Tag Archives: Palau

Weird Palau find offers a lesson in flora, fauna

Published March 4, 2017 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

More than 2,000 tunicate species are found throughout the world, with at least 45 varieties found in Hawaii. Pictured are the green barrel sea squirt variety found in waters off Palau. ©2017 Susan Scott

I’m home from my snorkeling trips to Palau and Yap, and in sorting through my pictures, I came upon a favorite: something so new, I didn’t know whether it was plant or animal. When I showed the real thing to our knowledgeable Palauan guide, he didn’t know either, but guessed it was a kind of alga.

Soft, thimble-size barrels with pores in them didn’t look like any alga I had ever seen, but then, some weird plants grow in the world’s oceans. One common one looks like a small Japanese glass float that filled up with water and sank to the bottom. Some call this one-celled seaweed bubble algae. (Singular is alga, but no one calls it that.) I prefer its more colorful common name: sailor’s eyeball.

After a few tries of describing my mystery organism, Google came up with “green barrel tunicate, scientific name, Didemnum molle” with a photo that matched mine.

Over 2,000 tunicate species are found throughout the world, with Hawaii hosting at least 45.

Years ago, in a zoology course at UH, I learned that these filter feeders have baglike bodies with two openings. One draws water in with tiny beating hairs, and the other directs water out. This human-heart-type image was the picture I had of all tunicates.

But like so many marine invertebrates, tunicates come in various forms. Some exist in colonies, where their bag bodies join at the base. The colonies can spread over coral and rocks in matlike patches with lots of inhalant and exhalant holes for sharing food. Often this spreading, combined with brilliant colors, makes some colonial tunicate species look like sponges.

The barrels in my photos are not visibly attached to one another, but runners creeping along the rock base connect individuals and give rise to new ones.

An individual green barrel sea squirt, also known as the tall urn ascidian (a class of tunicate), can grow to 4 inches in diameter in deep water. Shallow-water communities, such as those in my photos, are less than an inch wide.

The green tinge comes from a bacterium that lives in the tunicate’s tissues. Although not technically a plant, the bacteria produce oxygen, essential to the tunicate, the same way plants do, through photosynthesis. In this symbiotic relationship, the sea squirt produces a chemical sunscreen that protects its bacteria from UV radiation.

I’m not discouraged about not knowing those little barrels were sea squirts, or that I have surely incorrectly identified some tunicates as sponges. Learning new facts about the marine world is the thrill that keeps me dunking my face in water until it hurts.

Now I need to learn another fact: how one tells a tunicate from a sponge.

Colorful reef habitats offer shelter from a storm

Published February 18, 2017 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

Feather stars are related to starfish. Standing a foot tall, they resemble a bouquet of flexible twigs. ©2017 Susan Scott

KOROR, PALAU >> My week in Palau was not what my eight snorkeling companions and I had pictured. Winter is the dry season here, where usually the days are sunny, the water is clear and jumping off the boat is a relief from the tropical heat. But Mother Nature doesn’t care if visitors have only one week to enjoy paradise. An unseasonal storm front moved over Palau and stalled there.

Blustery squalls drove needlelike rain into our faces, preventing the boat from going to reefs exposed to the strong wind and big waves. Not ones to give up, our resourceful guide and driver found two previously unexplored reefs in bays protected from the wind. Because they were surprise discoveries, they were also protected from other tour boats. The areas were ours alone to enjoy.

The first new reef Robin and Matty found we named Oceanic Coral Garden, a place deserving of the name garden. Sponges in brilliant red, yellow, orange and blue squeezed between, and plastered themselves on, a multitude of coral heads.

Sponges look stuck in one place for life, but these filter feeders can walk. When it needs to move to a better food gathering place in the current, a sponge absorbs cells from one side of the body and deposits them on the other.

Sponges’ gradual way of relocating makes snails look like NASCAR racers. But sponge colors, shapes and the fact that they get around at all made sponges a group favorite.

Crinoid Cove is the name we gave our other private place. The peaks and valleys there were of such coral diversity, it looked as if a bunch of patchwork quilts had been draped over tall tables and low chairs. And on top of nearly each rise perched a crinoid, also known as a feather star.

A flamboyant cousin of starfish, a feather star looks like a bouquet of flexible twigs, called arms, standing about a foot tall. On both sides of each twig extend sticky tube feet spaced like the teeth of a comb.

