Monday, September 27, 2010

A Different Mt. Olympus

The days of buoy construction are over, I’m now back on the hill with my old pal “theo” scanning the ocean for those characteristic columns of water vapor we call blows. A few days ago I went out on the Carmena, a small aluminum boat, to help deploy 3 of the 5 buoys used to record whale song and track animals acoustically. It was a 2 boat operation between the Carmena and a larger vessel called the Ash Dar S. Basically the heavy cement moorings had to be lowered at the same time as the anchor that keeps the hydrophone bridle in place, to insure that the lines wouldn’t become tangled as they descended 20 meters to the bottom. So the Ash Dar S used their winch to lower the main moorings, while the Carmena kept tension on the bridle anchor as it was lowered. It should make since from the illustration. I have photos of the whole operation and can show you some time. It wasn’t easy work, especially with a 15 knot northerly and a good sea, but everything went fairly smoothly.

The buoys are now streaming whale sounds in real time via a radio transmitter, enabling us to tune into the proper stations and listen to them either up on the hill, or 24/7 at base station. Four of the buoys are programmed to shut off at sunset and turn on at sunrise to conserve batteries (which need to be changed every 6-8 days), with 1 buoy running all the time. It’s really fun to walk into base for an avocado and Vegemite sandwich and listen to whales singing just off the beach. Basically anyone within rang could tune into the 5 whale frequencies and have a listen. It’s really awesome to see it all in action; for instance today we were listening to a strong whale song for a good hour from a whale close to the buoys. When the song started to get quite we knew the whale was about to surface, and we could see from the hill a whale come up near one of the buoys, take a few breaths, dive…and the song would slowly get louder again. Not only that, the acoustic tracking team was able to match our visual position of the whale with their acoustic fix so we were certain it was the right whale. We even watched how a pod came in and joined the singer, pec slapped a few times (which we could hear over the hydrophone), then continued on their way. The singer stopped briefly, then started his song once again.

The surf report is good. I haven’t been back to Noosa in a while for the fun longboard waves, but the dumpy beach break out front here in Peregian has actually offered some decent rides. Beach breaks are always faster and more exhilarating than point breaks and river mouths like Noosa; it’s a different kind of adrenaline rush. The beach breaks here are really steep, it’s like a huge wall of water suddenly pitching in front of you, and if you don’t make the turn, you get thrown straight into the sandbank below. On the other hand if the turn is made properly, you have a good 10 seconds of perfect face to do a few sharp bottom carves before the waves either plays out in the rip channel or explodes in your face (never a good thing). We had to sighting in the surf this morning of large fauna. The first was one of our very own humpback whales, which surfaced maybe 300 meters or less from our position in the break. This was followed by a much more frightening sighting of a bait ball being chased by possibly several sharks, initiating the end of our morning surf session. A major thunder storm has been forecasted later this week, so we may have some days off to go surf some nice clean southern storm swells behind the protecting headland of Noosa. Let’s hope the wind will be offshore.

Just as a note in case I use this blog for future reference, the lorikeets here are almost all of the Scaly-breasted variety; unlike Straddie and northern Queensland with the Rainbow Lorikeets.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

It's Getting Serious

The weather turned from sunny and calm to windy and wet once the vollies started arriving over the weekend (not sure if the two phenomena are correlated). They’re probably wondering why this stretch of coastline is called Sunshine Beach. I’ve had a few very fun surf sessions with the staff at the river mouth in Noosa, but lately the lack of swell and increased winds have effectively killed any decent waves that may have been trying to reach the beach. So of course my attention has now shifted to birding since there’s no surf to think about. While doing some bino (binocular) 101 training up on the balcony of base station, I spotted a few Scaly-breasted Lorikeets (all green with yellow scales and a bright red bill). Apparently they’re seen all over eastern Australia, but I’ve had little evidence of it until yesterday.

