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Thursday, July 24, 2014         

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When marine biologists talk about boring worms, they don't mean uninteresting fish bait. They're referring to worms that bore into hard surfaces.

Would you write about the nearly invisible brown specks in the ocean that sting?" emailed a reader last week. "They travel in swarms. We encountered them at Pipeline recently. The stings result in itchy, red, round spots the next day. What are they, and are the stings treated with vinegar like jellyfish stings?"

Two friends, former Hawaii residents, visited from Oakland last week, and we hit all of Oahu's hot spots. Hot spots for fish watching, that is. Wild night life for us was watching TV until 10.

While snorkeling last week, I came across a 3-foot-long bluespotted cornetfish bitten nearly in half. Amazingly, the severely injured fish was swimming along just fine. Six days later I went snorkeling in the same area and couldn't believe my eyes.

Last week at UH-Manoa I met 45 cone snails, each living in its own saltwater condo. The healthy mollusks are safe from predators (rays and some crabs), receive catered meals with vitamin supplements, enjoy a regular cleaning service and occasionally get visits from a member of the opposite sex.

"Bone-eating snot flower." That's the enchanting name that inspired me to dive deep into a new book, "The Extreme Life of the Sea," by father-and-son team Stephen and Anthony Palumbi (Princeton University Press). The book arrived while I was sailing the South Pacific.

What happened with the customs officer in Tonga?" a reader emailed, referring to a comment I made in last week's column about a misunderstanding Craig and I had after arriving in that country by sailboat.

Craig and I have been traveling together for 34 years now, and at the end of each journey, he asks me the same question: What was your favorite part of the trip?

Maitre Island, New Caledonia » One of my goals in sailing to New Caledonia was to see and admire the many sea snakes that grace this area's reefs. One in particular answered the call. Honu wasn't tied to a mooring off this marine preserve an hour before I had one of my best sea snake experiences ever.

After writing last week about our cushy cruise from Fiji to New Caledonia on our 37-foot ketch, Honu, the Pacific Ocean rose up to remind us who's boss.

In 2006 my friend Scott helped me sail Honu from island to island across the South Pacific. "When I signed on for that trip," Scott says, "I imagined baking bread and reading novels under sunny skies in a gently swaying boat."

Officially Fiji consists of 322 islands, but if your definition of island includes underwater atolls, coral banks and partially submerged islets, the number rises to 844.

I know I'm in a good place when I have fin sores on my feet, and the mask grooves in my forehead are nearly permanent features of my face. Even in my sleep I know I'm in a fine place. The anchorages here have been so still that I awake thinking I'm home.

One of the most satisfying moments in a sailor's life is tying the boat to a safe mooring in a calm harbor after a long period at sea. Even a day after arriving here at Niue (pronounced NEW-ay), Craig and I are still high-fiving.

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.

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.

Last weekend I flew to Papeete because I left my sailboat Honu here in October to sit out the southern hurricane season. That being over now, it's time to pack the boat with brie and baguettes, cast off the mooring lines and sail on.

Parrotfish are grazers, scraping algae off rocks and dead coral, and sometimes eating live coral. Big parrotfish (Hawaii's largest, the spectacled, grows to 26 inches long and weighs nearly 15 pounds) have powerful jaws and strong dental plates that remove bits of coral skeleton as they eat.

I ended a book I'm working on with suggestions about what concerned citizens can do to help the oceans. One of my ideas is to walk the beaches and, while doing so, pick up trash.

I spent the last New Year's holiday with friends at their lake house near Austin, Texas. Due to prolonged drought, the water level in this man-made lake, created by damming a river in 1938, was so low that a good part of it was bone-dry.

During one of those muggy Kona weather days, I went snorkeling off Lani­kai Beach in water that was calm, clear and refreshing. I swam over the dense coral heads off the center of the beach, looking for fish and invertebrates to brighten my day.

One of my most memorable snorkeling experiences occurred several years ago in Tonga. The incident involved only one species, but that was the beauty of it. Thousands of identical, 6-inch-long, silver fish let me swim in their school.

To my Midwest-bred nose, the smell of the ocean hints of mystery, travel, adventure and romance. When I go to the beach, I take a deep breath and think, ah, love that salt air. But that's not salt I'm smelling.

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.

