Friday, October 29, 2010

Another Year for Reef

My boy turns 28 tomorrow (Halloween), they grow up so fast. He’s had a good life so far; from growing up as a puppy on the whale watching boats, going to the beach and swimming after me as I paddled away into the surf, several backpacking trips to Double Cone and the Lost Coast, roads trips to Oregon, and now living with the parents probably being fed lots of people food and terrorizing Conner. He’s been a great dog through college, and I’m looking forward to getting him back next August for a new chapter of his life. I’ll have to get him on a running routine to work off all the fat I’m sure he’ll put on over the next few months with the grandparents. Hopefully he hasn’t forgotten all of his tricks.

Mackay hasn’t changed much since I was here last. Still full of fat Aussies (otherwise known as Bogans), strip bars, pokie machines, and some varied and surprisingly good culinary options. We are only doing one blast a day, so it’s nice to have some down time to organize my life after 5 weeks of chaos that was HARC. I have several things to sort out before I fly over to Perth for training next week. I managed to catch the last 3 innings of game 2 of the World Series yesterday, which turned out to be an exciting game for the Giants. I’ve decided that next year, if I’m around, I’m going to try and go to as many Giants games as possible. I think I’ll get more into baseball if I pick a team and follow it through. I’m choosing the Giants because it’s a nice stadium, the home games are close, and it’s always nice to support a winning team (although they haven’t won yet, but they will unless the Rangers get their pitching staff in order).

Still thinking about applying to Moss Landing Marine Labs, despite the fact that it takes ages to finish. I’m hoping that I’ll be able to finish up the paper work over the next month during my time of isolation. I’ve been so busy surfing and staring at whales lately that I haven’t had much brain power for anything else. I may be doing some seabird work in Tasmania in February, which will help me figure out if I want to work with seabirds for my master’s.

The blast was cancelled today, possibly due to wind (but they never tell us). Since there’s no surf in Mackay (damn Great Barrier Reef and it’s scattered islands), I’m off to the pool to work off all of the free calories I’ve been consuming.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Brace for Turbulence

Surfed my finals waves for a while at the Noosa River mouth this morning, and what good waves they were. Long clean beach break faces with only HARC people out. My arms are feeling a good kind of hurt from all of the paddling; I didn’t let a single wave escape my feet. I am officially the drop in king (Paul B and Louie if you’re reading this you know what I’m talking about). Somehow the people I drop in on always finish the wave with a smile, so I must be doing something right. So long Sunshine Coast, until next time. Your point breaks and sandbars have been good to me.

Then came the goodbyes, I hate goodbyes. This was my second project with the UQ lab people, and I’ve enjoyed every minute with them. Especially the Irish, man they are hilarious. It was nice not having the vollies around for the last 3 days; it was just the staff and the super vollies. I’ve been asked to come back next year, and if I have nothing going on it will be hard to turn down the offer. I’m especially jealous of Amy and Zeus. They are barrowing Lou’s yellow van (Erik), and driving it down the coast for the next 3 weeks. I slept in Erik (that doesn’t sound right does it?) for the last few nights and I really enjoyed hearing the rain pummel the rusting metal roof. I think I’ll miss them the most, really great people. Even though Zeus ate my piece of pork crackling when I was on the verge of an emotional breakdown and I almost punched him in the face. It’s funny how I don’t realize how much I enjoy the company of people until I’m back on my own again.

Well I’m sitting in the Brisbane airport, my official home base for the rest of my stay in Australia. I’ll be flying in and out of here for all future MMO gigs. My flight departs at 5PM to Mackay, and they are anticipating some heavy weather. They wanted to book my on an earlier flight but it doesn’t work with my ride from the airport in Mackay, so it looks like a have a bumpy flight ahead. It should be nice and hot in Mackay, looking forward to sweating it out on the coal trestle. Let’s hope the whales have buggered off by now.

I’m thinking about staying clean shaven for a while, since I’m no longer with the HARC people I’ll be losing my “Bret” from The Flight of the Concords title, so I no longer have any need to look like him.

