Tag Archives: snorkeling

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.

Huge sea life of great reef is too incredible to see solo

Published June 18, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott
A giant clam about 4 feet long was just one of the oversize specimens spotted in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. ©2016 Susan Scott

A giant clam about 4 feet long was just one of the oversize specimens spotted in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. ©2016 Susan Scott

BOWEN, Queensland, Australia >> Where fishing is prohibited here in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, I can describe the animals in one word: big.

I’ve seen turtles, invertebrates and fish so large I was happy I had Craig beside me as a witness or I would have doubted my own eyes.

One day off a Haslewood Island beach, Craig and I saw in the distance a mound of charcoal-black coral. We had never seen such a coral color and swam toward it. Then the hulk rose up and disappeared into deep water. As the enormous creature departed, we saw, to our astonishment, a pair of giant flippers. We both believe our “coral head” was a leatherback turtle.

Although leatherback turtles swim off most of Australia’s coasts, no nests have been found here since 1996. Maybe biologists will find a leatherback nest on a Haslewood beach.

In another area of the massive reef in Waite Bay, Craig and I each followed our own marvels and got separated. When I looked up he was barely visible in the distance, but I could see him motioning for me to come see what he found.

This had better be good, I thought, as I swam and swam, because I was passing some eye-popping-beautiful giant clams nestled in beds of corals as stunning as the most exquisite flower gardens.

We later laughed about my worry of missing the clams, because Craig had found the biggest giant clam either of us had ever seen, so old it had its own coral reef growing on its shells. The gaping mother of all clams was, we guessed, 4 feet long. We weren’t far off. The record shell size here is 3.7 feet long.

On another reef we spotted the father of all stingrays (clams seem female; stingrays, male) resting on a sandy patch in a shallow cave of corals. Stingrays aren’t aggressive, but seeing that the ray could escape its space only by swimming toward us, we slowly back-paddled. Never startle a snoozing stingray, especially one as big as an area rug.

And, oh dear, the fish. Schools of huge, rainbow-colored parrotfish roam the reefs. I’ve seen three 3-foot-long humphead wrasses and once found a giant black trevally hanging out under the boat. Even the squirrelfish are supersized, their dark eyes set like jewels against their brilliant red-and-white striped skin.

The weather has been so calm for snorkeling most of the past five weeks that my mask has given me face-ache. But now we’re having a different kind of adventure: knock-down wind. Honu is holed up at the friendly North Queensland Cruising Yacht Club as we wait out rain and impressive blasts of 30-35 knots. But I’m not complaining. On the Great Barrier Reef, even the tradewinds are big.

Great reef’s coral array, sea castles still awe explorers

Published June 11, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott

coral1HOOK ISLAND, GREAT BARRIER REEF MARINE PARK >> While snorkeling here this week, I found myself thinking that there’s too much coral.

Capt. Cook thought so, too, in 1770, and he didn’t even know that the lagoon he was exploring was a vast channel paralleling the Australian mainland.

The concept of a barrier reef forming a passage came later. The open stretches of this so-called passage are about 100 feet deep. But sprinkled among them are coral-rimmed islands, free-standing reefs, atolls and peaks. Some reefs are visible, but many lie just below the surface.

Today we have GPS charts that point out most of them. But not all. Last week I came within yards of crashing Honu, at speed, into a tiny, uncharted pinnacle.

“Turn right!” Craig shouted from the bow. We avoided disaster only because he was securing the anchor and saw waves breaking ahead.

Today, corals are much loved and a frequent topic in discussions of global warming. But in the early years of exploration, no one knew what they were. Eng-lish Capt. Mathew Flinders speculated that corals were “animalcules” that lived on the ocean floor. When they died, other animalcules (love that word) grew atop, and so on, thus building “a monument of their wonderful labors.” The creatures’ care in building their walls vertically was to Flinders a “surprising instinct.”

What he didn’t know was that stony corals grow upright because they host algae that need sunshine to survive. That fact came to light 30 years later from another explorer, Charles Darwin.

My problem with the corals here isn’t running the boat into one of their “monuments” (although I’m more watchful now), but that I can’t take them all in.

The corals on these reefs look like mushrooms, wheat fields, brain tissue, antlers, cabbage leaves, chicken skin, grassy knolls and endless other shapes, colors and textures.

Some corals are hard; some are soft. Many cover their space like rugs; others wave greetings like anemones.

Among all the coral splendor here, one in particular stands out for me. On a white-sand beach I found pieces of a bright red structure of tubes known as organ pipe coral. In admiring the tiny pipes, which remind me of fairy castles, I’m in good company. Capt. Cook’s naturalist, Joseph Banks, wrote about being overwhelmed by the variety of corals, too, especially one he called Tubipora musica. That’s the scientific name of my organ pipes.

It’s clear to us modern sailors that this labyrinth of coral shoals must have been a nightmare to early explorers. It’s also clear why mariners, past and present, admire them so. What other animalcules build monuments?

With friends amid the reef, snorkeling becomes social

Published January 18, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott
Trumpetfish

A trumpetfish is counted among the regulars living their lives near a beach along Oahu’s North Shore. ©2015 Susan Scott

While working at Midway, Craig and I made a new friend and invited him to stay with us for a couple of days before he went home to Canada. Because Luke loves snorkeling, and so does Craig’s mother, Claire, visiting from Seattle, we went to my favorite North Shore beach and plunged in.