Last week I attended a talk given by a federal biologist who, before her funding was cut, worked with Hawaii's anchialine shrimp, known as opae ula. Although these shrimp inspire nearly endless questions, I had a specific one in mind: Is it OK for a conservation-minded person to buy anchialine shrimp, sold in jars at Shi­ro­kiya and also online?

Hawaii's Pacific golden plovers, or kolea, get a lot of attention because they graze on lawns, have adapted to the presence of people and return to the same spot year after year.

When paddle-boarder Greg Gauget found a snakelike creature floating limp, but alive, off Maui's Baby Beach (or Puu­anoa Beach) north of Lahaina a few weeks ago, he did what few people would do: He went through exceptional efforts to save it.

While I was sitting on an airplane in freezing-cold Milwaukee last week, a burst of warmth came to me in an email from Andy, a Hawaii friend visiting Cali­for­nia.

Of all the things I find on the world's ocean floors and beaches, the round trapdoors of some snail species, called opercula, are high on my list of favorites.

One of my favorite activities during visits to the Puget Sound area is starfish gazing. At the ferry docks I'm in awe of the orange, purple and red starfish sprawled on the pilings like so many ornaments, and at my husband's family cabin on Orcas Island, I'm the first to don rubber boots at low tide and splash out on a sea star trek.

In a heartbreaking scene that made national news last week, 22 pilot whales died off Florida's Everglades National Park when they got stranded in shallow water.

In the past when someone mentioned Niihau shell lei, I wondered why the shells that washed up on Nii­hau beaches were special. Couldn't a person find similar shells on other island beaches? Which snail species grew the shells? Are people still making the intricate lei?

I have friends who think that because I swam with hundreds of sharks in the Tua­mo­tus last spring, I'm exceptionally brave. But I wasn't comfortable swimming with those sharks because I'm daring: It's because I've learned to tell one species from another.

Last week I hiked to Kaena Point, a daylong excursion (about a one-hour drive from Hono­­lulu, and a 5-mile round-trip hike). A few days later I got a text from a friend: "Hiking to Kaena Point. Wanna come?"

Last year, after I wrote my second column about snorkeling with sea horses, I got an email with the subject "Stop writing about Hawaii's seahorses!" The writer had also found a sea horse habitat and worried that if word got around about the locations of these rare fish, collectors would take them.

This is the time of year to watch for wedgies, otherwise known as wedge-tailed shearwaters.

Is it OK to feed the kolea in your yard? A member of the standing-room-only audience asked that of golden plover researcher Dr. Oscar (Wally) Johnson during his recent talk on these shorebirds.

Two weeks ago, several readers emailed me news stories about a snorkeler finding a dead, 18-foot-long oarfish near Santa Catalina Island, Calif. The woman and 15 helpers dragged the enormous fish to the island's beach for others to see and researchers to study.

We Hawaii residents love our kolea, the migratory shorebirds that nest in Alaska in summer and spend winters in the islands.

In August I received this email from a reader, Gordy: "If you are looking for pipefish, spend some time looking amongst the spines of the long spined sea urchin. … They hide in there looking for all the world like a spine and of course are well protected.

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.

Part of the fun of a long offshore sailing trip is taking a break from grooming chores such as shaving. Men aboard Honu typically grow beards, and we women get fuzzy legs. After weeks of sun, salt and wind exposure, we also get flaky skin.

"Sail or sell?" That was the question a young couple we met in the Tua­mo­tus said they asked each other every morning during their voyage through the South Pacific.

UTUROA, RAIATEA, French Polynesia >> In 2006 I spent two weeks here aboard my 37-foot ketch, Honu, waiting for friends to arrive for a voyage to Australia. After hours of boat work each day, I would climb over the breakwater, don my mask and fins and go snorkeling among the coral heads.

TAHAA, FRENCH POLYNESIA » Here in the Society Islands, I swim with black-tipped reef sharks, free-dive on giant moray eels and float inches above venomous, spine-waving sea urchins, all without worry. But when I come face to face with a titan triggerfish, I pay attention. Snorkelers and divers do not mess with these mamas.

Society Islands, French Polynesia » My crew (husband Craig, niece Sarah and friend Brian) and I decided to sail Honu to Marlon Brando's island, Tetiaroa. Even if we couldn't get ashore, we wanted to see the atoll.