As mentioned in the title, things are starting to get pretty serious around here. We are scheduled to start collecting real data next Thursday I believe, so we need to work out all of the kinks and get everyone trained and on the same page before then. I haven’t been too involved with the training, partly because the Straddie people have already learned most of the skills required, and mainly because the techy (Trevor) has requested help constructing the buoys that will support the hydrophones for the acoustic monitoring. Zeus, Drew, and I have been duct tapping, zip tying, and gluing bits and pieces to the PVC piping that will house all the necessary electronics and batters for the hydrophones.

The study is very complicated, and has never been attempted before in such a large scale. Here’s what will be happening in a condensed version, I just realized that it won’t make much since without illustrations so I won’t go into much detail. There will be 8 main platforms for data collection. Three land based stations for tracking whales visually; either from compass and reticule binoculars or with the theodolite (basically what we did in Straddie). These observations will then be plotted in the Cyclopes software developed by Uncle Eric. We will need to plot all whale sightings in the study sight, along with every behavior of a focal follow pod (A pod that has been tagged).

To compliment the visual obs, there will also be 2 acoustic platforms; one to record the social sounds and song of humpbacks, and the other to use simple geometry to acoustically determine the location of the sound source(based on the varying arrival times of the sound to each hydrophone in the array). The sounds will be streaming back to base station in real time via a radio transmitter from 5 hydrophones moored a few hundred meters off the beach in a “T” formation. This will allow us to actually see the position of a singing whale, and watch how it changes in real time. We can also layer on top of this the visual observations from the 3 land based platforms. The acoustic tracking allows us to follow the whale’s position when it’s not available at the surface for visual obs.

The last 3 are vessel platforms. Two of the vessels will be attempting and hopefully succeeding in placing suction cup tags on the backs of humpbacks, to track their fine scale movements through the study site. This is most likely where I’ll be spending most of my time. They are called D-tags, and can record the pitch, roll, depth, water temp, and GPS position; along with recording any sounds the whale is making. The data is stored in an internal hard drive, so the tag has to be retrieved in order to upload the data. The tag is programmed to pop off after a certain period and broadcast its position again using a radio transmitter. The other vessel will be towing an air gun (a canister with highly compressed air, when the air is released it makes a loud sound). They are basically a high powered echo sounder used to explore for oil reserves under the seafloor. We will only be using 1, while the industry uses up to 70 I think. There’s more to it than this, but it is just too much to explain.

When it all said and done, they hope to learn how humpbacks respond to the sounds of air guns (based on all of the tracking and playback data), in order to make better policy recommendations for how seismic activity should be managed around whales.

In other news: Dave has given me the option to start work in Western Australia after this project, on an offshore island called Barrow. I would be stationed on dredging ships this time instead of a coal trestle, and will live on the boats for 4 weeks at a time, with a 4 week break in between. I was planning on flying over to NZ for the Hector’s Dolphin study (by the way mom the dolphin was named after some dude named Hector apparently, they’re just a small dolphin species), but the opportunity to make money for school is just too tempting. I may be able to fit in the study during my time off from MMOing, and there will most definitely be more studies coming online. I still want to do some work with seabirds instead of these bloody whales.

I’ve posted of photo of the hydrophone buoys. You can see the radio antennas and the flasher to alert vessels of their position at night. The rest of the equipment is all internal (for obvious reasons). The hydrophone however will be suspended in the water column, the sounds are sent through a long cable from the hydrophone to the buoy, then from the buoy to base.

Friday, September 17, 2010

HARC 2010

Take shelter everyone, the vollies have arrived. We had 23 or so join us yesterday, while the remaining 15 will be arriving sometime today. I am already trying to work out how to get away from some of them, but most seem like descent human beings. Luckily since I’ve become somewhat familiar with the staff of this project, and since we all have bonded through surfing, I have been given my own room with a double bed. Zeus informed them that I don’t flock well. I’ll be staying in what has been named “the boat house”, which apparently is where the boat people will be held.

I’ve been doing a lot of heavy lifting, tightening loose bolts, splicing lines; general manly activities for the past several days, helping out wherever my manly skills are required. Lately however, I’ve been lying around in my hammock, waiting for vollies to arrive and keeping them out of the hair of the staff; who are very busy scrambling around ensuring the very technical scientific equipment is set up and working properly. Not sure why they put me in charge of greeting people, it’s not one of my strong points. Interestingly enough there’s actually a girl who went to CSUMB for a year in 2007 volunteering for this project, and I’m fairly certain our paths have crossed once before. I’ll keep you updated on how that goes.

