Tag Archives: Society Islands

Captivating stony corals get a reluctant au revoir

Published April 7, 2014 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2014 Susan Scott

Coral, lionfish, urchin, in the Marina on Raiatea, 2006. Courtesy Scott Davis

Honu is once again moving west through the Society Islands. Although I’m happy to be sailing again, it was hard to say goodbye to Tahiti, with its jagged green mountains, friendly people and perfect french fries. But what I really hated to leave was Papeete’s Marina Taina, a boat basin that made me feel I was floating in a world-class aquarium.

When I was sweaty, tired and frustrated from boat preparations, all I had to do was step from the boat to the pier to get a spirit lift. The rock of the boat and my shadow on the water sent a confettilike shower of fish scurrying for cover. If I waited there motionless, out peeked those busy little color chips to see if the danger had passed. Deciding it had, the fish emerged and went back to grazing.

Boat harbors aren’t usually equated with excellent fish watching because their water is often dark and dirty. Not this one. In most places inside the breakwater, I could see the bottom of the pilings. (I could see fairly deep at night, too, due to the nearby superyachts’ underwater lights.)

But it wasn’t bare pilings that attracted all those fish. The posts and piers that secured our boats looked like candy dishes of marine goodies. With water temperatures 80-some degrees year-round, visibility to 50 feet and daily tides moving water in and out, the conditions in and around Marina Taina are ideal for growth of stony corals.

Stony corals don’t care about boats, people or even floating paper and plastic. All they want is clear warm water, lots of sunlight and a space to stick to. Leave them alone in those conditions and off they go, building the bases of the most diverse and concentrated gatherings of marine life on the planet.

Coral clumps start small. Each head, branch or plate begins as one individual produced by the union of an egg and sperm. Typically fertilization takes place in the water where the parents release their sex cells.

If it isn’t eaten, the fertilized egg develops into a larva that drifts for days or weeks as it matures. When full grown, the tiny pioneer settles down, sticking to one spot where it immediately begins secreting a protective calcium carbonate skeleton around itself.

The coral expands its new homestead by making clones of itself, budding off genetically identical roommates that remain attached to each other. The clones make more clones, and on and on it goes with individuals growing up, out and over one another. As a result, only the outermost layer of a coral head is alive.

All clones in a colony are connected by a thin layer of tissue that allows them to share food. That’s why stepping on, or grabbing, living coral damages the entire colony.

Stony corals get their colors from tiny plants that live inside the skeleton cups. The corals in and around Marina Taina included blue rice, yellow lace, pink cauliflower and brown antler, so stunning it was hard to walk without stopping.

I felt sad saying goodbye to Tahiti with its charming marina full of coral heads packed together like a farmers market display, complete with pushy fish shoppers. My consolation is that more magic lies ahead.

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

©2014 Susan Scott


Storm was full of menace but is now a grand memory

Published October 7, 2013 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2013 Susan Scott

What was your favorite part of the trip?” my husband asked after we left our 37-foot ketch Honu in a Tahitian marina and flew home.

After two months of sailing around the Society Islands, I had trouble choosing. So I asked him to tell me his favorite.

Without hesitation he replied, “The beauty and power of that storm.”

I stared at him. Here I was trying to decide between the tiny shrimp I found on cushion stars and the charming little pipefish with the sea horse heads, and there’s Craig fondly remembering a gale that scared me out of my wits.

Craig didn’t have to tell me which storm he spoke of because we encountered only one. It struck at the end of a 90-mile passage between Hua­hine and Moo­rea. During that overnight trip, wind gusts were up to 25 mph, and squalls prowled the sky like battleships. Honu did well for a cruising boat, sailing against the wind at 4 to 5 mph. It would be a long night of smashing into waves in the heeling boat, but this is typical of beating, a point of sail named well.

Craig, a lifetime sailor who never gets seasick, knew I was feeling queasy and offered to keep watch in the cockpit for the night while I lay below. Since he could steer better than the autopilot in those conditions, he also drove.

As dawn began to break, a flash of lightning had me poking my head out.

“There’s a squall to the south, but we’re fine,” Craig said. “Look. There’s Moo­rea.”

And then Moorea disappeared.

Neither of us had ever seen a storm move with such speed or strike with such ferocity. The wind peaked at 53 mph, driving rain into our faces like tiny needles. Lightning flashed. Thunder boomed. Waves rose like great gray walls, breaking over the decks and into the center cockpit.

“I’m afraid the mainsail will tear,” Craig said, starting the engine. “You’ll have to steer while I take it down.”

Craig crawled to the mast, dropped the sail and in seconds was back in the cockpit, taking the wheel from my white-knuckled hands.

“I’m really scared,” I said, heart pounding.

“We’re fine,” he said. “The boat’s doing well.”

He paused. “And just look at this ocean!”

THE storm raged for three hours. And then, as suddenly as Moo­rea had disappeared, it reappeared. We motored into the protection of Opu­nohu Bay, dropped anchor and wondered aloud. What just happened? Was that a microburst? A gale? The mother of all squalls?

“I feel like I just woke up from a bad dream,” I said.

“I feel lucky to have witnessed such an amazing act of nature,” Craig said.

“Well, yes. It was amazing and beautiful,” I said. “Now that it’s over.”

Part of the fun of traveling with Craig is that he causes me to look at events from his typical “macro” point of view. Now, as well as remembering that storm as frightening, exhausting and nauseating, I also see it an awesome ocean experience that we will talk about for years to come. It’s like getting a vacation twofer.

Even so, my first focus will always be on the “micro.”

Now about those starfish shrimp and baby pipefish.

