GBRMPA. The lovely town is visitor-friendly and so close to coral reefs that I highly recommend a visit.

After 10 years of sailing Honu across the South Pacific, the fact that I can leave Honolulu this morning and sleep on the boat tonight feels nothing short of a miracle. This time when someone asks how long it took to get to Australia, I’m very happy to say, “Twelve hours.”

Lone sea pen makes mark during shallow-water swim

Published August 13, 2015 in the “Ocean Watch” column,
Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott
A sea pen is found in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. ©2016 Susan Scott

A sea pen is found in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. ©2016 Susan Scott

Craig and I don’t often snorkel side by side. He thinks that swimming fast in deep water is best, because that’s where the big jacks, sharks and manta rays hang out. I, however, like to float quietly in a few feet of water. Not only do some astonishing creatures live there, but I get to see them up close and take their pictures.

During a recent swim off a tiny island in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, Craig, as usual, headed out and I headed in. And sure enough, confirming my theory that shallow is good, there stood, like a lone sentry, the biggest, most beautiful sea pen I’ve ever seen.

I’ve not seen many — this discovery was No. 3. Sea pens belong to the soft coral clan and aren’t particularly rare, living from shallow water to deep. But the animals like to set up housekeeping in calm water and that usually means deep. Down around 150 feet, one researcher in Puget Sound found an average of 23 sea pens per square yard for miles on end.

Several sea pen species range from tropical to temperate waters around the world, growing 6 inches to 2 feet. One species in Scotland grows to 6 feet tall. Its witty name: the tall sea pen.

Sea pens were so named because the upper parts of their bodies look like the fluffy feather quills people once used for writing. The animal’s bottoms, however, look like tulip bulbs buried in sand or mud.

From the bulbous base, a central stalk rises with delicate branches extending from each side like a feather. The branches bear hundreds to thousands of tiny mouths, each surrounded by eight tentacles (that’s the octo in octocorals, the scientific name for soft corals).

The sea pen orients itself into gentle currents with its branches stretched out. Unlucky plankton animals that drift through the branches get stung and eaten.

On the sides of the sea pen’s central stalk are holes lined with beating hairs, some drawing water in and others pushing it out through countless channels. Muscle contractions of the body also assist with this circulation system.

It would seem that these delicate feathery animals are rooted to their spots, but no. If disturbed, a sea pen can pull up its orbed anchor, inflate its body with water and drift like a balloon in the current to a new home.

Vast plains of fleshy, slow-moving animals are easy targets for carnivores. Nudibranchs (snails without shells) eat small sea pens. Starfish target adults.

I couldn’t resist lightly touching my 6-inch-tall pen, and that was that. A sea pen’s defense is to exhale its water and sink into the sand.

When Craig and I reunited, he told me he had seen a shark. Big deal. I had made an Australian pen pal.