Thursday, August 26, 2010

Yes...I've had Some Experience with Boats

It appears I’m not the only one who’s returned to Mackay, the humpbacks are beginning their movements south again to the feeding grounds. Just like me, they’ve been hanging out in the Great Barrier Reef (except many of them were successful at mating); but unlike me, instead of returning to Mackay for work, it’s all play at the moment for the humpies. Stare at the horizon long enough off of eastern Australia, from the GBR to the southern Gold Coast, and you’re likely to see massive splashes caused by 20-40 tons of blubber interacting with the water. Much of the breaching that we’ve been seeing has been from calves, which would only be a few months in age at this point. The southern migration will be in full swing by the end of next month, just in time for studying their movements during HARC. It’s nice to see blows break the boring pattern of a motionless horizon while on the job.

I received my MSIC card in the mail while I was away in the breeding grounds, which provides me access to working offshore in Australia. So today was my first boat day for this project and it was heaps of fun. I was stationed on the Adrenalin, a 14 meter twin screw party boat, as the Marine Fauna Observer. Instead of getting rained on by coal dust with bright green foam plugs in my ears, I was misted by the spray of the sea in the wake, with the unfortunate sound of Lady Gaga in my ear (almost as annoying as the noise from a coal trestle). The boat is everything the trestle is not: clean, comfortable, and independent of land.

The crew’s inability to select descent music was not their only failure, particularly the new decky, who was as green as they come. For starters, the kid was late for work on his first day, which is a huge red flag. He was noticeably uncomfortable on boats, which is expected from someone who only has 1 hour of experience. The skipper was not exactly the best teacher either, resulting in several incidents during the rest of the day. Mistake #1, don’t let the anchor chain play out to the end without saying anything. We lost a crucial piece of the winch due to this mistake by the decky, disabling its ability to pull the anchor back up to its resting position on the bow. So at the end of our marine fauna observation, during which we spotted several groups of active humpbacks, it was time to manually pull up the anchor (ironically the wench is named “strong arm” according to the skipper). We learned how appropriate this name was indeed after fighting the anchor for a good 15 minutes. The green decky nearly lost his exposed toes twice during the operation; and we all cautiously tried to keep our fingers from getting wrapped up in the chain.

Mistake #2, this time by the skipper: don’t be too aggressive on the gear shift levers. The cable that linked the operator’s brain to the engines transmission failed, immediately putting the starboard engine into a coma (it still ran, but there was no response). This really wasn’t the skippers fault though, cables break all the time. I’ve personally had at least 4 cables break on me during my 1.5 years as skipper on the whale watch, the first time being me very first day as captain. We decided to call it a day before something else went wrong, and limped our way back to Mackay harbor. On the way back we spotted at least 2 groups of humpback whales, and one pod of around 25 Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphins.

Surprisingly the skipper was able to get the boat repaired in time for an afternoon blast, the second blast of the day. “Copy that Linda, 5 minutes to blast, no fauna sighted within the zone…over”. Five minutes later….boom! Actually more like a POP. Today was a long day, it looks like the weather will be deteriorating for the next few days as well, so hopefully I get put on the boats again (I like rough weather, but only when I’m not in charge of the boat. It’s a good ab workout anyway).

Saturday, August 21, 2010

A Night on the Reef

I have a lot to say about the last couple of days, so if you don’t feel like reading then you can just look at the pretty pictures. I got so fed up with sitting around in Cairns that I decided to spend the money and book a two day one night stay on the Great Barrier Reef. I ended up with 6 dives total on board the Reef Encounter, one of which was a night dive. We visited 4 different reefs, highlighted in bright yellow on the map. I was so exhausted by the diving that I didn’t do much snorkeling; not that snorkeling was necessary anyway given the quality of the dives. Below is a somewhat brief synopsis of my trip.

Day 1, 8/20:

We departed Cairns at 7:30AM on board the Reef Experience, which would then transfer us to the Reef Encounter, a 50 meter catamaran with a full kitchen, bar, hot showers, a hot tub that doesn’t work, and everything you need for an extended stay diving on the Great Barrier Reef. The Reef Encounter was moored at Hastings Reef. We started off with an intro to the boat and the crew, followed by a quick 20 minute snorkel to get used to being wet before the first dive. The reef was the best I’ve seen so far, the highlight being a huge Maury Wrasse, expect this one wasn’t fed like the behemoth pictured in my last post. We then had an excellent lunch prepared by chef Fry (because he looks like Fry from the show Futurama). After our food was properly digested, it was time for our first dive.

