Tag Archives: New Caledonia

Rescued dugongs thrive with help from aquarium

PublishedOctober 13, 2014 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2014 Susan Scott

An excited child reaches toward Wuru, a dugong. ©2014 Susan Scott

Signal Island, New Caledonia » As Craig and I sit on Honu in this marine preserve teeming with fish, snails and sea snakes, I only have eyes for dugongs.

That’s partly because I had glimpses of two dugongs while anchored near here last spring, so I know they’re in the vicinity. I’m also freshly enamored with the South Pacific’s sea cows because I recently met two at the Sea Life Sydney Aquarium.

It happened when our immigration documents got mixed up and we had to spend an unexpected day in Sydney. As we arranged for an airport hotel, an ad caught my eye: “VISIT DUGONG ISLAND.”

That’s all it took. We dropped our luggage and boarded the train to the aquarium in Sydney’s Darling Harbor. There, visitors walk through clear tubes while tropical fish swim above, below and around them. The fish were mesmerizing, but dugongs Pig and Wuru, rescued separately along the Queensland coast, stole my heart.

Dugong face

In 1998, Pig, a male, was found as a week-old orphan who would have died without human help. After being hand-raised for three years, Pig was deemed healthy and released him back to the ocean. Eight months later people found poor Pig emaciated and wounded by other male dugongs. His second rescue was for life.

Because Sydney’s water is too cold for these tropical mammals, Pig lives with other warm-water creatures in an enormous heated tank the facility calls its Oceanarium.

Wuru’s story is similar. In 2005, at a month old, she too lost her mother. Human helpers nursed Wuru to adulthood in the Oceanarium, where she and Pig are now stars, loved by staff and visitors alike. Judging by the animals’ curious and playful behavior toward people, it appears the feeling is mutual.


Dugongs eat only sea grass in the wild, and in their aquarium home they eat only romaine, the nutritional equivalent of sea grass. Sea grass and lettuce are so low in calories that the animals eat 12 hours a day.

Four workers do nothing else but put romaine leaves in special trays and lower them to the Oceanarium floor every 10 to 15 minutes. Together, the two dugongs eat 176 to 265 pounds of lettuce per day, coming up for breaths of air every 3 to 12 minutes.

I watched the friendly sea cows eat and play (Pig prefers a soft, orange traffic cone; Wuru has a boogie board she likes to push around) for 30 minutes, feeling enormously privileged to see dugongs up close for as long as I liked.

Now, as we wait on our sailboat for a good weather window to shove off for Australia, I have dugongs on my mind.

I’m happy that Pig and Wuru’s rescues ended well and also that I goofed up our New Caledonia paperwork.

It’s the best flight I ever missed.


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

©2014 Susan Scott

All over but the recounting, trip had plenty of highlights

Resized marina fish

Fish in the marina , New Caledonia, 2006. ©2006 Susan Scott

Craig and I have been traveling together for 34 years now, and at the end of each journey, he asks me the same question: What was your favorite part of the trip?

After eight weeks of sailing 2,771 miles across the South Pacific, I had so many events, animals and places to choose from that days later I’m still coming up with answers to variations of the question.

The funniest moment of the trip, for instance, occurred in Suva. When you sail to a foreign port, customs, immigration and quarantine officials come aboard to clear the occupants and boat to enter the country. This can be easy and brief, or not.

After a mix-up in Tonga, where we angered the customs officer, in Fiji we were on high alert.

We soon lightened up, though, when the customs officer asked Craig his one and only question: “How long have you two been married?”

After a moment of silence, Craig said, “Um, I don’t know. Susan?”

The three officials in our cockpit burst out laughing.

“Man,” said the immigration officer as he stamped Craig’s passport, “you are in big trouble now.”

We laughed a lot in Suva, where nearly everyone greeted us with a warm “bula,” Fiji’s equivalent of “aloha.” For smiles, friendliness and just plain fun, Suva was my favorite city.

Sea snakes topped my list of must-see animals for this trip, and at least a dozen of those marine reptiles answered the call. One, a 4-foot-long blue and black banded snake, called a black-lipped krait, surfaced to breathe between Craig and me, snorkeling not 2 feet apart. It ignored us, but we will remember that little black face forever.

I felt even happier that I made this voyage when New Caledonia’s dugongs showed up. Dugongs are the Southern Hemisphere’s sea cows, gentle half-ton mammals that graze on sea grasses growing in shallow coastal waters of the Indian and Southwestern Pacific oceans. (Manatees, dugongs’ close relatives, live only in the Northern Hemisphere.)

In New Caledonia, where sea grass beds are extensive and marine sanctuaries widespread, dugong sightings are routine. We saw four, all brief glimpses of broad, brown, curved backs.

It was enough. Just knowing that these rare and endangered animals were feeding around the boat was a thrill like no other.

After Craig asked me to name my trip favorite, I put the question to him.