When a piece of animal plankton drifts into a crinoid’s combs, the gluey feet trap it. The animal then covers the gummy meal with slippery mucus and slides it, with beating hairs, down the middle of the arm’s shaft to the central mouth.

Feather stars hang onto their hilltops with rootlike “feet” and are easily knocked off their perch. No worries. A feather star can swim by curling and flapping those twiglike arms and once again be king of the hill.

Crinoids are two-toned, the base of the arms often black with tube feet of green, orange, yellow or white. Not common, feather stars are a sight to behold and along with the sponges were a group favorite.

Bad weather might spoil a trip but for some, but it didn’t for us. Because of the persistent storms, our wonderful Palauan guides found and shared two of their country’s secret gardens.

Next stop: Yap.

Palau thinks big with laws that protect its ocean life

Published February 11, 2017 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

The nation of Palau contains 250 islands. The government designated 193,000 square miles of its territorial waters as a marine preserve in 2015. Courtesy Luxtonnerre / Wikimedia Commons

KOROR, PALAU >> This week I’m working (so-called) in this island nation as a naturalist for an Oceanic Society snorkeling tour. I feel honored to represent this organization. Inspired by Rachael Carson’s book “Silent Spring,” San Francisco sailors and scientists founded OS in 1969 as the first nonprofit dedicated to building a healthy future for the world’s oceans.

Over the years, other caring people created dozens of ocean-centered organizations, and in 1990 OS set its sights on marine conservation through informed travel. Its mission is to help wildlife through education and inspiration.

As a former Midwesterner who was once afraid of the ocean and its inhabitants, I’m a poster child for the effectiveness of that tactic. And for novice snorkelers as well as old pros, there’s no better place to get inspired than Palau.

The tiny island nation has it all. A surrounding reef protects the waters around Palau’s stunning Rock Islands, making the inside waters calm. And because the archipelago is 500 miles north of the equator, water and air are pleasantly warm.

Thriving in this delicious water are about 400 species of hard corals and 300 species of soft. One writer describes the coral colors here as “an explosion in a paint factory.” The coral reefs support at least 1,400 species of fish and thousands of invertebrates, many still unidentified.

Palau’s 250 islands total just a bit more land area than the island of Lanai, and the country’s 21,000 residents live scattered throughout. But even though the country is small, when it comes to protecting its natural wonders, people think big. In 2009 Palau created the first shark sanctuary in the world, banning all shark fishing in its waters.

The government took another giant conservation step in 2015 by designating 193,000 square miles, about 80 percent of its territorial waters, a marine preserve. That’s an area bigger than California. The other 20 percent of Palau’s water is open to locals and a small number of commercial fisheries.

Enforcing a fishing ban in such a huge area is tough. But with the help of the Australian navy, the Pew Charitable Trusts and a nonprofit organization called SkyTruth, which tracks and reports foreign vessels via satellite, Palau’s marine patrol can nab poachers. The officers don’t get all trespassers, but Palau officials intend the 2016 arrest of 10 men aboard a Taiwanese pirate ship to be a warning: Palau means business.

Today, eight OS guests and I begin exploring Palau’s exploded paint stores and swimming with 1,400 paint chips. It’s almost embarrassing to call this work.

Turtles rebound in Hawaii, but most use 1 nesting site

Published December 14, 2015 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2015 Susan Scott
One photo, seven turtles. Oahu’s North Shore. ©2015 Susan Scott

One photo, seven turtles. Oahu’s North Shore. ©2015 Susan Scott

‘Turtle! Turtle!”

The call came from our Palau guide during his rare turtle sightings, and usually the animal was 60 feet deep and departing. We Hawaii snorkelers in the group didn’t exactly shrug, but we’re so used to close encounters with tame turtles that seeing one disappearing in the distance was no big deal.

Turtles are so common around the main islands today that it’s reasonable to think the animals have recovered from the threat of extinction. But there’s more to recovery than head counts.

Turtles encounters in Hawaii include them coming very close to examine what you're up to. © Scott R. Davis

Turtles encounters in Hawaii include them coming very close to examine what you’re up to.
© Scott R. Davis

In a 2014 paper published in the journal Biological Conservation, workers studied Hawaii’s ancient sites, market accounts, past menus and state records to determine the history of human impact on Hawaii’s turtles. The biologists divided their findings into three stages.

