Tag Archives: pipefish

Tetiaroa a fine spot for Obama to pen book

Published April 8, 2017 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

The Honu, bottom left, shared “The Brando” buoy with a catamaran at Tetiaroa atoll in 2015. @©2015 Susan Scott

The news that Barack Obama is writing his memoir in Tetiaroa caused excitement at our house. In 2013 we sailed the Honu 40 miles from Tahiti to Tetiaroa, when the luxury hotel hosting the former president was still under construction.

Tetiaroa, often called an island, is an atoll, consisting of a 4.5-mile-wide lagoon surrounded by 13 small islands, encircled by one huge coral reef. Onetahi Island houses the Brando Resort, so-named because Marlon Brando’s estate owns the atoll.

Because Tetiaroa’s reef has no channel, getting into the atoll’s lagoon by sailboat is impossible, and the sheer drop-off outside the reef is too deep for anchoring.

Arriving at the atoll off Rimatuu island, we saw a tourist catamaran tied to a giant, flat buoy labeled “The Brando.” The friendly Tahitian captain invited us to share the mooring, and soon the Honu was secure outside the break.

We weren’t sure how to get inside the reef, but our neighbor had a system. The skipper stood in a rubber dinghy steering the boat’s outboard with one hand and grasping the bow line with the other. His six passengers hung on, three to a side. Driving back and forth outside the break to time the breaking waves, the man seized his moment, opened the throttle and surfed into the lagoon.

Tetiaroa from above. By Supertoff – Own work, Creative Commons: BY-SA 3.0,

After dropping his charges on the beach, the captain zoomed back toward the break, riding the mass of water rushing seaward. The collision of the outgoing water with the incoming wave launched the dinghy skyward. With a cigarette dangling from his mouth, this Polynesian Marlboro Man flew up and over the peak, and zoomed back to his boat for more guests.

After watching several of these astonishing performances, we decided to body-surf in. I lost a fin in the tumble, but Craig found it and off we went snorkeling.

Coral formations in that part of the lagoon had formed a kind of pond that hosted a large number of pipefish, relatives of sea horses. Somewhat rare, and usually alone or in pairs, the charming pipefish hung out in nearly every nook and cranny of that reef pocket.

Later, during my panicky exit through the surf, I again lost a fin. It seemed a price worth paying for snorkeling with packs of pipefish and surviving a dive through the washing machine wave.

When I got back to the Honu, my fin lay on the deck, found and delivered by the catamaran cowboy.

Tetiaroa Atoll is the perfect place for Hawaii-born-and-raised Barack Obama to write his memoir. For breaks he can snorkel with pipefish and body-surf the reef.

Map of Tetiaroa. Public Domain image.

Lovely, lethal lion fish likely lunched on a jittery friend

Published August 19, 2013 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2013 Susan Scott
A lion fish, not found in Hawaii, hunted near the deck of the Honu when it was in Tahiti. ©2013 Susan Scott

A lion fish, not found in Hawaii, hunted near the deck of the Honu when it was in Tahiti. ©2013 Susan Scott

PAPEETE, TAHITI » For days I admired a pipefish from the deck of my boat, Honu, in this marina where the water is gin clear to 50 feet. The 6-inch-long yellow-banded pipefish was a nervous little thing that spent much of its time hovering behind the rungs of a ladder attached to the dock.

Occasionally the fish ventured out in search of food, drifting crustaceans and fish larvae. But if my shadow darkened the water or my gangplank clunked with a wave, the little pipefish dashed back to its protective rungs.

I was thrilled to have my own pipefish to admire because I’ve never seen any of Hawaii’s six species, which live in deep water, hide in dark caves or hover among camouflaging seaweeds. Like sea horses, pipefish blend so well with their environment that you can look right at one and still not see it.

I mention sea horses because the two are close relatives. Both have long, tubelike snouts that inhale their prey, are slow swimmers and have eyes that move independently to better spot tiny food items. The pipefish resembles a stretched-out sea horse, except it has a skinnier body, fanlike tail and is often decked out in colorful stripes, spots and rings.

Like sea horses, after an elaborate courtship dance, a female pipefish deposits her eggs into her partner’s pouch where he fertilizes them and carries the eggs to hatching. Some males just can’t stop dancing. Researchers have found male pipefish simultaneously carrying the eggs of three females.

