Monday, June 28, 2010

A Few Days of Catch Up

6/27 The Rescue

It has been settled; I’m moving out of Monterey and will become a professional transient for a while. This is all very sudden for me, and was not at all in my plans (which is what makes it so great). I came down to Australia to gain experience in field research with marine mammals, in order to make my CV decorated enough for grad school. After talking to some of the people from this project, I decided to come back for a second study working with humpbacks in Eastern Australia in September, and booked my flight last week. It looks like I’ll have to cancel that flight now and book a one way ticket to the land down under instead, since I accepted a job working as a marine mammal observer on industrial vessels in and around Aussie

A few days ago I was approached by a person who hires people for Marine Mammal Observer (MMO) work, and was offered a job starting mid July. There are many avenues as a MMO, most of which deal with ensuring that no wildlife is harmed during oil and gas exploration cruises. This particular job would be 10 days on 10 days off aboard a dredger north of the Great Barrier Reef. I would be posted on the bridge during operations, and would watch for any sea snakes, marine mammals, birds...anything that may be harmed during the dredging process. If any wildlife wondered within a certain radius of the vessel, I would order the captain to cease operations until the threat was over. This would mean shutting down some pretty expensive operations, and I’m told that those who fulfil these positions are not well liked by the crew (sort of like the bond company stooge in The Life Aquatic). But like the stooge in the movie, this is sometimes not the case, and it depends on the vessel. This position would last for 5 weeks, just enough to buy my time before my next internship begins. After HARC is over at the end of October, and depending on how well I do on the dredging project, I may have work as an MMO on offshore oil exploration vessels for the next year or two. This would entail similar duties to the dredging project, expect the coast for shutting down operations is extremely high, and I would be watching for the presence of whale and dolphins. The offshore gigs are usually 5 weeks on and 5 weeks off.

This is all very sudden and scary, but it’s an opportunity that I can’t pass up. As of right now, I will be back in Monterey around July 12th for a few weeks to pack up my room and finish things up with my job as a whale watching skipper. I hope to take the boat out a few more times to get a few last looks at the wildlife of Monterey, maybe I’ll be able to convince some of you to come out with me. I also hope to see everyone in July before I leave, so try not to go anywhere the first few weeks. Don’t worry Sam if you’re reading this, I will sleep downstairs on the couch (you have my room up until August). The biggest heartbreak will be leaving Reef, who has been my loyal shadow for the past 4 years. He’s really going to miss me, and it kills me to leave. But I can’t pass up this opportunity because of a dog, regardless of the fact that he’s the best dog in the world. He will have a good home with the parents. Just as a word of advice to those who are wondering whether taking risks in life is worth it, it totally is. This one internship alone has the potential to completely change my life.

On another subject, the whales are starting to pick up in numbers now. Today we had 100 whale pass by the headland, some within 100 meters from the rocks. The weather was hot, so a few of us decided to jump off the headland and snorkel around the point in search of manta rays and dolphins. I consider myself to be a strong swimmer, comfortable with the ocean and being in surgy conditions, and tolerant of the cold. The same goes for Zeus (one of the 3 that went snorkelling). The third guy, Paul, who we thought were all of those things, turned out to be none of them. Mom, again this is where you should skip this paragraph. To set the scene, the jump into the water is about 3 meters if that, not high at all. You have to time it right so that a wave doesn’t jostle you around when you enter the water. Zeus jumped in first, followed by myself, than finally Paul (who asked several times how deep the water was....which was clearly deep enough). Not a good sign. Where we entered was part of a gorge that cuts into the headland. From there, you have to swim out and turn north along the cliff face of the headland, then hang a let around another corner west which goes around to Frenchman’s beach. All and all I’d say it’s about a half mile swim; it took us about 20 minutes. Paul instantly was in a panic the moment he hit the water, and it’s very difficult to climb up the rock once you’re in. It’s possible, but it’s easier to just swim around to Frenchman’s. He was saying that the water was too cold for him and it was screwing with his breathing (the water is about 75 degrees by the way, not exactly freezing but it’s not Fiji). Luckily Zeus and I have been trained in SCUBA rescue, and locked your arms with his while he was on his back, and took turns swimming him in while he calmed down and caught his breath. He eventually started to fill better, and I gave him my fins to make his swim in easier. In the end everything was OK, and we learned a valuable lesson; don’t go in the water if you’re not comfortable and confident in your ability to survive. We were preoccupied trying to save Paul’s life, and didn’t see much during the snorkel (but we frequently see manta rays in the area, and are planning on trying it again without Paul). I know what you’re going to say Mom, you just have to trust me.