Looking out the massive airport windows I see some ominous deep purple clouds rolling in. Bring on the rain; this parched country could really use it.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Mysticetes Don't Floss

Zeus and I managed to write several songs during HARC. We were planning on producing our first album, but never got around to it. We even came up with the name “Mysticetes Don’t Floss”. I’m sure if they could they would though with all of the krill and fish bits that inevitably get stuck in their mustaches. Below are the lyrics to one my favorites from the almost album. It was written to the music of “Land Down Under” by Men At Work, so in order to get the full effect you have to play the song while reading the lyrics. Tonight is our last night, so there’s potential for us getting drunk and recording some of the songs. If so I will email those who want to hear them (which should be all of you).

“Whale Down Under”

Tagging off the coast of Noosa
On a humpback tail, we shouldn’t lose her
We met a strange whale, we hadn’t seen yet
He threw his fluke and got the boat wet
And he sang

Do you come from a land down under
Where whales blow and Bec chunders
Can’t you hear, can’t you hear the thunder?
You better run you better take cover.

Off the bow, a pod of whales
First tag attempt Beluga fails
Mindi used inappropriate language
Rob just laughed and ate his Vegemite sandwich
And he sang

I come from a land down under
Where I tag and Dave blunders
Can’t you hear, can’t you hear the thunder?
You better run you better take cover.
Trying to tag a pod that’s restful
With the small pole, she’s not successful
Rob said to Dave, “Your approach is all wrong
My massive pole gets the D-tag on”
And he sang,

Oh do you come from a land down under
Where whales blow and Bec chunders
Can you see, can you see Dave blunder?
The bear’s mad, you better take cover.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Don't Panic, Their Just People


After chatting with Kylie last night while walking home from taco night at the Palace (we made tortillas from scratch), I have determined that I must have some form of social anxiety disorder. I’m sure this has already been confirmed by those of you who know me well, but I haven’t really been taking it seriously. Turns out it may be more of a problem than I initially anticipated, I simply can’t function in group dynamics. So how am I supposed to advance in the scientific field if I freeze up whenever a crowd forms? You can’t express your thoughts and ideas to a wide audience if all you want to do is flee in front of that audience. Damn you evolution and you tweaked fight or flight response; which has kept us from being eating by predators but is now causing me to produce a dampening chemical response that basically turns me comatose whenever I have to interact with people I haven’t known for years. This is most likely a combination of genetics and my lack of self esteem as a child, but man it really puts a limitation on your social life as an adult. I’ve noticed lately that I rely on alcohol to help subdue inhibitions, and become more comfortable around people, which is not exactly the healthiest solution to the problem.

This all hit me a few days ago during one of our nightly debriefs. I literally started to feel extremely tense and isolated. It felt like the walls were closing in around me and the chatter of all the conversations around me began to sound like a symphony of out of tune string instruments. I couldn’t focus on what was being said, and my brain simply turned to mush. All I could think about was a way out. Then my hands started shaking like I was sitting in a bath of ice. This all climaxed when debrief ended and everyone was mingling and stirring around me. Finally I cracked and bailed for the beach to catch my breath, which was becoming short and irregular. This happens more frequently than it used to now, and it’s getting worse.

About the only thing that allows me cope with this issue is surfing. It has really been the only time during this project that I’ve felt comfortable. Plus the warm water and exercise is very therapeutic, and helps me collect my thoughts and prepare for my next encounter with people. I’ve noticed that the few things that make me truly happy in life relate to isolation. Perhaps that’s why I’ve developed such a strong interest is seabirds. I think I idolize their lifestyle. They spend months, sometimes years alone at sea. They have brief encounters while on the water, and will flock if their food source is abundant; but in generally are solitary by nature. The only time they have to worry about large flocks of con-specifics is during the breeding season, which is short lived and to the point. Seabirds work hard to make a living, and are constantly searching for something better. And I think more suitably, they don’t choose this lifestyle; it is pre-determined through millions of years of evolutionary progression. They couldn’t sustain themselves on land in large flocks even if they wanted to.