As I mentioned last week, while walking my gangplank I nearly fell in the water over the appearance of a 15-inch-long lion fish, its fins nearly breaking the water’s surface. This stunning carnivore is native from Australia to the Marquesas, and from Japan to New Zealand, but is not found in Hawaii.

Lion fish weren’t found in the Atlantic, either, until humans gave them a lift. The species, Pterois volitans, is now common from Florida to New York and Bermuda where it preys on native fish not adapted to this crackerjack stalker.

But even those that know the danger can be in trouble when a lion fish goes hunting.

Slowly my lion fish swept the coral wall along my dock, fanning its lovely, venomous fins to flush out small fish and invertebrates.

It’s a sight to behold under any circumstances, but that fish gave me time to fetch my camera, shoot some pictures and still have minutes to marvel.

It also, I think, ate my pipefish. I never saw it again.

I consider my pipefish and lion fish sightings as extraordinary gifts from the South Pacific. And I haven’t even left the dock yet.

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

©2013 Susan Scott

Labor’s reward found in offspring, one or many

Published September 1, 1997 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1997 Susan Scott

My longtime readers may remember my story about a Labor Day many years ago when my mother gave birth to my baby brother. The event was such a sensation in my 11-year-old mind that, since then, Labor Day has had a double meaning to me.

Besides commemorating workers, the day also honors those who perform the supreme labor: that of perpetuating life on Earth.

In the world of fish, this labor comes in many forms, ranging from the release of eggs and sperm into open water and leaving the rest to nature, to the provision of nutrients to embryos developing inside a female fish’s body.

Tunas are typical of the first hit-and-miss type of reproduction. These schooling fish spawn in the warm upper layer of the open ocean. Each female tuna releases about 50,000 floating eggs per pound of body weight, and each male releases millions of sperm in the vicinity. The eggs that get fertilized hatch in about 30 hours.

It’s a lonely, perilous world these youngsters face. When the tiny tuna, only 0.1 inch long, begins its life in the marine world of fish-eat-fish, its parents are long gone. The mortality rate is staggering.

Although not many tuna hatchlings make it to maturity, not many have to. Of the millions, only two need to reach adulthood to keep the tuna population stable.

This type of reproduction may seem easy on the parents, but the cost is high.

Producing millions of eggs and sperm at each spawning requires tremendous amounts of energy.

At the opposite extreme are sharks, which produce fewer eggs and less sperm but use considerable energy giving their offspring a head start.

All sharks have internal fertilization, meaning the males deliver sperm directly inside the female through extensions of their pelvic fins. In many species, the female retains her eggs inside her body until they hatch, then gives birth.

Some kinds of sharks, such as sand tigers, threshers, makos and maybe great white sharks, have a unique way of nourishing their unborn pups.

One embryo remains in the mother’s body, eating its later-arriving siblings. The young of these sharks have the advantage of entering the world already fairly large.

Most sharks found in Hawaii have a more familiar way of feeding their unborn babies. A tube, called a pseudo-umbilicus, connects each embryo to the mother’s tissue. When the embryos are large enough to survive, the little sharks are born.

Between these extreme reproductive labors lie variations as vast as the ocean itself:

 Flying fish lay eggs bearing sticky threads that attach to floating seaweed. This natural cover likely gives hatchlings more protection than they have simply floating free in the open ocean.

 Pipefish and seahorses are a human female fantasy. In these fish, it is the males who become pregnant. The female deposits her eggs into the male’s stomach pouch, then takes off. The distended male incubates the eggs for 10 to 50 days, after which his tiny babies pop out.

In seahorses, the youngsters immediately head to the surface for a gulp of air, which helps them swim upright.

 Cardinalfish are also a female dream-come-true as far as the work goes. During the spawning season, females lay masses of eggs. Males fertilize them, then collect them in their mouths, holding them until they hatch. Sometimes the males’ mouths are so full of eggs, they can’t close their jaws completely.

 Then there are the female wrasses and parrotfish that get tired of all that egg-laying and simply turn into males. Many wrasse species spawn in groups, releasing eggs and sperm in a rapid upward rush. I’ve watched this happening and it looks like pure fish ecstasy. Procreative labor does have its rewards.