The first began with Polynesian settlers in about 1250. Archaeological digs show widespread turtle use among Hawaiian societies, which surely included egg collecting. Eventually, hunting pressure from a growing population destroyed most nesting areas in the main islands.

The second decline came with European contact in 1778. During the 1800s ship crews from Europe, North America and Asia killed turtles and collected eggs throughout the Northwest Hawaiian Islands for subsistence and commercial trade. By 1950 all turtle nesting areas in the northwestern chain were obliterated except for a single island in one atoll.

The final blow began in 1946. Due to a growing tourist industry, restaurant demand for turtle meat increased, and Hawaii’s government licensed turtle hunting. Because small coastal turtles were scarce by then, fishers moved to offshore areas where large, reproductive-age turtles swam. Turtle numbers finally got so low that the animals became protected under the Endangered Species Act in 1974, ending all legal hunting.

Protection works, and today the number of greens in Hawaii’s coastal areas is (arguably) about 61,000. But whether that’s close to or far from pre-hunting numbers no one can say.

Either way, this success story has a critical glitch. More than 90 percent of Hawaii’s turtles still nest only on that one tiny island 500 miles northwest of Oahu. This unnatural concentration means that the turtles are only one calamitous weather event, or one human-driven disaster, from losing their last egg-laying haven. That problem demands continued protection.

Nowhere have sea turtle numbers increased like they have in Hawaii, nor do turtles bask on beaches anywhere else in the world.

Sometimes it takes traveling to appreciate the splendor we have in our own backyards.

A turtle basking on the North Shore of Oahu, using a rock as a pillow. © Scott R. Davis

A turtle basking on the North Shore of Oahu, using a rock as a pillow.
© Scott R. Davis

Sponges are diverse animals that pioneered filter feeding

Published December 7, 2015 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2015 Susan Scott
sponge

A sponge stands tall on a reef off Palau. ©2015 Susan Scott

While sorting photos from my recent trips to the western Pacific, I enlarged several shots of sponges to look down their throats. Except they don’t have throats. Or mouths, stomachs, gills, hearts or any other body parts one might call organs.

But sponges do have holes in their bodies, and it looked like something was inside the big ones. And there is. Canals.

DSCN2129

Unlike dish washing tools and cartoon characters, real sponges aren’t square or rectangular. Living sponges are soft orange vases, squishy red barrels, slimy yellow blobs and hundreds of other colors, shapes and textures. Many are so striking that scientists are inspired. One zoology textbook author writes that sponge colors “are as vivid and varied as those of Van Gogh’s flowers.”

Although early naturalists thought sponges were plants, they are animals that strain seawater through cells in their bodies to catch bacteria and other microscopic bits of organic material. Called filter feeding, this is a way for countless marine animals to get food. But sponges invented it. They were the first creatures on Earth to eat this way, and it worked well. Over the past 600 million years, sponges evolved into at least 15,000 species and counting. Hawaii hosts more than 80.

Cool orange spongeSponges love currents. Water enters the creatures though tiny surface pores, some invisible to the naked eye. Inside are minuscule threads that whip the water through canals supported by skeletons of protein fibers and/or minerals such as silica and calcite.

From the canals, feeding cells sift out whatever the water brought in. The cleaned water is then pumped out through its larger visible holes, the ones I was peering into.

Sponges don’t have many kinds of cells, but the ones they do have are a model of teamwork. Besides skeletal cells, feeding cells and pumping cells, unemployed cells roam the body, conveniently turning into whatever type the animal needs. In this way the sponge can remold its shape to fine-tune its feeding.

SpongeIf necessary, a sponge can move to a better place. The creature walks by absorbing its skeletal cells from one side of the body and depositing them on the other. It’s slow going, but then moving the house usually is, especially when it’s an apartment building. Some species of crabs, shrimp and brittle stars (starfish relatives) live in sponge canals.

Although hawksbill turtles and some sea slugs, starfish and fish eat sponges, many species contain toxins that discourage most predators.

Living sea sponges might not have the adventures of SpongeBob SquarePants, but their colors, shapes and inner lives are just as fantastic.

