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Living and Writing in the Natural World

The Unknow World: Maui Beneath the Water's Surface

One of many creatures beneath Maui's waves

Every excursion that I have made in all my rambling life has been fruitful and delightful, from the smallest indefinite saunter an hour or two in length to the noblest summer’s flight…All the wild world is beautiful, and it matters but little where we go.–John Muir journal entry, June 1890

Well, I agree with Muir here, of course, but must wonder if Saint John would have added a qualifying comment had he ever gone snorkeling off the coast of Hawaii. For my money, no rambling saunter or excursion ranks higher in the awe and excitement scale than 40 minutes cruising a tropical coastline’s coral reef. Tammy and I recently returned from 10 days exploring the south coast of Maui, immersing ourselves (literally! ) in five different underwater locations, and we still glow with the grandeur of the worlds we explored.

Part of the kick in snorkeling is just how odd and different your new world is. Humans don’t belong underwater; we have to return to the surface to breathe periodically or rig an upward-directed breathing tube on our face (if we’re snorkeling). But stick a mask on and dip below the surface and a breathtakingly beautiful and unexpected world blooms before your eyes. Thousands of creatures are suddenly there, darting and slithering and gliding or sitting in a fantastically-sculpted landscape.

The sheer spectacle is stunning: an entire world that is not apparent from your beach chair as you soak in the sunshine and admire the black lava rocks comprising the shoreline, the blue-green ocean, and the islands of Lanai and Kahoolawe looming offshore. What? There’s more?!? Just some snorkel gear and mere steps away?

Indeed. For me, the most dazzling aspect of the underwater world (in a tropical or subtropical location, at least) is the staggering abundance and diversity of life before me. In a typical 40-minute outing, I see easily several thousand creatures, most of them brilliantly colored, representing a good cross-section of life on earth. Consider: in just my first 3 snorkels last week (Keawakapu, Ulua, and Palauea beaches), amongst the thousands of creatures I saw, I recognized (and later recorded) 48 different species of life representing 6 distinct phyla (fundamental types) of life on the planet. These were the ones I recognized; I estimate I only knew half or less of the different types of animals that passed before my eyes.

Even so, in these 3 snorkels I swam among Green Sea Turtles (reptiles in the Chordate phylum; a dozen or so individuals); 30 different species of fishes (also in the Chordate phylum; thousands of individuals); 4 different species of corals (Cnidaria phylum, also thousands of individuals); 5 species of sea urchins and 2 species of sea cucumbers (all in the Echinoderm phylum, hundreds of the former but only 2 individuals of the latter); 3 different species of seashells (Mollusc phylum, in the hundreds); 1 species of spaghetti “worm” (Annelid phylum, only 2 individuals); and 2 species of lobster and crab (Arthropod phylum, 2 of the former and dozens of the latter).

Wow. That’s a huge cross section of life on our planet—all gathered before my eyes as I swam perhaps a couple of hundred yards on each snorkel. A lavish, nearly disorienting swarm of creatures, all “making a living” in their own distinct way, gathered together in this one patch of the lava rock / coral reef ecosystem I was traversing.

After each snorkel, worn out and having lost my “land legs,” I’d stagger through the surf onto the beach, exhilarated and grinning, my body unsteady and my mind reeling from the incredible diversity and abundance of life I’d just emerged from. Tammy and I would collapse onto our beach chairs in the sunshine and compare notes and try to remember half of what we’d seen.

A specialist in marine life would, of course, recognize triple the number of animals compared to me. I especially am ignorant of many, many species of corals, all the many species of sponges, and many of the less-colorful fish species. But that’s the point: even being an amateur, you cannot help but notice how many kinds of life are there before your wondering eyes. Knowing a relative few of them (from guidebooks and, for me, four decades of doing this in Hawaii) nonetheless adds to the fun and the wonder.

Some of the fishes are truly weird. I recognized 5 species of the Wrass family, which is characterized by routine sex changes as they mature. In most wrasses, the young all begin as females. When the resident male dies or otherwise disappears, the dominant female in the area (usually, the largest one) undergoes physiological changes which culminate in her becoming—a male! She then takes up where the former male left off, busily doing his (now) best to fertilize the eggs of every female in the territory.

(From the point of view of an ardent human feminist, this would be a Kafkaesque nightmare: you feel sort of funny for several days, then wake up one morning as—cue anguished screams—a male, and promptly begin cussing, spitting, scratching your crotch, tinkering with cars, and all the other things human males are wont to do.)