This was my third dive on the GBR, but my first off of the Encounter, so I decided to go with a guide just in case I had any problems with the gear and navigating the reef. This dive was at Hastings Reef, and I managed a max depth of 12.7 meters during a 37 min dive. I went with 2 other people who also were not yet comfortable diving without a guide. Our dive instructor trainee was named Phil, and it just so happened to be his 100th dive. Apparently there’s a tradition in diving where you have to go naked on your 100th dive. The boyfriend of the girl that was going to dive with us seemed particularly concerned about this tradition, and the girlfriend seemed particularly embarrassed at his white ass under water (which we later named Migaloo, after the lone white humpback whale that is seen every year in the Eastern Australian population).

Phil kept pointing out (yes with all 3 appendages) the various types of anemonefish or clownfish along the dive; such as the Barrier Reef Anemonefish and the Tomato Anemonefish. I think all dive instructors assume that everyone wants to see the damn clownfish. I was more interested in the echinoderms of the reef, the seastars, sea cucumbers, urchins, and crinoids (feather stars) which are not common I don’t think in colder temperate waters. Crinoids are unique among echinoderms, for they are suspension feeders. They capture plankton with their many arms that appear feathery from the numerous side branches called pinnules. The pinnules are sticky and capture the plankton from the water, where they are then transported view cilia to the mouth located on the upper surface rather than the bottom like in seastars. The picture isn’t great, but you can see all the arms with pinnules. They can swim through the water by waving their arms, but are usually stationary. They seem to pick spots on the reef where currents are strongest, to maximize their exposure to food particles. At first glance they appear as though they are a type of algae, and are apparently largely ignored by the reef inhabitants (including the divers who are only focused on finding Nemo).

During the first dive I was having trouble keeping water out of my mask since my beard had not been trimmed in several days, and I spent most of my time blowing air and snot into my mask to keep the water out. So for the second dive, I tried the old Vaseline trick, which acts as a barrier when smeared all over your mustache. For Dive#2, I went with the same two people who required a guide for the first dive, and we did not stay down for very long. We were at our second location, Norman Reef, and my max depth was 10.7 meters during a 30min dive. One of my buddies was having trouble controlling his buoyancy, and he kept floating up and down in the water column, while flailing about and scaring all of the fish. This was my favorite spot, the reef juts up with huge pinnacles, and there are many trenches, valleys, and partially enclosed caves to explore. I tried my best not to touch the reef, and cringed as I watched my dive buddy destroy thousands of years of reef building by the combined effort of tiny coral polyps.

The two dives and the snorkel session really worked up an appetite, and we all eagerly awaited what Fry had prepared us for dinner. Reef Encounter does not promote feeding the fish, but they inadvertently do it anyways when the chef throws the scrapes out the window. We watched from the upper deck as swarms of dark green Giant Trevally and Red Bass appeared to pick up the leftovers. I think the Trevally were changing color, as fish often do when they are stimulated, which gave them their deep green appearance and white tipped dorsal fins. The Red Bass also looked a stunning scarlet red in the fading light. Then the sharks appeared. One 2 meter Gray Reef Shark turned into 4. They were beautiful to watch as they circled around the oil slick from the kitchen scraps. It was like watching a fluid moving painting of a tropical ocean scene.

After another fantastic meal and the shark show, when dawned our gear once again in preparation for Dive# 3…The night dive! For the night dive we were not allowed to go deeper than 10 meters, so my max was 9.5 meters during a 28 min dive, still at Norman Reef. This time I planned to go with two more experienced divers who had been on the boat for several days. One was my roommate named Sibyl, who called one of the White Tipped Reef Sharks often seen at this spot her Romeo, and Craig, a fellow Californian from San Diego. We were told that the first divers in the water stood the best chance of seeing the Gray Reef Sharks before they scattered back to the depth, so naturally we were the first ones ready to go.

I really didn’t want a leaky mask on this dive so a globed a thick layer of Vaseline on my face, which turned out to be a big mistake. I ended having so much on my fingers that when I went to rub the spit around the inside of my mask, I also smeared a layer of Vaseline around as well. After about 15 minutes I couldn’t see much of anything, and stayed very close to my buddies. I also had a bummed light, which would flicker from very bright to candle strength. This made the night dive extra interesting and still very fun.

