Tag Archives: Manta ray

Yap’s gentle giants of the reef prove a bit timid, too

Published February 25, 2017 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

Manta rays are gentle giants that are plankton feeders, swimming forward with mouths open to sift the water for food. Paddlelike flaps on each side of the mouth direct plankton down the hatch. Courtesy Manta Ray Bay Resort

YAP >> Because I had never been to Yap, only a one-hour flight from Palau where I had been snorkeling, I signed up for a three-day visit here. All I knew about this South Pacific island was that it had been a major World War II battle site and that we would see manta rays.

Not exactly.

During the war, the U.S. military did not consider Japanese-occupied Yap a strategic target. American planes were sent to bomb only island airfields. Yap residents fled to the hills while 120 American pilots and crews, and an unknown (to me) number of Japanese lost their lives in aerial fighting.

My other mistaken vision of Yap was that most people come here to dive on crashed planes. That’s part of some tours but not mine. We three snorkelers joined a boat with two divers from Germany and two from Japan, all hoping to see Yap’s manta rays.

Mantas can live 50 years. At least 50 individuals call Yap home. Resident researchers identify each fish by distinct black markings on their white bellies. Workers at my top-notch hotel, the Manta Ray Bay Resort, have posted photos and names of Yap’s well-known mantas. My favorite name is Dotcom.

These rays routinely come to certain cleaning stations, where wrasses nibble parasites off the huge kite-shaped fish. Biologists think the mantas might also congregate there to socialize, perhaps males and females flirting for a future hookup.

Mantas once had hellish reputations, their enormous sizes and black backs spooking old-time sailors, who called the fish devil rays. Most mantas are about 10 feet wide, but some can grow over 15 feet wide.

Whatever their size, the fish are harmless. Manta rays have long tails like their sting- and eagle-ray cousins with one exception: Manta tails have no stingers. Nor do mantas have teeth. Like whale sharks, these gentle giants are plankton feeders, swimming forward with mouths open to sift the water for food. Paddlelike flaps on each side of the mouth direct plankton down the hatch.

On the two days that our boat dropped us off near the cleaning stations, the mantas chose to skip hanging out there. But we snorkelers weren’t disappointed. The reef was exquisite and included some magnificent manta relatives: white-tip, black-tip and gray reef sharks. Sharks and rays are related in that their bodies contain no bones, just cartilage.

I loved Yap’s super-friendly people, entwined mangrove forests and pristine reefs. It wasn’t what I expected but that’s the beauty of travel. You get to generate your own impressions.

Don’t, though, take my word for it.

Atoll’s abundant wildlife, towering trees worth a visit

Published July 13, 2015 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2015 Susan Scott

Lady Musgrave Atoll, Great Barrier Reef, Australia >> Last week Craig and I sailed to this atoll, 50 miles offshore from Bundaberg. Even though the trades were still blowing at 25 knots, bringing with them the usual waves and rain, residents assured us that the anchorage inside the atoll was safe. As good as the wildlife was in the marina, I wanted coral, and we set sail.

The trip was not what I expected.

After entering the narrow channel into the atoll, we dodged a leaping manta ray and multiple coral heads and dropped anchor. But even though the water was relatively calm inside the circular reef, we had a problem. Honu’s anchor chain had so rusted in our absence that we couldn’t trust it to hold the boat.

An hour later we had a second anchor off the bow and a safety line tied to the first. With the boat triple-leashed to the bottom, we launched the dinghy to visit the atoll’s famous island, a circle of land that takes about 20 minutes to walk across and an hour to walk around. Lady Musgrave’s island is remarkable because it holds an underground lens of fresh water that supports a mature Pisonia forest.

The Pisonia is not your average tree. Historically, the species dominated coral atolls throughout the Pacific, but after centuries of human habitation, introduced insects, rats and weeds, Pisonia forests became rarer than ever.

Today at Lady Musgrave Atoll (as well as at our own Palmyra Atoll), it’s possible to see Pisonia forests in all their grandeur.