HARC is over, time to pack up the bag again (which is getting heavier has the months progress), and get back on the plane. It has been a long 4 weeks, not what I expected, but in retrospect it was still I worthwhile experience. I spent more time hiking up and down Emu Mountain than bobbing around in a boat, but that’s what I get for being so damn good at the theodolite. I’ve learned a lot about why I freak out around large groups of people, but I’m not sure if I’ve done anything about it. It’s strange that I get lonely when I’m out on my own, and yet panic when I’m around too many people. I’m still struggling with constantly parting ways with people I bond with, and having to start over from scratch whenever I reach a new destination. Regardless of how I feel about it, that’s the way it’s going to be for the next 8 months, so I better get used to it.

On the 27th (tomorrow I guess), I fly back out to Mackay for another 6 day stint on the coal trestle. Looking forward to the LOUD NOISES and a daily coal shower. Hopefully there will be fewer delays than last month, as the humpback whale migration has peaked in the GBR and should be steadily dropping over the coming weeks. Once Mackay is over, on the 4th, I’ll spend a few days in Brisbane and then fly out to Perth for a 4 day Gorgon training induction, where I will learn how safety never takes a holiday. After the training is completed I’m off to Barrow Island to start my first swing on the Gorgon project. Basically the Australian government has discovered a massive natural gas reserve offshore of the island, and are developing a berth for cargo ships to dock and load up on the gaseous resource. It just so happens that Barrow Island is an ecologically significant site, covered with nesting Green, Loggerhead, and Hawksbill Turtles, along with countless seabirds. It also sits smack in the middle of the migration corridor of the western Australian humpback population. Hence the need for Marine Fauna Observers. I’ll be based off of a modified cruise ship, and will be transferred each day to one of 2 dredges to monitor for the presence of marine fauna. The work will be 12 hours a day for 4 weeks. I’ll most likely continue this job a month on and off up until next August, unless Dave finds me an offshore trip to work on. I’ll post more details about the job as I learn more.

After Gorgon I’m coming home. I finally gave in and booked my flight to Fresno, even though they charged an outrageous amount of money for it. I fly back on the 17th of December and will be home up until January 7th. I plan to spend about a week camping, a week back home, and a week in Monterey. I was thinking about a road trip to Dallas to see my brosoph (slang for brother), but I just wouldn’t be able to fit everything in. This will possibly be my last time coming home until next August, so I hope to see everyone at some point.

I’ve spent most of today surfing, trying to cram as many waves as I can in before tomorrow. I also decided to shave my face for the first time since I don’t know when. I shaved it in stages, starting with the thin jaw line beard, followed by the fu man chu, then the mustache and flavor savor, mustache minus the flavor saver, then finally the Hitler look. I was thinking about keeping the stache in honor of the pops, but everyone convinced me that I should give it a few years.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Tag On

Another busy week and I’m ready for this project to be over. It has been fun, but the amount of people I’m constantly surrounded by is starting to get to me. I told myself that I wasn’t going to do HARC again next year, but it looks like they might want me and a few others to return and help manage the volies again. A year is a long time to plan, and I hope to be in grad school by then, but who knows. It is good experience, and it’s an excuse to spend more time surfing in Australia.

Had another boat trip a few days ago on the Beluga (the same inflatable used in Straddie to drop of the hydrophones). We left mid day from the Noosa River; the wind was light out of the South East and the swell small, maybe about a meter. Overall they were great conditions for a day on the small boats. We drifted offshore of Noosa heads for about 30 minutes looking for a good pod of whales to tag. We found a receptive pod of 2 adults, but they were travelling out of the study area to the north. Eventually one of the land based teams put us onto a fast moving pod of another 2 adults. We zipped over to them and one immediately flicked it’s fluke out of the water in an evasive maneuver. Mindi was up on the bow sprit with her pole in hand, waiting for the whales to surface close enough to reach. Our goal was to slap on a suction cup tag called a D-tag, which records the depth, pitch, roll, and acoustics of the animal as it moves through the water. It also has an accelerometer and clock to record the position of the whale based on the known GPS location of deployment. It’s programmed to release after 3 hours, and has a radio transmitter which broadcasts beeps over a known frequency. We then use a directional antenna to pin point the source of the beeps.