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.

PAPEETE, TAHITI » For days I admired a pipefish from the deck of my boat, Honu, in this marina where the water is gin clear to 50 feet. The 6-inch-long yellow-banded pipefish was a nervous little thing that spent much of its time hovering behind the rungs of a ladder attached to the dock.

PAPEETE, 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.

I had a grand moment recently when I discovered a new fish. Well, not discovered discovered. Other fish enthusiasts know this species, but it was new to me and that made my day.

Last week I received an email from a reader who went for an early morning swim in Kaneohe Bay. "I looked down and saw what looked like a dozen or so snakes on the floor, maybe 15 feet deep," the unsigned note said. "Was I seeing things? Sorry, no pics. I just beat it back to the house that I am house-sitting this week."

While snorkeling on the North Shore last week, I found myself surrounded by an organism flashing so much bling I felt I was swimming through Tiffany's.

How do you tell a tube worm from a worm snail? Got a few hours? That's how long I spent reading last week after I wondered about these different marine invertebrates while sorting my underwater photos.

A rose is a rose is a rose — except when it's the egg cluster of a Spanish dancer. My recent column about that nudibranch and its roselike eggs generated some inspired email.

While waiting for my car to be serviced last week, I went through a stack of mail I had pulled from the box as I left home, and found a local marine guide I ordered. I put the book on my lap, and it opened to gobies.

From my Kailua neighbor Marya, who swims with mask and snorkel every morning before work, came this email:

Even with dozens of South Pacific visions dancing in my head, my own island still dazzles. During a Lani­kai beach walk at dawn last week — the first since my return — I watched great frigate birds and red-footed booby birds glide over my head, tripped over ghost crab sand pyramids and nodded hello to a dozen Homo sapiens come to marvel at sunrise on Oahu.

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.

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.

The hardest part of writing about the marine life here in the Tuamotos is staying focused. With turquoise water so clear I want to drink it, so warm I can snorkel for hours and so teeming with fish and invertebrates that I feel I'm living inside a South Seas aquarium, I change my topic every five minutes.

KAUEHI, Tuamoto Archipelago » With laundry done, the galley loaded with mangoes and a crew change (my husband, Craig, replaced friends John and Alex), it was time for my 37-foot boat Honu to sail on.

NUKU HIVA, Marquesas Islands » I have so many fish under my sailboat, Honu, that I can hear them from inside the cabins. At first the sounds were gentle splashes, but at dawn several loud bangs against the hull sent me flying out of my bunk to see what I hit.

TAIOHAE BAY, NUKU HIVA, Marquesas Islands » Twenty-six days after leaving Mexico on my 37-foot sailboat, Honu, I dropped anchor in a bay so stunningly beautiful I felt I had landed in the middle of a movie set.

Latitude 8S, Longitude 138W, Day 26 » I am typing these words with water-wrinkled fingers in a sailboat rolling so hard side-to-side that I can barely stay seated.

We crossed the equator on Day 20. It was a joyful event for my two crew members and me on our 2,700-mile voyage from Mexico to the Marquesas aboard my 37-foot sailboat, Honu.

OCEANIA, latitude 7N, longitude 120W » My voyage from Mexico to the Marquesas on my 37-foot sailboat, Honu, continues. This is Day 13 at sea with as many, or more, left to go.

Latitude 17N, longitude 109W » Five days ago two friends, Alex and John, and I set sail on my boat, Honu, from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

LA CRUZ DE HUANACAXTLE, Mexico » I've been trying to enjoy the wildlife during this visit to Mexico, but some days it seems like it's another chore to squeeze into my work-filled days.

Reader Gerrie Quinn of Sydney emailed a question about stinging marine worms. During an October 2009 vacation in Fiji, Gerrie jumped off a tour boat for a swim and crossed paths with a swarm of worms.

LA CRUZ DE HUA­NA­CAX­TALE, Naya­rit, Mexico » I'm back in Mexico, where for the past year I've moored my 37-foot ketch, Honu.

My walk down the length of Kailua Beach on a recent blustery day brought back memories of another windy day there in 1983.

Why is it that tons of people and organizations are not trying to catch as many crown of thorn starfish as possible as we learn that the great reefs are greatly endangered by them?"

