Tag Archives: shark

Splendid pictures, research propel book

Published January 7, 2017 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

The University of Hawaii Press published Robin Baird’s book “The Lives of Hawaii’s Whales and Dolphins” in November. Cover photo of resident rough-toothed dolphins by Deron S. Verbeck/iamaquatic.com

Over the years, when I had a question about Hawaii’s whales or dolphins, I would email Robin Baird, a researcher at Cascadia Research Collective. Although this nonprofit scientific and education organization is based in Olympia, Wash., Robin and his team have been traveling here about four times a year since 1999 to study our little-known whales and dolphins.

Robin always replied quickly to my queries with the latest information and generously offered me the use of photos from the Cascadia website, cascadiaresearch.org (This site has so many out-of-this-world photos and thought-provoking articles that often hours would pass before I wrote one word.)

When Robin and I met for the first time two years ago at Hanauma Bay, we talked about how good it would be to have a book that reported Cascadia’s research and showed off those fantastic pictures.

Now we have one. In November the University of Hawaii Press published “The Lives of Hawaii’s Dolphins and Whales,” by Robin W. Baird.

This is no coffee table book, but the pictures are so amazing I can almost hear the photographers’ whoops of joy when they got many of these shots. There’s the orca carrying a bigeye thresher shark in its mouth, a family of pilot whales carrying, and grieving for, their dead calf, a false killer whale about to bite a mahimahi that was trying to hide behind the photographer — and on and on.

One of my peeves in science writing is that many researchers use jargon and passive verbs to describe what happened: “The diverse time course of the observed subjects …” Not only is this dull reading, but you don’t know who did what to whom. Not Robin. This is marine biology at its finest, detailed science told in everyday language, often in story form.

One of my favorites is the tale, with photo, of a false killer whale offering a researcher a 100-pound ahi (yellowfin tuna). This whale species has the unusual habit of sharing food, not just with each other, but with humans too if they’re nearby.

Another remarkable aspect of “blackfish,” a 17th-century fishermen’s name for five mostly black whale species, is that the females of three — killer, pilot and false killer — stop reproducing when around 40 years old and live 10, 20 or even 50 more years. The theory is that long life after menopause, which as far as we know occurs only in those whales and humans, provides experienced aunties and grandmothers to guide younger generations.

This book is a rare treasure: easy-to-read marine biology with precise science that is also a dazzling picture book. Bravo, Robin.

There’s no place like home for Internet, photo sharing

Tthe 5-foot-long black-tipped reef shark that grazed her belly with its dorsal fin. ©2013 Susan Scott

Even with dozens of South Pacific visions dancing in my head, my own island still dazzles. During a Lani­kai beach walk at dawn last week — the first since my return — I watched great frigate birds and red-footed booby birds glide over my head, tripped over ghost crab sand pyramids and nodded hello to a dozen Homo sapiens come to marvel at sunrise on Oahu. Home rocks don’t get better than that.

Nor does my email. Because I was using a satellite phone program while sailing, I was unable to access my usual email and therefore came back to a treasure trove of comments from readers regarding my Pacific voyaging.

Thank you, everyone, for taking the time to offer encouragement, share stories and gently point out errors.

The mistakes that got the most attention were my misspellings of the place name Tua­motu and the wind force measurement Beaufort, as in the Beaufort scale.

My apologies to motu residents (a motu in French Polynesia is an island inside an atoll’s coral reef) and to Sir Francis Beaufort, the British Royal Navy officer who created the 12-category wind- and sea-state scale.

Another email topic among readers was questioning the lack of photos in my South Pacific columns.

When my underwater camera stopped working, Craig brought with him to the Marquesas a new waterproof Nikon CoolPix that I carried with me on every snorkeling occasion. It took fine pictures, but I couldn’t send them because my sat phone sends text only.

xmastree worm

That’s another joy in being home. I can now share my favorite Tua­motu photos of a fish and a worm.

The fish is the 5-foot-long black-tipped reef shark that grazed my belly with its dorsal fin as it swam beneath me. The Christmas tree worm was one of hundreds that looked trimmed for a holiday, including its purple “hat,” the creature’s trap door called an operculum.

Besides enjoying Oahu’s reefs and beaches this week, I’m also loving my home office, where high-speed Internet sends pictures in a heartbeat and spell-checking is automatic.

Thank you, kind readers, for the warm welcome home.

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

©2013 Susan Scott

It’s unlikely shark killed whale at North Shore

Published December 15, 1997 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1997 Susan Scott

Last week, a 20-foot-long juvenile sperm whale washed up dead at a beach park on the North Shore.

Biologists said they didn’t know the cause of death, but that didn’t stop people from speculating. One observer said, “I think a shark did it, because you have plenty of sharks out there.”

Good guess but probably wrong. Sharks aren’t that stupid. Because to mess with a healthy sperm whale, even a young one, is asking for big trouble.

Sperm whales are the largest of all toothed whales. Males grow up to 60 feet long and weigh up to 58 tons. Female sperm whales are smaller, growing to “only” 37 feet long.

Although they are big and have a mouth full of enormous teeth, sperm whales also find safety in numbers. These are sociable animals, usually traveling in groups of up to 50. During peak breeding season, from late winter to late summer, sperm whales can gather in groups of up to 150 whales.