The snorkel route goes right past Norm’s Seat, where we set and watch for whales. The team managed to track our movements on the Theodolite, and determined we were swimming at about 1k/hour (not bad for a rescue). We were planning on breaching and pec slapping in front of them, but forgot and just mooned them instead. Tomorrow I’ve been asked to help someone from Woodshole deploy a hydrophone array near a group of rocks offshore of the point. We leave sometime in the morning on the Beluga from Amity, a 30 minute trip on the water to Point Lookout. It will be a 3 person job, lowering a series of weights that will hold a few hydrophones suspended in the water for a few weeks. She wants to record the sounds of the waves on the rocks, and then play them back in an area where no rocks are present, to see if the humpbacks react to the sounds (possibly indicating that they use the sound of the surf for navigation). It’s late here, and I should sleep. Sorry about not having any photos right now, not enough time to deal with them. Miss you all.
6/28 Science Can be a Bitch
The normal routine of counting whale was broken for me today, and the weather wasn’t pissing down or blowing. Dave, Anne, and I took the Beluga out from Amity harbor to just offshore of point lookout to deploy some acoustic instruments. Dave may be my pseudo boss soon (the guy who is hiring me for MMO work), and Anne is the one who is working on her PhD through WHOI (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute). It was a nice day full of scientific adventure and brief moments of nervous stomach pains.

To get to Point Lookout from Amity harbor, you have to cross over a very shallow and unpredictable bar (a shallow spit of sand). By their nature, sand bars are constantly shifting, which means that the channel is irregular and impassable at times. The swell today was less than a meter, so the waves were not breaking much along the bar. We weaved our way through 2 meter deep water with cresting surf on either side; life jackets dawned and hands a grip on the gunnels (this is an exaggeration, it wasn’t that bad....although we all still wore lifejackets). Once outside of the bar, it was a short 20 minute boat ride to Boat Rock, the sight selected for the deployment of the hydrophone (underwater microphone) array. We have watched many pods of whales pass by this feature offshore, about 1 kilometer from our perch atop Mt. Olympus.

The deployment of the array was not easy. We motored just up current of Boat Rock in about 25 meters depth, and searched the echo sounder and GPS for the appropriate spot. Once located, we carefully lowered three 25kilo weights attached to each other in a line, separated by 60 meters of chain. This was no simple task, the ropes we used kept getting knotted, making the lowering less than smooth. In theory, the first weight would hit the bottom, and then the second and third weight could be lowered in the same way. The current was stronger than expected, and the weights instead anchored the boat, putting a lot of tension on the lines and our arms and hand. Eventually we were able to lower the unit that housed the battery and hard drive that would record the sounds of the surf on Boat Rock for the next two weeks, suspended from the bottom by 2 large buoys attached to a pole. The unit was meant to hang several meters off the bottom, with the buoys submerged at a depth of 5 meters. I sacrificed my arm during the lowering of the unit, to ensure that the sharp edges didn’t pop Beluga’s inflated pontoons. Let’s just say that the placement of my arm was not in the plans, but it worked.

The final step was to ensure that there were no tangles in the line that connected the weights, to the unit, to the buoys. This required a free diver to jump in and swim 15 meters down to check the position of the array in the water column. Of course, this was the job of the unpaid intern, me. I had been watching the water around the buoy before the plunge, and saw swarms of ctenophores (also known as comb jellies, although they are not a true jelly), and salps (a pelagic form of sea squirts, also our closets relative in the invertebrate taxa). Both forms I identified to be non –toxic (their sting is either too weak to feel or not present at all). They were actually quite beautiful to watch under water. I was so tired from the lowering of the weights and array, that I was only able to dive down to 5 meters; but I was able to check that the lined from the buoys to the hydrophones were taught and untangled. I was not able to swim deep enough to check the unit that housed the hard drive and battery, so we couldn’t be certain that the unit was suspended in the water column and not resting on the bottom. However, given the depth of water, Anne was confident that the deployment was a success.

The recorder will set there, in theory, for two weeks and record everything it hears. Her target is to record the sound of surf on rocks, and then play them back from the Beluga in the middle of the migration path of the humpbacks, to test whether they change their behaviour in reaction to the sound of surf (which again could indicate that they navigate using ambient sounds). It will also pick up the song of male humpback whales, which is of interest to several people involved in this census project. In fact the moment we dropped out hydrophone in today, we picked up the song of a humpback not too far away, and listened for about 15 minutes before it stopped singing and probably re-surfaced for air. The song was very interesting, but I was preoccupied with finding an albatross that briefly flew past the bow of the Beluga, most likely a Shy Albatross. I have been seeing several of them from Mt. Olympus, and was excited to be so close to a new species of one of my favourite groups of birds.

Not a bad day, tomorrow back to counting whales. I could really use a beer...

Monday, June 21, 2010

In Need of a Nap

I’m getting tired. The new volies are all very nice, but having 20 plus people around now all the time is already overwhelming for me. People try to compete for conversations, personalities are starting to clash, and our core group of 8 is no more. All of us for the first phase seemed to bond pretty well, and formed a steady routine of waking up, surfing, eating, counting whales, eating more, surfing, counting whales, and drinking. Now, everything has changed. But I’m trying to stay professional about it, plus it’s only for another 3 weeks. I’m sure the newbie’s and the oldies will fall into a new routine in the coming days. For now, I’m just trying not to strangle a few of them.

