Welcome to life in a postcard.
I know I’ve said before that I’ve been to some crazy places and done some crazy things on this trip. I mean, the Australian rainforest?! Eucalypt forests with kangaroos jumping around everywhere?! A dude ranch?!
But this time, Oz*, you’ve truly outdone yourself. If someone told me that I’d been shrunk and inserted into the fold of a classy travel brochure or that I’d been clobbered in the head and this was all a dream or perhaps even that I’d died and gone to heaven, I’d believe them in an instant.
Heron Island was a surreal experience.
I have spent the past fourteen days on a little tiny island on the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef. The whole island is just 400 by 800 meters at low tide (one of the major things I’ve learned from my time in Australia it is that tides are quite drastically important). It contains a fancy-dancy resort, a tiny National park, and a University of Queensland research station, where we were staying.
We arrived by catamaran from Gladstone on the last day of the torrential rainstorm we had been stuck in for days and days. The ocean was choppy and some faired better than others, but everyone was relieved when we first spotted land.
And goodness, what beautiful land it was. Clear blue waters, gentle salty sea breeze, white “sandy” beaches**, extraordinary fish swimming around in shallows. Adventuring around this island would be school for the next fourteen days!?
And so our days went something like this:
7:00am – breakfast or “brekky”
9:00am – lecture on some aspect of reef ecology
10:00am – morning tea (Maggie the Chef spoiled us with homemade cinnamon rolls and donuts)
10:15am – data collection
12:00pm – lunch (mmm, fresh baked rolls…)
12:30pm – data collection
3:00pm – afternoon tea (fresh pineapple, honeydew, cantaloupe, and watermelon)
3:30pm – data collection
6:00pm - dinner
6:24pm SHARP – sunset (mandatory and preferably accompanied by dessert and/or a cold beer).
So if you ignore the whole “we get five meals a day” thing for a minute, you can see that most of our days were spent doing small-group research projects and collecting data. Collecting data was tedious, boring, and uneventful. We spent long hours pouring smelly chemicals from one beaker into another in hopes of getting some positive results. Nah, I’m kidding! For fourteen days, “data collection” pretty much equated to snorkeling. Snorkeling in shallow water, snorkeling in deep water, snorkeling from coast, snorkeling from a boat. Some days, some of us spent five our six hours swimming around, checking out cool things underwater!
My first research project was on sea cucumbers. My group found a paper on this study that was done 35 years ago right where we were – on Heron reef. The author was measuring the diversity and habitat preference of sea cucumbers. “Hm,” we wondered. “Has anything changed since the 1970s?” And so we went out into the field and recreated her study exactly. It was really cool and we found some really interesting things, one of which being that sea cucumbers make excellent hats.
For our next project, my group decided to look at two habitat types and figure out the diversity of fish species that fed in each. Because of global warming, rising ocean acidity, increased sedimentation, etc. etc. etc., many of the world’s most robust coral reefs are being destroyed. When a major disturbance (like a huge storm) occurs, coral organisms die and within a few months or years, the place of disturbance is repopulated by a fast-growing genus such as acropora. After a little while, other types of coral come in and regenerate the original diversity. My group wanted to study what effects frequent, human-caused disturbances might have on the fish diversity if only that one kind of coral had time to regrow between disturbances. We identified which species of fish fed in plots that had lots of different types of coral living in them and plots that had only one kind. We found that low-diversity environments were able to sustain a much lower fish biodiversity than high-diversity environments. This was exciting because it fit with the general trend that other environments like the rainforest and the grasslands exhibit.
Okay, I just threw a lot of science at you. Sorry. BUT it’s worth it! Because while we were out in the “field” snorkeling, we saw so much cool stuff! First, the fish. The fish were AWESOME. I never DREAMED there could be so many different colors, sizes, shapes and even textures of fish living in one area! We even saw a whole school of squid one day.
And sharks! Any fears of sharks were quickly dissipated because they were just everywhere (and they were of the entirely harmless variety).
And then there were the giant sea turtles. Six of the world’s seven species of sea turtles swim in Australian waters. At least two kinds come to Heron Island to lay their eggs. At night, we’d go walk around the island and watch big mama turtles move slowly up the beach and dig big holes in the sand dunes in which to lay their eggs. Sometimes we got lucky and saw tiny baby turtles (the early hatchers) dig out of their nests and run down to the ocean. The odds for a little turtle are slim (only one in a thousand make it to adulthood). To a baby turtle, it probably seems like everything in the world is out to get you. Which, in reality, it pretty much is. If they're lucky enough to make it past the flocks of gulls waiting for them on land, they still have to get past the sharks, rays, and big fish in the water***. We weren’t supposed to interfere with this natural process of selection by picking up the turtles and carrying them to the water, but nothing stopped us from trying to scare off the gulls or shoo sharks away from the turtles.
