Tag Archives: Tahiti

Mystery fish is revealed as snapper from Tahiti

Published September 30, 2017 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

A Tahitian fish called the blacktail snapper can be found in Hawaii. This fish was found at a Ko Olina lagoon. Courtesy Gary Walden

Reader Gary Walden snorkels most days in Ko Olina Lagoon No. 4 and emailed the following, with a picture: “I cannot find the name of this fish.”

I didn’t know the fish name either, but thought it was probably one of Hawaii’s rascally wrasses. Those reef fish are tricksters to us snorkelers because worldwide there are 460 species in the family, and of those, Hawaii hosts 43.

That might not be so hard to sort out, except that some baby wrasses look so different from their parents that in the past, researchers considered the youngsters separate species and gave them their own scientific names. The true identity of the young wrasses became apparent when they gradually changed into their adult colors.

As if that’s not enough to confuse even seasoned fish watchers, some wrasses change body color dramatically after they’re adults, switching from female to male as the need in a wrasse harem demands.

Since I was feeling a bit under the weather when I received Gary’s email, I carried my fish ID book to the couch, lay back and started paging through wrasse pictures. Nothing, however, popped out resembling the Ko Olina No. 4 fish. Frustrated and sleepy, I tossed the book toward the coffee table where it fell off the edge.

And behold! When I reached down to pick up the guide, there was Gary’s fish staring up at me. The guide had fallen open to the snapper family and lay open on the precise page.

Gary’s fish is called a blacktail, or flametail, snapper, Lutjanus fulvus. The blacktail snapper has no Hawaiian name because it’s a Tahitian fish, not native to Hawaii waters. Tahitians call it to’au.

Hawaii hosts only two native coral reef snappers (we have three deep-water species: opakapaka, ulaula and onaga) and since snappers are delicious, in 1956 state fisheries managers brought blacktails here from Moorea, an island in French Polynesia.

Those snappers were roamers. Only weeks after their release in Kaneohe Bay, anglers caught them in North Shore’s Waimea Bay and others were caught off Honolulu.

To’au never became abundant, however, and in 1958, officials tried again, this time bringing to Hawaii bluestripe snappers, called ta’ape in Tahitian, from the Marquesas.

Although the introduction was well-intended, bringing the 12- to 13-inch-long fish to Hawaii was a mistake. Even though the ta’ape did well in Hawaii waters, and the to’au are hanging in there, they never caught on as food fish. A third introduced species called the paddletail snapper is rare here today.

Even so, Hawaii’s immigrant snappers have their charms, being attractive and — who knew? — psychic too. The next time someone sends me a snapper picture, I’ll just throw my fish book at the wall and let the fish find itself.

Tetiaroa a fine spot for Obama to pen book

Published April 8, 2017 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

The Honu, bottom left, shared “The Brando” buoy with a catamaran at Tetiaroa atoll in 2015. @©2015 Susan Scott

The news that Barack Obama is writing his memoir in Tetiaroa caused excitement at our house. In 2013 we sailed the Honu 40 miles from Tahiti to Tetiaroa, when the luxury hotel hosting the former president was still under construction.

Tetiaroa, often called an island, is an atoll, consisting of a 4.5-mile-wide lagoon surrounded by 13 small islands, encircled by one huge coral reef. Onetahi Island houses the Brando Resort, so-named because Marlon Brando’s estate owns the atoll.

Because Tetiaroa’s reef has no channel, getting into the atoll’s lagoon by sailboat is impossible, and the sheer drop-off outside the reef is too deep for anchoring.

Arriving at the atoll off Rimatuu island, we saw a tourist catamaran tied to a giant, flat buoy labeled “The Brando.” The friendly Tahitian captain invited us to share the mooring, and soon the Honu was secure outside the break.

We weren’t sure how to get inside the reef, but our neighbor had a system. The skipper stood in a rubber dinghy steering the boat’s outboard with one hand and grasping the bow line with the other. His six passengers hung on, three to a side. Driving back and forth outside the break to time the breaking waves, the man seized his moment, opened the throttle and surfed into the lagoon.

Tetiaroa from above. By Supertoff – Own work, Creative Commons: BY-SA 3.0,

After dropping his charges on the beach, the captain zoomed back toward the break, riding the mass of water rushing seaward. The collision of the outgoing water with the incoming wave launched the dinghy skyward. With a cigarette dangling from his mouth, this Polynesian Marlboro Man flew up and over the peak, and zoomed back to his boat for more guests.

After watching several of these astonishing performances, we decided to body-surf in. I lost a fin in the tumble, but Craig found it and off we went snorkeling.

Coral formations in that part of the lagoon had formed a kind of pond that hosted a large number of pipefish, relatives of sea horses. Somewhat rare, and usually alone or in pairs, the charming pipefish hung out in nearly every nook and cranny of that reef pocket.

Later, during my panicky exit through the surf, I again lost a fin. It seemed a price worth paying for snorkeling with packs of pipefish and surviving a dive through the washing machine wave.

When I got back to the Honu, my fin lay on the deck, found and delivered by the catamaran cowboy.

Tetiaroa Atoll is the perfect place for Hawaii-born-and-raised Barack Obama to write his memoir. For breaks he can snorkel with pipefish and body-surf the reef.

Map of Tetiaroa. Public Domain image.

Hollywood take on voyaging smoother than in real life

Published April 14, 2014 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2014 Susan Scott

Susan at the Navigation Station (desk) on Honu. In calm seas.

