Tag Archives: Whitehaven

Sailing trips in great reef marine park never get old

Published June 10, 2017 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

A soldier crab is among several varieties of crabs found in and around the Whitsunday Islands in Australia. ©2017 Susan Scott

BREAKWATER MARINA, TOWNSVILLE, AUSTRALIA >> For the last three years, as often as our work allows, Craig and I have been sailing our 37-foot ketch, Honu, in the stretch of water between the Queensland coast and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

Before I came here, I would have guessed that sailing back and forth in the same area, year after year, might get old. But here, never. The reef’s 1,400-mile length is about the same distance as Kure Atoll is from the Big Island. And the distance from the Australian mainland to the park’s 3,000 reefs and 600 islands ranges from 20 to 155 miles, gaps similar to those between Oahu and neighbor islands.

Given this expanse, plus changes in seasons, tides, storms and wildlife, each trip — even to repeat places — seems entirely new.

This year Cyclone Debbie, a category-4 storm that struck the central area about two months ago, changed both the landscape and reefs of many of the Whitsunday Islands.

As we landed our dinghy at Whitehaven, a 4-mile-long beach made of powderlike silica, a material that doesn’t retain heat, we stood shocked. The majestic trees that had lined the beach now lay in tangles of trunks and branches, their bark releasing tannin in streams that rippled through the white sand with the changing tides.

The beach was still glorious, however, and we walked its length, watching birds peck at exposed worms and snails, and enjoying the firm silica squeaking beneath our feet. The national park service had already pushed back fallen trees, and cleared a trail that looped through the wrecked woods.

Hiking there became a highlight of the trip.

Inside that broken forest, endless tiny leaves sprouted from trunks, branches, air roots and soil, a stunning picture of nature’s resilience. Craig chose that bright green growth in a devastated forest as his favorite moment of the trip.

I cheated in picking my favorite, because I named a whole category of creatures: crabs. Due to persistent strong, chilly winds, we often hunkered down in anchorages, and walked on tidal flats for hours on end.

Australia’s crabs performed brilliantly. Blue-and-white soldier crabs marched in legions of thousands, and tiny sand bubbler crabs left their sand-ball art in acres of designs. When caught out, 3-inch-wide swimming crabs turned to fight us, raising their tiny claws in defiance. En guard, monsters!

I saw spider crabs, seaweed crabs and a brown crab that jumped into a muddy tide pool to hide but kept us in sight (adorably) with its tall, white eyestalks.

On Monday I’ll be back on Oahu. I’m torn between wanting to stay in Australia and longing to get back to Hawaii. How lucky I am to travel back and forth between two of the best places on Earth.

 

‘Mermaid bracelets’ ashore a curious find Down Under

Published July 9, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott

wormsOne of the joys of snorkeling or beach walking in Australia is finding marine animals new to me. It’s also frustrating because being on my sailboat, I often don’t have internet access or the right books on board to look up what I’ve found.

The creature that stumped me on my recent trip appeared on Whitehaven Beach during an extremely low tide. At first glance the thing looked like a line of white seashells tangled up in brown and green seaweed. But when a small wave rolled over the clump, it stayed in place, fixed to the spot.

Down the beach, a longer string of shells and seaweed appeared, then another and another, all streaming behind the receding water like glistening ornaments. Mermaid bracelets, I named them, because a few of the shells in the strands were the forams I wrote about called mermaid pennies (May 28).

I gently scooped sand from around one of the shell ropes and found it anchored a few inches down in the sand. I laid my strand above the break to examine it, and out from the end popped a pair of rust-colored antennae and behind them several fuzzy legs. I had found a bristle worm that collects shells. I’m home now, and, as usual, Google found my mystery worm first try, even with the lame search words “polychete (bristle worms’ scientific name) that makes tubes from shells.” My worm’s name is Diopatra (rhymes with Cleopatra). Members of this group live in self-made tubes of thin, paperlike material onto which they glue small shells, bits of algae and pieces of coral. The worm lives with the lower part of its tube body buried vertically in the sand and the top part drooping head-down over the seafloor, like a candy cane.

Diopatra shell jackets look decorative to us, but for these ambush predators they’re camouflage. When a small invertebrate wanders close to the worm-in-shell-clothing, the worm darts partially from its tube and grabs its prey with sharp jaws. When fresh meat is scarce, the worms eat dead plant and animal tissue.

Hawaii hosts at least two species of Diopatra. These little cross-species-dressers extend a third or more of their length from their tubes to feed in an arc around their anchored base. In some areas the worms’ dense presence between reef and beach stabilizes sand, preventing beach erosion.

These shell-dressed worms are exposed at very low tides, during which times the worms are in danger of drying out and/or getting eaten. I’ve not seen them before, but I’ll now be on the lookout.

I like the rather regal name Diopatra, and found it means “divine habitat” in Greek. For those of us who love walking beaches during low tide at first light, these worms are well named.