The best part of the dive was watching the opportunistic relationship between a Giant Trevally and Sibyl. The Travelly’s have grown accustomed to night divers at this spot, and have learned to take advantage of the dive lights as they scan the reef. One Trevally followed Sibyl’s light during almost the entire dive, and when the light revealed a fish hiding in the coral, the Trevally would swoop in with lighting speed and snatch it. The ironic part was Sibyl is a vegetarian, so she tried her best not to let the light rest on one fish for very long, to keep the Trevally from noticing. Finally Sibyl got so tired of the Trevally benefiting from her light that she suddenly swam rapidly in one direction, then quickly doused her torch and altered course, which proved to be effective at evading the clever opportunist.

By far my favorite part of the experience was the night’s sleep. I have been sleeping on a hostel bed for the last week, where I could feel every spring poking me in the back; so of course a nice mattress with clean sheets was a welcomed sight. After the dive I went to the top deck and watched the stars for a while. The moon was a quarter full, but a lack of lights from civilization afforded a view of the sky that has been completely lost to most places on land. The sound of the gentle breaking waves over the reef added to the already subduing sight of the puffy clouds, illuminated silver by the moon, slowing drifting across a deep blanket of vivid stars. My room was at water level, and it was nice hearing the water interact with the hull as it pitched. It took a while to get used to the free falling experience of the rocking boat while lying in bed, but once I was out it was all over.

Day 2, 8/21

That is of course until the 6:00AM courtesy wake up, to get ready for the morning dive at 6:30. I rose out of bed and peered through my porthole window to see the sun creeping above the horizon, turning the clouds this time the familiar colors of a sunrise over the ocean. The breeze was steady from the southwest, and the air was chilly for being the tropics.

Our last dive at Norman Reef, Dive#4 was my deepest dive yet; a max depth of 17.7 meters during a 39 minute dive. We were going to go deeper for longer, but my training only allows me to dive 18 meters max, and they didn’t want us diving for longer than 40 minutes. The punishment for breaking these and other rules was a spoonful of Vegemite; which I happen to enjoy but only in small doses. Immediately when we made it to the bottom we spotted a cuttlefish hanging around the shadow of the boat. Many of the fish were just re-emerging from their night time hiding spots, as the golden rays of the morning sun started to light up the reef once again. Embarrassingly I managed to hit my head on the bottom of the boat while surfacing from this dive. I thought the boat was on the other side of the submerged stairs, and was surprised when I struck a barrier at the surface. That’s what happens when you dive before your morning coffee, which unfortunately is usually of the instant variety in Australia. Luckily no one seemed to notice, that would have been a spoonful of Vegemite for sure.

Dive# 5 and 6 were both at a new location called Saxon Reef, known for a coral formation called twin peaks. Dive 5 was 16.6 meters max during a 39 minute dive; Dive 6 maxed out at 15.4 meters and went on for 40 minutes. Highlights included an extended view of a Blue Spotted Ray, and huge schools of Great Barracuda. I was told that barracuda have been known to snatch off the fingers of divers, so I made sure not to use my spirit fingers. We found a cleaning station at one point and watched as a huge Potato Grouper came in for his daily grooming by the small Cleaner Wrasse, whose diligent efforts keep the reef fish free of ecto or skin parasites, in return for not being eaten.

All and all it was an experience I won’t soon forget, and was well worth the money. During the ride back to Cairns I posted myself on the back deck and did what I do best, stare at the ocean and watch for whales. I didn’t see any humpbacks, but I did find 2 groups of Spinner Dolphins, several Green Turtles, and many Sooty Terns and Common Noddy’s. Pulling back into the harbor was my least favorite part. Needless to say I was not ready to put my shoes back on and walk amongst the terrestrial people once again. Until my next trip out to sea.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Flying Under Water

Flying over it was exciting, but actually swimming amongst the coral and fish of the Great Barrier Reef was an overwhelming experience. Not because there were so many tourists in the water, I hardly noticed once I jumped off the boat, but because there is so much life that you’re constantly bombarded with brilliant colors and shapes. The GBR fulfills its reputation of one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

Unfortunately, I was unable to convince the crew of the Osprey V that I am in fact a certified diver. Not sure what happened to the Osprey 1-4? The company was sponsored by PADI, yet I have a NAUI certificate, and apparently the two providers don’t get along very well. I found a way to look up my number on the NAUI website, but couldn’t get the page printed before our trip departed. I was told that this would not be a problem at check in, they had internet on the boat and I would be able to look it up and show them directly. To my surprise the two dive companies are so competitive that I was not allowed to access the NAUI website from the PADI boat. Bullshit. So because of their rivalry, I could not have an actual dive session. Instead I had to take the intro dive course on the boat, and link arms with other newbie’s on our first excursion out on the reef. The first reef we dove is called Saxon, about an hour’s boat drive from Cairns.