My recent column about the successful elimination of rats from Palmyra Atoll, a National Wildlife Refuge 1,000 miles south of Hawaii, garnered some good questions and comments.

Last week I braved the North Shore's bone-chilling cold to go snorkeling. It was worth the chicken skin. I got to look down the throat of a spaghetti worm.

Last week I came home from a trip to a good-news email. A year after a team of workers made an enormous effort to get rid of rats on Palmyra Atoll, a national wildlife refuge 1,000 miles south of Hawaii, its islands remain rat-free.

It's January, and our most famous winter visitors, about 10,000 humpback whales, are stirring the sea.

One windy January day in 1983, shortly after moving to Hawaii, I ran into my University of Hawaii physiology lab partner, born and raised on Oahu. Staring at the mask and snorkel in my hand, he asked where I was going.

Flounders know that good things come in small boxes. But do they know how hard those boxes can pinch?

Today marks the end of my 25th year of writing this column, but no worries. I plan on getting in at least another 25 years' worth, maybe more.

When I rent a slip for my sailboat, as I have been doing on and off in Mexico for the last two years, I don't have to take the boat anywhere to have memorable wildlife experiences.

TRES MARIETAS, BANDERAS BAY, Mexico » When my husband, Craig, and I sailed Honu to this volcanic island group last week, we found the ocean floor 30 feet below the boat exquisitely visible.

In 1988 when visiting the Gala­pa­gos Islands, I met my first blue-footed boobies. The seabirds nested nearly everywhere on the ground there, some raising their chicks right in the middle of paths trod by countless human visitors.

On a moving sailboat, darkness hides danger. At night I can't see rocks, reefs or debris in the water. Small lights in the distance might be a nearby dinghy that I should veer to avoid, or a distant container ship speeding my way.

As much as I love sailing, snorkeling and visiting wildlife refuges, my true obsession is beach walking.

Today and for the next few weeks, I'm writing from my sailboat, Honu, currently moored in a marina in Mexico's Banderas Bay, famous for humpback whales, tropical fish and national park islands loaded with seabirds.

When I go snorkeling I sometimes get very little exercise because I stop so often to check out an animal or look at a plant.

While riding my bicycle on the bridge near the center of Kailua Beach Park last week, I spotted a cushion star dead on the sand.

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.

My friend Valerie, an avid snorkeler, recently emailed her observation of two lizardfish on the North Shore: "They were nose to nose, about an inch apart.

My husband, Craig, came in from snorkeling the other day with news. "I saw a school of baby trumpetfish, about 20 or 30 together."

Ishare a sailboat with family and friends in the Ala Wai Boat Harbor, but nine years ago, when the state condemned our finger pier, we had to walk a plank to get aboard. In addition to that wobbly hurdle, several of us had frightening encounters with transients in the neighborhood. As a result, we rarely used the boat.

I love the idea of eating aliens, but a Sept. 19 article in this paper about Samoan crabs ("Invite the invaders to dinner") left me with questions. What, I wondered, are crabs from Samoa doing in Hawaii?

In my Sept. 10 column, I wrote that rays have been reported giving birth while leaping from the water, but I never knew anyone who saw it. Now I do.

Last month a reader sent a note about snorkeling with a large barracuda off Waimanalo's Kaiona Beach Park.

Reader John Floyd emailed that on his daily walk to the north end of Kailua Beach, he crosses the bridge over the Kawai­nui Canal.

I don't have many traditions in this column, but writing about the comings and goings of kolea, the migratory shorebirds also known as Pacific golden plovers, is becoming one of them. After my recent report on the birds' return, the mail poured in.

When I recently led several California friends on a short swim to see an endemic green lion-fish, the fish made me look good.

Hawaii's favorite birds are back. My first email regarding the return of a Pacific golden plover came July 30 in an unsigned note: "I live in Mililani Mauka and came home to see my favorite Kolea in my back yard this afternoon! :)"

Last week I emailed a Texas friend and longtime reader that I was going hiking in Yosemite National Park. Shirley replied, "This time of year must be nice in Yosemite. Bet you will get some good subjects there, too."

When my 12-year-old friend Naia said she wanted to show me some shrimp she found, I didn't know I had to suffer to see them.


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