The wind blew a gale again today, and the rain came down in buckets. The whales that passed by today will not be counted, but statistics will fill in the gaps for the final estimate. We spent the day training the new volies on how to use the Cyclopes software (the program that tracks the whales movements), and the ins and outs of Theo (the theodolite for you new comers). What a long day, I’m ready for some barby, beer, and bed. It’s supposed to blow again tomorrow, so we plan to continue our search for the elusive koalas.

Jessie found the rousting trees for the giant fruit bats a few days ago, so I walked down there yesterday to check it out. It’s only about a 15 minute walk from the house. They roust in 20 meter tall gum trees, and they are in the thousands. It was hard to miss; you could hear their chatters from a ways away. It was pretty cool; they are so big and ugly. I snapped a few photos, I’ll post them in a few days when I get them uploaded. Well that’s the quick update; I’ve just determined that I don’t feel like typing anything.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Oh, We're Half Way There

I’ve reached the halfway point of my stay here on Straddie; 3 more weeks to go. Today we also get 6 new volunteers for phase 2 of the census, with 2 more volies scheduled to arrive next week. We will be operating from 2 locations for next 3 weeks, Frenchman’s (aka Mt. Olympus) and Norm’s Seat. In previous studies, the census took place at Norm’s Seat, but the locals often complained that our gear and armchairs were taking up the prime location for whale watching on the island. So this year the council erected a scaffolding at the new location Frenchman’s, which receives less foot traffic and elevates us from the general public. The data from Frenchman’s, however, need to be calibrated with those from Norm’s Seat, so it can be compared to previous years. Which is why for 3 weeks during the peak of the northern migration, we will be counting whales at both sites, enabling us to develop an algorithm from the data to correct for the location change. Then the first batch of volies (me included) will leave, and the second batch will take over back on Mt. Olympus for the remainder of the census. All very exciting stuff to you I’m sure.

My roommate Zeus will be moving into a new house with his girlfriend Amy and a few others, in an effort to mix up the old and new volies. Zeus and I have formed a special bond based on smell and our general lack of cleanliness, and it will be sad to see him go. My new roommate’s name is Paul, but we have all decided to call him Mike (even though we haven’t met him yet). There will also be another Mike (soon to be called something else), and 5 other girls...hopefully all single. So far the 7-1 female to male ratio in Australia I was told about has been a lie, but we are on an island full of old rich retired people, so I guess it’s a little biased. Luckily my odds will be increasing today, not that I’m here to meet women; after all I am a professional. It’s just nice to know the option is there.

I am in the process of trying to cancel my Baja trip, which leaves a day after I return to the states. Since I’ll be flying back here in September, I really don’t think I’ll have enough money to pay for Baja. The problem is they have already cashed my check, and I have to write a letter explaining why I think they should give me it back. I’m sure they’ll understand, but I know they probably won’t be happy about it; the numbers for the class have been low this year (probably since our government is trying to scare people from travelling, especially to Mexico). I really won’t mind if they decide to keep the money, I’ll just be forced to spend 2 weeks in warm weather, snorkelling and watching whales and birds all day. So I may be coming home a few weeks before schedule, July 16 or so, if Baja gets cancelled. Not sure when I’ll return to Monterey, but it sounds like I’m needed back at the whale watch for the busy season. If worst comes to worst I can always sell my bike back to REI, 100% satisfaction guarantee (the breaks are a little grabby).

Today is also Father’s Day, and since it would take a lot of effort to send you a card from here (and since I’m too late anyways), happy Father’s Day Dad. For those of you who know my Dad you can imagine how easy it is to miss the guy; he’s funny, he has lots of stories (of which I’ve heard a thousand times), he has a moustache, and he can kick your dad’s ass any day (although he is getting kind of ‘up there’). I’ve learned a lot of valuable lessons from you Dad, and those lessons are keeping me alive in this dangerous continent of Drop Bears and Hoopsnakes (both do not exist if you haven’t figured it out yet). Mom, you will have to wait until Mother’s Day, but you’re not so bad yourself. Thanks for the support and everything you’ve done for me so far. That being said....I’m running a little low on money (don’t panic Mom that’s a joke, I’m fine with money at the moment).
One of the volies has found a tree where the huge fruit bats roost during the day, it’s apparently just down the street from the library (about a 15 minute walk). I’ve been meaning to grab a photo of those creepy bastards, they really are freaking huge. The tree is right next to the road, and is not too tall, so it should be a good view. The surf is still epic, from the northeast, so it’s time for my morning waves.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The List

I’m not ashamed to admit that I am in fact a lister. I like to list all the new species I’ve seen around the world, particularly new birds. I even have a running Excel spreadsheet with species color coded based on their taxonomy, with a pie chart that breaks down what percentage of the species belong to various orders. Here is a list of some wildlife seen so far.