The intro dive wasn’t so bad actually. We had to demonstrate that we could clear water from our masks, and locate our regulator (the piece that supplies air from the tank to your mouth) underwater. Cake. Then we were off. It was nice to be towed around to all of the good spots on the reef, while the instructor watched our gages, adjusted our buoyancy, and pretty much wiped our asses for us. The dive was really worth it when at the end a cuttlefish was spotted hovering just above a sandy patch in the reef. A new kind of cephalopod for me. After the dive I jumped back in the water for a snorkel. I much prefer snorkeling; all you have to do is worry about what kind of fish you’re looking at, and when you run out of oxygen, you wait just a little bit longer until you can’t bare it anymore and swim back to the surface.

The boat then moved to a second coral cay called Hasting for our next dive. Picked up a few new seabirds at this spot. A flock of Bridled Terns, small white terns with black caps and bills, were roosting on the helicopter platform. And a few Common Noddy and Brown Boobies were flying around the reef. This time I actually got to dive without linking arms with my neighbor. We were in charge of controlling our buoyancy and monitoring our depth and air consumption, basically a real dive. We followed the instructor around the reef, flying next to steep walls of shelf coral covered in countless varieties of fish. I forgot how fun diving is; I would spend all day underwater if I could. The highlight of this dive was a lone White-tipped Reef Shark cruising again around an open sandy patch. We sank to the bottom and watched the shark patrol the reef for several minutes before we continued on our way. I again jumped in for another snorkel after the dive. The bottom here was littered with Giant Clams, some as big as myself. They had brilliant blue, purple, and green mantels (the soft tissue that produces the calcium carbonate shell). I think the colors are from zooxanthelea (I can never spell that right), a type of algae that resides in the cells of the clam. The alga photosynthesizes to provide energy to the clam, while the clam gives up nutrients to the algae (I’m pretty sure that’s how it works). These algae are also found in cnidarians like anemones and corals.

I enjoyed the dives so much that I plan to book another trip in the next few days, this time with proof of my dive certificate. There’s an option to stay on the boat overnight and do 6 dives, one of which is a night dive, boat it’s around 400+ dollars. Not sure if I want to spend that much, but I think it would be worth it. After all I got to fly here for free. Either way I need to get back out there and away from this fake city known as Cairns.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The GBR Awaits

I have been feeling pretty down the last few days here in Cairns. I think my low mood has mostly been caused by a lack of distraction from memories of more familiar times, coupled with my continuing bad luck with people who snore quite loudly. I’m in my third different hostel room now; the second night was so annoying that I decided to book my own room for the rest of my stay here. I had a Chinese guy move in that would make these strange airplane sounds in between snoring bouts, followed by an extended period of what sounded like a absence of breath, which led all of us others in the room to think that he had died from the intensity of the snoring. I know we all felt like dying that night. It didn’t help that the 3 anti-social Irish dudes came in at around 4 in the morning and kept trying to get the Chinese guy to stop by yelling, which had no effect on the snorer and only made matters worse for the rest of us. Being in my own room is lonely, but at least I can now get some well deserved sleep.

I’ve never been good at meeting new people, and it’s difficult not having a wingman on my side to break the ice with the ladies. So as usual I’ve been spending most of my time focusing on the wildlife (yes this must sound pretty lame to some of you). Not only do strange mammals lay eggs on this continent, but fish actually manage to climb out of the water and search for prey on land. There are these fish called Mud Skippers that have forward facing pectoral flippers, similar to the forelimbs of reptiles, which they use to hoist themselves onto the mudflats at low tide. They can also breathe through their skin just like amphibians, and have enlarged gill chambers that enable them to store oxygen for breathing out of the water, so long as their gills stay moist. These adaptations allow access to a whole new niche, for they are no longer restricted to life in the water. This move away from the water has happened many times in earth’s history, and is the reason I am here using my mortified pectoral flippers to type this blog post.

While the Mud Skippers use their extended gill chambers for breathing above water, today I will be using metal canisters of air to breathe below. Today I go diving on the Great Barrier Reef, something I have always dreamt about doing but never thought would happen. I am full of anticipation about the dive, but I am much more looking forward to doing some birding out on the reef, I should be able to pick up a few new species. I’ve spent most of the morning trying to track down ways to prove that I’m NAUI dive certified since I left my card back in the States, but at least I’ll be able to do some shallow dives and snorkel if I can’t find the proper evidence I need. I think my mood may be changing pretty soon.