I know the area well and guided our guests to a turtle spa, where we watched damselfish nibble algae off the turtles’ shells and pluck parasites from their skin. In addition to the usual reef fish, we found a scorpionfish, some marbled shrimp and a yellow-margin moray eel hiding under a rock.

It was a great day, we all agreed, and headed for the beach. But Luke wasn’t done. Calling my name, he motioned for me to come look.

I arrived to find a gray, nearly 3-foot-long trumpetfish standing on its head. The sight is always marvelous, but was even more so because I know that fish. The big predator hangs out near the turtle cleaning station pretending to be a stick. When a gullible fish swims close, the trumpetfish inhales it.

You would think the fish in that area might figure out that that’s no stick in the water, but no. The trumpetfish is huge, healthy and nearly always there.

Cornetfish, close cousins of the trumpetfish, also hang out on that reef. (It has a strong horn section.) Both species have long narrow bodies, but with a notable difference.

From above looking down, and also head-on, trumpetfish look so slim, you can totally miss seeing the fish. But view the same fish from the side and it’s several inches tall, the body broad and beefy.

Cornetfish bodies are the reverse: Their backs are wide enough to be obvious from above, but from the side the fish is flat as a plate and nearly invisible. To further fool their prey, both types can change colors and patterns to blend in with their backgrounds.

Trumpetfish grow about 30 inches long and are like sticks in that they can’t bend their bodies. But cornetfish can. They spring-load their 63-inch-long (maximum length) bodies in an S shape and lunge for their prey.

Trumpetfish and cornetfish are easy to tell apart by their tails. The trumpetfish’s tail is a stubby stalk ending in a fan. The cornetfish’s tail looks like a whip. Both species use the vacuum cleaner method of capture: The fish suck prey into their expandable mouths.

By swimming often in the same place, I recognize some of the undersea locals and consider them friends. As I do 33-year-old Luke and 92-year-old Claire. Snorkeling is a communal ocean sport where neither age nor species matters. What does matter is where you do it.

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

 

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.

Protect the environment but don’t forget tourism

Published May 27, 1996 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1996Susan Scott

YEARS ago, when I was living in Denver and had yet to dip a toe in the Pacific Ocean, a co-worker with a similar dryland background took a trip to Hawaii. When she returned, she was raving.

“I went snorkeling,” she gushed. “It was fantastic! The fish there are absolutely beautiful. And TAME.”

I ignored her, mostly because I didn’t know a snorkel from a snowstorm and therefore hadn’t the foggiest idea what she was so excited about.

“Listen,” she pleaded several times that week. “This snorkeling thing is so much fun. You put on a mask with a tube to breathe through and you can see all these gorgeous fish. They come right up to you.”

“Mmm,” I said.

I just didn’t get it.

Eventually, my friend chalked me up as a lost cause and stopped praising the miracles of snorkeling. But whenever anyone else even mentioned the word, she was off and running, a true evangelist in the ministry of pretty fish.

This long-ago incident came to mind while I pondered some recent task force suggestions about how to better manage Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve. Some recommendations would significantly reduce the number of park visitors.

THIS may be reasonable for preserving the park. But few other areas on Oahu are protected from fishing. Where will the people turned away from Hanauma Bay go snorkeling?

Who cares? Why should people who grew up fishing in Hawaii waters give up their sport or profession for a bunch of fish-huggers who don’t even live here?

My co-worker above is one good reason. She, and thousands of people like her, are walking around their hometowns telling people not to miss snorkeling when visiting Hawaii. When those people get here and can’t go snorkeling, they’re disappointed. The vacation becomes unremarkable. Next time they try the Caribbean.

Again, who cares? My friend in Aiea who can’t find a job cares. So does my neighbor whose ice cream shop is failing. Much as we love to talk about diversifying the economy, the reality is when the tourism industry coughs, we residents get pneumonia.

By creating more marine preserves, the state can boost the economy in another way too: Such preserves help bring back dwindling fish stocks.

I recently visited a huge marine preserve in Western Australia where fishing was restricted in certain areas but allowed in others. A map of the area, shaded to show fishing areas, looked like the pattern on a Holstein cow.

OUR guide explained that fishing areas had mostly been chosen for their boundary clarity. Managers wanted to leave no doubt about where fishing was legal and where it was not.

“How do they enforce this?” I asked.

“We all do it,” the dive guide said. “If we see someone fishing in a restricted zone, we call an officer who comes out and fines them.”

I’m happy to report that this system not only makes good diving, it also makes great fishing. Each day, as we passed through fishing areas on our way to preserve waters, we put out lines and lures. Each time, within seconds, we had a strike, punctuating excellent dives with fresh sashimi.

The making of more marine conservation districts in Hawaii has been stalled for years by people arguing, often bitterly, against regulations to protect our marine life. Ironically, by refusing to work together, fishermen, tour operators and snorkelers are destroying the reefs and fish stocks each claim rights to.

We’re in the dark ages on this. We need a leader with some political savvy, someone to jump the hurdles and hammer out a solution.

Restricting visitors to Hanauma Bay but creating no alternatives not only lacks vision, it makes us all losers.


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