Goodbye, mantas—for now

Well, Marla and I have finally completed our big move from Hawaii to California. It’s not like we’re really gone forever; at least that’s what we want to think. Marla’s sister Wendy is keeping the Hawaii house, and we plan to return frequently. I’d like to think we’ll spend around a couple of months per year in Hawaii, although Marla may disagree with that estimate. In any case, we’ve left Hawaii with mixed emotions. We’re excited about our new location in Los Osos on the central California coast, but much of our hearts remain in Hawaii.

Mother Nature has been generous to us during our final weeks as Hawaii residents. A few weeks ago I posted about our fantastic spinner dolphin encounter at Mahukona. Then we had the opportunity to swim with large pelagic sharks. And finally, on our last swim at Kawaihae we were visited by a group of extremely sociable mantas. About a half dozen of them swam back and forth along the breakwater for at least an hour. It was a mixed group—a couple of larger adults, including old One-eye, a frequent visitor whose left eye has been severely injured, and a few smaller individuals only about six feet across. The younger ones seemed especially interested in us, repeatedly swooping within easy touching distance—but we of course refrained from touching. These gentle, intelligent, sweet-natured animals really tug at the heart.

Here, in water only about eight feet deep, I’m hugging the bottom while Marla watches from the surface. The distinct pattern of dark marks on these mantas’ chests and bellies allow identification and cataloging of individuals. About three hundred individual animals have been identified along the Big Island’s west coast.
Goodbye, sweetheart, and good luck. See you soon, I hope.

I plan to continue this blog, but posts may be even more infrequent than they are now. Maybe I’ll include more mainland-based posts, or maybe I’ll start another blog. Meanwhile, thanks for reading.

Sharks

Last week we joined our friends Ned and Susan on a snorkel trip to the pelagic zone offshore from Kona. Kona Diving Ecoadventures takes passengers about five miles offshore to waters around a mile deep. There they search for pelagic cetaceans—pilot whales, sperm whales, open-ocean dolphins—and other pelagic megafauna such as sharks and billfish. The passengers are allowed to get into the water and snorkel with anything interesting that is encountered, in a manner, we were told, intended not to unduly disturb the animals.

In stark contrast to the bustling nearshore reefs, the open ocean is mostly mile after mile of emptiness, so there’s a lot of searching and no guarantee as to what, if anything, you’ll encounter. On this trip we saw little in the open ocean—only a mixed pod of spinner and spotted dolphins that we observed from the boat.

Fortunately, open ocean is not all there is off the Kona coast—there are also fish farms operating in these deep waters. All sorts of marine life congregate near the aquaculture operations, partly attracted to wasted fish feed, and partly due to the shelter provided by the farms’ netting and associated structures where smaller organisms can hide from predators. Our boat visited one of the farms, where we had the opportunity to swim with Rough-toothed Dolphins (no decent photos though) and two species of shark.

This Silky Shark, about seven feet long, was quite curious about us, approaching very closely a number of times. Glad it didn’t take an exploratory bite. These fast swimmers are common in tropical and subtropical waters worldwide.

Here’s the other side of the same shark. It’s got a nasty, fairly fresh wound in front of its gill slits. There’s a remora attached behind the gill slits. The elongated rear edge of the second dorsal fin helps distinguish this species from similar sharks.

I’m not sure how many Oceanic Whitetip Sharks came up from the depths to check us out, but it was more than one. This one, again about seven feet long, is accompanied by several Pilotfish. Oceanic Whitetips are easy to recognize by their large pectoral fins and, of course, their white fin tips. The slow-swimming Whitetips are often found with the Silkies and are also found worldwide. In the nineteen-sixties this shark was so abundant that it was estimated to be among the most numerous large animals on the planet. Fishing pressure over the intervening decades has rendered the species rare through much of its range, but it’s still fairly common here in Hawaii.

We also visited a so-called fish aggregating device. They’re basically buoys moored in offshore waters for the purpose of attracting large fish and facilitating sport fishing. The FADs are placed and maintained by the Hawaii Division of Aquatic Resources. There were no big fish present when we were there, but there were a lot of interesting smaller fish. The boldly striped fish here are Pilotfish. The fish on the left are some sort of young jack. I think they may be escaped Kampachi (also called Almaco Jacks) from nearby fish farms, but they may be young Amberjacks.