Friday, August 13, 2010

One of Many Vacations

Two quick 50 minute flights, first one to Townsville, and I’ve arrived in sunny Cairns. So far it feels a lot like Southern California, countless pretty people lying around half naked in the baking sun (a nice change from looking at coal all day). It’s been sweet having my meals paid for, the only good part of my Mackay experience, and now I’ll have to switch over to survival mode again. I’ll be staying in a two person bunk room tonight at the Waterfront Backpackers, right on the main drag in town. I may switch to the dorm rooms for the rest of the week if I like this place to save money. I’m meeting up with Jane from the Straddie project whose been staying in this backpackers for the past few weeks, working on a snorkeling boat out on the GRB.

Flying over the Great Barrier Reef was awesome, luckily the plane was empty so I was able to steal I window seat. It really is great. You don’t see much at a distance, the ocean looks just as ordinary as a nice day in Monterey. But when you’re directly over the reef, its true form is revealed. Huge emerald green and brown crescent shaped formations extending for hundreds of miles, separated by deep blue channels and lagoons. I’ll have to find a way to get out to them at some point over the next few weeks since I’m here, but I’m sure the boat trips won’t be cheap. It sounds like Jane won’t be able to get me a deal either.

I’m already impressed with the birding here. A quick stroll along the boardwalk afforded great views at about 10 new species; including Reef Egrets, I new type of Curlew I have yet to identify, and I believe a type of Kookaburra that is not common in Australia. There isn’t much beach on the coast; it’s mostly all mudflats and mangroves. A perfect habitat for shorebirds, which is great since I haven’t seen too many Australian shorebirds thus far. I don’t have time to look up the exact species yet but I’m sure I’ve never seen them before. Apparently there’s a really good river boat birding tour through the rainforest that I hope to jump onto in the next few days.

When I finish this I plan to take my hammock out to the lawn next to the ocean, and sway in the steady trade winds. I’ll be sure to keep my ears out for those pesky saltwater crocs though.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Office

11 AUG 2010

The rain is falling hard outside my hotel room window, the persistent patter of the drops were quite loud all through the night. It’s a cold winter day here in paradise. I’m currently sitting in bed on this Wednesday morning, still stuck on standby. The first blast was supposed to happen this afternoon, and it still may at around 3pm, but bad weather last night apparently has delayed the drilling. I’m getting cabin fever in my business class dungeon, hoping to get some actual work in before heading off to Cairns on Friday. I worked out all the kinks in the Cyclopes program, and updated the tidal information last night in preparation the blasting that may never commence.

Yesterday was another standby day, and we took advantage of our free time with a drive up to Whitsundays, a ritzy Malibu like area about an hour’s drive from Mackay. Not much to see there expect Australia’s excessive campaign against the environment. Lot signs were posted all around what are now native gum tree forests, mud flats are soon to be filled in for more realastate, and huge harbors are being constructed to house the yachts of the rich and famous.

The water was a pristine turquoise blue, flat as a lake thanks to the Great Barrier Reef just offshore, which kills any kind of swell that tries to break its way through to the mainland. It was damn hot out, and the water looked pretty inviting, but one is advised not to be tempted in. Deadly box jellies drift in the currents and salt water crocs patrol to coastline. What’s the point of living next to a perfect beautiful lagoon if you can’t take a dip in it? Instead you’re restricted to a chlorine bath next to the perfect beautiful lagoon. I may as well be back in the Valley.

No waves, no swimming, and hotter than the muggy south-eastern US…I need to get out of the GBR. Southern Queensland here I come, just as soon as I finish standing by here.

That was then…this is tonight…

We had our first firework show this afternoon (more like a big mud slick), it was pushed back from noon when it was scheduled, to 5pm this evening. We arrived on site a few hours before the blast and sat at our respective platforms (myself and Rob and the south tower, Scott on the north, and Ian and Dev on the 2 boats) and watched the ocean for sightings (nothing seen of course expect for a massive drift log from the cyclone they had a few weeks ago most likely). The blast went off right on time at 1700 hours with 2 charges set 2 milliseconds apart. This will build to 24 charges at 2 milliseconds when they figure everything out. The entire trestle shut down about 10 minutes before the blast, which was nice since the conveyors are driven by some very loud electrical motors that reside right next to us. The siren sounded and……POP, it wasn’t very impressive, it was like standing a bit of distance away from a riffle blast. A plume of mud about 3 meters in circumference surfaced a minute or so later, and that was it. We waited around for 30 minutes to insure that nothing was exploded from the blast. Looking forward to the 24 gun salute when things start working at full capacity.

Photo is of my new desk job.