Such groups consist either of bachelor bulls, or of females and their young accompanied by one or more large males. When not traveling with their harems, these large males roam the world’s oceans alone.

And roam they do. Sperm whales cover a tremendous area, traveling from the tropics all the way to the ice packs of both Northern and Southern hemispheres.

They can also be found at a wide range of depths, from the surface, where the spray from their blow hole is distinctively angled, to 10,000 feet down.

What are sperm whales doing at those cold, dark depths? Eating giant squid and octopuses. These whales sometimes bear round sucker marks on their skin from their battles with the big cephalopods. A 36-foot long squid was once found in a sperm whale’s stomach.

Although squid and octopuses are sperm whales’ main food, an amazing variety of other things have been found in their stomachs: seals, lobsters, sponges, crabs, jellyfish, rocks, sand, glass fishing floats, coconuts, wood, apples, fishing line, shoes, and of course, the ubiquitous scourge of the ocean, plastic bags.

Researchers also recovered a 10-foot blue shark from the stomach of a large male.

And that’s why it isn’t likely sharks caused the death of the young Oahu sperm whale. Any whale that can swallow a 36-foot giant squid or a 10-foot shark isn’t likely to fall prey, or let its offspring fall prey, to a shark, even a big one.

Sure, the carcass of this 20-foot-long whale had several shark bites on it, and sharks were spotted in the vicinity. But that’s normal for any carcass drifting in the ocean. Sharks are part of nature’s recycling system.

Even though sharks may not be much of a threat to sperm whales, the whales do have two formidable enemies: killer whales and people.

Since killer whales can eat just about anything they come across, they occasionally attack and kill a sperm whale.

People once attacked and killed sperm whales relentlessly, but sperm whales didn’t usually go down without a fight. This is, after all, the legendary species that sent sailors flying through the air, smashed their whaleboats and killed Captain Ahab.

Commercial hunting of sperm whales began in 1712 when people discovered that the material in the whales’ heads made good lamp oil. The most intense hunting came during the Yankee whaling era of the 1800s and the factory ship whaling of this century.

The good news is that although certain populations have been depleted, the sperm whale today is the most abundant of all the great whales.

Sperm whales are spotted occasionally around the main islands but are more common in the waters of Hawaii’s northwest chain.

Ancient Hawaiians carved pendants from the teeth of whales that washed ashore but did not hunt sperm whales.

Irresistible adventure with the whale shark

Published May 13, 1996 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1996Susan Scott

ABOUT a year ago, a friend called to invite me to join a small group traveling to Western Australia to swim with whale sharks. I wasn’t sure where this was exactly, I didn’t know much about whale sharks and the trip was expensive.

Just say no, my sensible self told me. I signed on and went back to work.

Then, last week, that far-off day finally arrived. I was on a dive boat in the Indian Ocean off Western Australia, speeding toward whale shark territory.

But rather than being exhilarated, I was jumpy, and fighting a nervous stomach.

What have I gotten myself into? I wondered. In moments, I would be jumping into the water with an enormous shark that people knew little about.

Oh sure, I knew whale sharks were plankton feeders. And I had seen pictures of people swimming with them. But looking at pictures was one thing; snorkeling alongside the creature was another matter entirely.

As I fretted, a spotting plane droned in the sky above our boat. This was part of the routine. When the pilot saw a shark, he radioed its position to several boat captains.

The boat captains then sorted out who would drop how many passengers into what area of the ocean.

SUCH details are strictly set by Western Australia’s Department of Conservation and Land Management, the agency responsible for this unique marine park. Managers and users alike are determined to preserve and protect this rare marine treasure.

And rare it is. The unique combination of coral spawning events, marine currents and nearshore location makes Ningaloo Reef off Exmouth one of the few places in the world humans can see whale sharks.

It also creates one of the few places where biologists can study the little-known creatures.

One such researcher from Perth University hitched a ride on our boat and answered questions as we waited for the plane to radio good news about spotting sharks.

WHALE sharks are the world’s largest fish, growing to about 50 feet long and ranging throughout tropical waters.

These sharks have thousands of tiny teeth but neither bite nor chew their food.

Like manta rays, whale sharks eat by drawing water in their mouths and out their gills, straining plankton in the process.

And that’s about it. No one knows how these big fish reproduce, how long they live or how many exist.

Our biology talk was cut off by the excited shout of our dive leader. “Get ready,” he called. Then, “Quick, JUMP IN!”

Frantically adjusting masks and snorkels, 10 of us fell into the water, kicking like mad to keep up with our leader.

And then suddenly, there it was, a 40-foot shark just a few feet from my face. The creature bore the familiar dorsal and tail fins of most sharks, but there the resemblance ended. This shark was a luxurious velvety blue adorned with symmetrical white spots.

THE whale shark’s mouth was working rhythmically, sucking in water like a giant vacuum, then pushing it out through its gill slits.

We watched the shark for what seemed like seconds but was actually about 30 minutes. At one point, the creature pivoted on its tail, feeding in such slow circles that each of us had thrilling views of the entire animal, over and over again.

Chicken skin covered my body, and my contact lenses got sticky from staring. But I wasn’t afraid. Instead, every cell in my body was exquisitely attuned to the moment.

Floating face to face with this magnificent animal was an exceptional example of one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences. I’m glad I can’t say no.

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