Had another amazingly mellow surf with the staff today at Noosa Heads, only about a 15 minute drive from base here in Peregian. The waves were about waist to occasional chest high, super clean with no wind, and long (maybe a good 30 seconds of riding). No one out except a few locals and us whale people. I did spot a small shark while sitting between sets, it was only about 3-4 ft long and posed little to no threat, so I didn’t bring it up to the others. Sharks are a common sight in Australia, and in general are not a problem, until of course they have a firm grip on your leg. If only I could bring these perfect waves back to California with me. I’ve decided that I must go on a surf safari to southern California when (IF) I return with my new banana board (it looks like a banana, not a technical term).

The birds here are incredibly vocal compared to those in North American; they all seem to have something unique to say. The Noisy Minors sound like a chorus of wind chimes, the Magpies (I think) sound like the whistle of a bomb falling through the air, and of course the Ravines try to dominate all the rest with their annoying raspy calls. I shouldn’t get used to sitting on a balcony listening to bird song for very long though, the hordes of vollies will soon overpower.

The photo is of Trivia and Goon night from last week at the hostel in Noosa. We places last, not at all related to the Goon.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Bitter Sweet

I’m beginning to understand the most difficult part of traveling, and it’s not the long periods of isolation. You meet some really interesting people, develop relationships through stories and laughs, and then leave. During my 7 days in Noosa a finally connected with a really good group of mates, and last night we were all forced to part ways. One went back to Switzerland, one to Germany, and the rest continued in different directions on their travels through Australia. I was having a blast just lying around on the beach or in a hammock beneath the strange pine trees of this continent; in between mellow longboard surf sessions at Main Beach. Needless to say I didn’t want to say goodbye, and could have easily spent weeks with this routine. When you travel, you constantly have to start over from scratch. I never thought I would be so disappointed to leave people that I’ve known only for a week, it was like we had been friends for years. I think after many days of traveling alone, you become so desperate for human contact that once you find it, leaving again is extremely painful.

Just a few notes about what has happened over the last week. The surf at Noosa has been very small, but the water is a perfect 20 degrees and the sun has been at its fullest. I’ve surfed almost all day every day, except for our hike around Noosa National Park, where we spotted all sorts of wildlife including my first Australian snake ( a carpet python). I had one crazy drinking night with goon (also known as box wine). It was painful and fun at the same time, and I ended up in a gum tree for over 30 minutes (not sure why but it was actually surprisingly comfortable). I was rather hung over the next morning, yet still managed to get some good olas. My new surfboard is the perfect shape for these waves, allowing me to experiment with new tricks (including a 360 spin around the deck maneuver that I’m still trying to master). I think it’s safe to say that Noosa Heads so far has been my favorite stop in Australia, and I highly recommend a visit.

Now I’m surrounded once again by PhD’s and their minions; coiling lines, labeling boxes, and preparing the boats for HARC. No more lying around on the beach, it’s business time. You readers may be interested to know that I was accepted for a Hector’s Dolphin study in New Zealand this winter, so I’m working out the dates to synchronize that study with my breaks for the MMO work. Hopefully I will be able to fit it in and still make it home for Christmas. I will potentially only be there a month, staying in a small cottage in the countryside. Haven’t looked into the details of the study, but apparently there will be plenty of boat time involved.

Also Andrew posted some photos of my new board he shaped, it turned out really good. It’s the perfect
color and design; I can’t wait to ride it. Not sure if they can handle orders but if anyone is looking for a custom surfboard let me know and I’ll get you his contact info, he and his dad do good work (as you can see from the photo).

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Beat Up from the Feet Up

Purchased my first Australian surfboard, a 9’1’’ performer style board with a somewhat pointed nose, square tail, sharp rails, and a long fin with thrusters. It was shaped by Noosa Heads Surf Company. It’s light blue with a turquoise deck and black pin stripping. Not the exact color and shape that I was looking for, but it will work well for these Sunshine Coast waves. I would really like to go back to California and surf my new board shaped by Andrew and his dad, (I still have yet to see what it looks like) but that will have to wait until this December when I hope to visit. The waves here are definitely better than Monterey though, and I have surfed my brains out over the past couple of days, which I hope to keep up for the next week.

