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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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."
On an early morning beach walk last week, I found on the North Shore a faded pink toy washed ashore. The 4 1/2-inch-long plastic figure, pictured at right, had big rodent teeth hanging from a smiling mouth.
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