Tag Archives: sea snake

Messages arrive on the tide to please a seagoing scribe

That’s a moray. ©2015 Susan Scott

That’s a moray. ©2015 Susan Scott

Thank you, thoughtful readers, for sharing marine reports that brighten my day. In this era of so much bad news about the world’s oceans, it’s a relief to read items about them that make me smile.

Such as Obeka’s release. Obeka is the giant Pacific octopus I fell in love with while visiting the Fiero Marine Center in Port Angeles, Wash. On April 26, workers there took Obeka back to her ocean home.


When she came to live at the center, Obeka weighed only 3 ounces. Upon returning to the sea 14 months later, the octopus weighed 35 pounds. Hopefully Obeka will find a mate, lay her 68,000 eggs and tend them until they hatch about nine months later.

Obeka will die soon after her eggs hatch, as all octopuses do, but I don’t feel sad. The creature served as a stellar ambassador for her species and will leave behind the ultimate gift: offspring.

Besides being impressed by octopuses, I’m also obsessed with sea snakes. A friend who knows of my snaky passion sent me a study regarding the bar-bellied sea snake found near the coastline of Western Australia.

sea krait

Sea snakes don’t have many predators, but tiger sharks are one of them. Researchers discovered that at high tide, when the water is deep enough for the sharks to swim near shore, the snakes hang out in sea grass beds where their main source of food, fish, is scarce. When the tide goes out, though, so do the sharks, and the snakes resume their usual hunting over sand flats.

But the study doesn’t just show that sea snakes are smart enough to avoid predators — most prey animals are. It’s also a heads-up to biologists. When studying habitat and foraging behaviors of the bar-bellied sea snake, researchers need to note the state of the tides.

Bar-bellied sea snakes are the longest of all sea snakes, growing to 6 feet. I’ve not seen one. I live in hope.

Another reader sent a National Geographic link about by-the-wind sailors.

While approaching Australia’s east coast last fall, I sailed through massive numbers of these jelly creatures for 24 hours. The ones I saw peppered the water’s surface far and wide. But when the wind and currents are just right, or just wrong if you’re a by-the-wind sailor, the creatures run aground. Check out these amazing photos of millions of these jellies shipwrecked last month on West Coast beaches: bit.ly/1GVK0UH.

Scooped at sea_small

Finally, as a reminder that I shouldn’t take the negative news crowding my inbox too seriously, I’ll keep in mind last week’s message from a snorkeling buddy:

“When you’re down by the sea,

And an eel bites your knee,

That’s a moray.”

Thanks everyone for messages that make me smile.

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

©2015 Susan Scott


Fascinating anemones, fish are worth a bit of discomfort

Published April 28, 2014 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2014 Susan Scott

Vava’u, Tonga, 2006

VAVA’U, Tonga » I know I’m in a good place when I have fin sores on my feet, and the mask grooves in my forehead are nearly permanent features of my face. Even in my sleep I know I’m in a fine place. The anchorages here have been so still that I awake thinking I’m home.

But I’m nowhere near Oahu. Craig and I are sailing our 37-foot ketch Honu in Tonga.

Specifically, we’re exploring Tonga’s Vavau group, a nearly round archipelago in the northern part of this island nation. Vava’u comprises 60 islands, covering an area 16 by 18 miles.

Massive coral reefs protect Vava’u’s islands from the southeast waves. The result is one of the world’s premier sailing grounds, a cluster of calm waterways weaving around sparsely inhabited islets that look like lush flowerpots. Some have powder-white sand beaches on one side and caves in vertical limestone cliffs on another. Most every islet hosts a vibrant coral reef. And that’s why my snorkel gear is wearing holes in my body.

In some places I don’t kick, but float motionless a few feet above the reef. My presence causes commotion when I’m hovering over a pink, yellow, blue or white anemone. Some anemone tentacles are bubblelike; others remind me of gummy worms. These shag carpets of the reef don’t mind my gaze, but their resident anemone fish do. The little fish act as security guards and take the job seriously.

Anemone fish, Anemone with fish in it. Vava’u, Tonga 2014. © Susan Scott

Anemone fish are the poster fish of symbiosis, living among the tentacles of stinging anemones without being harmed. Researchers believe a mucus coating protects the fish from the anemone’s sting.