While we were snorkeling, we saw a few adult turtles swimming around. When we were diving, someone in our group almost got hit by rogue loggerhead turtle (the biggest species in the world)****. On one snorkel, I was mesmerized by this turtle that was swimming just in front of me. I was following it around, taking pictures, when I noticed a dark form passing over me. I looked up, expecting to see, I don’t know, a cloud? But instead, I was just a meter or two away from a manta ray! These are definitely among the most magnificent of all ocean creatures. They glide through the water most elegantly, even though, fully grown, they can get up to 25 feet across and weigh up to 2900 pounds. We ultimately saw four on this snorkel, and I don’t think any of them were quite that big, but they were up there.
For our final project, we were asked to do a creative production designed for a non-scientific audience rather than our ordinary PowerPoint presentation. My group studied the sociality of black noddy birds. Here’s something I have not yet mentioned about the island: there are tons and tons of birds, mainly of two species. The shearwaters (fondly called “mutton birds” by British colonizers because apparently they taste somewhat like mutton) spend their days hunting fish out at sea and their nights on the island, flying into buildings and people and making sounds that sound like a mix between a baby and a dying cow. Noddies come and go from the island all day; they don’t make horrifying noises at night, but they do poop. At the peak of breeding season, there about 20,000 noddy birds that call Heron Island home. A lot of birds --> a lot of poop*****.
(This is a picture of my noddy bird friend. He couldn’t figure out how to escape from the line I drew around him, but don’t worry, I eventually freed the poor guy.)
Anyway, so we decided to make a scavenger hunt to teach the rest of the group about noddies. We had all our classmates and professors pretend to be first graders and run around the island completing challenges and learning about our research on noddies.
But of course, we didn’t collect data make presentations all the time. We had ample free time to run (two laps on the beach around the island is a pretty solid workout), explore the island by ourselves, and, of course, play lots and lots of beach Frisbee. Playing in the shallow water and needing to watch where we dove for a disc because there were so many sharks and eagle rays swimming around was quite the experience.
And now, dear friends, I bid you farewell, for this blog post has been long enough. I’m on midterm break this week (a group of us decided to relax in Byron Bay, a semi-touristy, semi-hippie surfer town in northern New South Wales), but soon we’re off to start a new adventure in Sydney. I can’t believe it, but we only have three weeks left of the program! My, how flies when you’re adventuring in Australia.
* I wondered why everyone called Australia “Oz”, so I looked it up. Here’s what a couple minutes on Google told me: it might have come from a 1960s satirical magazine in London, or it might have come from the magical nature of the place (as in "The Wizard of Oz"), or it might just be what it sounds like when Australians say "Aus" or "Aussie". Really, no one knows.
** “Sand” on Heron Island is more of a euphemism than an accurate description. In reality, all the beautiful, soft sand is just heaps and heaps of parrotfish poop. Parrotfish nibble on the abundant coral, getting nutrients from the algae and little invertebrates that take up residence on the coral’s surface. They can’t digest the hard calcium carbonate in the coral, and so it passes through their digestive system, gets ground down into tiny, smooth pieces, and is then pooped out. And walla! Parrotfish-poop beaches!
*** This is a very much abbreviated list of the things that want to eat baby turtles. A more complete list would include reptiles, dingoes, and more recently introduced creatures such as raccoons, foxes, dogs, cats, and feral pigs. It would also include humans, fishing nets, plastic, and boat motors.
**** Okay, here’s what happened. This was actually on a SCUBA dive, not a snorkel. I was dive partners with my friend Phil, and we were waiting on the ocean floor with a few other people for the rest of the divers to descend. Out of nowhere, I saw this GIGANTIC turtle swimming towards us. It was absolutely massive – bigger than any turtle I’d seen on the beach. It soon became obvious that the turtle was heading at a steady pace right towards Phil, who was and fixing his mask, was completely oblivious to the impending collision. Our yells of warning were eaten by our breathing equipment. The turtle was only a couple feet away now, and as I braced myself for a fiery collision, Martha leapt over and grabbed Phil (she is clearly a more proactive woman than I am). Phil saw the turtle, the turtle realized Phil was not a large piece of coral and hurried away. Crisis averted.
***** None of us particularly minded being pooped on (it happened several times a day), but apparently the birds are a big complaint among resort guests. I don’t know how you could possibly have a complaint when you’re staying in paradise.