Tag Archives: sharks

Expedition to spot shark encounters spotty shark

Published November 12, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott
Epaulette sharks, named because of the large black patches near their “shoulders,” are found in waters off Australia and New Guinea. ©2016 Susan Scott

Epaulette sharks, named because of the large black patches near their “shoulders,” are found in waters off Australia and New Guinea. ©2016 Susan Scott

Ravens Cove, Hook Island, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park >> To mark exceptional snorkeling spots, the cruising guide for this area shows happy faces wearing mask and snorkel. Tiny Ravens Cove gets three.

In spring when we anchored Honu here, I took 163 pictures in a single winding pass over the cove’s 100-yard-long reef. As a bonus, besides the bay’s breathtaking coral garden and its confetti fish parade, Craig saw a wobbegong shark.

To my regret, I missed it — but I didn’t forget it. One of my goals this time was to sail Honu back here and look for the rare shark. The odds were low but the three species of wobbegong sharks, ranging from 3 to 9 feet long, are bottom-dwelling homebodies, so I had high hopes.

Although wobbegongs are also seen in nearby New Guinea, these unusual spotted, speckled and banded sharks are mostly found in Australian waters.

Wobbegong sharks are famous for frills of skin around their heads, giving them the appearance of fish-shaped doilies. The lacy flaps contain sensors that enable the shark to find food buried in sand or rubble.

Wobbegongs usually don’t attack people, but they aren’t entirely harmless. Like stingrays, the sharks are easy to miss while walking or snorkeling in shallow water. If startled, they can sink their sharp teeth into a hand or foot.

Craig and I snorkeled over Ravens Cove reef until our masks dented our foreheads and numbed our lips. And then, just as we were about to call it a day, there it was: a striking 3-foot-long shark with stubby fan-shaped fins. Black dots covered its pale body, and two large, white-ringed spots on its back stood out like giant eyes.

It was a stunning shark, not a wobbegong, but just as good. Back on the boat with my books, I learned we had seen an epaulette shark, another species found only in Australia and New Guinea.

No worries about swimming with this little cutie. A local fish guide author writes: “(Epaulette) sharks are quite fearless. I have had them come between my feet in the glare of my flashlight, questing single-mindedly for food. The shark ‘walks’ on its four bottom fins, resembling a long-bodied dog moving along on very short legs.”

A photo shows the man holding the shark, its black “epaulettes” clear.

The guide gives Ravens Cove three smiley snorkel faces. Add two sore-but-smiling sailors’ faces to make it five.

Hungry trumpetfish sticks close to turtle at dinnertime

Published May 16, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott
A huge trumpetfish rests near the ocean floor, under a turtle that it uses in a kind of symbiosis called commensalism. ©2016Susan Scott

A huge trumpetfish rests near the ocean floor, under a turtle that it uses in a kind of symbiosis called commensalism. ©2016 Susan Scott

While snorkeling last week I thought I saw a remora stuck to the belly of a big turtle.

Remoras are like the family dog standing under the kitchen table waiting for a dropped tidbit, except remoras are lazier. Using the suction cup on top of their heads, remoras, or suckerfish, stick to sharks, dolphins, whales and turtles, getting free food scraps and free rides as well.

The fish swimming closely under the turtle, however, was not a remora, but a huge trumpetfish about 30 inches long. But trumpetfish are not scavengers. They’re ambush predators. In cozying up to the turtle, the trumpetfish was hiding from damselfish nibbling algae and parasites off the turtle’s shell and limbs. When one of the damselfish moved to the side of the turtle, whomp! It was gone, sucked into the trumpetfish’s expanding mouth.

Reef fish eating algae and parasites off turtles is a type of symbiosis called mutualism because both the turtle and the fish mutually benefit. One gets food. The other gets cleaned.

Famous examples of mutualism are cleaner wrasses, 4-inch-long territorial fish dressed in flashy yellow, black and purple stripes. The pattern and colors of these little fish are like neon shop signs advertising the wrasse’s service station.

Fish needing parasite removal or wound debriding come to the site and hold still while the wrasse does its work. Sometimes fish without parasites or wounds visit wrasse cleaners, letting them eat body mucus. This might gain favor with the cleaner wrasse for future visits. Or maybe it just feels good.

Wrasses don’t have a monopoly on the cleaning business. At least 111 fish and dozens of shrimp species eat parasites and tend wounds on fish. In appreciation, barracuda, moray eels, snappers and other predators don’t eat their cleaners.

Still, reef fish should trust no one. A couple of sneakers called saber-toothed blennies mimic the colors and behavior of the cleaner wrasses. When a gullible fish approaches, the blenny sinks its teeth in, getting a chunk of fin or body. The ruse works only on youngsters. Older fish know the con and steer clear of the biting blennies.

