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Wednesday, July 23, 2014         

Ocean Watch

Last week, while snorkeling off Lani­kai Beach, I found a huge, gorgeous black-and-white wana strolling along a stretch of white sand with all the confidence of an armored tank.

I have had some memorable experiences swimming with California sea lions here in the Sea of Cortez, but none as thrilling as two incidents last week.

Loreto, Baja Sur, Mexico » This week I'm sailing along the coast of Mexico's Baja Peninsula, my boat's location for the last two years.

While I was reading a newspaper in a mainland airport several weeks ago, a two-sentence news story caught my eye.

Last week, while preparing my sailboat for Mexico's hurricane season, I heard a squeaky, high-pitched bird sound, sort of a cross between a mynah and sparrow. This, though, was no songbird.

Areport of a swimmer bitten by a cookie-cutter shark, published this month by a University of Florida researcher, sounded familiar.

When I was growing up, I enjoyed Jacques Cousteau TV specials, and I also liked "Star Trek.

This email came from reader John Swindle: "Decades ago I used to swim at Ala Moana Beach, usually near sunset.

A friend sent me an article recently about Australian researchers naming nine new handfish species, bringing the world's total to 14.

Hawaii resident Suzanne Hammer snorkels daily around Hanauma Bay, rain or shine. One stormy Kona-weather day last month, she photographed a purple creature no one could identify.

Last month, Florida researchers reported that fossil remains found in Hawaii are that of a crab that lived farther inland (three miles) and at higher elevations (3,000 feet) than any crab in the Pacific today.

Oahu reader Samantha Ryan emailed me that on May 17, while she was snorkeling off the electric plant near Ko Olina, a sea snake swam above her.

I recently returned from a trip to India, where I got soaked by monsoons; Bangladesh, where I watched thunderstorms turn the landscape eerie shades of yellow; and the Philippines, where I escaped a typhoon by mere hours.

I found several hand-size shells on a Baja beach last winter, and learned they're called pen shells.

During the recent marine debris conference in Hono­lulu, I overheard an artist explain to a student that coral grew on drifting plastic.

Two emails I received referred to my recent column about remoras. Star-Advertiser entertainment reporter John Berger informed me (kindly) that my claim that ancient Romans blamed remoras for Emperor Caligula's death at sea was incorrect.

While hiking with friends at Kaena Point last week, I heard, in the cliffs above, goats fighting.

My March 7 column about rough-toothed dolphins included a website showing photos of dolphins being studied in waters off Kauai (www.cascadia­research.org/hawaii/february2011.htm).

I don’t know whether they have hot flashes, but female pilot whales go through menopause. That fact was discovered in 1984 after researchers examined 298 bodies of short-finned pilot whales killed for food in Japan.

When co-captains Ryan Fie­doro­wicz and Jason Duby of the La­haina-based charter fishing boat Start Me Up Ladat saw splashes about eight miles south of Lanai in water about 1,000 feet deep, they knew something was wrong.

This week I was going to write about an extraordinary green sea turtle named Rhino Kai.

Keeping my sailboat in the Sea of Cortez gives me excellent opportunities to see the great whales of the world, common in these nutrient-rich waters. During this visit, though, I thought small. I went crazy over mollusks.

One of the reasons I leave my sailboat, Honu, in Mexico's Sea of Cortez (Gulf of California) is that the marine mammals there are not only abundant, but they also show up at the boat.

During a recent nighttime outing at Kualoa Beach Park, reader Alan Chun had a glowing experience.

My recent column about playing with hermit crabs in Oahu tide pools generated e-mail that kept me busy for days.

The state has found employment for Hawaii's sea urchins. With the help of a canoe club, state workers placed about 1,000 baby collector urchins this month on a patch of coral cleaned of an obnoxious alien seaweed with the state's "super sucker" vacuum cleaner. Now it's the urchins' job to keep it clean.

I met friends on the beach last weekend, and as I sat in the sand, Darius, 4 years old, and Naia, 10, came running to show me what they found in the tide pools. In a cup, the kids had several peanut-size hermit crabs living in different kinds of snail shells.

The stormy weather we've been having has me worrying about an albatross chick that hatched at Midway Atoll this month. All the half-million or so baby birds there have my best wishes, but one tiny fluff ball gets a special aloha.

Between a mom and baby humpback whale waving hello, and news of an orca visiting swimmers off Kihei, I've had a warm welcome home from Midway.

Physicist Stephen Hawking begins his 1988 book "A Brief History of Time" with a cosmic joke: At a public lecture, a scientist explains the earth's orbit around the sun, and the sun's around the galaxy.

Why would 16 people from Hawaii, California, Alaska, Washington state and Sweden, with occupations ranging from social worker to bicycle messenger to banker to geologist, volunteer to work over the holidays on a remote atoll while living in a World War II Navy barracks?

This holiday season I am spending in a faraway land with taskmasters who work me long hours next to strangers in beating sun, driving rain and gale-force winds. At the end of each day, I hobble back to my room and collapse in a heap, soaking wet or oversunned, blistered, filthy and exhausted.

While describing snapping shrimp to a friend last week, I couldn't tell her how much of a shrimp's snapping is about diet and how much is defense.

Last week I saw three rare and remarkable marine animals in one of the planet's most breathtaking environments. Wilderness walks don't get better than this one, and it's right here in our own back yard.