Our first tag attempt failed, and the whales reacted by swimming very fast away from us (an understandable move on their part). We had a 30 minute window to get the tag on, and were beginning to run out of time. Finally at the last 30 seconds, the whales popped up off the bow, Dave gunned Beluga right on top of them, and as the whales arched down for another evasive dive, Mindi slammed the pole down onto the peduncle (or tail stock). TAG ON! This all happened in a matter of seconds, just as Mike was calling in from base to tell us time was up. It was all very exciting. This was followed by 2 hours of boredom, as we followed the pod and recorded every behavior and kept track of the tag (which is worth about 10,000 US dollars). Luckily for us, but not for the data, the whales started breaching 45 minutes after deployment, and managed to knock the tag off, which meant that we didn’t have to wait 3 hours for it to release. At the end of the focal follow, we used a 22 caliber rifle with a modified cartridge to shot a skin sample of the tagged whale to determine the sex. The cartridge has a hollow tip with inverted barbs, which penetrates the skin and blubber and extracts a sample as it bounces off.

Other highlights from the boat included some passes by wedge-tailed shearwaters, a hammerhead shark, some manta rays, and really up close and personal looks at the old humpback whale.

We had a day off yesterday, which I spent watching baseball and recovering from a night of drinking on the beach. We played the guitar and watched the stars. The constellation Orion always makes me feel at home, since you can almost always see it wherever you are in the world. Once I recovered we played a game of touch on the beach, where I nearly through up the Vegemite sandwich I had for lunch, followed by a long body surf session. The ocean was a beautiful turquoise green, with an ominous dark blue backdrop full of grey and white cumulous clouds. The scene was highlighted by bright white caps illuminated by the setting sun to the west. Rain was approaching from the south, and the whole view was very poetic. The best part was the hundreds of Wedge-tailed shearwaters that skimmed the wave crests right along the beach, my first experience swimming with shearwaters. These birds are typically only found way out at sea, but approach the coast in eastern Australia for nesting. Some flew right over my head as I waded in the lapping white caps. It was incredibly relaxing.

Three days left on the hill and it’s all over. I will have another 3 days to spend here in Peregian helping with clean up, and then I’m off the Mackay for 6 days of MMO. Still feeling homesick, going to book my flight back home in a few days. Reef’s birthday is in 10 days, he’ll be turning 4. Hopefully someone bakes him a dog food cake.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Apparently I Like Baseball

For some reason I’ve finally taken an interest in sports, after a 24 year reign of hatred and content. We have been unable to conduct the survey for the last 3 days due to severe weather, and probably won’t be back on the water until the weekend. So to pass the time I’ve been sitting very comfortably on the couch with Amy (from Michigan) and Zeus watching the post season playoffs in preparation for the World Series at the end of the month. I think I avoided baseball and all other sports for so long because I thought I wasn’t strong or confident enough to play, but I’ve finally realized it doesn’t matter. It’s all about the hotdogs, expensive cheap beer, and hanging out with friends. I think watching baseball reminds me of those summer nights going to Danny my dickhead brother’s games and eating artificial cheese, perhaps it helps ease some of the homesickness that creeps in and out. My favorite memory is watching grandma John’s get tossed out of one Danny’s game because she didn’t agree with the umps call; mind you this was a little league game. Hopefully I’ll be able to catch some of the World Series before I’m back on the road (well actually back up in a plane). Looks like the Giant may make it in, although I’m told they won’t get past the Phillies.