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

©2013 Susan Scott

Walking the plank in Tahiti reveals an aquatic pageant

Published August 12, 2013 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2013 Susan Scott

PALETTE, Tahiti » After a two-month rest at home on Oahu, I’m back in Tahiti preparing my 37-foot sailboat, Honu, for a six-week voyage through the Society Islands, part of French Polynesia.

Polynesia is the key word for me, because Tahiti carries the same warm Polynesian spirit that makes Hawaii such a fine place to call home. Also, people here know the word Honu, a term that means green sea turtle in Tahitian as well as in Hawaiian. We are turtle fans together.

Tahiti gets a lot of negative press among cruising sailors, a judgment I find so unfair that I’ve become as staunch a defender of this stunning island as I am of Oahu.

Look past the crowds of Pape­ete (population about 140,000), the traffic congestion and the high cost of living and it’s easy to see how Tahiti became synonymous with paradise.

The island’s rugged green mountains plunge into clear, turquoise water packed with coral reefs. Here in Marina Taina, about five miles from Papeete, I don’t even have to get in the ocean to be astonished by Tahiti’s marine life.It’s like living in the aisle of the Waikiki Aquarium’s South Pacific exhibits.

Honu is parked in a style called Med mooring, common here and in the Mediterranean. In this system, instead of finger piers, rubber pillows called fenders separate boats at their sides. There are variations of Med mooring, but generally the skipper drops an anchor off the bow, backs the boat to the pier and ties the stern there.

This is tricky to pull off gracefully, but that’s not the hardest part for me. To protect the back of the boat from getting banged up during tide changes, ocean swells and motorboat wakes, the stern must be tied 6 to 8 feet off the concrete pier.

This means that to get ashore I must walk the plank, a long, narrow, always-moving board lent by the marina. Each journey to dock and back is an adventure that comes perilously close to a swim.

Last week, however,I came to look forward to my plank walks. Below my shaky knees swam a rare pipefish (a sea horse relative), a 15-inch long lion fish as big around as both my outspread hands and a dozen kinds of damselfish and butterflyfish.

This confetti parade of fish was there feasting among the dock pilings’ growth of pink and yellow cauliflower corals packed together like a lush vegetable display.

I called to a marina worker to come see Honu’s stunning visitors. We hung over the edge of the dock watching the lion fish fan its pink, blue and brown fins as it herded prey along the coral wall.

“C’est beau,” Sam said, agreeing with me that the scene was truly beautiful.

After the lion fish disappeared, Sam watched me struggle with my flexing wooden gangplank and later returned with a wider, more stable aluminum one that makes my life — and fish watching — much easier.

Aloha is not a Tahitian word, but the people here sure live its spirit. It’s easy to see why Fletcher Christian of HMS Bounty fame didn’t want to leave.

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

Arduous voyage enriched by following variable wind

PAPEETE, Tahiti » The first leg of my South Pacific voyage is over. It took me three months to outfit the boat in Mexico, sail to the Marquesas, explore the Tua­motu Archipelago and get Honu put up in a Tahiti marina. Now I’m going home.

As in all outdoor adventures, the trip had its ups and downs. Some days I wondered what I had been thinking to take this on. This is too hard, I would grumble, wishing I was in Kailua eating takeout and reading Jack Reacher novels.

Other days, as Honu surfed up and down the Pacific Ocean’s giant blue swells, every cell in my body glowed with pleasure.

“Thank you!” I’d call to the wind.

I talked to the wind because on a sailboat, wind is everything. It’s the engine of the ocean, driving not just sailboats and occupants, but the wildlife that lives in, on and above the water.

Some sailors discuss wind and sea conditions in terms of a system that puts numbers to wind and waves. Called the Beauford Scale, it ranges from Force 0 (no wind) to Force 17 (the strongest hurricane).

I don’t use the Beauford Scale because, in recalling my voyages, there seem to be only two conditions: too little wind or too much wind. Of course, there were plenty of perfectly lovely sailing days, but like most trips, in recalling the details, the extremes stand out.

On the passage from Mexico to the Marquesas, I mostly had too little wind. That may sound relaxing but it is not. The sails slap with annoying bangs, the boat pitches and rolls to no rhythm and the skipper and crew get cranky in a hurry.

At those times I used what sailors jokingly call the iron genny (genny is the nickname for a big sail called a genoa), meaning the diesel engine. It’s loud, hot and smelly, but it moved the boat forward. While motoring, however, I had to worry about fuel.

During most of my time in the Marquesas and the Tua­mo­tos, I had the opposite problem: too much wind. The southeast tradewinds were so strong for such prolonged periods that in one month I visited only two islands and two atolls.

But staying at anchor for longer than I planned turned out to be a bonus. In Nuku Hiva while waiting for a wind break, I hiked to one of that island’s (and the world’s) most stunning waterfalls. In a memorable wade in the pool below, freshwater shrimp climbed onto my feet and up my legs.

Spending a week each in the Tua­moto lagoons of Kau­ehi and Faka­rava atolls, I enjoyed snorkeling in crystal water washed in by wind-driven waves that crashed over the fringing reefs.

The lagoon water was so clear and the marine life so stunning that I snorkeled until my fingers wrinkled and my toes got cold.

I also got to see the seabirds swooping and diving in all their glory.

My 37-foot ketch will stay in Tahiti for a couple of months while Craig and I go home to Oahu the easy way, on a plane. We won’t have to worry about how hard or from what direction the wind blows. As sailors like to say, nothing goes to weather (upwind) like a 747.

Once home, I’ll read a Reacher, eat some salad and start planning the next leg of my South Pacific voyage.

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

©2013 Susan Scott

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