Can an electric eel kill a horse? The question came to me last week after a Vanderbilt University researcher published details about how South American river eels catch fish. The nearly sightless eel sends out two electric pulses that cause a hiding, motionless fish to twitch.
I don't write the headlines to my columns, but when I email one to the newspaper, I title it with a common name so the editors know what the piece is about. This week my subject gave me pause because it's known only by its scientific order, Zoanthid, a name that doesn't exactly roll off the tongue.
Who knew that a poky marine animal the size of a snow globe could do such a stellar job of fighting aliens? The plodding heroes are collector urchins, a native species the state has been raising by the thousands and releasing in Kaneohe Bay.
On the last day of my week in Palau, I asked five snorkeling companions to name their favorite part of the trip. The fact that we were evenly divided in our choices is testament to the wide variety of stunning marine life in this island nation of Micronesia. We were two for Ulong Channel, two for Jellyfish Lake and two for mandarinfish.
Last week I visited one of the friendliest, most lovable families in Australia: the dolphins of Tin Can Bay. Even if a group of Indo-Pacific dolphins hadn't come to the shoreline each day to play with people and eat free fish, a visitor just has to stop at a place named Tin Can Bay.
After a weeklong passage from New Caledonia, Honu is safely in a marina on Queensland's south coast. Even so, my body thinks we're still at sea because I have "mal de terre," the French phrase for land sickness. This happens when the seas have been particularly rough.
I'm on the road again, my road being the Pacific Ocean and my vehicle being my old friend Honu. Craig and I bought the 37-foot French ketch in 1984 on the East Coast with the plan to sail it home to Hawaii. The first thing we did to prepare for the voyage was give the boat a Hawaiian name.
When Craig and I moved to Hawaii in 1983, we saw so many fantail filefish, we thought the species, found only in Hawaii, might be the state fish. The 7-inch-long fantails were easy to see and not just because of their striking colors.
I recently received an email with the subject "Crab on V-land beach." (V-land, or Velzyland, is a North Shore surf spot.) Reader Bill Quinlan wrote, "I have attached two photos of a dead crab we found this afternoon.
Last spring in Tahiti, while preparing my sailboat for a South Pacific cruise, I took a break to go snorkeling with a little girl I met in the marina. The 9-year-old and I had a fine swim, and afterward we walked the beach, looking at the variety of objects the ocean had washed up.
In 1958 my mother went into labor during a Labor Day picnic. The pandemonium that ensued, ending with the delivery of a healthy baby boy, made such an impression on my 10-year-old mind that since then I’ve linked Labor Day with the labor of giving birth.
In 1981 I rented mask, snorkel and fins and, for the first time, gazed upon a coral reef. My impression: Such color! The swirling yellow, green, pink and blue fish looked like an underwater confetti toss.
A couple weeks ago, I had one of those days when my brain felt like an iPod shuffle stuck on fast forward. Deadlines, chores, errands, family and a hundred other things raced through my head until I finally gave up trying to work. Turning off the computer, I went for a walk in a nearby park.
Two weeks ago Craig and I, with about 40 others, attended our friends' wedding. We got ready for the ceremony and reception by dressing in shorts and slippers, donning hats and applying sunscreen. The event took place on a boat.
During a recent snorkeling excursion at Electric (Kahe) Point, my friend and I stopped to watch a fish fight. Even though we floated in clear water 20 feet above the artificial reef (the outflow pipe), the sparring was so fast and furious, it was hard to make out what was happening.
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?"
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.
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.
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."
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 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?
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.