For the daily surf report, the swell has been pumping lately. A few days ago I caught the longest wave of my surfing career; it must have gone on for at least a minute. It was a difficult paddle out, with huge walls of white water that completely swept me off my board and held me under for some time. The current was so strong that you had to continuously paddle in order to remain in the take off zone. Sit on your board for too long and you’d either drift back into the walls of white water, or end up too deep for the waves to feel the bottom. I spent a good 30 minutes paddling, and waiting patiently for a wave with no one on it. Right when I was about to give up in frustration, my wave finally came. I picked it up at the corner at Boiling Point, rode it through the section at The Cove, past First Point, and continued all the way to the surf club beach (also known as Main Beach). It was well worth the wait, and an amazing ride. My legs where actually starting to get sore from standing. Best of all, no one dropped in on my face this time…bonus.

We have just over a week left before this project ends. I may stick around in Noosa for a few extra days and catch as many waves as I can, before my month of hell and no surf starts. The most updated plan is to head back to Mackay and work another shift on the coal trestle for 6 days. From there I will have a few more days to explore before I’m flown to Perth for a 3 day training course for my next job in Western Australia (WA). The WA project well begin sometime in mid November, and will carry my through mid December. The work will be on an offshore island, I will talk about the details later.

The photos are of a Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoo (noisy birds that remind me of dinosaurs) taken outside my house at Jabiru, and the view from atop Emu Mountain (where I’ve been spending most of my time on the Scan Team).


Friday, October 8, 2010

Worse than Drop Bears

Another weather change came through this morning, bringing wind and rain for the next couple of days. It will be nice to have a few days off from Emu Mountain and its heat, hike, and insects. I’m currently writing this entry on the couch of what had been named the Boat House, where I now live. A couple of the vollies are working on some of the data from the small boats focal follows, where every surfacing and its corresponding behavior of a focal pod of whales are documented on an audio track. They then have to listen to the recording and transcribe the data into an Excel file (mom this could be a job for you). Some of the focal follows can last for more than 3 hours (the longest being 5 hours on a single pod). This information is important when testing whether whales change their behaviors when exposed to high sound source levels from air gun blasts.

“Blow from calf….Blow from mum….350 meters from the boat……..still milling at the surface……Blow again from mum…….Blow from calf”

I have finally found a bird that I don’t like, the Australian Magpie, and not because it produces a high sound source. They are much larger than the magpies seen in North America, and look similar to a raven…but with white patches, a grey beak, and blood red eyes. Similar to the drop bear, they wait on an overhanging branch for you to walk by, and swoop down unexpectedly in an attempt to protect their territory. It is very annoying, and you usually don’t see them coming until they snap their beak right next to your ear. We have already worked out which locations have an aggressive magpie, and have learned to transit these areas with caution. The only defense is it look at them straight in the eye, they only attack from behind. So basically you have to locate the bird, and stare at it constantly as you walk by, which requires you to walk backwards at some point. Apparently if you wear your hat backwards or sunglasses on the back of your head then the odds of you getting attacked are significantly reduced. The other day we were heading back in the bus from the hill, and watched in humor as a high school kid was assaulted by a devil bird while walking home from school, and it was quite hilarious.

The weather lately has made me start thinking a lot about Monterey again; I still can’t get over how much I miss that place. As much as I complained about it when I lived there, it’s actually not a bad place to end up. I’m especially missing winter, I won’t really be having one this year, and I rather like the cold dreary weather. Actually I’m in the process of applying for grad school at Moss Landing Marine Labs, but I haven’t heard back from Jim about whether he will be accepting any new students into his lab next August (2011). I’m toying with the idea of using thermal imaging or passive acoustic monitoring to look at the spatial distribution of gray whales as they migrate along shore at night. The idea is that if they use any sort of visual cues to navigate, then they would most likely move a bit offshore at night to avoid the random pinnacles and rocks the riddle the Big Sur coastline. Thermal imaging has been used before for counting gray whales at night, but I have yet to find a study that has plotted their distribution from shore at night. It could be a shot in the dark (did you pick up on that pun), but I think it would be an interesting question. I have others in mind, but thermal imaging sounds like the most fun.