Went on a hike around the headland of Noosa, part of a small national park. The path curved along the cliffs from Main Beach (a popular name here in Australia) to Sunshine Beach. I chose to go barefoot, not the best choice. It was very reminiscent of Straddie: same vegetation, same geology, same wildlife. We spotted several Laughing Kookaburras, a group of Manta Rays, a large pod of Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphins, Pied Cormorants, Green Sea Turtles and stupid people jumping off cliff faces into a surging ocean (which of course was me in Straddie). Also just like Straddie, the sharks are around in strong numbers; but according to the locals they are well fed and pose little threat. Kevin and I stopped into a paddle board shop in town, and after chatting with the store clerk he eventually showed us photos of a huge shoal of maybe 20 Tiger Sharks munching on a massive school of bait fish just up the beach from where we had been surfing. I’m sure he was just trying to scare the tourists…but he failed. I’ve already come to terms with the shark factor in Oz. One thing we spotted on this hike that we didn’t see in Straddie was a snake. Not sure what type it was, but it was big with stripes.

There are far more naked people here than from out prior view atop Mt. Olympus. We discovered a clothing optional beach along our journey, offering excellent views of wrinkles in every form. I thought about joining in but I opted to keep my boardys on, didn’t want to make Kevin feel uncomfortable. Not sure how these types of beaches get established, but they seem to have no trouble finding patrons. Perhaps deep down everyone wishes it was socially acceptable to be naked in public, so long as they have a towel to protect against the sand.

Tonight is beer pong night, a game I avoided in college because I thought it was ridiculous. Turns out it would have been a good way to socialize with people, so I’ll give it a shot tonight. Hostels really shouldn’t promote drinking, so instead we will be playing with water. I haven’t been drinking enough water lately so this should be good for me.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

On the Road Again

I’m beginning to feel better about returning to Australia. I know what reasons this change in mood stems from, a few simple pleasures I need in life to keep my spirits high: Surf, Science, and a hint of exploration. I feel deprived without these, and immediately start that downward spiral of self doubt and depression. It was easy to get away without these in Monterey, being surrounded by a supportive community of peers, friends, and family that kept me going. But when you’re travelling, it can be difficult to confide in a stranger. The tide as they say is beginning to turn now, bringing with it perfect waves. The icing on the cake, what would really make my trip here worthwhile, is finding a good woman (something I have been completely deprived of for some time now). Even though I’m only 24, I feel I should at least try and find someone to share my experiences with. I seem to have skipped out on that part of being young over the last couple of years, and I’m learning to loosen up once again and start talking to girls rather than running away in fear.

Girls or not, the Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast have been a great place to hang out and relax. My time in the Gold Coast (south of Brisbane) was brief but rich in classic drunken experiences. I flew into Brisbane after my last shift in Mackay at the coal terminal, and caught the train down to Coolangatta (known for being home to the famous Kirra Beach). I met up with Zeus, his buddy from back home who now lives in Sydney, and his current roommate from Canada. The waves at Kirra have historically been some of the best in the world, but reality was a different story for my visit. One of Australia’s biggest rain storms in over a decade struck the southern portion of the continent over the weekend of my visit, bringing strong winds and rain to the Gold Coast. This made the waves inconsistent and blown out, and there was no decent surf to be had within walking distance of our hostel.

So instead of surf, we drank (it’s what you’re expected to do when you’re in your 20’s right?). I was dragged into a club of all places (those of you who know me can imagine how I felt about this). It was a 10 dollar cover charge, which Kevin (an awkwardly tall hairy fellow) was verbally not happy aboot. I actually had to wear shoes…not what I was planning for my vacation on the beach. I was already 6 beers in when we walked through the bouncer and into the excessively loud music (for those of you who know me can imagine my status at that point). We immediately took a shot of what I believe was rum, and started scoping out the potential. Well…I was mostly just staring blankly into space rather than doing much scoping (the strobe lights were very distracting).