These jellyfish hardly sting but a snorkeler is entranced

Published November 30, 2015 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2015 Susan Scott

The golden jelly has eight arms, each ending in clublike extensions that contain mild stinging cells. ©2015 Susan Scott

The golden jelly has eight arms, each ending in club like extensions that contain mild stinging cells.
©2015 Susan Scott

I’m home from Palau, but as I recall my excellent two weeks of snorkeling there, one image pops out: floating mesmerized above millions of jellyfish in a landlocked marine lake.

Called Ongeim’l Tketau (also known as Jellyfish Lake), Palau’s famous lake contains seawater that flows in and out through channels and fissures in its limestone island. As a result, the lake’s water rises and falls with the tides in the surrounding lagoon.

Jellyfish Lake is special, but not because it’s Palau’s only marine lake with jellyfish. The island nation hosts more than 50 such lakes, five containing jellyfish. All are the same species, Mastigias papua, but dissimilar enough that scientists gave them subspecies names, each honoring Palau’s five elected presidents.

DSCN2406

Ongeim’l Tketau, however, is the only lake open to visitors. Tourists come from around the world to swim with its mass of up to 13 million golden jellyfish migrating daily across the 14-acre lake. (Waikiki’s Hilton Lagoon is 5 acres.) It’s a myth that these jellyfish have lost their sting. True, the creatures house algae in their tissues and get carbs from the plants. But the jellies also need protein and, like their coral relatives, have small tentacles that sting and kill tiny drifting animals that live in the lake.

Rocket jelly

The story that the jellyfish don’t sting comes from the fact that their stinging cells, called nematocysts, are too weak to penetrate human skin except, possibly, in sensitive places such as lips. Even then most people just get a tingle. Or nothing. When an adult golden jelly, about 4 inches across, brushed my lips, I felt nothing but joy. It was like getting kissed by a mobile marshmallow.

The jellies cluster together because they follow the sun, giving their gardens the light they need to make sugars. (The creatures’ color is their algae’s color.) At night the jellyfish rest, but come morning they’re on the move again. In Ongeim’l Tketau, the jellies travel about a half-mile per day, swimming east in the morning and west in the afternoon. By stopping where shadows hit the lake’s edges, the jellies avoid their major predator, a native white anemone that grows on fallen branches and mangrove roots along the lake’s walls. At the slightest touch, the anemone stings the jellyfish and eats it.

Susan in Jellyfish Lake

To give all their plants equal time in the sun, the pulsating creatures twirl every which way as they migrate, performing a slow-motion ballet. Watching this dance of the golden jellies while floating and breathing through a snorkel is like taking a tranquilizer. Mastigias papua etpisoni is my kind of drug.

DSCN2385DSCN2389

Pajama cardinal fish makes Palau snorkeling a pleasure

Published November 23, 2015 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2015 Susan Scott

Pajama cardinal fish rest during the day and hunt tiny fish at night. ©2015 Susan Scott

Pajama cardinal fish rest during the day and hunt tiny fish at night. ©2015 Susan Scott

PALAU » My two weeks of snorkeling in Palau are nearly over, and even though my husband, Craig, isn’t here, I can hear him ask the question he asks at the end of every adventure: What was your favorite part of the trip?

It’s always hard to choose one thing, but it’s particularly hard here with rock islands surrounded by coral reefs loaded with so many fish and invertebrates, my brain can’t take them all in. But when I close my eyes and recall my days here, one image pops out: the little fish in pajamas.

Palau hosts a reef species called the pajama cardinal fish, native to the western part of the tropical Pacific. The fish is so named because a black band around its middle looks like a waistband holding up red, polka-dotted pajama bottoms. A bright yellow top punctuated with big eyes and a body studded with permanently erect fins completes the image of a fish so adorable you want to give it a good-night kiss.

Pajama cardinal fish are nearly as tall as they are long, with adults growing to 3 inches. Even though small, the fish are easy to spot because five to 10 individuals often hover together outside branched corals. If you startle them, the fish dart into the safety of the coral’s arms, peeking out to see if the coast is clear.

But these cuties don’t startle as easily as other small fish. Usually, we found groups of pajama cardinal fish hanging like mobiles, the individuals motionless and facing the same direction.

“They look sleepy,” said one of my snorkeling companions.

“Of course they do,” my friend Lani said. “They’re in their pajamas and having a sleepover.”