As payback for a safe haven, the anemone fish drive off butterflyfish, predators that view anemone tentacles as yummy meals.

But the little anemone fish’s defense maneuvers aren’t limited to butterflyfish. If I get my face too close to their home, the tenant fish show me their frowny faces and sometimes fake a charge. “Get back!” the 6-inch-long Chihuahuas of fish seem say to me, a 68-inch-long monster. “Or what?” I think, smiling. Advancing my camera toward the indignant fish sends them deep into the folds of their wiggly security blanket.

Female anemone fish lay eggs near their anemone’s base, and the male guards them vigorously. Once the eggs hatch, the larvae drift as plankton for a week or two, depending on species. (At least a dozen kinds of anemone fish inhabit the Pacific and Indian oceans, all in shades of orange, brown and white.) After developing fins, the baby fish look for an anemone haven.

All members of this group begin life as males. Usually one monogamous pair of anemone fish share an anemone. If a female is removed from a pair, the male left behind turns into a female.

A dominant juvenile on the anemone’s outskirts then matures and becomes the male of the pair.

The pastel anemones and their plucky companions are so abundant here in Vavau’s warm, clear, shallow waters that I’m snorkeling blisters on my feet and furrows on my face. Never before has pain been so much fun.

Banded Sea Snake. Vava'u Tonga, 2014. ©2014 Susan Scott

Banded Sea Snake. Vava’u Tonga, 2014. ©2014 Susan Scott


Vava’u group of islands, Tonga, 2006

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

©2014 Susan Scott


Bold paddle-boarder helps a yellow-bellied sea snake

Published January 20, 2014 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2014 Susan Scott

Courtesy Greg Gauget

When paddle-boarder Greg Gauget found a snakelike creature floating limp, but alive, off Maui’s Baby Beach (or Puu­anoa Beach) north of Lahaina a few weeks ago, he did what few people would do: He went through exceptional efforts to save it.

Sea snakes are so rare in Hawaii that Greg didn’t know what he’d rescued until he got it ashore and he and a beachgoer looked it up on her phone. Greg also took a picture, essential for the documentation of his animal, a yellow-bellied sea snake.

Yellow-bellied sea snakes are the most widespread snakes in the world, ranging throughout the tropical waters of the Indian and Pacific oceans far from coastlines and reefs. Occasionally, though, the air-breathing snakes, which live mostly on the water’s surface, drift into higher latitudes. When one arrives in Hawaii, it’s the victim of oceanic currents that have carried the creature to waters less than ideal for breeding and feeding.

Yellow-bellied sea snakes eat small fish. The snake floats motionless, often among debris that collects at current boundaries, waiting for a fish to seek shelter below. If a fish hovers behind the snake’s mouth, no problem. These snakes can swim smoothly backward until the fish is within striking range.

With a lightning-fast sideways move of the head, the snake bites its prey, injecting a powerful venom with two tiny fangs, about 1.5 millimeters long (one millimeter is as small as the human eye can see.) It’s this cobra-type venom that gives sea snakes such bad reputations, and indeed, you do not want to get bitten by one.

Fortunately, sea snakes don’t want to bite us. Of the bites that do occur, nearly all are to anglers trying to remove snakes tangled in fishing nets.

The yellow-bellied sea snake is the only species of sea snake documented in Hawaii’s waters. We have 17 species of pretenders, though, that often trick people into believing they’re snakes. These are snake eels, harmless fish common on Hawaii’s reefs.

Sea snakes are like sharks in that for some people, no matter how many times they hear that these marine animals aren’t anything to worry about, they still feel that the only good one is a dead one.

Not Greg. After placing the ailing creature on his surfboard, Greg paddled it to shore, looked it up, took the picture and made some phone calls. The snake lived for a couple of hours. A University of Hawaii researcher (Greg didn’t catch the name) took the snake for study.

“I’m stoked that I decided to take action and help the snake,” he wrote.

I am, too. Thanks, Greg, for attempting to save this extraordinary creature, and for sharing your story.

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

©2014 Susan Scott