Craig likes sailing at night, especially during a new moon when the stars sparkle with intensity. He also likes full moons that turn the ocean silver.

During one of his night watches, he came below deck and touched my arm. “Sorry to wake you,” he said, “but you have to see this.”

The full moon was slowly turning a deep burnt orange as stars popped out like lights on timers. We had sailed into the splendor of a total lunar eclipse, Craig’s perfect night at sea.

We choose different highlights of our travels, but on one point we always agree: Oahu is the best place to live. No matter how good the journey, we’re happy to go home.

Especially by plane. Honu will stay in New Caledonia until our next adventure.

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

©2014 Susan Scott


Friendly, sedate sea snakes can be lethal but rarely are

Published May 26, 2014 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2014 Susan Scott

Maitre Island, New Caledonia, 2006. ©2014 Susan Scott

MAITRE ISLAND, NEW CALEDONIA » One of my goals in sailing to New Caledonia was to see and admire the many sea snakes that grace this area’s reefs. One in particular answered the call. Honu wasn’t tied to a mooring off this marine preserve an hour before I had one of my best sea snake experiences ever.

New Caledonia is famous not just for its sea snakes, but also for its residents’ fondness of them, particularly one called “tricot raye.”

One of my books translates this French term as “striped sweater”; another says it means “striped T-shirt.” The name refers to the black bands that run around the blue-gray body, and indeed, the snake resembles the striped shirt of the French stereotype. All the snake needs to complete the look is a navy blue beret.

sea snake

Tricot Rayé – on the beach of Amadee Island, New Caledonia, 2006

Some snakes here do wear them. A shop in Noumea called Tricot Raye sells towels, bags, toys and, yes, striped T-shirts embroidered with adorable cartoon drawings of the snake on a bicycle, in scuba gear and taking part in a dozen other activities.

In English these snakes are called kraits, a krait being a snake that hunts on shallow coral reefs but rests, mates and lays eggs on land.

New Caledonia’s much-loved tricot raye is also called the yellow-lipped sea krait, but there’s more yellow to it than the lips. The whole face is yellow, a bead of brightness leading a graceful, winding body, 31 inches long in males, 50 inches in females.

Another species here, called the black-lipped krait, has a black face.

A notice on a popular beach in one of New Caledonia’s many marine preserves reads much like our Hawaiian monk seal and sea turtle signs, informing visitors that the snakes on the beach are resting and protected. Leave them alone, we are told, and enjoy their beauty.

The tricot raye is a docile creature, even when roughly handled. As a result, children here sometimes play with kraits, draping them around their necks like striped scarves.

This is a dangerous game. Sea snakes and kraits produce cobra-related venom so concentrated that a tiny amount can kill a human. Even so, only one sea snake death (that of a child) has ever been recorded in New Caledonia. If undisturbed, sea snakes mind their own business and ignore people.

Tiny Maitre Island hosts a hotel with a pier leading to an open-air lobby and restaurant built on a wooden deck over sand. Craig and I landed Honu’s dinghy at the pier, and right there, poking up through a space in the wooden dock, was the charming yellow face I had come all this way to see.

The tricot raye pulled itself onto the pier, crawled gracefully up five steps and wound its way into the lobby. When it reached a round piling at the center of the deck, the krait, ignored by workers and diners, checked into its own private room, sliding down a snake-size space to the sand below.

sea snake

Tricot Raye – Maitre Island, New Caledonia, 2014 ©2014 Susan Scott

It’s risky to travel to a country with a specific image in mind, because the reality is often disappointing. Not this time. The sea snakes here are even better than I dreamed.

When I get back to Noumea, I’m digging out my credit card and heading straight for that store called Tricot Raye.

Snake skipper

Susan in her Tricot Raye shirt, 2014.

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

©2014 Susan Scott

Calm seas and light wind make for a pleasure cruise

Published May 12, 2014 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2014 Susan Scott

Susan in the blustery conditions aboard Honu in 2006. Courtesy Scott R. Davis

In 2006 my friend Scott helped me sail Honu from island to island across the South Pacific.

“When I signed on for that trip,” Scott says, “I imagined baking bread and reading novels under sunny skies in a gently swaying boat.”

Me, too. But that summer the Pacific Ocean didn’t cooperate with our daydreams. Blustery southeast tradewinds and the resulting 8-foot seas made even standing in the galley an ordeal, and drenching squalls barred books from the cockpit. Both above and below deck, we hung on, longing for landfall and wondering who on Earth named this stretch the Coconut Milk Run.

Now I know. It was a sailor who had passages like the one Craig and I are enjoying right now.

We left Fiji nearly a week ago. Because that country’s entry and exit laws make visiting outer islands difficult for those of us with time constraints, we didn’t stop at any of the picture-perfect islands and atolls we passed while sailing to and from Suva.

Instead, we ate in Suva’s many good restaurants and visited the famous open-air market and museum. I don’t know why it ended up in Fiji, but the Bounty’s rudder, retrieved from the ocean floor off Pitcairn Island, is there, a thrilling sight for us sailors.

