Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Wasn't last week Shark Week?

It was a glorious, sunny afternoon Sunday, and I found myself at Makena Landing, one of my favorite snorkeling spots. My friends were scuba diving and I was hanging behind with their kids, swimming and snorkeling, like usual.  We often find and follow around Sea Turtles, catch Brittle Stars and Pencil Urchins, and generally have fun exploring the marine life we can see and reach.
I got my mask and snorkel with my fins and headed toward the beach with three kids and a boogie board.  Makena, who is ten, is a strong swimmer (and getting scuba certified herself) swims alongside me while I pull Tobin (6) and Tyler (5) behind us, as they hang on the boogie board.  The boys wear goggles and keep their faces in the water long enough to see most of the action.

About 50 or so feet from shore, as it gets a little too deep to stand, I push us off keeping the reef to our right as we begin our turtle search.  Makena was on my left, a bit behind me. I noticed a big, grey shape behind her as I looked over to see if she was ok, thinking right away that it was a scuba diver or another snorkeler. As I focused, I clearly saw it was a shark, about my size cruising slowly past us, turning towards the shallows.  I took another good look just to make sure I wasn't imagining it.  It looked like this:

My brain sent me mixed messages all at once.  I looked again, as the shark was swimming away, trying to figure out what kind of shark it was.  It was not a Blacktip or Whitetip, and definitely not a Tiger.  I decided it was probably a Grey Reef Shark, which some part of my brain informed me it was relatively harmless and nothing to be scared of.  Another part of my brain, which watched a lot of Discovery shows during Shark Week, told me to flee.  I poked my head out of the water right as Tobin did.  I looked at him and asked "Did you just see that?"
"The shark... yeah," he replied nonchalantly.
"It was big," I heard myself say, adding "like my size."
"Yeah," said Tobin.
I started turning around towards shore, thinking about postponing the boogie board turtle tour, causing both Tyler and Makena to ask where we were going.
"I just saw a really big shark" I said.
"So, aren't we gonna find turtles?" asked Tyler.
I couldn't think of anything to say and I didn't want to freak out the kids, who seemed fine, but my body was taking us back to the beach and I couldn't seem to fight it.
"I forgot to ask your mom something," was all that I came up with.
My mind's eye replayed the shark footage, just to make sure I wasn't imagining things.
This time I saw this:

A hungry Grey Reef Shark.

As we approached the shallows, I thought about what I'd do if the shark came back for another appearance. I could throw Tyler or Tobin at least 10 feet, creating a suitable distraction, or at least an appetizer. I trudged up onto the sand as I pulled off my fins and headed over to where my friends were getting all suited up for their Scuba adventure.
I went over and said aloud, so that they could all hear me, "I just saw a really big reef shark... like as big as me."
"Cool," someone replied.
"Was it a Black-tip?" asked the dive instructor.
"No... it was a Grey... but it was big," I said.
"Cool," someone said again.
"I never saw a shark that big in the water before... it kinda freaked me out," I blurted out.
"They are harmless, they won't bother you," said the dive instructor.

I looked over at the kids, who were obviously waiting for me to continue the snorkel tour.
So I did.  But as we were swimming around, I kept looking over my shoulder, scanning the blue depths for the shark.  We never saw it again.
We did however find this fish sitting on the bottom, and we followed him around for fifteen minutes, watching him "fly" around, as he fanned and unfanned his wings.

Flying Gurnard

Later, when I described it to the dive instructor, he told me it was a Flying Gurnard, and that it was rare to see.  When I got home and googled it, I came across this article:

Previous Ocean Watch columnOcean WatchNext Ocean Watch column

Monday, December 11, 2000

Gurnards may not
fly but do walk

Hawaii's flying gurnard is also called a helmet
gurnard because of its armorlike head bones.

FLYING gurnards. I haven't heard about or seen one of these unusual fish in years, but lately they're popping up all over the place.
In the last two months, I've received two emails from mainland readers about flying gurnards. One wanted to know if these fish are poisonous (no); the other spotted one while snorkeling in Kahaluu Bay on the Big Island. Then I saw a tiny one, labeled a jet gurnard, in an aquarium store.
Finally, last week, while walking down the sidewalk in the Ala Wai Boat Harbor, I ran into a fellow boat owner. "Want to see an interesting fish?" she asked.
We rushed to the place she saw it, and surprisingly, the fish was still there, strutting like an aquatic peacock. Yep. It was a flying gurnard.
The first thing people ask about flying gurnards is, Can they fly?
People once thought these fish could leap from the water and glide over the ocean's surface like flying fish. But flying gurnards are heavy bottom fish that can neither leap from the water nor fly over it. Their enormous pectoral fins, however, do look like wings. When the fish spreads these fin-wings fully, they form a near circle around the creature's narrow body.
Such a display has nothing to do with flight. Rather, it's a defensive ploy. The extended fins make the fish look bigger and more formidable to potential predators. That's why, when alarmed, a flying gurnard will display its magnificent wings and walk in circles. If that fails to scare off a predator, this bulky fish will dart away with surprising speed.
When not alarmed, the flying gurnard folds its fins like a fan and tucks them next to its body.
Whether open or closed, the pectoral fins of the gurnard have another function. The leading edge of each fin bears several short spines that are partly free of confining membranes. This allows the spines to move like fingers. If you watch a gurnard carefully, you can see these little fingers scrape and probe the sea floor in search of shellfish, worms, mantis shrimp and fish.
AS if wings with fingers aren't enough weird features for a fish, this one also has legs. The pelvic fins beneath the flying gurnard's body also bear short, movable spines that walk the fish forward or backward.
And there's more. Flying gurnards talk. Well, they make sounds anyway.
The word gurnard (which I spelled wrong in my Nov. 6 column) comes from a French term meaning to grunt. The fish makes grunting sounds, for reasons unknown, by rubbing parts of its jawbones together.
Of the seven species of flying gurnards in the world, Hawaii hosts only one. Look for them, up to 15 inches long, on sandy bottoms in Waikiki waters and around Magic Island. But look hard. These speckled brown, white and sometimes blue fish can blend well with the ocean floor.
If you see one of these rare and beautiful creatures, try sharing the find, like my neighbor did for me. You'll likely make someone's day.

After we snorkeled and swam for hours, we had a bbq dinner as we dried off in the setting sun.
Right before sunset, the kids and I walked up the "steps to nowhere" to see the view from the top.

The Steps to Nowhere

Hailey, the little blond, stayed behind when we went snokeling.

Had she come with us, she would have made fine sharkbait.


Goofball kids above Makena Landing

1 comment:

Cul-de-sac-ed said...

And you question why I won't go swimming in the ocean! I would have seriously lost my shit, even that creepy looking flying gurnard would have skeeved me out. The kids would have been on their own.

P.S. Makena must be one awesome kid if they named a Landing after her. Wait a sec.....maybe it's the other way around.