Diving Puako

On Sunday Marla and I took a two-dive scuba trip with our friends at Blue Wilderness Dive Adventures. They’re one of several fine dive outfits in West Hawaii. Their boat is a large rigid inflatable (RIB) with few amenities, but fast and quite comfortable. They launch from the Puako public boat ramp, which is just a few minutes from several very nice dive sites. On this day we dove a site called Paniau—one of our favorites—and Puako Point—a new favorite. We saw some nice stuff:

A large Undulated Moray, sometimes called Green-headed Moray. These eels are supposed to be fairly common but we see them much less frequently than Whitemouth, Yellowmargin, or Stout Morays. They’re also supposedly quite aggressive, with Keoki Stender saying they can be responsible for “unprovoked attacks.” John Hoover is more measured, just saying that you shouldn’t mess with them. I agree with Hoover. See the little reddish fish suspiciously eyeing the eel from the upper right? It’s a Twospot Hawkfish. These fish are quite common, but rarely seen, as they tend to hunker down deep in crevices, at least during the day.
A solitary Blacklip Butterflyfish. These little beauties, are common throughout the Indopacific and are popular in the aquarium trade. They’ve got a lot of other common names: Sunburst, Orange, Bluehead, and Klein’s Butterfly.
I’m not sure how I spotted this Commerson’s (or Giant) Frogfish. I’d wandered away from our dive group, looked down at a coral head and there it was. My search image for these guys (see this post: https://onebreathkohala.wordpress.com/2019/07/29/a-couple-of-big-nudibranchs-and-search-images/) has gotten pretty good I guess. How about those snaggly teeth?
We saw several Blackside Hawkfish. I prefer the alternate common name, Freckled Hawkfish. These fish are common both at snorkel and scuba depths, but they’re so photogenic I couldn’t resist this shot.

Spinners

Spinner dolphins are among the most iconic Hawaiian wildlife. Several of our friends have had close, prolonged encounters with these oh-so-charismatic animals. Until yesterday we’d not been so lucky. We arrived at Mahukona at about 8:30 yesterday morning and immediately spotted a large pod of these beauties about fifty meters offshore—closer than we usually see them at this location. They appeared to be milling around rather than just passing through as they usually do here. So we geared up as fast as we could and swam out. Within minutes several members of the pod swam by us, clearly aware of us, but unconcerned by our presence. The pod meandered around in an area about a hundred meters in diameter for about twenty minutes, passing very close to us many times and sometimes completely surrounding us. Then they wandered off to the south, leaving us to swim back to the dock, cold but elated.

We estimated about thirty animals in the pod. There were several calfs in the group, including this one on the lower left. It has a bite mark near its tail (click for a better look), likely from a cookie cutter shark. The calves seem to almost always swim next to and slightly behind their mothers. Besides affording protection, this position probably helps conserve the calf’s energy through a drafting effect. And it also provides close access to mom’s milk. The animal in the foreground is a male, as evidenced by its large size and non-recurved dorsal fin.
Here’s a different calf coming up under its mother for a quick drink. We saw a lot of nursing among these fairly large calfs.
You don’t see one of these guys with its mouth open very often. Laughing at us, perhaps? And look at that defined musculature. This guy is ripped!

The camera jinx strikes again

I try to carry a camera whenever I snorkel, dive, or kayak. On the infrequent occasions I for some reason don’t bring a camera we almost always see something rare and interesting that would have made a great photo opportunity.

I saw my first ever Tiger Snake Moray during a cleanup dive on which I’d decided not to bring a camera because it was supposed to be a work dive. On a snorkel outing in Maui a few years back I’d decided that it was too late in the afternoon to bring a camera, as the lighting would be poor. So of course we ran into an extremely friendly and photogenic Magnificent Snake Eel. Haven’t seen one since. Then there’s the Maui dive where my camera was malfunctioning. On that dive we saw two new species: Indigo Dartfish and Flagtail Tilefish. Both are very pretty and quite photogenic, and we’ve not seen either since that day.

Well, the curse has struck again. Last week Marla and I got the kayaks out to try to capitalize on the best humpback season Hawaii has had in several years. I realized as we launched our boats that I’d forgotten my camera at home. True to form, we got some of the best whale displays we’d ever seen. A huge whale performed several big breaches just a couple hundred feet from our boats. Not close enough to get splashed, but close enough that any closer would start to get dangerous. A huge rush, but no photos. (And in this century it didn’t happen if it’s not on Facebook, right?)