Eventually I just couldn’t take anymore of the sensory deprivation and wondered out of the happening club in the direction of the sea. I didn’t make it though, and woke up in a strange bush (not what you think) in a park to a phone call from Zeus (an hour after I started my journey). I stumbled to my feet, brushed the bark and wood chips from my shirt and cheeks, and instead oriented myself in what I thought was the direction of the hostel. After about 30 minutes of walking, I realized that I had no idea where the hostel was, and Zeus had already stopped answering his phone. So again, I turned east and walked out onto the beach, where I found myself a nice dip in the sand, and took a nap. This didn’t last long, and this time I was awoken to lights rather than sound. The spotlight was obviously from a police car (I didn’t know it then but apparently they had received a call that a young man with curly hair wearing jeans had attempted to break into a house near where I had made my bed in the sand). I figured the police would have to help me find my way back to the hostel, or at least call a cab for me (something I didn’t think about before hand).
Instead of giving me a ride in the cab however, they decided to hold me in the plastic hold in the back, similar to the plastic that playground slides are made from. I sat there for at least 20 minutes with bright LED lights illuminating my face, while the offices looked at my ID…looked at me…then back to the ID. They were actually really nice about the whole thing, and I didn’t put up much of a fight. After I was cleared from the crime, they dropped my back at the YHA where I was staying, and wished my luck with the whale watching hippy job. Of course I didn’t have a key to get in, and had to break into a building after all (ironic isn’t it).

That was the Gold Coast in a nutshell; at least I got a few stories out of it. Yesterday I parted ways with Zeus and Ed, while Kevin and I decided to check out the surf seen here at Noosa Heads, another famous longboard wave on the Sunshine Coast (north of Brisbane). Today we had our first surf, it was waist high and glassy, just what I’ve been looking forward to for the past month. The rain is now well south of us, and the water is a comfortable 65-70 degrees. Tomorrow I hope to buy a decent board and surf my brains out over the next week before the study starts on Monday. Dave (my boss) is meeting me here on Monday for a morning surf session, followed by a big grocery shop in preparation for the 60 volunteers and staff of HARC. Science, Surf….I forgot about boats…and I’m sure some good company.

I put a photo of me in my PPE just because it’s funny…and the platypus (the best picture I have of it) since they are cool.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Adios Mackay

This will be my last day working in Mackay, at least until next year. Right now I’m sitting at a motel with my fellow Marine Fauna Observers on standby; watching a flock of Red-tailed Black Cockatoos and waiting for the bar to open so we can order some flat whites (coffee with milk). The blast was postponed this morning due to mechanical failures that require a welder to fix. It would have been delayed anyways, we were tracking at least 2 groups of humpback whales before the call came through, one group of which was getting friendly with one of the small vessels working on the trestle. I don’t mind waiting on standby, it beats sitting atop the trestle tower while the conveyors scream in my ears (don’t worry mom I use ear protection).

I fly out tomorrow to Brisbane in the morning, to meet up with Zeus from Straddie. From there we will take the train down to a place called Coolangata in the Gold Coast, where we will then meet up with a few of his mates from the UK. I plan to buy a surfboard right away and find myself a good break. The surf up and down the Gold Coast is supposed to be some of the best in the world, so I should have no trouble finding some waves. I will surf my way back up the coast over the next 10 days, until I arrive up at Noosa Heads near Pereigian for HARC. I’ll be living in Peregian from the 13th of September to the 25th of October during the humpback whale study. After HARC is over, I’ll go back to working as an MMO until December, when I plan to visit for the holidays. That is the schedule as of now, we will see of much it changes over the coming months.

I’ll post my new address here shortly so you people can send me interesting letters and gifts from home (thanks Kelly for the CD). If anyone could somehow figure out a way to ship good Mexican food to me that would be great, it just doesn’t exist in the land down under. (Image): in the background behind the ungly wife beater is the coal terminal and holding site, the trestle is the far strip offshore on the right hand side. You can almost make out the blast rig to the right of the trestle.