Tag Archives: whales

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.

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.

Friendly false killer whales known to share their catch

Published February 10, 2014 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2014 Susan Scott

False killer whales have a knotty name, but don’t let the 19th-century label turn you off. There’s so much to love about these animals that after attending whale researcher Robin Baird’s lecture on them at Hanauma Bay last week, I wished I could throw my arms around the neck of a false killer whale and give it a hug.

I mean, what other marine mammal shares its fish not only with others in its pod, but also with swimming humans and people in boats?

The main Hawaiian Islands host about 150 false killer whales that are genetically distinct from other false killer whales of the world. The 11- to 18-foot-long marine mammals (males are larger) spend their lives foraging between Kauai and the Big Island.

Like killer whales, false killer whales are mammals that live in social groups and cooperate in hunts. False killer whales, however, have the charming behavior of sharing their catch.

Researchers know this because false killer whales bring their fish, often a mahimahi, ono or ahi, to the surface. There, pod members pass the prey to each other before eating it.

“Here, you take the first bite,” one seems to be saying.

“No, no, let Grandma have it,” says another, passing it on.

Spotting a researcher photographing such sharing, one false killer whale offered the diver some tuna, too. And when a false killer whale ended up alone in the Puget Sound area (this is normally a tropical and subtropical species), it offered boaters pieces of salmon.

Also, false killer whales really do swim with their grandmas. This is one of only four species in the world whose females go through menopause and live for decades beyond. The other three are orcas, pilot whales and humans.

After reaching their teens, female false killer whales have one calf every six to seven years, experience menopause at about age 40 and live into their 60s.

The false killer whale name came from skull and teeth similarities to killer whales, but the resemblance is superficial. The two are not closely related.

Speaking of researchers, because of Baird and his Cascadia Research team’s 14 years of study, more is known about false killer whales in Hawaii than anywhere else in the world.

Besides discovering that Hawaii has its own population, they also documented an alarming decline in number, to about 150 from 500 in the 1980s. Photos clearly show fishing line injuries to some false killer whales. Necropsies revealed fishhooks in stomachs.

As a result of Cascadia’s publications, the Hawaiian Islands false killer whale was listed as endangered in 2012. In 2013, Hawaii’s longliners switched to circle hooks to stem injury and death.

I doubt I’ll ever get my arms around a false killer whale, but it’s Baird and his team who deserve the hugs anyway. Their research and education efforts got our sharing, ohana-living, funny-named kama­aina whales the break they needed.

For out-of-this-world photos of Hawaii’s false killer whales, as well as coloring pages for kids, check out www.cascadiaresearch.org/hawaii/falsekillerwhale.htm.

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

©2014 Susan Scott

So, why the heck are they called sperm whales?

Published December 29, 1997 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1997 Susan Scott

THANKS to e-mail and starbulletin.com, I hear from a lot more readers than I used to. Here are a few recent questions and comments:

A reader named Dan writes: “Mahalo for the interesting column on the sperm whale (Dec. 15). You provided many interesting details on the creatures’ physiology, diet, history and commercial uses.

“What’s glaring in its omission, however, is why in God’s name is this creature called a SPERM whale? Inquiring minds deserve to know.”

Indeed they do.

Much of the bulk of a sperm whale’s enormous head is taken up by a barrel-shaped organ called the case. Inside the case is a clear, liquid oil that when cooled, hardens to resemble white paraffin.

Because whalers thought this stuff looked like whale sperm, they called it spermaceti and named the animal a sperm whale.

Spermaceti was used as lubricant and lamp fuel until around the end of the 19th century when petroleum products replaced it.

Another reader, Charles, wrote of an experience he had at Ala Moana Beach Park: Last November, lifeguard Helene Phillips “scooped a strange object into a Styrofoam cup at the water’s edge. She handed it to lifeguard Bill Goding, who called us over. The thing was one piece, not broken off something else, and had no obvious breaks or ruptures.

“It was maybe 15 inches long and an inch or so in diameter, translucent, jellyfishlike, but stronger and didn’t break when held by one end.

“It had no internal organs, but was suspiciously organic-looking…. No, it wasn’t a condom, though a condom closed at both ends and filled with clear Jell-O would be a fair description. What’s your guess?”

A good find!

Although I didn’t see the creature, and I don’t know why it would be closed at both ends, the thing sounds much like a pyrosome.

Pyrosomes are gelatinous, free-swimming relatives of sea squirts. Brilliantly luminescent (pyrosome means “fire bodies”), these white creatures have an opening at one end like a condom.

Individual members of a pyrosome colony lie in the cylinder’s jellylike walls with their mouths facing out. Tiny beating threads in the mouths move water and nutrients inside the tube. This not only provides food and oxygen for the individuals but also propels the colony through the water.

The length of these colonial animals ranges from an inch or so to over 30 feet long. A photo in one of my books shows a scuba diver examining one 3 feet in diameter, and he’s almost completely inside the animal.

My own experience with a pyrosome was with a smaller one, about 2 feet long, in the Galapagos Islands. I was descending on a drift dive when a pyrosome floated into my face and flashed its brilliant white light. I was so startled, I didn’t have the sense to grab it for a closer examination.

When a pyrosome encounters an object, a wave of light moves along its body, which frightens potential predators.

It has been suggested that the 1964 reports of a torpedo attack in the Gulf of Tonkin, which escalated American involvement in Vietnam, might have been pyrosomes, common in the area.

Now there’s a sobering thought.

On a happier note, I’ll end my column year with a comment from an Australian reader, Dieter: “A yabbie in Australia is a small crayfish, not the giant monster you wrote about (Aug. 11). Yabbies live in holes along the banks of any billabong.