So we tried for a repeat performance the next day, but this time with camera. We saw a lot of whales this time, but no breaches, no spy-hopping, no fin slapping. We did see a lot of backs and tails though:

A passing whale shows Marla some back.

When the tail comes out of the water this way it indicates that the animal is diving, as opposed to cruising at the surface.

The pattern of white markings on the underside of the tail is used to identify individual whales. This one has a very unusual amount of white.

Even when there were no whales around, the views were great. Marla’s enjoying snow-capped Mauna Loa.

And then there’s this post from 2017: https://onebreathkohala.wordpress.com/2017/03/18/forty-angry-tons/  Great encounter, but camera lens had fogged.

Loafing parrotfish

Most of the parrotfish we see, at least during the day, are actively going about their business—eating, messing with each other, or just cruising around the reef. But now and then we’ll come across a Star-eye Parrotfish just lying in a recess in the reef. When approached it will usually remain motionless, just eyeing the intruder. If you approach too closely the fish will bolt, but you have to get really close. These loafing individuals are usually large adults, and they’re usually more brightly-colored than most Star-eyes. I don’t know, maybe they’re sick. Or maybe just conserving energy. If anyone reading this has noticed this behavior or has any insights, I’d like to know.

A “loafing” Star-eye Parrotfish at Kawaihae. I’ve never seen any other parrotfish species behaving this way. That’s a Hawaiian White-spotted Toby by the parrot’s tail.

Molokini 2019

Sea conditions haven’t been conducive to snorkeling lately, so I’ve been spending more time than usual on the computer. I came across some old photos taken on Marla’s and my trip to Molokini Islet in May of 2019. Molokini is the remnant of an old volcanic cone that pokes out of the ocean a few miles west of Maui. The tiny, crescent-shaped islet is  a famous snorkeling and dive site. The shallower parts of the cove formed by the crescent are usually overrun with snorkelers from the many day boats that come out from Maui, but the deeper areas, near the points of the crescent, are fairly uncrowded and very fishy. We dove with (and highly recommend) Mike Severns Diving out of Kihei.

A typical Molokini reef scene. There are eight species of fish in this photo: Oval Chromis (nondescript fish at center), Bluestripe Snapper (yellow fish at center); Pearly Soldierfish (reddish, right of center), Yellowfin Goatfish (above central chromis), Brown Surgeonfish (nearly black fish below center), Indopacific Sergeant (yellow with black stripes), Hawaiian Dascyllus (top center, partially blacked by reef), and Lei Triggerfish (upper right edge, distant).

As a protected area stuck far offshore, Molokini attracts lots of larger fish. We saw many adult Bluefin Trevally like these during our dive. They readily change from the silver-blue coloration of the foreground fish to the much less common nearly blackish color of the second fish. It’s not clear why they sometimes turn black like this. Hoover speculates that the dark coloration may be a signal of dominance or aggression, or, under certain circumstances, to serve as camouflage, or maybe just for the heck of it.

Crowds of Pearly Soldierfish all over the place. These nocturnal fish congregate in stationary schools during the day. There are also two species of squirrelfish in this photo: Spotfin Squirrelfish (lower left) and Hawaiian Squirrelfish (below center in the background). The squirrelfish are closely related to soldierfish and are also nocturnal, usually hunkering in recesses in the reef during the day.

The Christmas double star, the solstice, and the music of the spheres

The winter solstice coinciding with the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn has had me thinking about the music of the spheres*—the sublime harmony of celestial motion. Jupiter completes its path around the sun—perceived by us as a march through the Zodiac—every twelve years. It takes Saturn 29 years to complete the same circuit. Which means that Jupiter catches up with and passes Saturn about every seventeen (~12x[1+12/29) years. Because the orbits of the two planets are tilted with respect to one another they don’t usually get all that close when Jupiter overtakes Saturn. But this year the overtaking occurs when their respective orbital planes cross, so they get really close. As you’ve probably read, they last got this close around 800 years ago. Or was it 400? No matter—long before any of us was born.