Common Myna (Sturnus tristis)
White-backed Australian Magpie (Cracticus tibicen)
Silver Gull (Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae)
Little-pied Cormorant (Phalacrocorax sulcirostris)
Masked Lapwig (Vanellus miles)
Australian White Ibis (Threskiornis molucca)
Noisy Friarbird (Philemon corniculatus)
Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike (Coracina novaehollandiae)
Rainbow Lorikeet (Trichoglossus haematodus)
Brahminy Kite (Haliastur indus)
Common Noddy (Anous stolidus)
Australian Gannet (Morus serrator)
Australian Pelican (Pelecanus conspicillatus)
Crested Tern (Thalasseus bergii)
Welcome Swallow (Hirundo neoxena)
White-bellied Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus leucogaster)
Magpie-lark (Grallina cyanoleuca)
Figbird (Sphecotheres viridis)
Laughing Kookaburra (Dacelo novaeguineae)
Bush Stone-curlew (Esacus magnirostris)
Sacred Kingfisher (Todiramphus sanctus)
Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)
Crested Pigeon (Ocyphaps lophotes)
Whistling Kite (Milvus sphenurus)
Eastern Osprey (Pandion cristatus)
Spangled Drongo (Dicrurus bracteatus)
Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)
Eastern Reef Egret (Egretta sacra)
Lewin’s Honeyeater (Meliphaga lewinii)
Australasian Grebe (Tachybaptus novaehollandiae)
Black Kite (Milvus migrans)
Willy Wagtail (Rhipidura leucophrys)
Caspian Tern (Hydropogne caspia)
(Juv) Northern Giant Petrel (Macronectes halli)
Shy Albatross (Thalassarche cauta...may not be correct genus)


Dwarf Minke Whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata subspecies
Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops truncates, possibly T. aduncus as well)
Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae)
Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphin (Sousa sp., most likely S. chinensis)

Other Critters:

Manta Rays
Bronze Whaler Shark
Tiger Shark
Shovel-nose Shark
Fruit Bat
Green Sea Turtle
Loggerhead Turtle
Many Geckos

Vissions From the Tube

Mark your calendars, today will always be known as the day that Mike Johns got barrelled. That’s right ladies and gents, today I surfed a wave that peeled over my head. Albeit my time in the tube was short lived, I lived known the less. Let me set the scene. It was at Cylinders Beach, a point break that seems to like an eastern swell. The waves were chest to head high and offshore (the wind was blowing from the shore out to sea). The offshore wind carved a perfect face, and the point break enabled it to peel along for at least 2 football field lengths. When I arrived at the beach at 8:30 this morning, there was no one out. Imagine that, perfect head high waves at a point break with offshore winds at about 10 knots....and NO one out. You will never find such conditions in California.

I got out a little late today, I was waiting for the air to warm up a bit; it’s starting to feel much more like winter in the land down under. I caught a few waves which I thought were epic, given the weather conditions and the lack of crowd. Then...there was wave #3, the new best wave of my life. It felt like overhead, but in hindsight it may have been more like head high. Anyways it was perfect. The wave was going well, when suddenly it started to feel some shallow water, and pitched up suddenly in front of me. Before I knew it I was in a tube of water. The sound of the wind and white water around me dampened. All I could here was a low rush of air from the tube unfolding behind me. It sent a spray of water across my path, and showered over the face in front. My first time in the tube; something I will remember forever. It didn’t last long, but it was worth it. Hopefully tomorrow the sea will provide the same merit of waves as did today.

It was a good day for birds as well. As I go out of the water this morning, a flock of Australian White Ibis flew by above the beach. I’m told by the local that Ibis’ in Australia are like Pigeons in the US, but they are still new to me. These were all well and good, yet it still doesn’t beat the tube nose (birds from the order Procellaridae) sightings I had this afternoon during my late shift up on Mt. Olympus. While watching for whales, I spotted what looked like a Northern Giant Petrel and a Shy Albatross through the theodolite. These are birds I thought I’d only be able to see on an offshore voyage, and yet the strong south-easterlies that have been hindering our viewing of Humpbacks probably forced these strictly pelagic species closer to shore.

What a great day. Now I’m drinking some beers while watching Titanic with my fellow volunteers; I’m waiting for the sinking scene before I pay attention. We had Kangaroo for dinner; they look much better than they taste. I’m loving life down here, and I can’t wait to come back and see all of you. I have no idea what’s going to happen next, or how I’m going to pay for it, but I can’t wait to experience it. Well Titanic is about to sink, I must be off.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Tarp

I will now tell you about a recent controversy that has developed over the last few weeks here on Straddie, the drama of the TARP. When we first started the survey up on what is now Mt. Olympus (the scaffolding in the picture), we were tarpless. This meant that we were exposed to any rain squalls that came through, which so far has been very infrequent, and the glorious sun. The sun is our savour, the benefactor of life on this planet, and we soak it up during our sub-tropical stay on this island. The sun is the only thing that keeps our body temperatures up on Mt. Olympus above the uncomfortable hypothermia range, especially when the cold south-easterlies kick up. Along with its warming potential, the sun also turns our skin a nice golden brown, and gives us that “I’ve been doing field research” look (the only drawback being the potential for skin cancer later in life).