Newcomer to the islands Maria Regan e-mailed me several photos and this note: "I saw a bunch of small snake/eels (some orange or red) ... out on the Kaneohe Bay sandbar."

I know I live in the right place when I look down from an airplane window, see Oahu's green mountains rising from the blue ocean and feel as thrilled as the visitors around me to be in Hawaii. As exciting as my four-week solo sailing trip in Mexico's Sea of Cortez was, I still felt homesick.

Last week I jumped in the water and swam with a 25-foot-long shark. We were so close I could have touched the shark's side, and when it veered off, its enormous tail came within inches of sideswiping me. Clamoring back into my 8-foot-long rubber dinghy, I decided it might be best to watch the shark from there.

Sailing alone is exhilarating. On the boat my companions are dolphins and seabirds, my entertainment is real-life sea adventure and my destination is a whim. I draw my plans in the sand.

One of my favorite pastimes here in Mexico's Sea of Cortez is exploring the vacant fisherman's camps that dot the bays and islands. Each camp belongs to a particular angler and his family and friends, and is used as a place to eat and sleep during extended fishing expeditions.

My Sea of Cortez cruising guide tells me that walking across Punta el Alacran, near where I've anchored my sailboat, is a favorite pastime among cruisers. If I do the hike though, the guide warns, watch out for alacrans.

As I traveled through the American Southwest toward my sailboat, moored in a sleepy little town on the Sea of Cortez (Gulf of California), about a dozen people warned me to stay out of Mexico because of the recent violence.

When my Texas friends asked me whether I planned on snorkeling in the West Texas flatlands, I thought they were joking. But a few days later I found myself rushing to my rental car to search the desert shops for mask and snorkel.

"I've got presents for you." That's always good news in an e-mail, and this time it was exciting news, too. My friend had recently returned from a Hawaii research voyage, and there was no telling what treasures he found in those offshore waters.

The walruses have landed. That's the recent news from the North Pacific, where a shortage of sea ice drove tens of thousands of these marine mammals to a shoreline near Point Lay, Alaska.

A recent study found that flying fish, malolo, can glide over the water's surface as competently as some seabirds. Well, we knew that. Hawaii's anglers, sailors and surfers have all watched, amazed, as a malolo rocketed from the water and flew on and on and on. How long, I often wondered, can a fish keep gliding like that?

Fall is the season of the shearwaters, and this fall these native seabirds are getting the attention they deserve. After being sued by an environmental group, Kauai County officials recently agreed to work toward helping the endangered shearwater species, ao, or Newell's shearwater (pictured).

Cowry snails and hagfish traps don't have much in common, but after I wrote about them in separate columns last month (Aug. 9 and 16), the two subjects have been competing for space in my e-mail inbox.

America's first Labor Day was celebrated in New York on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 1882, as a "workingmen's holiday." Since then, the day (changed in 1884 to be the first Monday in September) has also come to mean the end of summer.

Two weeks ago when federal biologists, University of Hawaii researchers, a couple of veterinarians, about 30 volunteers, some flatbed truck drivers and the pilots and crew of a Coast Guard C-130 joined forces to get an ailing beaked whale to a marine mammal hospital on the Big Island, a lot of us Hawaii residents had one burning question: What is a beaked whale?

Since February, something has been killing Hawaii's pufferfish. The cause of the deaths isn't known, but local researchers are working to find it.

While snorkeling off a windward beach, I found a marine animal on the ocean floor in about 10 feet of water. The creature lay buried in the sand, belly up, with just its teeth showing. I could barely believe my good fortune. If I hadn't by chance been looking right at that spot, I would never have seen it.

"What are those things?" a man asked, pointing to a hanging decoration I made from some plastic junk I found on the beach. "I see them in the sand all the time, but I can't think what they're for."

A few years ago, while I was working as a volunteer turtle guardian on the North Shore beach Laniakea, an adult sea turtle appeared in the shorebreak.

Those unidentified pink crustaceans I found on a beach last month are gifts from the sea that just keep on giving ... e-mail. A reader wrote last week, "I am surprised that someone from the University cannot put a species ID on them!"

On May 17 I wrote about two fin whales approaching my sailboat, noting that I could smell their nose-wrinkling breath after a blow. I wrote, "The odor isn't what you'd call refreshing. It's the essence of dead fish."

Two weeks ago I asked readers to help me identify the little pink marine animals that washed up by the thousands on several Oahu beaches. Fifteen people responded, their e-mails containing a wide range of comments, suggestions and experiences.

While searching for information about bad breath in whales, I e-mailed University of Hawaii whale expert Joe Mobley to see what he knew about the subject.

Last week, during an early morning beach walk, I found a zillion little pink things lying in wavy lines just above the shore break. At first I thought the crusty casings were the molted shells of some kind of shrimp.

Pictures of oil-soaked pelicans are everywhere these days, and if seeing those suffering, bedraggled birds coming ashore from the Gulf of Mexico isn't heartbreaking enough, we now hear that washing them may be a waste of time and money. Few birds, some sources say, survive the stress.

I see Buck Walker died. Walker was convicted of murdering Muff Graham, a San Diego woman, in 1974 at Palmyra Atoll, and stealing her sailboat. Muff's body was found cut up by blow torch and stuffed in a sea chest. The body of her husband, Mac, remains missing.

Years ago, two immature red-footed boobies landed on the aft rail of my sailboat, Honu, which at the time was more than 1,000 miles offshore and rolling in heavy seas.


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