No Acanthaster Disaster

by E.R.Cross


In the 1960s and '70s it appeared the Spiny Starfish (Acanthaster planci) was going to denude the world's reefs of living coral. Overzealous divers, encouraged by pseudo marine scientists, environmentalists and others, eradicated a few thousand specimens. Other billions of specimens survived and multiplied according to the seasons, the cycles and the biological habits controlling the Spiny Starfish populations. Then it was time for these pests to again disappear. In the 1970s, I found a specimen of sponge crab (Dromiidae sp.) carrying a large, living specimen of Acanthaster planci around on its back. It, too, had joined the battle to rid the world of Spiny Starfish.

The Dromiids, or Furry Sponge Crabs, are true crabs. They are the least specialized of this group of decapoda. They are found throughout the Indo-Pacific and perhaps worldwide in tropical waters. Almost all Dromiids, and specifically the Hawaiian Sponge Crabs, attach almost any kind of loose object to their carapace. I have seen short lengths of large diameter rope, rubber thongs, sea squirts, sponges, pieces of soft coral and, on a few occasions, Spiny Starfish attached to these crabs. In the case of the Spiny Starfish, the crab had used its powerful claws to trim the long spines hanging over its eyes so it could see and eat. The object is placed over the carapace and held in place by the crab's back two pairs of legs. To accomplish this, the fourth and fifth pair of legs are reduced in length and grow in a nearly upward direction. Also, the legs are slightly chelate.

I would like to hear from Technifacts readers who have sighted specimens of Acanthaster planci (Spiny Starfish) in the past few years. The location and number would be appreciated. Also, how many of you have become acquainted with specimens of the curious and fascinating Sponge Crab? What were they carrying as camouflage? Keep your eyes open. They are tricky little animals. Write to E.R Cross, c/o Technifacts, Skin Diver Magazine, 6420 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90048-5515.

treasure troves

A popular subject for discussion is the great treasures of the world. From the mountains to the seas and from deserts to tropical rain forests, divers and wannabes have written to Technifacts for information about lost wealth. Was it for real? Is it still there? Can it be found? What is its value? Who will own the treasure if it is found? These are a few of the frequently asked questions. Sometimes there are no answers because the treasure is truly lost. There is also the possibility that the lost treasure has been found.

R. Ridgeway from Arizona wrote: "Recently, a friend told me about sailors from ships of the English and French joining forces against a Spanish force of the late 1700s. The two forces supposedly captured a large hoard of gold, silver and other treasure the Spanish had looted from South America... The skirmish for the loot took place while the Spanish were transporting the treasure over land from the Pacific to Atlantic ports near the present site of the Panama Canal....Do you have any suggestions where I might find more information on this subject?"The existence of this treasure trove is undisputed. It is one of several treasures that Captain Drake, the future Sir Francis Drake, captured during his early years at sea. In Porto Bello and what was then Juan de Ulua (now Veracruz), galleons with merchandise from Cadiz, Spain and the gold and silver from New Spain were exchanged in great fair-like occasions. This attracted privateers. Most famous of these corsairs was Sir Francis Drake, who attacked Nombre de Dios in 1572. In 1573, he and some crew members from a French vessel intercepted a mule train bearing the king's share of treasure from Panama City. This is the treasure referred to by Ridgeway.

Drake and his crew lay in hiding at a spot on the Camino Real (Royal Road) across the Isthmus from Nombre de Dios. The morning after their arrival, the bells of approaching mule trains were heard. There were three companies of mules in the trains, two companies with 70 mules each and one with 50. The 190 mules were loaded with nearly 30 tons of gold and silver; more than 300 pounds of treasure per mule. The escort of 45 Spanish soldiers was quickly routed by the English and French sailors and the treasure secured. The troops took all the gold they could carry. The rest of the gold and about 15 tons of silver, perhaps $2.5 million, was buried under fallen trees. After a series of mishaps, Drake returned to England, where he presented the queen with her share of the treasure and gave the crew their share. The buried part of the treasure is undoubtedly not still there.

Already a noted English captain, Drake again left England on December 15, 1577, on his famous circumnavigation of the globe. He had two sets of orders. The one made public detailed trading he was to conduct on his voyage. The other orders, from the queen, were secret. He was to raid the Spanish towns and shipping along the west coast of South America. His flagship, the 100 ton Pelican, was soon renamed the Golden Hind. He had four smaller vessels under his command, with about 160 crew members. He was separated from the other vessels off Cape Horn during a furious storm that drove him well south of the cape.

When the weather moderated, he sailed north along the coasts of Chile and Peru. En route he sacked towns and plundered shipping. One rich vessel he took was the treasure ship Cacafuego. Continuing north and west along the coast of Central America and Mexico he eventually reached about 38 degrees north. He named the area New Albion. The bay in which he found shelter from stormy weather has been named Drake's Bay. From there he continued his voyage and reached England September 26, 1580. Partly because he was the first English navigator to circumnavigate the globe and partly because he brought a vast treasure to the throne, he was knighted and became Sir Francis Drake.

Some references to Drake and his pillaging can be found in most modern encyclopedias. There are fairly complete details of his capture of the mule train treasure of Panama in the 39 volume Bancrofts Works. Check the volumes on the History of Mexico. Scraps of interesting information can also be found in Hakluyt's fascinating series The Principal Navigations Voyages Traffiques & Discoveries of the English Nation. Some of these volumes are quite rare. The best source for them may be your library. Also in the library, check for books dealing specifically with Drake's life.

shells for food

Another Technifacts reader wrote from his ship, now stationed in Bremerton, Washington: "I recently returned from a short stay in Hawaii. While there I noticed the residents frequently used shells for tools, some for musical instruments, and some mollusks were eaten as food. How pronounced is this habit? How many shells are edible?"

Almost universally, shells have been collected for their beauty, for food, for their utilitarian value and, in some cases, as for monetary exchange. This has been particularly true in the Indo-Pacific. This vast area includes Polynesia, where shells are abundant, varied, useful and beautiful. The Hawaiian Islands were settled by Polynesian migrants from the Marquesas and Tahiti perhaps 1,500 years ago. Specifically, the variety and numbers of gastropod and bivalve shells found in Hawaii kitchen middens and other archaeological sites indicate many of the 1,000 species of mollusks found in Hawaii were once used for food. Many are still occasionally eaten. Some, such as Triton's Trumpet shell (Charonia tritonis) and Helmet Shells (Cassis cornuta), are used to manufacture shell trumpets that call hungry tourists to Hawaiian luaus.

Hawaiian Marine Shells, by Dr. E Alison Kay, provides a comprehensive treatment of Hawaiian shells. The book is published by Bishop Museum Press, Honolulu, HI. It is special publication 64(4). Dr. Kay's 30 page introduction provides a fascinating general account of the Hawaiian Islands and the molluscan fauna throughout the long geological history of the islands.