A few days after our first survey session Dave, one of the program directors, suggested during the nightly debriefing that we erect a tarp over the scaffolding. This would be an attempt to shield us from the weather, and consequently block out our friend the sun. As expected, none of us liked the idea. A couple of days past with no more mention of the tarp, and we the volunteers were glad that they leaders had forgotten about it. Then suddenly out of the blue, a tarp appeared up on the scaffolding. It sat there in its bag for some time during a lull in whales. Finally we had our first whales of the day round the headland to the south, when Dave decided that would be a good time to set up the tarp. We fumbled with the theo (also known as a theodolite, the device in the center of the photo), and struggled to keep out bearing on the only pod of the day while Dave fastening lines and bungy cords over our heads.

After the deployment of the tarp, our attitudes changed up on Mt. Olympus. Our faces were no longer graced by the rays of our savour, and the cold southern winds chilled our bones to the core. Needless to say we were not happy about the damn tarp. We liked the sun and didn’t mind the occasional shower, the tarp had to go. Our hatred for the tarp was emphasized when the wind climbed above 15 knots. That’s when the tarp would start to taunt us. It would rise slowly than slap abruptly down towards our heads, creating a loud thunder-like roar. It seemed to respond to our complaints, and would talk back at the perfect time to interrupt whatever we were trying to say. I would mention that I hated the tarp, and it would lash back in full force, shaking Mt. Olympus in a deafening defiance. Someone would say,

“ Blow Pod A, 12...SLAAAP”

“Sorry I didn’t catch that could you say again”


“What, the damn tar.....RUMBLE RUMBLE”

Very hard to work in such conditions; the tarp was cold, loud, and a comedian. Last night we had another gale (strong winds in the 40 knot and above range), and I lay in bed dreaming of the tarp ripping to shreds and blowing away. A awoke to the news that the survey day would be cancel due to wind, meaning that I had a full day of surf ahead of me at Cylinders (the only protected beach on this part of the island). But the best news of all was that the tarp was no more. Apparently someone had scrambled up Mt. Olympus during the night and nicked the tarp and its rigging. Hurray, we all did rejoice, the tarp was now least in the time being. Later today, we heard word that someone had wrote a note on the door to Mt. Olympus explaining that the tarp was receiving complaints by some of the residents and was removed by the local council. This is an unlikely story, the council members probably wouldn’t go up there on a Sunday night tarp recognisance mission. It was probably a drunken surfer looking to score some free rope.

So the tarp drama continues. Who was it that complained about the tarp? Did the council actually remove it? Will the tarp be brought back from the dead? These questions have yet to be answered, and may never be.


Saturday, June 12, 2010

Cheese Cake and Stalkers

Another slow day for whale sightings, at least during my shifts. We had to pods come through totalling 8 whales in 5 hours. It wasn’t so bad though, the weather despite being chillier than usual was pleasant, a slight breeze out of the southeast with sunshine. I managed to get a closeout surf session in before my first shift, before the holiday crowd arrived at the beach (apparently it’s the Queen’s birthday). I counted 40 surfers at Frenchman’s while up on Mt. Olympus. Some of the other volunteers made some Tim Tam, peanut butter, and white chocolate cheese cake for dessert, so I’ll be feeling the pain tonight. Can’t wait to have some more for breakfast.

One of the other Mikes (aka Zeus) went out to the pub tonight to watch the rugby match between Australia and England I think. I opted out because I found out my stalker was going to be there tonight. It’s a long story, but I now have my first stalker in Australia. I met her walking up the stairs from Frenchman’s Beach after the surf, and she’s been popping up everywhere I go on the island since. Apparently she’s from Brisbane, and she is quite crazy. She found out when my shift was and sat below out scaffolding for over an hour waiting for us (me) to come down. This morning after my surf I ran into her again as I was walking back to the house, luckily she still hasn’t discovered where we live, I took a different route so she wouldn’t see. Everyone is finding the situation super hilarious, especially since my nick name has been changed to Bret (since there will be 4 Mikes for the study soon and I look a lot like Bret from Flight of the Concords), and Bret has a groupie named Mil in the TV show.

Since I missed the rugby game, I plan on getting up early tomorrow morning to watch the world cup with my house mates, England vs. the US (there a 3 English in the group and 3 Americans). The coverage here will be 4 in the morning on Sunday, which will make for a long day tomorrow. It should be loud in the house, so I’m sure the Italian will be forced to get up and watch as well. I don’t usually watch games, but I feel it appropriate to support my country (especially when I’m surrounded by all of these Brits).

I also plan to email the project manager of HARC (an acoustic study of humpbacks and their response to vessel noise) and sign up as a volunteer for the project in mid September. It will be for another 6 weeks north of Brisbane near Peregian and Noosa Head (a famous surf break). Since they accept anyone who’s willing to come back from this study, it’s an opportunity that I just can’t pass up. I would be doing a lot of the same stuff, sitting on a hill spotting whales and plotting them with a theodolite. The main difference will be a chance to go out with the tagging boats and tag humpbacks as they migrate south from the Great Barrier Reef. I’ll also get a chance to work with hydrophones that will be deployed off the coast to record the song and social sounds of humpback whales in real time. It will definitely be worth the effort to get back out here.