Australia Bird List: WhitSundays Additions

Great Bowerbird                          Ptilonorhynchus guttatus
White-breasted Woodswallow     Artamus leucorhynchus
Spectacled Monarch                    Symposiarchus trivirgatus

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Even Mammals Lay Eggs Here

Still waiting for the call from the blasting people, looks like we won’t start our observations until Tuesday. I hope I get to see a blast before this first swing is over. Apparently it won’t be a mushroom cloud or anything. The water may rise a few meters around the blast zone, with the occasional bubble. I don’t even think we’ll hear a sound, especially with all of the ambient conveyor belt, sand blasting, and machinery noise around us. Today we will be going back up to the south tower to run through another mock procedure to make sure we know what the game plan will be on D-Day. We should look quite stupid with our camping table and chair atop a massive steal platform. Especially with our Box-o-matic 3000, the device to keep the sun glare off the computer screen. Not to mention my PPE (Personal Protection Equipment) that was designed for massive people, I guess I should start lifting weights.

We had a full day off yesterday which was great. Finally got to explore a bit of the area and dabble in the local culture of Mackay. It actually is reminiscent of redneck California, expect the pine trees have been replaced by gums. The four of use piled into our truck and made our first stop at the petrol station. It took us 2 minutes to put the gas cap on the proper side, and another 5 minutes to decide if the engine was diesel or petrol. We settled with petrol, but a call to our team leader told us it was diesel. We would have lost major man points on that one. So another 2 minutes to pull the truck around to the diesel pump and we were ready to go.

We wanted to see how expansive the coal mines were inland, so we drove about 45 minutes to Nebo, the heart of coal mining country. After chatting with a few of the locals however, we discovered that seeing the mines would be equivalent to “getting into the Oval Office”. The only place the mining operations are visible from a public access road was another 2 hour drive further west (inland). We opted out of seeing the mines and instead found a local pub for a cold one (expect for the driver).

Our next stop was Eungella National Refuge, where we were told one could reliably spot platypuses…or is it platypi? Actually the plural could just be platypus, like sheep. Anyways so we backtracked in the direction of Mackay again, then veered to the north. We were entering sugar cane territory, and the plant was growing in almost every piece of unused land. It again reminded me of driving through the Central Valley; dry, hot, and instead of corn fields it was sugar cane. The tracks for the sugar cane trains crossed in all directions, all converging into the multiple processing plants. The air had a sweet smell of syrupy molasses when downwind from the plants.

Whe finally made our way to the platypus viewing platform, where we saw many turtles…but no platypus. The Sulphur-crested Cockatoos were mocking us I think, very loud buggers which were in massive flocks. So we decided to take a stroll down the river a bit and try our chances off the beaten trail. Suddenly a beautiful neon blue and orange Azure Kingfisher swooped by and landed on a branch overhanging the river. The bird was simply stunning, then another appeared to seal the deal. Just as one of them dove into the creek to catch a fish, a freaking platypus surfaced and then dove again right under the kingfisher. It was amazing. We were able to watch at least 4 platypus come up for a few breathes before diving to the bottom and using their broad mammalian bills to plow through the mud in search of crayfish and other invertebrates. We stayed and watched for a good 30 minutes as they came up and dove again, finally some marine (well at least aquatic) fauna observing. My first experience with a wild egg laying mammal. In fact I’m not sure I’ve even see one in a zoo. This is why I came to Australia in the first place; my spirits were instantly higher after that.

The photo is looking north atop the south tower. The conveyor transports the coal from the holding area back on land, out along the trestle, and onto a huge cargo ship which would dock on the right side of the trestle.

Australia Bird List: Mackay Additions

Dusky Moorhen                     Gallinula tenebrosa
Pale-vented Bush-hen             Amaurornis moluccana
Australian Bush-turkey            Alectura lathami
Nankeen Kestrel                     Falco cenchroides
Black Kite                              Milvus migrans
Sulphur-crested Cockatoo      Cocatua gelerita
Azure Kingfisher                     Ceyx azurea
Eastern Yellow Robin             Eopsaltria australis
Straw-necked Ibis                  Threskiornis spinicollis

Friday, August 6, 2010

Standing By to Standby

Still on standby here at the condos, waiting for the 48 blasting notice from the company contracted to do the dredging. We’re told that the first blast will commence on Monday, so we will be expecting a call sometime today. Our plan today is to work out some of the kinks in the Cyclopes program so it will be functional before the blast date. This will be my job, since I’m the only person out of the team of 5 that has experience with the program, even though I only used it a few times during Straddie (it’s not my favorite program). Basically Cyclopes is a mapping program similar to GIS but not as sophisticated. It was designed to track the movements of whales, but we are mortifying it for our purposes to follow all marine fauna that’s sighted.