As I’m posting this entry, it’s 10PM and the sky is unloading gallons of water on this very thin roof above my head. It’s amazing how relaxing the sound of water is. Regardless of whether it’s flowing, dripping, lapping, crashing, or pouring; there’s just something primordial about hearing water in motion. Maybe it’s because our bodies are mostly made up of tiny particles of it. Welcome to summer in subtropical Australia, what a great place to be.

The photos have nothing to do with the post, but I just haven't been taking that many.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Finally Some Good Surf

This project has been full on, and my energy level is rapidly dropping to zombie status. I’ve been promoted to team leader of the scan station, which means I’ll be hiking up Emu Mountain everyday instead of going on the boats. So much for tagging whales, I’ll have to be content with shooting them through the theodolite. It’s a hot unstable hike up Emu, especially with batteries, computers, binoculars, theo plus its legs, and chairs. We have discovered that Australia does have ticks after all, and they are much smaller and more difficult to see then the ones that lurk around coastal California. We also found what we are now calling swamp leaches along the trail after a rain squall. Swamp leach is a reference from “The Life Aquatic”, a movie I tend to refer to quite a bit.

The swell has bumped up to 3 meters over the last few days, and the surf at Noosa has finally started to break. Usually we’re restricted to beach breaks just north of the Noosa headland, but the points are firing. The benefit to working on the hill is that I at least get to go surf either in the morning or in the arvo (the Aussie word for afternoon). Surfed a break called Boiling Point a few days ago, it has a similar feel to Cowel’s in Santa Cruz. The wave breaks right along cobbles in maybe a few feet of water, so there’s little room for error. I didn’t make many errors, but someone else on the break did and dropped in on my wave (it was a nice one too). In fact you can see the guy on the left just about to drop in on my in the photo. I had nowhere to go but the rocks, and rolled around in the white water for some time. As I was surfacing I took a fin straight in the eye, it felt like it was going to gouge it out of its socket. When I finally made it to the surface, my eye was still intact, but blood was clearly gushing from a good cut along my brow, obstructing my vision. I was holding onto the other guy’s board, and he vigorously yanked it from my arm, without apologizing for nearly turning me into a Cyclopes. The cut isn’t too bad, I was hoping to get a shiner.

This morning was even more intense, the swell had picked up overnight, which was noticed by anyone with a computer and the internet (the problem with 21st Century surfing, everyone knows when the waves are good). Lou and I choose to head out to Tea Tree’s, just around the bind from Boiling Point. Tea Tree’s picks up more of the south easterly swell, so the waves of course are much bigger with a steeper face, and go on for a longer ride than Boilers. With better waves, unfortunately, comes more people, and the break was as crowded as 41st Street on a good day. I spent most of the session trying not to drop in on people, between watching the big sets roll in without me on them. Needless to say it was a turd frustrating. We finally found a little pocket that was less crowded away from the main peak, and I was able to practice my cross stepping on clean waist high bumps. I should be nose riding in no time.

What else has happened?...

- I bought a guitar and we’ve been having some fun jam sessions out on the balcony, which has now been deemed unsafe to use. Not sure where I’m going to pitch my hammock now.

- I may inherit a van from Lou, the yellow one from Straddie, and may soon be driving around Australia in search of waves. No more hostels for me.

- I’ve met an Aussie girl and have been acting very awkward around her, I’ve been telling people I’m like the 24 year old virgin. Nothing serious, just trying to have fun.

- I now have a steady job with Dave, and will soon be working one month on and off up until next August in a place called Barrow Island in Western Australia as an MFO. I would be working on a dredger and living on a cruise ship.

- I plan to come home for a visit in December, mainly to see Reef but I guess I’ll try and meet up with all of you readers as well. I may be able to stay into January and could be around for my birthday. I want to go on a surf trip with my new board…who wants to drive?

- Spotted a few sharks in the surf again, it’s become a common sight now.

- Someone found my red cap (bennie), I was very happy about that