My turtle and trumpetfish were engaged not in mutualism, but in another kind of symbiosis, called commensalism. In this relationship, one species benefits (trumpetfish), and the other is neither helped nor harmed (turtle).

Before I left the water, I saw the turtle resting near the bottom, her buddy fish positioned so centrally underneath it looked like the turtle had grown a trumpetfish tail. So cute, those two. I love marine biology more every day.

Creatures show that gender is neither rigid nor constant

Published May 2, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott
Most anemonefish are born male and change to female as the need arises. This is a Clark’s anemonefish swimming off Palau. ©2016 Susan Scott

Most anemonefish are born male and change to female as the need arises. This is a Clark’s anemonefish swimming off Palau. ©2016 Susan Scott

North Carolina politicians recently passed a law that requires people in public buildings and schools to use the bathroom corresponding to their gender at birth. When an NPR reporter asked the Rev. Alex McFarland, a North Carolina evangelist, why he supports this legislation, he replied, “This is an issue of natural law … and natural law is the recognition that there are males and females.”

Excuse me, but what natural law would that be? It’s certainly not one of Mother Nature’s. Researchers have discovered hundreds of hermaphrodite fish species in at least 20 families, and marine invertebrate hermaphrodites are so numerable, they’re uncountable. Because animals with both testes and ovaries employ them in such a variety of ways, researchers sort hermaphrodites into three categories: those that permanently have both ovaries and testes, those that start life as males and turn into females, and those that go the other way, from female to male. And given nature, each group has variations galore.

How do these dual-sexed animals reproduce? One can barely count the ways. One example is a kind of sea bass with both testes and ovaries, and it stays that way. This fish doesn’t fertilize itself, but when it meets another of its kind, they both go off, releasing sperm half the time and eggs the other half.

Some deep-sea hermaphrodite fish do fertilize themselves. This doesn’t do much for the gene pool, but it’s handy for keeping the species going when a fish can’t find a mate.

Anemonefish have another tactic. They inhabit anemones in groups of one large male, one large female and several small, immature males. Only the two big sexually mature fish lay eggs and shed sperm.

The little anemonefish in the clan are biding their time. When the breeding female dies, her mate turns into a female, and the largest juvenile matures to become the new breeding male. If the male dies, same thing. A lucky juvenile moves on up.

Some fish that change sex can swing both ways. In Japanese reef gobies, a female in a group becomes male if the dominant male leaves. If a larger male joins the group later, the changed fish reverts to her former female form.

Parrotfish, wrasses, hagfish, lizardfish, sharks, scorpionfish and other fish families all have members of various genders, being male, female, both, in-between, and changing as the situation requires. A heading in my fish textbook says, “When the going gets tough, the tough change sex.” The Rev. McFarland’s belief that there’s a dividing line between male and female organisms on our planet is wrong. In nature, of which we humans are a part, gender is anything but clear-cut.

Swimming with reef sharks not fearful, but fun events

Small Black Tipped Reef Shark. Mopelia, French Polynesia, 2006. See picture below for size reference. Click on the image for full sized view.©2006 Susan Scott

FAKARAVA ATOLL, Tuamoto Archipelago » To pass the evenings at anchor here in the South Pacific’s winter, Craig and I often watch movies on the boat’s computer. Last week while shuffling through the dozens of DVDs I’ve collected over the years on my sailboat, Honu, I found one I forgot I had.

“Here’s ‘Jaws,'” I said, thinking we might find this old film funny.

“No,” Craig said. “I’m not watching a cheesy mechanical fish that portrays sharks as monsters.”

I agreed. It’s hard to have a sense of humor about a film that unfairly demonized sharks and produced lifelong shark phobias among millions of people.

We are particularly sensitive to this issue here in the Tuamotos, where residents view sharks as a natural and welcome part of the atolls’ healthy coral reefs.

Visitors from all over the world come to snorkel and dive with Tuamoto sharks, making reef sharks a significant part of the economy.

Since we arrived by sailboat a couple of weeks ago, we have been wading, snorkeling, diving, surfing and kiting with sharks daily. All our encounters have been positive, thrilling but not scary, close but not unnerving.

Last week a 6-foot-long black-tip reef shark passed so close beneath me that I thought I felt a touch of dorsal fin on my belly. But even that wasn’t frightening. The shark nearly ran into me because it was going about its own business of fishing.

The three kinds we routinely see here are the three most common on healthy coral reefs around the world: black-tip, white-tip and gray reef sharks. (There are black-tip and white-tip oceanic sharks, but those are different species.)