To start off, I’ll enter the GPS coordinates of the blast sight given by the dredging boat. From there we will attempt to use a new feature in Cyclopes that displays buffer rings at set distances around a position (although it currently isn’t working properly). An hour before the blast we will start our fauna observations using special binoculars with a compass and reticule marks in the field of view. The observer will then call out the position and reticule (used to estimate distance) of a sighting so I can plot it in Cyclopes. If the sighing is within the buffer of the blast site (1150 meters for all fauna and 2000 meter for marine mammals) we will call off operations until the sighting is clear of the area. So it’s important that I figure out how to fix the damn program before Monday. And you thought I was the lucky one who gets paid to watch the ocean (not the case here).

I’m having Dave send me to Cairns for my first 10 days off. Cairns is maybe a 2 hour flight north of Mackay, where the Great Barrier Reef creeps closer to the mainland, making it more assessable for day trips. There is also a really nice rainforest nearby with heaps of birds, snakes, cocodrillos (crocodiles in Spanish) and everything else new and exciting. I have a friend from the Straddie project who’s working on a snorkeling boat as a naturalist, so I hope to jump onto the boat with her for a few days and check out the reef. I’d like to go on a dive too, but I haven’t dived in so long I’m a little apprehensive. I’ll be leaving Mackay on Friday the 13th (not the best day to fly) and will come back here on the 23rd when my second swing starts for another 10 days. Once the second swing is over I’ll fly back to Brisbane to surf for a few days on the Gold Coast before preparations start for the HARC project.

It is not very stimulating setting in a white walled hotel room on standby, but at least it offers some time to organize my photos (which I’ve been avoiding for the past 3 years now) and getting some reading done (everyone should go out and get the book Kon Tiki if you haven’t read it already). I have been getting some birding in while driving to and from the coal terminal. There are Rainbow Lorikeets everywhere, as with the Kookaburras. According to the bird book another species of Kookaburra, the Blue Winged, is possible this far north, but I have yet to see it. I spotted 2 huge Cockatoos (I think the red winged variety) in the gum trees of the coal terminal parking lot. It’s strange to see such a beautiful tropical scene and its wildlife surrounding a sooty black forest of steal and coal. It’s like a festering wound in the landscape. Tomorrow we plan to take a drive to one of the coal mining sites an hour west of here, which should be a real eye opener.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010


This is not what I was expecting, but luckily it’s only for a month. I mean I really can’t complain, I am working in one of the most beautiful and sparsely inhabited countries in the world. I still feel that I should have stuck around Monterey until mid September when HARC starts, and then I could have picked up some MMO work after that. But this is good experience regardless of how homesick I’ve become already, and it will look good on the old resume. Just feeling a little rushed trying to get all of the papers in, organize places to stay, get a phone number, find a bank account, figure out taxes, and deal with all of the minor monetary issues back home. Welcome to the real world. This isn’t really a holiday yet, again looking forward to my first 10 days off.

Let me give you a run down on what my job will be for the next month. First of all Mackay is basically a coal mining town located on the shoreline of the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef. There are 3 major coal mines located inland from the city (I’m told it’s the second largest coal extraction site in the country). This requires a harbor with sufficient loading platforms to allow for cargo ships to load up the coal and ship it to various parts of Australian and Asia. It’s worth mentioning here that coal is the number one source of energy in Australia (sad I know, but luckily the population is small enough that the energy needs are not too great to make it a major problem…yet ).

The Mackay harbor currently has 2 docks for the cargo ships, not enough space to efficiently ship the coal out. On average there are usually 70-100 ships waiting offshore for their turn in the harbor. Hence the need for a dredger to dig out a third birthing for ships to load coal. They hit a problem during the initial stages of the dredging though, literally they hit bedrock. To make the new dock deep enough to allow the ships to come in, dynamite is needed to clear away the pesky bedrock. Dynamite of course has the potential to be highly destructive to any wildlife in the area, and since Mackay is inside the GBR, Marine Fauna Observers are required by the government to insure that no wildlife is injured during the process.

Our job will be to sit atop two different platforms (South and North Tower) and monitor the area that will be blasted, and track the movements of any fauna in the area. Along with 2 boat based platforms at 1150 meters and 2000 meters from the blast zone. We will be following the same protocol from the Straddie humpback whale survey I finished last month, which is why Dave chose Kylie and I for the project. We will begin our observation an hour before the blast is set to tack place. If we track anything that moves within a certain radius of the blast site, then we will give the call to hold the blasting until the sighting is clear. Fauna will include anything we see, whales, dolphins, dugongs, large schools of fish, flocks of birds, even large aggregations of jellies, swimmers. All will result in halting the operation.