AT SEA IN THE SOUTH PACIFIC » We’re sailing from Tahiti to Niue, a tiny island country of about 2,000 people.

Craig and I have been at sea on our 37-foot sailboat for more than a week now, sailing in brisk 20 to 25 mph southeast tradewinds. As Honu trundles along downwind toward Niue (we skipped the Cook Islands due to wind direction), we grip handholds for our every move, struggle to cook one-handed and joke about Robert Redford’s recent sailing movie, “All Is Lost.”

In that film, we long-distance sailors agree, all is lost about offshore sailing.

Although that movie captured some of the challenges of open ocean voyaging, such as having to repair and improvise when things go wrong, the tale fell flat in its depiction of life on a sailboat at sea. Out here nothing is flat.

During our 1,200-mile passage, the southeast tradewinds have been blowing for days on end, good for covering distance but also the recipe for rough, rowdy waves. These great walls of blue water tumble over in sizzling white foam, smacking, rocking and rolling the boat with utter indifference. Riding on top of these noisy, towering hills can feel like a carnival ride from hell: It’s expensive, it make you sick and you can’t get off.

In most boating films, when people go inside the cabins, all there is calm and quiet. Craig and I laugh about that, too. You might get out of wind and rain below decks, but the motion of the ocean persists.


The view from the cockpit of Honu, on the Coconut Milk Run 2006, during some rougher seas. Courtesy Scott Davis

As I write, I hold my laptop on the desk with the heels of both hands, moving fingers only, and my outstretched legs brace my body in my seat. The teak furniture down here squeaks and groans with the flexing of the Fiberglas hull, and the lines banging on the deck sound as if we’ve hit something. We’ve hit nothing. Craig and I take turns keeping 24-hour watch, but neither of us has seen a single man-made item. No boats, no ships and nothing floating on the surface.

From the reports of marine pollution, you might imagine Honu plowing through a sea of bobbing water bottles and foam cups. Not so. The ocean out here is a clean, sparkling desert of blue dunes marching over the horizon.

Like terrestrial deserts, marine deserts host animals, sparse and hard to spot but remarkable in their adaptability to a harsh environment. Several species meet here at the border of air and water.

From below, malolo (flying fish) burst up and skip astonishingly long distances over the surface, often plowing right through waves and popping out the other side.

Malolo are pupu for seabirds, the other creatures we see flitting between the waves in jerks like puppets on strings.

“Look,” one of us says, “a tropicbird (or booby or shearwater).” Because only one or two birds appear per day, a sighting is always worth a shout.

Weather forecasts are calling for declining winds, but even if it becomes glassy calm, the ocean will not be flat. Great smooth swells generated by distant storms will be rolling under Honu as we motor into Niue.

We’re looking forward to the change in sea state.

When it comes to sailing, it’s all about the ride.


In glassy seas motoring Honu towards Bora, Bora, 2005. Courtesy Scott Davis

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

For some sea cucumbers, back ends stave off enemies

Published August 26, 2013 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2013 Susan Scott
Some sea cucumber species release sticky filaments from their tail ends when threatened. ©2013 Susan Scott

Some sea cucumber species release sticky filaments from their tail ends when threatened. ©2013 Susan Scott

Moorea, French Polynesia » I’ve been playing with sea cucumbers.

The way they lie around on the ocean floor, sea cucumbers resemble the vegetables they are named after, and are about as active.

But don’t let that sedentary appearance fool you. These animals spend their lives vacuuming the ocean floor, helping keep the water clear and the reefs clean.

They also defend themselves as only a sea cucumber can, by shooting a weapon from their anus.

At the mouth end of all sea cucumbers are 10 to 30 sticky tentacles that the creature either stretches over the ocean bottom or holds up in the water. When organic particles stick to the tentacles, the sea cucumber pops them, one at a time, into its mouth. As the animal pulls the tentacle out, it wipes off the food.

But the sea cucumber’s anus is equally busy. The creature breathes through it.

To take a breath, the anus dilates and fills with sea water. Closing and contracting the anal sphincter forces the inhaled water into two respiratory trees, the sea cucumber’s version of lungs. It takes six to 10 openings and closings of the anus to fill the trees with oxygen-rich water, each contraction taking about a minute.

The water exits, though, in one big whoosh. When you lift a sea cucumber above the surface, it exhales, releasing one long stream of water from the respiratory trees out the anus.

That’s not all it releases. When irritated or attacked by a predator, some sea cucumber species eject super sticky tubes from the anus like silly string from a can.

The blue-white filaments entangle an attacking crab or lobster in a mass of adhesive threads.While the helpless predator struggles, the sea cucumber crawls away on tiny tube feet, soon regrowing its tacky tubules for the next time it needs them.

Since I learned about this unusual sea cucumber defense years ago, I have picked up countless of these animals to inspect them. Not all species have this weapon, and nothing ever happened.

Tahiti’s reefs, however, are loaded with big, fat, paisley-patterned sea cucumbers that are loaded with sticky string.

The unlucky predator that messes with one of these creatures dies a slow and snarly death. A curious, camera-bearing snorkeler, however, gets a good picture, but also gets her fingers stuck together for the rest of the swim.

The strings delivered no pain, but they sure were a pain to get off my skin.

I’m grateful to the couple of cukes that satisfied my curiosity, and hope rearming themselves doesn’t take too long. Now that I’ve experienced the wrath of a sea cucumber, I will leave them to vacuum in peace.

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