And then there’s the winter solstice. As everyone knows, Northern Hemisphere days get shorter as we approach the solstice and start to get longer after the solstice—December 21 this year (and most years). Less obviously, sunsets get later over the couple of weeks prior to the solstice even though the days are getting shorter. This is because of Earth’s elliptical orbit and the fact that the solstices occur at the long ends of the ellipse. The laws of motion dictate that the earth moves faster on an angular basis relative to the Sun when it’s at either end of the ellipse. This effect is stronger for the winter solstice than the summer solstice because the former happens to occur when the earth is at the end of the ellipse that’s closest to the sun—”perihelion.” The earth is getting ahead of the sun, so both sunrise and sunset get later each day before the solstice even though the days are getting shorter. All this stuff is kind of hard to get one’s head around, unless you’re Newton or Keppler, but that’s okay. Just as you don’t need to know a D-minor from an arioso to appreciate Beethoven you don’t need to know physics to appreciate the music of the spheres**. (But it helps.)

A photo of this year’s Christmas double star—bright Jupiter and dimmer Saturn—taken on my iPhone from Kappa’a Beach Park. Click if you can’t see the pair of planets on the middle left.

*Wikipedia describes musica universalis, also called music of the spheres, as “an ancient philosophical concept that regards proportions in the movements of celestial bodies—the Sun, Moon, and planets—as a form of music.” It further says that the term “music” is not literal, but rather a “harmonic, mathematical, or religious concept.” Check out the Wikipedia entry for “musica universalis.”

**There’s a medium-technical explanation of all this here: https://earthsky.org/earth/winter-solstice-and-late-sunrise

Lapakahi’s magic coral patch and an alien urchin

The other day Marla, Wendy, and I snorkeled north from Mahukona to the southern end of Lapakahi Marine Life Conservation District—about a three-quarter mile swim. As the name suggests, Lapakahi is a protected area where “the taking of any type of living material (fishes, eggs, shells, corals, algae, etc.) and non-living habitat material (sand, rocks, coral skeletons, etc.) is generally restricted.” This means, in contrast to Mahukona, no spearfishing or aquarium collecting* is allowed. The results of this protection are quite apparent—the fish at Lapakahi are significantly less wary than at heavily-spearfished Mahukona, and fish diversity is better too.

During our swim we stumbled into one particularly rich patch of coral. It was only a few meters in diameter and about five meters deep. Marla quickly spotted a Flame Angelfish—uncommon for such shallow water, and considered a nice find even at scuba depths. It turned out there were at least two Flame Angels, and the patch was crawling with Hawaiian Squirrelfish, Saber Squirrelfish, Iridescent Cardinalfish, and many other species.

It dawned on me that I’d been to this same coral patch with Hai and Lottie a couple of years ago. It was similarly rich in fish back then. Hai visited the site at least one other time back then, and reported that he’d counted forty species of fish there—a very impressive number. These days we’re calling it the Magic Coral Patch. It’s kind of a long swim, and not very easy to find, but we plan to return soon.

One of the Flame Angelfish poses with a Goldring Surgeonfish. These little angels, like most Hawaiian angelfish, are quite shy, but their vivid coloration makes them easy to spot. No other Hawaiian reef fish shows such a highly-saturated red.

An Iridescent Cardinalfish and a Hawaiian Squirrelfish hunker in a dark recess.

On the swim back eagle-eyed Marla spotted something unusual in about eight meters of water. Her first thought was that someone had discarded a hubcap out there. Turns out it was a Blue-Spotted Urchin.

This splendid Blue-Spotted Urchin was about eight inches in diameter. Hoover says the species is uncommon in Hawaii and usually found below fifty feet. Those spines are screaming look but don’t touch.

This closeup shows why it’s called Blue-Spot Urchin. See those tiny blue spots arranged along the arms? Hoover says the spots can expand or contract, I guess according to the urchin’s mood. 

*Thankfully, a recent court ruling has effectively ended commercial aquarium collecting in West Hawaii.

Caught in the act

Predatory fish are everywhere you look on Hawaiian reefs. Morays, groupers, snappers, trumpetfish, Ringtail Wrasses, just to name a few. The funny thing is, you almost never see any of them actually eating another fish. In the many hundreds of hours I’ve spent snorkeling and diving in Hawaii I’ve only seen it a handful of times. Here’s an event I caught the other day at Mahukona:

I came upon this Crocodile Needlefish as it was half way through swallowing what looks like an Acute Halfbeak. (The fish in the background look like Keeltail Needlefish.) Needlefish—both Crocodile and Keeltail—are pretty common year-round, while the halfbeaks seem to be much more abundant in the winter months. There’ve been hoards of them this month.

This is the same Crocodile Needlefish a few minutes after finishing its meal.

A better shot of an Acute Halfbeak. They’ve been extremely abundant for the last few weeks.