When you think about it biologically, though, this strange process is a far superior way of allocating your sexes in a population. From a strictly reproductive viewpoint, a single male can fertilize the eggs of many females. Why waste your environment’s resources by having to support equal numbers of males and females? The wrasse way of doing things means you only get a male when you’ve lost the single one you had in a local population. (Some insect species achieve much the same result by making their diploid individuals (2 sets of chromosomes) all female, and only making a male when a female’s eggs are unfertilized and hence haploid (1 set of chromosomes)—which happens when you don’t have a male in the neighborhood during mating. But that’s a different story.)

As if all this were not complicated enough in the Wrasse family, the males and females often have completely different appearances—leading some early biologists to declare them 2 distinct species. And of course there’s another complication, in that even the females, as they grow and mature as females, can change color and shape. Interesting fishes. The Parrotfish family has much the same features. I throw up my hands (figuratively) when I see a large, ponderous parrotfish (usually crunching coral) through my mask, and just register “parrotfish,” not even pretending to guess which of the always-appearance-shifting species I’m looking at.

Nearly all the fishes are spectacularly colorful, particularly in the Butterflyfish family (of whom I recognized 4 species). But during my first 3 snorkels on Maui this summer, the most enchanting fish I saw was a new one for me: the Pinktail Triggerfish, of which I saw a dozen or so on my Palauena beach excursion. This fellow, pictured above, has a deep, forest green body with a bright, yellow-green pectoral fin. Its tail spreads wide behind, white at its base and a fetching pink on its distal portion. But the most enchanting feature is its always-fluttering dorsal and anal fins, of a delicate grey-white translucent coloration rimmed in deep black. I caught my breath when I saw the first one, and spent several minutes hovering just several feet above the next pair I saw, particularly mesmerized by the constant ripples pulsating along the delicate, translucent dorsal and anal fins.

Of course, the big guys—the sea turtles—are always exciting, particularly when you first pick up a large, dark object looming at the periphery of your vision, seeming much larger than their usual 3 or 4 feet across. Once the first alarm passes, and you realize it’s a turtle, the fun begins.

These creatures are very cool: never in a hurry, gliding gracefully and effortlessly through the water, large bulk and all. When I was younger and an idiot, I considered it fun to “count coup” on sea turtles and would casually approach them before frantically kicking my fins and (hopefully) surging close enough to touch their shells before they glided away. All against the law and very poor behavior on my part. Once I matured a bit (an ongoing process, still), I was more interested in taking in their majesty and cool.

While snorkeling Ulua Beach I saw an interesting patch of intersecting lines against a dark background on the sandy seafloor some 15 feet below me, and realized after circling it a bit that it was the front limb of a sea turtle sleeping on the seafloor, lightly wedged between two rows of lava rock to anchor itself. Once I had seen this, I noticed such snoozing turtles several other times.

Next to turtles, Moray eels and various species of octopods are the most exciting sightings, and considerably rarer. I saw a Stout Moray Eel on my first snorkel, at Keawakapu, gliding along the surface of coral- and sea urchin-covered lava rock for perhaps 15 seconds before disappearing into a crevice. This trip I didn’t see an octopus, a disappointment only minor compared to all I did see.

So: color, diversity, abundance, making a snorkel in a coral reef an awesome experience. 48 species of animals in 6 phyla! Of course, paddling a kayak or canoe along a coast or down a creek is also terrific, as is backpacking in Muir’s beloved mountains, as readers of these blogs will know. But, just for comparison, consider that on 3 paddling excursions in my new 12-pound Hornbeck canoe in this past June (one on the Sacramento River, and 2 on Pine and Chico Creeks), I observed a total of 17 species of animals in 2 phyla (Chordate (mammals and birds) and Arthropod (dragonflies and bees)). Of course, I also was able to identify 9 species of flowering plants (trees and shrubs). All wonderful. But still…

(Of course a competent ornithologist, entomologist, or botanist would easily triple or quintuple my tally, even from a canoe. Professionally, I was a mammal ecologist for three decades. I knew mammals reasonably well, but as a result I am the amateur I am for birds, insects, fishes, other marine life, and plants. It’s pertinent here that there are only about 5,000 species of mammals; but 10,000 species of birds; the same for reptiles; 40,000 species of fishes; 350,000 species of flowering plants; and a whopping 5 to 10 million species of insects.)

It’s a shame that Muir never snorkeled. But only minor, compared to everything he did see. Muir’s genius was in recognizing the beauty and grandeur of what he saw (and smelled and felt beneath his hands and feet) in the natural world. Some people are better at it than others. I’m currently working on a book in which I describe the ways in which Muir, Darwin, van Gogh, and Georgia O’Keeffe communicated their “way” of seeing the beauty and energy of the natural world, whether in words or paintings. Now that is proving to be fun. Stay tuned. And keep your eyes wide open, eh?

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