The fish were inactive because the world’s 300 or so cardinal fish species rest during the day. At night they perk up to hunt tiny fish and crustaceans.

As if their appearance isn’t endearing enough, pajama cardinal fish have a remarkable method of reproducing.

The male guards the female as she lays her eggs. After fertilizing them, he scoops the whole load into his mouth. It’s then the female’s turn to stand guard and chase potential predators from her mate.

In three to four weeks, well-developed fry pop out of dad’s mouth. The male can’t eat while mouth brooding and can swallow up to 30 percent of the offspring. Oops.

As you might expect, pajama cardinal fish are favorites for home aquariums but they don’t have to be taken from the reef. Pajama cardinal fish are so mellow, they breed readily in tanks.

I like Craig’s question because it causes me to reflect on a trip’s highlights while they’re still vivid. Even so, I struggled in choosing pajama cardinal fish. Palau is all highlights.


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

©2015 Susan Scott

A snorkeler adrift in Palau finds underwater rewards

Published November 16, 2015 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2015 Susan Scott

A crinoid walks along the sea-bed in the waters of Palau. ©2015 Susan Scott

A crinoid walks along the sea-bed in the waters of Palau. ©2015 Susan Scott

PALAU >> In some of my favorite snorkeling spots here in Palau, I don’t have to stroke my arms or even move my fins to see vast stretches of coral reef. With Palau’s tidal range of 6 to 7 feet, and two high and two low tides daily, the current along the edges of deep channels is sometimes strong enough that we snorkelers have little choice of where to go. There’s nothing to do then but relax and let the ocean have its way.

Drifting effortlessly above colorful coral reefs is fantastic, but it’s hard to get a good look at a particular organism. By the time I turn around and swim up-current, I’ve often lost sight of what I wanted to look at. Also, there are no handholds to help a person steady a camera. Touching coral is a strict no-no, and it’s almost all coral.

But drift snorkeling has a big plus. Moving water offers free delivery to suspension feeders such as sea fans, soft corals and other wonders. Among those wonders are feather stars, also known as crinoids.

Crinoids (not found in Hawaii) are starfish and sea urchin relatives but have a shape and lifestyle all their own.

Crinoids get to touch the coral. The black, green and orange creatures stand in the open on coral heads, positioning their multiple feathery appendages in the current.

Tiny tube feet tipped with sticky mucus stick out from both sides of each arm. When the moving water brings tiny plants and animals to the crinoid, they get stuck in its glue.

This starts the crinoid’s ingestion assembly line. The outer tube feet flick the food to inner tube feet that cover it in slippery mucus and then deposit the catch in a groove at the center of each arm. There tiny hairs act like conveyor belts, transporting the meal to the creature’s mouth at the center.

Although they can walk and even swim, most crinoids find a spot they like and park there. Because crinoids have rootlike feet, a walking feather star looks a mutant flower searching for a sunnier spot.

Compared with 500 million years ago when they covered the ocean floors, crinoids are rare today. But their fossils are not. Among other places, they’re abundant in the Midwest. Missouri’s state fossil is the crinoid.

Drift snorkeling here isn’t scary because at the end of the channels, the water spreads out and the current stops. In addition, the boat goes with you. Palau’s boat drivers follow snorkelers and divers, so you can get out of the water when you like.

I’m soon starting my second Palau tour as a naturalist for the Oceanic Society, and even though I don’t know what I’ll see, I know one thing for sure. I will go with the flow.


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

©2015 Susan Scott

Palau is a wonderful world and the plovers are a plus

Published November 9, 2015 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2015 Susan Scott
The water between the islands of the Republic of Palau is full of coral, marine mammals and other wildlife. <br>©2015 Susan Scott

The water between the islands of the Republic of Palau is full of coral, marine mammals and other wildlife. ©Susan Scott

KOROR, Palau >> Because I flew to this island nation directly from Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, my expectations were high. And sure enough, before I even got my feet wet, I saw an animal that moved me to tears.

Standing on the concrete wall of a boat ramp where I was about to take my first plunge in Palau waters was a Pacific golden plover.

Hello, kolea! These plovers aren’t the same individuals we see in Hawaii, but they’re the same species. Palauans called them “derariik.”