My plan is to work as much as possible in August, and keep my apartment in Monterey. I still would like to go to grad school at MLML, but that may change depending on the connections I make during the HARC project. I like California and would be happy to study there, but if something comes up in Aussie Land it may be hard to pass up. It’s all up in the air, yet it’s exciting not knowing what will happen next. Right now I’m just focusing on avoiding those damn Drop Bears. I posted a photo of the first batch of volunteers at Brown Lake, 10 more will be arriving next Saturday. From left to right: Emma (English), Me (outer space), Zeus (English), Amy (American), Jane (English), Jessie (American), Lou (Australian), Sabrina (Italian), Kylie (Australian).

By the way, you should watch the Video “beached whale” on Youtube. It’s a cartoon about a beached New Zealander whale, not a flick on an actual beached whale. Very funny.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Don't feel much like typing tonight, so here's a photo of the lasagna we had for dinner. A picture is worth a thousand words (clearly by the photo you can see how happy I am about the lasagna).

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Stranded in the Bush

We finally made it to one of the inland lakes this morning, a refreshing change from staring at the ocean all day. Lou somehow talked one of the local tourist bus drives to truck us up the hill to Brown Lake, saving us a long 3 hour walk. We were dropped off and told to meet back in the parking lot no later than 11:40, because he had plans to jump onto a heli (helicopter) and fly around the island while the crew photographed powerlines for the local tele company. So we dipped our feet in the water, realized that it wasn’t warm enough to actually go for a swim, and began our walk along the trail that fringed the lake. Our general warnings were to watch out for snakes and those elusive Drop Bears I keep hearing about.

The main goal was to find koalas, but I was constantly distracted by everything else around me. Which worked in my favour; the group ended up far ahead, and I got to walk through the gum tree woods in peace. As most people have figured out by now, I enjoy my alone time. It’s hard for me to be around a big group of the same people for an extended period of time. It was nice to get away from the group and hear the wind through the trees instead of the jokes about farting and whales (not that I don’t like a good fart or whale joke). On my walk a saw a few Australian Grebes setting on the lake, a floating stick that resembled a snake (I stared at it for a long time before I finally figured out it was a stick), and many plants that are completely new to me. Unfortunately I couldn’t find a good plant book, so I’ll have to read about them later. There were some very small carnivorous plants that grew along the water’s edge, covered in sticky droplets that they must secrete in order to capture and digest small insects. We didn’t see any koalas, but I have a feeling it will happen soon.

It turns out the trail around the lake was longer than we initially thought, so we ended up running back to the parking lot to make it in time. When we finally arrived, the tour van/bus was nowhere in sight. We understood why he couldn’t stay; he was going to go up in a helicopter, so there were no hard feelings. Since there was no longer any hurry, a couple of us jumped in the lake anyways; we had warmed up a bit from the run. The lake is called Brown, but the water is actually a ruby red colour. The tannin from the bark and leaves of the tea tree (or paper bark tree) gives the lake its colour. It’s also supposed to be good for the skin, and makes your hair stand up. We didn’t stay in long; the water was much colder than the ocean. We started the long walk back to town when luckily the tour guide came barrelling down the road and picked us up. He had been tracking our footprints around the lake in an attempt to corral us back. We’re not sure how we missed him; it may forever remain a mystery.

It was nice having a day off, but we are the ones who count whales...and the whales must be counted. Today we get back to the business of staring at the big blue, waiting for the occasional glimpse of one the oceans most charismatic creatures. That is of course when they’re breaching (quote from the tourists in Monterey... “When are they going to breach?”). How the hell am I supposed to know? Maybe that’s an idea for a thesis?

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Look Out! They Could Kill You

Woke up to another gale this morning; a stiff cool breeze from the south east again. Mike, the project coordinator, decided the white caps formed by the wind would make it too difficult to see whales. Missing whales would skew the daily count to a lower than realistic number, altering the results of the census. Therefore, we get our first full day off in 6 days...hurray. There is a lot of the island that we haven’t seen yet since we’ve been restricted to staying within walking distance of Point Lookout; we only get a 2 hour break between shifts. So today we’ve decided to take a bus to Dunwich and check out the interior of the island. If you look up North Stradbroke in Google Earth, you can see that there are several inland lakes fringed in gum tree forest, along with an endless expanse of dunes along the eastern coast. There should be some good birds to be had near the lakes, and we stand a good chance of spotting a koala.

Speaking of animal sightings, I finally saw my first Roo yesterday. There were two large once and a small Joey grazing on a lawn near Norm’s Seat at sunrise. I’ve never seen an animal move in such a way, it looks a lot like their moon walking. They were fairly tame; I sat on the lawn next to them for about 15 minutes. They eventually grew tired of my presence and hopped back into the woods, but they past within a meter of where I was sitting. One of the big ones was caressing the tail of the other in a very sensual way, which made me a little concerned about my well being. I’ve seen those videos on Youtube and didn’t want to become another roo molestation statistic.