“A much larger crustacean called the Murray crab can be found in the Murray River. Both Murray crabs and yabbies are good bush tucker-fair dinkum!”

Oh, I’ll never learn Australian!

Thanks for writing, everyone. Your letters made it a great Oceanwatch year.


Coloring book educates about Pacific coral reefs

Published September 8, 1997 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1997 Susan Scott

 When the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary was created in Hawaii, some people argued we didn’t need it. “Why add a federal agency to protect that which is already protected?” they asked.

There were several good answers, but one that rang clear was the promise of marine education. Federal dollars, proponents said, would go into much-needed teaching programs about preserving our humpback whales and their habitat, the ocean.

One product of that promise is the Pacific Coral Reef Coloring Book, one of the sanctuary’s responses to 1997 being designated the International Year of the Reef.

This is no run-of-the-mill coloring book: The text, written on the left, explains coral reef biology and ecology in English, Samoan and Hawaiian. The pictures, on the right, were drawn by Hawaii resident Kathleen Orr and have a distinct local flavor.

Here are some facts I learned from this book:

  • The reefs with the most biodiversity (different kinds of plants and animals) are in the far western Pacific and southeast Asia. The farther you go from this rich center, the fewer species you see.

Australia, close to this coral core, has about 2,000 species of fish. American Samoa, farther away, drops to about half that with 1,000 fish species. And Hawaii, thousands of miles away from the coral reef center of the world, has less than 500 kinds of fish.

  • Triton’s trumpet snails (whose shells you see in every souvenir shop from here to India) are great allies of the coral reef, both in life and in death.

In life, one of the trumpet snails’ favorite meals is the crown-of-thorns starfish, a species notorious for eating coral. After death, the trumpets’ enormous shells provide homes for equally enormous hermit crabs. Crabs are scavengers that clean the reef floor of dead plant and animal material.

We can help the reefs by never killing snails for their shells nor buying such shells in shops.

  • Jacks, called ulua in Hawaiian, are often seen on coral reefs. For these strong swimmers, the reef is a hunting ground.

In contrast are butterflyfish, commonly seen on coral reefs. Some species spend their entire lives near a single clump of coral.

The sanctuary has come through with its promise of marine education. Now all we citizens have to do is take advantage of the offer.

To request these free coloring books, call 541-3184 on Oahu, 879-2818 on Maui.

Beaked whales are around but they keep a low profile

Published March 18, 1996 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©21996 Susan Scott

Last January, a beaked whaled washed up on the Waianae Coast. I was off-island when it happened, but a friend saved me the story.

I squinted at the dead whale picture, showing a fluke (tail) and part of a dark, spotted body. The fluke had an unusual shape, and white scars crisscrossed the body.

What is a beaked whale? I wondered, wishing the photo showed more. What I didn’t realize was that the odd fluke and those distinct scars were practically signatures in identifying this
little-known family of whales.

At least 19 species of beaked whales swim the world’s oceans. These offshore whales seem like rare species, but this is likely more from their elusive habits than from small numbers.

Beaked whales tend to shun boats, swim alone or in small groups and have no distinct “blow” to help identify them at sea. Also, these whales can make dives up to an hour long, often causing one brief glimpse to be the last.

One marine photographer wrote that he once spotted four beaked whales, one an albino, off the Big Island’s Kona Coast.

Excited about getting a picture of a little-seen species, and an albino to boot, the photographer and his companion got ready to jump into the water, then waited.

And waited. After long silent moments, the two men gazed into the deep blue water, wondering what those whales were doing down there in the dark. Finally, it was obvious the whales were gone. The disappointed photographers did not get one shot.

What beaked whales are doing at those cold ocean depths is looking for squid. Like many of their toothed-whale relatives, beaked whales eat squid, supplemented with fish and bottom-dwelling animals.

Unlike other toothed whales, however, beaked whales don’t have jaws full of teeth. Most beaked whale species have no teeth in the upper jaw and only two or four in the lower jaw.

In females, these few teeth usually remain concealed under the gums. In males, however, the teeth, sometimes called tusks, erupt. Since the lower jaw extends beyond the upper, these teeth often poke up outside the whales’ mouths like blunt weapons.

And weapons they are. Although no one has ever seen it happen, researchers believe beaked whales use these teeth to fight one  another, probably in ramming matches for females. It is during these scuffles that both males and females get scarred.

Some beaked whales are well-suited for such violent collisions. Part of one type of a beaked whale’s calcified upper jaw is the hardest material known in the animal kingdom, surpassing even elephant and walrus ivory.

Beaked whales aren’t commonly seen, but it doesn’t mean they aren’t in Hawaiian waters. Boaters should be alert in the deep waters off the Kona Coast.

Beaked whales look like big, slow-moving dolphins, with a backward-pointing dorsal fin positioned about three-quarters down the animal’s back. Also, beaked whale flukes are either straight across with  no central notch, or an off-center notch.

Beaked whales range in length from about 15 feet to 40 feet.

Since little is known about beaked whales, distinguishing species at sea is difficult. However, two species of beaked whales, Cuvier’s and Blainville’s, have been confirmed in Hawaiian waters.

The beaked whale found on the Waianae Coast last January has not been identified yet due to a deformity, probably congenital, of its mouth. The National Marine Fisheries Service is testing the whale’s DNA.

If you spot a beaked whale, in Hawaii or anywhere, consider it an extraordinary experience. The Peruvian beaked whale was discovered only in 1991.

Another is still out there, briefly observed, but still uncaptured, unnamed and virtually unknown.

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