Because plovers and other migratory shorebirds nest in the Arctic, the ones that winter here make longer annual round-trip flights than our kolea. The 10-inch-long birds can’t store enough fat for such long journeys — if they did they couldn’t fly.

The plovers that winter here and farther south make refueling stops in the rice fields of Japan and possibly other parts of Asia. To see that graceful bird performing its familiar ballet at the Palau shoreline gave me such joy that I thought, “If I see nothing else here, I’ll be happy.” Of course, I know that during my two weeks here I will see countless other wonders. Palau was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2012 for good reason.

The Republic of Palau consists of 586 islands that lie about 400 miles north of the equator, similar to the latitude of Palmyra Atoll. Situated in the western part of Micronesia, Palau is roughly between and a bit south of the Philippines and Guam.

Because the total land area of Palau’s islands is 176 square miles, most of Palau consists of water. This is no ordinary water.

More than 600 species of hard and soft corals grow here between green toadstool-shape islands. They are so eye-popping that one of my snorkeling companions said she felt as if she were in a Disney movie.

A surrounding barrier reef protects the inner islands from offshore waves, and three oceanic currents converge here, supporting a vast variety of marine life. These combinations make Palau a diving, kayaking and snorkeling paradise.

Palauans are rightly proud of the unique beauty and nature of their nation, and work to protect it. Palau was the first country, in 2009, to create a shark sanctuary, and in 2010 the government made Palau’s waters a marine mammal preserve.

Fishing is banned in large areas, licensed guides are mandatory and park fees go to maintaining tour facilities. A wildlife preserve called the 70 Islands is off-limits to everyone, giving turtles, dugongs and other marine animals a human-free haven.

When I returned from my first amazing snorkeling excursion here, my plover was still dancing on the wall. I take it as a sign of great things to come.


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

©2015 Susan Scott

 

Waters off Palau are home to treasure trove of sea life

Published November 17, 2014 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2014 Susan Scott

A mandarinfish in Palau. ©2014 Susan Scott

On the last day of my week in Palau, I asked five snorkeling companions to name their favorite part of the trip. The fact that we were evenly divided in our choices is testament to the wide variety of stunning marine life in this island nation of Micronesia. We were two for Ulong Channel, two for Jellyfish Lake and two for mandarinfish.

Ulong is a long, narrow island in western Palau, and the channel that runs near it has strong currents that nourish an astonishing number of coral species. Every shade of blue, pink, yellow, green and brown shaped like fingers, tables, bubbles, fans and flowers dazzled us as we drifted a few feet above the reef. Since our boat driver followed us in the deep part of the channel, all we had to do was gape, float and be awed.

To the two Hawaii island members of our group who were particularly interested in corals, Ulong Channel was such nirvana they asked our guide to go twice. There were no objections.

The other favorite, Jellyfish Lake, is a must-see for snorkelers worldwide. The golden jellyfish, often called by their scientific name Mastigias (ma-STIJ-ee-us), are found in a single land-bound lake. Fissures in the surrounding limestone island are the lake’s only connection to the ocean.

Each morning, an average of 5 million pulsing jellies swim to the east side of the lake and gradually move west with the sun, continually rotating their bell-shaped bodies. The traveling and twirling give the algae living in the jellies’ tissues enough sunshine to manufacture the carbohydrates that feed the jellyfish.

The symbiotic system is so efficient that the jellies, ranging from fingernail-size babies to teacup-size adults, no longer need to eat live plankton and therefore have no stinging tentacles. To drift among these graceful rhythmic creatures is to feel the heartbeat of Palau.

I loved the Ulong corals and golden jellies, but when I got so close to several tiny mandarinfish that I could take halfway decent pictures, I nearly wept with joy.

Only 2 to 3 inches long, the paisley-patterned mandarinfish are found only in the Western Pacific, where they hide among coral litter. The uncommon little fish are hard to find, but if you’re as lucky as we were and have a great guide as we did, the fish can sometimes be spotted at dusk when they emerge to mate.

For us the little darlings practically posed for our cameras. To be eye to eye with a curious mandarinfish in 2 feet of clear, calm water ranks at the tippy top of my list of superb snorkeling experiences.

I’m happily home on Oahu now, but Palau’s Crayola-colored corals, gilded jellyfish and decked-out mandarinfish will sparkle in my mind forever.

mandarinfish


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

©2014 Susan Scott