Yesterday during a lull of passing humpbacks, I was told about a terrifying marsupial that lurks around the gum trees called a Drop Bear. It’s a carnivore that sits on out hanging limbs, and waits for its prey to pass below. It then drops down unto its unsuspecting prey, and bites into their jugular. Lou tells me they have enlarged index fingers with sharp claws that enable them to grasp onto the neck of their victim. They only hunt at night using oversized red or yellow eyes (depending on the species) and their completely silent. Not too many photos of them exist, since they usually kill you before you see them. What a horrific yet unique form of evolution, an image of the chupocabre comes to mind when trying to describe them. Needless to say as we were walking to Fish’s Restaurant for Tai night last night, I stayed well away from over hanging limbs. I was pretty startled by one of the fruit bats though, they are freaking huge. It was as big as a crow.

Oh yeah, and there’s also the Hoop Snake (another species to add to the list of things that will kill you down here). They lower a section of their body down from a limb (in the shape of a hoop) and coat hanger you as you walk by. They then strangle you to death. I don’t even think Bill Bryson would want to “Walk in These Woods”. Even the Laughing Kookaburra, the bird in the photo, gives you a weird look if you get too close. We had two on the fence outside out house this morning, and I’m fairly confident that one of them was giving me the evil eye.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

I Like Surfing

It has been a long day. This morning during the early shift, we had a total of 23 whales come past the point in about 6 pods. The wind blew a gale last night, and rained some time around 2 in the morning. The wind was about 20 knots plus when we arrived at 7am for the early shift. We donned our gloves and wind breakers as we sat and waited for those characteristic blows which barely stood out amongst the massive heard of sea sheep (white caps). Interestingly, the Bottlenose Dolphins are often seen chauffeuring the Humpbacks past the point as they migrate north to their breeding grounds.

So that’s what most of my days are going to be consist of for the next 5 weeks, sitting on top of Mt. Olympus waiting for the visible breath of sea going cattle, making their seasonal movement to a warmer climate. It’s actually not a bad gig, staring at the ocean is one of my favourite pastimes. Luckily I get a 2 hour break between shifts, which I usually use to go surfing in perfect waves with no one out, or to scout birds and mammals that I’ve never seen before. One of the head research dudes spotted a non-human killer type of snake on the trail to Mt. Olympus today, something else to look out for in the upcoming weeks.

The surf today was like a good day at Cowell’s (a classic break in Santa Cruz), waist to chest high and clean, at a break that has been appropriately named Cylinders. The only difference though was no one except for two other whale volunteers where out...brilliant. I didn’t bring a springy with me, so I was stoked when the sun actually showed itself here and there as the clouds moved threw to the north. When I’m on the same shift as Lou (the one with all of the boards), I’m usually stuck riding a short board. It’s squirrely and requires a lot of paddling. I can’t wait to drive down to southern CA in August and ride my brand new Durrell Longboard (hopefully it will be done by then).

I’m learning a lot about the Australian culture here too. They have a drive through bottle shop...amazing. We simply drive the 60’s yellow shaggen wagon down a winding corkscrew ramp to a sign that reads “please shut down engine”. From there you just walk through some auto doors and voila...booze. I thought Alabama was bad, but nope; Australia has got it beat. I’m trying to limit my drinking here. Not because I’m around “professionals” (they drink more than the Irish), but because beer is almost a third as much here as in the states. Since I’m not actually making any money during my stay in Australia, I’ve decided to limit my consumption.

I’m starting to actually miss people’s weird. I think this has been sparked by the news that Reef (my big black dog), is acting very depressed after returning to my home in Monterey without me. It may also be due to all of the comments I’ve been receiving from people who are actually reading this blog. It easy to forget how much you enjoy the company of certain people and dogs until you are a whole ocean basin away from them. Especially when you listen to bands like Dirty Sweet. I should break the news sooner than later that I may continue this lifestyle for a little longer, and fly back to the land down under in September to work on another Humpback Whale study. It’s an opportunity that I just can’t pass up. I’ll be in Monterey during August, so hopefully I’ll be able to see all of you then. It isn’t finalized yet, but I think I’m going to do it. You only live once, today I live. Tonight, I go to bed.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Not So Summer Breeze

The wind has shifted and is now blowing at 20+ knots from the southeast, cold wind from the southern ocean. The sun is out but it’s having a hard time competing with the breeze. Looks like today will be red cap only and no speedo (which is a reference to the movie Life Aquatic, if that went right over your head). We are hoping for more whales to come through soon. It is still early yet, and the peak of the migration probably won’t happen for another couple of weeks. It can get pretty dull up on the tower, which has now been named Mt. Olympus. We go for hours without seeing a single humpback, and instead count the boats. Yesterday we had our first jet ski!. A dugong was sighted by one of the surfers at Frenchman’s Beach (a strictly salt water manatee), right below Mt. Olympus, but we didn’t see it. To kill the time we often break out into song, “and it seems to me, you’ve spent your life like a candle in the wind....BLOW 86 degrees...2 reticules”.

