Riding out to explore a barrier reef. (Photo by Mark Laker/USFWS)

Riding out to explore a barrier reef. (Photo by Mark Laker/USFWS)

Refuge Notebook: The benefits of being a naturalist

Looking at the 2-plus feet of snow on my deck, I can’t help thinking about my opportunity to visit Fiji this past summer. Since I was a child watching my idol, Jacques Cousteau, I’ve wanted to explore the South Pacific.

Though I now spend most of my time conducting remote sensing missions from planes, I started my biology career underwater studying the ecology of coral reefs.

I’ve always enjoyed learning about the natural world. Being a naturalist or a student of nature has many rewards.

Learning about an animal’s behavior and biology can be not only interesting but beneficial. For example, learning moose behavior and biology can help you avoid an aggressive moose protecting its calf or may help call in a big bull during the rut.

Months before the trip, I started looking up guides for the reef fish around Fiji. One fish I was particularly excited to see was the Barberi clownfish. I was a fan way before the movie “Finding Nemo.”

I have explored coral reefs around the Caribbean, Mexico, Hawaii and the soft corals of Alaska, but they are outside the range of clownfish.

Clownfish are in the same family as damselfishes, a small fish with a big attitude. I’ve had little 1-inch damselfish try to bite me and chase me away. It’s kind of cute when little harmless animals act tough.

Though, an animal doesn’t have to be big and tough to be dangerous or worrisome. Consider that mosquito buzzing around your head at night, wanting to suck your blood, or a frightened bee in your car.

In nature, most things seem to be trying to eat something or avoid being eaten. I know several people who don’t want to go in the woods because they are afraid of bears or don’t want to go diving because they are afraid of sharks.

It’s wise to respect predators with big teeth, but don’t let that keep you from an adventure.

Fiji is about a four-hour flight from Australia, the land famous for venomous and poisonous things. Often these definitions are confused with one another. Venom is injected and poison is consumed.

So, snakes are not poisonous. They are venomous. I knew of several dangerous marine creatures from Australia, so I wasn’t surprised to find some lived in the waters around Fiji.

Like most dangerous plants and animals, if you take the time to learn about their biology and behavior, you can manage the risk. So, I decided to educate myself on some of these animals. Not just to reduce the chance of bad things happening but also to see them, well, most of them.

One I didn’t want to see was the Portuguese man o’ war; I’ve had the misfortune of meeting this one. Though it resembles a jellyfish, the man o’ war is a siphonophore, a colonial organism. The colony is composed of several individual animals performing specialized functions, such as reproduction or feeding, and working together.

The man o’ war gets its name from the inflated sail-like body that resembles a Portuguese sailing ship. Below the sail, numerous tentacles extend 30 or more feet.

The tentacles contain stinging cells called nematocysts that inject a paralyzing neurotoxin venom into unfortunate prey. The sting for humans is very painful and leaves a whiplike wound.

One venomous animal I really wanted to find was the white and black banded sea krait, a venomous sea snake. Though possessing some of the deadliest venom in the world, these beautiful creatures are very docile and rarely bite, even when provoked.

They hunt for eels on coral reefs and return to land to digest their meal and reproduce. On land, their eyesight is poor, and they are more likely to bite in self-defense. The locals I talked to said they were harmless unless you stepped on one.

Another animal on my list was the stonefish, the most venomous fish in the world. This fish is another one you don’t want to step on. The stonefish won’t bite you, but the numerous stout, sharp spines of its dorsal fin will inject a deadly venom.

Without access to antivenom, many islanders have died from stepping on them. Stonefish are cryptic bottom fish that hide in rocks or coral, where they ambush smaller prey fish. They resemble a large sculpin. Don’t worry, we don’t have them in Alaska.

Fiji is famous for its crystal-clear waters and colorful coral reefs. I was very excited to get into the water and start exploring. After several days of snorkeling, my son and I had found many species of fish, including some nice size clownfish that came out of their anemone and within a half inch of my mask, trying to chase us away.

While exploring a new reef one morning, I came across an area with several moray eels. They poke their heads out of cracks in the reef, looking for a meal. Just as I recalled reading about sea snakes hunting eels, I saw one swimming below me on the sandy bottom.

The white bands contrasting the black were iridescent in the sunlight. It was gorgeous. My son and I swam around with it for a while until he decided to get closer. Knowing his behavior well, I was prepared and pulled him back.

Fiji is made up of about 300 islands. Though it takes a while to fly there, it’s a tropical paradise, and the people are very genuine and welcoming. We visited the island of Taveuni (sounds like taa·bay·oo·nee). It’s called the garden island, and it reminded me of Kauai.

A second island we visited, Nananu-i-Ra, was close to the main island of Viti Levu, very near the town of Rakiraki. This area was home to the famous cannibal king Ratu Udre Udre. There are some claims he ate over 800 people, but the locals say it was “only” about 99. The cannibals are long gone, though our driver tried to jokingly convince me otherwise.

One of the locals gave us a ride to the island. There were no stores, roads or restaurants on the island, so we had to bring a week’s worth of provisions.

The tides are large, like ours in Alaska, so we had to time the arrival to our VRBO. There was no electrical grid on the island, and all the houses ran on solar power.

As the tide was coming in one morning, I was preparing to get in the water for a swim, which required walking out to the deeper water.

Just as I started in, the neighbor said, “I wouldn’t do that yet. I just saw a few stonefish swimming around my boat.”

So, I stepped back but went in a few hours later to safely swim and look for stonefish in the rocks. Unfortunately, I didn’t find any.

Fiji is famous for its vibrant multicolored reefs. The soft and hard corals create a kaleidoscope of colors attracting divers from all over the world. Our neighbor was kind enough to bring our family offshore to a reef to see for ourselves.

In addition to the corals, there was a fish my wife had a fear of that I was pretty sure we would see. It’s in the same genus as the fish in the movie Jaws.

I may have told her this after we set off. It wasn’t long before I spotted a pair of black-tipped reef sharks below. I stuck my head up and yelled, “Shark, quick, come here!” Soon we all admired their beauty and grace.

We are fortunate to live in a different kind of paradise here in Alaska. Like Fiji, it is full of fascinating, beautiful and dangerous creatures. Being a good naturalist and researching plants and animals before exploring can give you enjoyable memories instead of the other kind.

Mark Laker is an ecologist at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Find more Refuge Notebook articles (1999–present) at https://www.fws.gov/kenai-refuge-notebook.

A Barberi clownfish staring up from its anemone home. (Photo by Mark Laker/USFWS)

A Barberi clownfish staring up from its anemone home. (Photo by Mark Laker/USFWS)

Hiking the Levena Coastal Trail on Taveuni Island, Fiji. (Photo by Mark Laker/USFWS)

Hiking the Levena Coastal Trail on Taveuni Island, Fiji. (Photo by Mark Laker/USFWS)

A Banded Sea Krait searching for a meal. (Photo by Mark Laker/USFWS)

Hiking the Levena Coastal Trail on Taveuni Island, Fiji. (Photo by Mark Laker/USFWS)

Enjoying a sunset on Nananu-i-Ra Island, Fiji. (Photo by Mark Laker/USFWS)

Hiking the Levena Coastal Trail on Taveuni Island, Fiji. (Photo by Mark Laker/USFWS)

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