When we wade in shallow water, juvenile black-tips swim nearby in twos and threes looking for dinner. The slightest movement, such as raising a camera, startles the little sharks, and in a flash they dash far from the two-legged monsters.

One day Craig dived to a coral head base to explore a cave, and a white-tip reef shark cruised out of an adjacent cave. If it was miffed about having its nap disturbed, we didn’t know it. The shark disregarded the humans milling about and slipped into another crevice to resume its rest.

The gray is a bolder species. During one snorkeling excursion, a 4-foot-long gray reef shark swam straight toward me. After a few seconds of eye-to-eye contact, the shark satisfied its curiosity and disappeared in the deep blue. Silently I thanked the sleek and graceful fish for practically posing for pictures.

Here in Fakarava’s south channel, a World Heritage Site, where currents rush like river rapids in and out of the 200-yard-wide gap, those three species hang out by the hundreds. The nutrient-rich water bathes great walls of multicolored corals from the surface to about 100 feet deep, and those in turn feed and shelter just about every kind of reef fish in the South Pacific.

These well-fed sharks are used to sharing their fish paradise with people and ignore us completely.

To celebrate the joy of swimming on reefs where sharks are respected and admired, and to tune up our sense of humor about fish, tonight we’re going to watch “Finding Nemo.”

shark with legs

Susan’s website guy wtih fierce Black Tipped Reef Shark, Mopelia, French Polynesia, 2006. ©2006 Susan Scott

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

©2013 Susan Scott

Don’t bite the shark who bites you, ocean-lovers say

Published December 2, 1996 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1996 Susan Scott

RECENTLY, while working as a volunteer in the remote Hawaiian Island National Wildlife Refuge in Hawaii’s northwest chain, two other volunteers and I decided to go snorkeling.

“Every time I’ve been snorkeling here, I’ve seen a shark,” I told my companions, both new to Hawaii, as we walked to the beach.

“What kind?” one asked.

“Gray reef. They’re no problem if you stay out of their space,” I said boldly. “They’re territorial.”

We sat in the blinding-white sand, put on our gear and soon took the plunge.

Seconds later, my prophesy came true. A gray reef shark appeared in the clear blue water of the drop-off before me.

Although every rational cell in my brain told me this was OK, my fear won the moment. I motioned to my friends to follow me, then swam like crazy for the beach.

“I saw a shark,” I said when we got back. “It scared me.”

They accepted this. I was the experienced ocean person with local knowledge. If I were out of the water, so were they.

The two women began examining shells on the beach, but I sat staring out to sea. How could this happen? I love to snorkel and dive in interesting places like this. And I’ve often done it with sharks and did fine. But not this time. Today I was afraid.

How do we ocean-lovers cope with such unwanted fears? Star-Bulletin reporter Greg Ambrose attacks this question head-on in his new book, “Shark Bites, True Tales of Survival” (Bess Press). Greg’s approach to the complicated and controversial fear-of-sharks issue is to tell the stories of people who were attacked and survived. Kevin Hand, Star-Bulletin artist and marine enthusiast, illustrates each incident with flair.

Don’t pretend it doesn’t happen, the pictures and stories say. Face it. The ocean is the sharks’ home. Sometimes, sharks bite people. It’s frightening, but victims usually survive. Now get over it, and go enjoy the water.

When I read these stories, I saw a pattern. The sharks in these attacks weren’t interested in actually eating people. They saw something that appeared to have potential as food and checked it out. It wasn’t right. They left.

This supports a theory that Greg discusses in his introduction. Most shark attacks are cases of mistaken identity. Sharks evolved millions of years before humans even existed, thus, “We aren’t on the menu. Humans are an oddity rather than a meal.”

This rationale and the stories in “Shark Bites” won’t work for people who are so afraid of sharks they can’t relax in, or even enter, the ocean. I know several of these dry-landers.

But for the rest of us, the tales are an inspiration. Nearly all of the attack victims still surf and dive (although they have their moments) and believe the attack held a message. “It changed my living patterns and exposed me to other things. … In some ways, it added to my life,” one survivor said.

“I walked out onto the front yard and saw blue ocean like I had never seen it before,” said another after an attack. “You just have to be thankful and enjoy every day, every moment.”

Speaking of enjoying the day, I sat on that Tern Island beach brooding about sharks for about 10 minutes. Then I donned my mask and fins and led my friends back into the water.

Each of them got a thrilling look at the curious shark, then it disappeared.

It was a wonderful day of snorkeling, complete with finding a place where six turtles were grazing. One was missing a rear flipper from a shark bite. Oddly, this encouraged me. Predator-prey relationships are the driving force of the marine world, and we humans are not a natural part of it.

I’m proud of myself for taking Greg and Kevin’s advice that day: I faced my fear of sharks, then got over it and had fun.