After a week of city life (and, yes, some boat repairs), we left busy Suva Harbor in a rainstorm, maneuvering between islets and around reefs toward our final destination, New Caledonia. The warm rain was a squeaky-clean relief from the salty state that we cruising sailors usually live in.

The wind was strong enough to sail but not so strong as to build up the seas. Enjoy this, Craig and I reminded one another. It won’t last.

But it has. For five days now Honu has been sliding smoothly downwind at 3 to 5 mph, sometimes propelled only by its billowing green and black sail called a spinnaker. It’s been so mild that I even hauled the boat’s soft salon cushion and our bed pillows to the cockpit, usually risky business for material that isn’t waterproof. Craig calls my cushy corner the princess bed.

With seas so flat, the marine life at the interface of air and ocean is crystal clear. As if shot from a gun, flying fish burst from the water, sculling along the surface to escape the tunas below. We know the predators are tunas because in their pursuit, they too leap clear, their heavy bodies splashing back to the water with loud belly-flops.

The commotion attracts booby birds and shearwaters, which appear like magic, snatching up the unfortunate fish trapped between carnivores above and below.

At night we have our own planetarium, with moonlight glistening on the water half the night and meteorites zooming across the pearly Milky Way the other half.

Honu’s running lights attract raucous sooty terns that announce their arrival by screeching their nickname, “Wide-awake! Wide-awake!”

With bunny rabbit clouds drifting over our rock-a-bye-baby boat, we’re devouring Kate Atkinson novels (highly recommended) and thinking that the Coconut Milk Run is well named.

All we need now is Scott to bake us some bread.

Scott in the galley of Honu, cutting warm bread; starfish potholder.

Scott in the galley of Honu, cutting warm bread; starfish potholder.

Scott in the galley of Honu, cutting warm bread; starfish potholder.

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

©2014 Susan Scott

Boat provides a challenge too daunting to sail solo

Published March 31, 2014 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2014 Susan Scott

Honu in Tahiti 2006. Courtesy Scott R. Davis

PAPEETE, TAHITI » Last weekend I flew to Papeete because I left my sailboat Honu here in October to sit out the southern hurricane season. That being over now, it’s time to pack the boat with brie and baguettes, cast off the mooring lines and sail on.

When I mentioned this upcoming voyage to friends and acquain­tances back home, the first thing they asked was, “Are you sailing alone?”

No. I sail alone on short trips, but I don’t go offshore by myself for one simple reason: It’s too scary. But it’s not the open ocean that scares me (usually). It’s the boat.

Cruising sailboats have most of the appliances we have at home, all the machinery of our cars, and an IT worker’s nightmare of computer-driven nautical systems. Towering above all that is an elaborate assortment of ropes, poles and wires supporting flexing masts and flapping sails.

We cram this mass of specialized gear into a small space (37 feet by just over 12 feet in this case) and sprinkle it with salt water while shaking and pounding it for weeks on end.

The sailors’ old joke that the definition of offshore cruising is repairing your boat in exotic places is only funny if you’re good at fixing things. I am not.

But no worries. I’m sailing with my husband, Craig. It will be just the two of us, but having a man who’s been sailing since he was 6, and is good at troubleshooting and repairing all manner of marine systems, is like having an engineer, navigator and sailing instructor all in one.

Oh, and he cooks, too.

The other questions people ask about concern our destina­tion, route, distance and timing.

Craig and I plan on sailing to the Cook Islands, Tonga, Fiji and New Caledonia, where we will leave Honu in a marina and fly home to work. We have two months for this voyage, about 3,000 miles due west. This may seem like plenty of time, but when your vessel averages 5 mph, timing is a concern.

I want to leave Honu in New Caledonia for a while because it seems that whenever I see a photo of a fantastic new (to me) marine species, the location credit says New Caledonia. We shall see.

To answer another question, yes, I’m planning on writing my columns while sailing, sending them through my satellite phone email system — providing the satellite phone, computer and battery charging systems all keep working. I live in hope.

Satellite phones are marvelous inventions but they don’t transmit photos. I’ll try to paint pictures with words.*

The route Craig and I will be following is nicknamed the Coconut Milk Run because the prevailing winds come from behind the boat, making it an easy downwind run. In theory. I sailed this course in 2006 with two friends and had contrary wind directions and, of course, several boat system failures. Fortunately my friends were good sports and clever repairmen.

Now I get to again make the run with Craig, who on the boat is cheerful company and consistently optimistic. And, even given my deficient repair skills, he calls me captain.

Thank you, dear readers, for your caring questions and sincere best wishes. Stay tuned.

Susan aboard Honu during the Coconut Milk Run in 2006

*Susan’s web guy, Scott, was one of the crew on the 2006 voyage and will try to use pictures from that voyage to augment Susan’s painting with words.

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

©2014 Susan Scott