A few of us went out to the pub the night before last, and spent all of yesterday recovering (luckily we only had 13 whales yesterday). I’ve discovered that Vegemite is a much better hangover cure then Papa Chevo’s burritos. There was a cover solo guitar player singing classics like Hotel California, Closing Time, and We Come from the Land Down Under. Our favourite was Creep by Radio Head, which we all sang quite loudly (better then the dude playing I thought). On our walk back I heard the large fruit bats (their echolocation sounded like someone clicking in my ear), an electrical storm to the south (which apparently no one else saw, it may have been the lighthouse), and I was mauled by a gang of mosquitoes (they find me wherever I go). There is a rather awkward but very entertaining video of us dancing; it may or may not end up on Youtube one of these days.

Today, I search for some marsupials. I can see roo shit all over the grass in town, but have yet to see the roo. I’m told some Wallabies are often seen grazing in the park at the end of town at sunrise. To late today but one of these mornings it’ll happen. This wind may close down operations up on Mt. Olympus, allowing me more time to hunt for the elusive pouched mammals. If not, I sure hope we see some action today. 2 hours with no whales can drive a man crazy; especially when you’re at earshot height with all of the crows, noisy friarbirds, and rainbow lorikeets. CAAAAWW CAAWWWW CAWWWWW.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Everything is New

Observing wildlife usually requires a great deal of patience. This is not the case here in Australia. During a 3 hour survey yesterday at Point Lookout, we managed to see a new species of dolphin, 2 new sharks, 3 new birds, 1 possible new whale, and loads of fish. This off course is coming from a bias perspective since everything here is new to me. Yet even though the locals don’t seem to be too impressed by the Kookaburra, but they do still seem to have a fascination for what the ocean can reveal.

The most exciting species spotted yesterday for me was the Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphin. Two of them swam by the rocks at Point Lookout at the beginning of our shift. It looked like a mother and her calf; there was an obvious disparity in size. Apparently earlier in the day, the previous team saw them swimming with a pod of 6 Bottlenose Dolphins. They look to me like a large Spinner Dolphin with a triangular dorsal, much smaller than the Bottlenose. One new Cetacean to add to the list.

The shark sightings yesterday come in a close second. Mom you may not want to read this part. Since I had the mid day shift, and the weather was warm, I decided to go for a morning surf. Lou, my usual surf buddy decided to go for a swim instead, so it was just me and the big blue. The waves were great, small but fun, and the water crystal clear. Nothing noteworthy about the surf session at that point, until I had a chat with the morning survey team later in the day. Apparently they spotted two large 4 meter Tiger Sharks swimming just beyond the rocks around the corner from where I was surfing. Good God, this place is awesome. Luckily I didn’t see them and vice versa.

We didn’t see any Sea Tigers on my shift unfortunately, but another new species for me was spotted. A small 1.5 meter Bronze Whaler Shark was cruising the waves, apparently another known man eater. A school of fish were trailing it, waiting for left over I guess. It looked and swam like a small golden whale shark with teeth. At this point you may be thinking it crazy that people get in the water here at all, but I think it’s the clear water that makes this place deceptively sharky. There are probably just as many sharks in Monterey, it’s just the waters so murky you can’t see them. At least here I’ll know when to get out of the way.

A few Minke Whales have been seen in the last few days, and I’m told they’re a different species than the ones found off California. Off Australia they get Dwarf and Antarctic Minkes, although it’s nearly impossible to tell from shore 3km away. Dave Paton, one of the researchers, believes they are most likely Dwarf Minkes. They act just like the Minkes in Monterey, hardly produce a visible blow and swim in erratic patterns, leaving a long trail of fluke prints (circular slick patches left by the whale’s tail moving up and down...not oil as some people have suspected).

I discovered yesterday that the snorkelling here is great as well. Right as I jumped in I spotted a large silver guitar fish resting on the bottom, the exact species I’m unclear of. I didn’t bring a fish book, so I’ll just have to review the photos later. It looks like I’m going to have a hard time leaving this place, it literally has everything I need...except of course the company of those who are taking the time to actually read this boring stuff. I’m starting to miss you guys, I see that Sam has already discovered my microscope. I’m really starting to miss Reef, I hope he’s getting plenty of exercise. I’m sure my parents and Rachel are doing a good job.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010


I’m finally starting to get over the virus that has been going around the station. Today was a bright and sunny day of sub-tropical paradise. Worked the morning shift from 7-10am as the theodolite operator. It was super fun, just like playing a Star Wars video game. Someone calls out “Blow, 120 degrees, 1 reticule, then I swing the theo around to the correct barring and shoot. We saw maybe 12 whales in the morning.

Surfed for an hour outside the station at Frenchman’s. I group of small manta rays swam below me, one jumped beyond an approaching wave.

Worked again from 12-2pm as a spotter. Finished the day with a walk in the intertidal and discovered many crabs. Just as Darwin suggested, life adapts to its environment, almost all of the intertidal invertebrates were some shade of red, which matches well with the geology. This was also true for Kauai, where the inverts there were mostly all dark to black, to match the fresh lava flows.

Now I rest. I’ve posted a photo of the station. The yellow wagon is out main form of transportation. The boat is the “Beluga”, hopefully we will be taking it out soon.

Oh yeah, spotted a Kookaburra finally, yet to get a photo.