The trees grow to 100 feet tall and have smooth, light gray trunks, some as big around as a compact car. The towering hand-shaped leaves form a whispering canopy that blocks wind and discourages undergrowth, yet the ashen trunks give the forest a light and airy feel. If ever there existed an elven glen filled with sentient trees, this is it.

From a windy, wave-washed beach we entered the forest on a park path and were instantly transported to a shelter of green and gray. When rain fell from passing squalls, the trees kept us mostly dry, their layers of leaves making music of the drops that trickled through.

Fearless, rust-colored rails (birds related to coots and moorhens) skittered here and there, eating insects and tiny crabs from the forest floor.

On the leeward side of the island, we emerged from the tree haven to see humpback whales breaching just outside the reef. It’s winter here in the Southern Hemisphere, and the Southern Ocean’s humpback whales have migrated to waters inside the Great Barrier Reef to mate and give birth.

It’s true that Lady Musgrave Atoll protects boats from rough seas, but at high tide, rowdy waves rose over the coral walls and rocked the boat so hard I got queasy. That, plus the shaky anchor situation, and weather too cold to go snorkeling, made us decide to leave Lady Musgrave for a more sheltered part of the park on the mainland.

As we sailed from the atoll, a white-bellied sea eagle hovered overhead and a pod of dolphins raced to the boat, all seeming to bid us farewell.

No, my experience at Lady Musgrave Atoll was not what I expected. It was better.

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

©2015 Susan Scott


Emails reveal shared love of sea creatures worldwide

Published December 29, 2014 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2014 Susan Scott

You’ll never hear me complaining about email. It used to be that writing this column was a lonely job. Now each day I get to drink my morning coffee with people who share my love of the ocean and its remarkable inhabitants.

Some readers write to tell me about their own experiences with a subject I’ve written about, and others offer kind corrections or clarifications. Countless people just want me to know how much my articles brighten their Mondays and that brightens the hours I spend at my computer.

Every message has its charm, but a few from 2014 stand out.

Cutest story: Jennifer from Kualoa wrote that she gives the ghost crabs on her beach peanuts. “The big dudes take one in each claw and shuffle another around like a soccer ball … Sometimes they share, as with an apple core that washed in.” Another day, she wrote that her crabs “hold the peanut in one claw and nip off bits to eat with the other. But what about the ones with no claws? I know they will grow back, but in the meantime, what will they do?”

I loved learning that ghost crabs share apples and play soccer with peanuts. The fact that Jennifer worries about injured crabs tells me that we are kindred spirits.

The shortest and sweetest: In this era of information overload, I loved this reader’s economy.

Subject box: “Upside-down jellyfish.”

Message: “Thanks — Really Good.”

Appreciation noted.

Most alarming question: On Feb. 12, Paul wrote, “Aloha Susan, Could the invasive algae be responsible for the missing Honu in the Ala Moana Lagoon? We have only seen one Honu in 4+ months.”

Happiest ending: On Feb. 19, Paul wrote: “Aloha Susan! Had to avoid a large Honu at Ala Moana Lagoon today so that makes 3 in 2 days. A welcome return after many months absence (for whatever reason.)”

Question with the easiest answer: While watching manta rays at night, a Big Island reader, Chris, met a woman who “claimed that there is a day, one time a year, when the world’s oceans all get super excited, and the water is effervescent and the tides change color and sea life large and small all becomes super animated … perhaps tied to a lunar event. Was this gal off her rocker?”

Um. Yes.

Best message from a distant land: Emails arrived from readers in Australia, South Korea, Pakistan and the Czech Republic. These were all fun starts to my day (Wow, Pakistan?) but the one that touched my heart came from the CR. “Hello madam,” Jan wrote. “I’d like to run away from Europe and live a spiritual life. It would be possible to settle in such a paradise? Good luck.”

I already had my good luck. I wished Jan equally good luck in finding his or her paradise.

Favorite video: My neighbor Joanne sent this link — bit.ly/1zad8WG — with the note, “In case you haven’t already seen this 46 times.” I had not seen it even once, but I’m now close to 46.

All my messages this year were positive, entertaining and inspiring. Thank you, dear readers, for making this column so much more than a job. See you in 2015.

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

©2014 Susan Scott