We will have a dry run tomorrow to see what works and doesn’t, and we should officially start work on Sunday. Luckily we still get paid regardless of whether we actually work or not, so at least I’m not wasting my time here. I may be flying up to the northern part of the GBR to hang out with a friend from the Straddie project who’s working on a snorkeling boat for my first 10 days off. It will be nice to get into the water after hanging around a noisy coal loading dock for a week and a half. Unfortunately the reef blocks all of the good swell, so I won’t be able to surf until HARC next month.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Welcome to Mackay

My first night here in Mackay was definitely a long one. Boarded the plane on time a 6:20 pm with a stomach full of Subway and a refreshing bottle of Australia mountain spring water. The plane was a Qantas twin turbo prop with 2 seats on either side of the isle. I was seat 9A, a window seat that offered an excellent view of one of the propellers. Dave had placed a co-worker next to me on the flight, but I have yet to remember his name. I think it was also Dave. I really wanted to sleep since I’m still kind of on California time, but the cabin was so full of vibration and noise that sleep could not be had. Dave (I think) and I made some small talk about our experience with MFO (Marine Fauna Observer) work, mine known really and his quite a bit. Despite the noise I rested my head in the emergency position on the tray table in front of me an at least pretended that I was getting some well needed rest on the flight.

Kylie and another MFO dude ( I think Scott?) picked us up from the airport in an ridiculously small red clown car, and we putted our way back to the apartments we’d be staying in for the next 10 days. The two teams are overlapping at the moment so they have a few days to catch us up on what the project is all about. This means that we are having to share rooms for the next 2 nights (still get our own beds though). I had a really good chat with Kylie last night, she is from the Straddie survey, about potential research projects this winter and about HARC coming up in over a month’s time. We also gave Zeus a ring to catch us all back up to speed.

Scott had casually joked about the fact that we’d all be sharing rooms, and the Dave was a snorer. I didn’t pay much attention to this, most people snore in some form or another and it’s usually not very detectable once you get to sleep. This was not the case for Dave whom I shared a room with, I quickly found it. I started off the night by suddenly waking up thinking that we were experiencing an earthquake, and announced it to Dave who apparently was just falling asleep. There was of course no earthquake, my bed was moving from my nervous heartbeat ( I think I’m still on edge about the prospect of being here in the first place). Jet lag will do strange things to you.

Next it was Dave’s turn to do the waking. Only this time the walls were actually shaking….to the sound of the worst snoring I have ever heard. At first I thought my dad had someone flew out to Mackay as well and happened to be sleeping on the floor somewhere (granted I was still half awake). CHRCHRCHRCHRCHRCHRCH…ooooooooooooooo. Good God. How can someone breathe so heavily and not themselves be woken up by it. It was like the plane ride over hear, only it would get quite every 3 seconds between breaths. It was terrible, just terrible. I tried to sleep on the couch but my legs were too long. Finally the snoring ceased for a little while and I used this time to get to sleep before it started again. Then the alarm to the building started to ring in my ear, this lasted for at least 30 minutes. Somehow I managed to get to sleep through that and was again woken up by the ragging beast next to me, and he didn’t sound happy. It was a looong night. I think I’ll go out and find some earplugs today.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Qantas...My New Friend

Waiting in the airport once again, I have a feeling I’ll be doing a lot of this over the next year. I’m getting to know the subtleties of the various airports. I think some professional surfers just arrived in Brizy, a Quicksilver jet just pulled into the tarmac. Maybe Kelly Slater is on that plane (jerk). I wonder if I can smuggle myself onto that flight, all I need to do is act like a complete wanker and say dude a lot…done.

My flight to Mackay will get in around 8pm, where I will be shuttled to the hotel I’ll be staying at for the first 10 day swing. I get my own room and a full bed, plus food is covered for the 10 days on. They even provide a max of 2 beers a night, sweet. The physical is done; apparently I’m not dying yet. Next I just need to finalize the paper work.

Well I think I’ll sit here and count how many surfboards come off the Quicksilver plane, and dream about surfing Noosa soon. Who knows where I’ll end up on my first 10 days off; I have a few days to figure it out. Maybe I’ll go to Fiji…New Zealand…the world is my playground. I'm learning not to stress about it, it was a little worrying on the flight over here. It was hard to give up security for the unknown. But I’m learning to embrace the adventure. Hope all is well back home.