Saturday, December 17, 2011

In Between Colorado and Here

It has now been several days since Rachel and I returned safely from our eight day road trip through six states from California to Colorado and back. Regrettably I was too preoccupied with navigating and staying warm in frigid winter midwest weather to keep an active journal, so I thought I’d use this forum to sum up our trip in a few brief words; in the likely event that I’ll forget all about the details within the coming months and subsequent years.

We began our journey down the poorly maintained and deeply pitted Highway 99, which bisects most of California, to beautiful Bakersfield (for those of you from California or who have ever had the privilege of touring through Bakersfield you’ll know that it is in fact NOT beautiful). We passed many LA commuters and obtrusive billboards for various food stands and products through this familiar stretch of highway, before connecting onto the 58 to Barstow, and then the 15 that makes a bee-line for Las Vegas, the place where dreams come true. The 15 is actually a surprisingly scenic drive, shooting at a whopping 80 miles per hour through the Mojave Desert, you see sparsely vegetated stands of Joshua Trees and evenly distributed aromatic Creosote Bushes, back dropped by impressive clay rock architecture. We arrived at the Nevada border after dusk, with the bright lights of Vegas and the white vertical beam of the Luxor penetrating the cosmos visible for miles beyond the hills. After acquiring a case of beer, some whiskey and rum, and food the next two days of driving, we met up with some friends at Red Rock campgrounds outside the lights of Vegas. We enjoyed a warm fire, good company, and beer until Orion began to set in the west. There happened to be two Australian travelers in the mix, and I enjoyed chatting about Qantas, the PM Gillard, and TimTams once again. I slept in the back of the truck with Reef; the water jug was frozen by morning.

The orange rock reflecting the golden morning rays had me up and percolating coffee by seven, and we eventually hit the road again by noon. We continued to follow the 15 through the bottom of Nevada, through the red rock canyons and sedimentary layers of the Moapa Valley. We enjoyed Arizona for about 15 minutes, through a sliver of the state around Virgin’s Temple, before entering Utah just southwest of Zion National Park. Suddenly we were in a whole new set of landscapes, with tall eroded plateaus and deeply carved valleys, and depositional layers of rock shades from deep red to sand coral white. It is amazing how different the landscape becomes when crossing borders between states; it was already beginning to feel like California was a long way behind us. The Joshua Tress and Creosotes were now replaced by dry brush and Pinion Pine, and the white asses of pronghorn. By nightfall we were on interstate 70, a major throughway that would take us east across Utah to Colorado. We briefly investigated a state campground in Green River, but unanimously decided after a brief debate the creepy factor was too high (the place was a ghost town at best) and ditched civilization (if you can call it that) for the more wide open space of BLM land. Eventually we pulled down a dirt road, over train tracks, and camped next to a steep mesa under an almost full moon and crisp stars for the night. IT WAS COLD. My breath froze onto the camper window within seconds of exhaling.

Early morning start after a time-lapse of the rising sun, coffee in hand with frozen motionless face fixed on the road. Back on the 70 it was all uphill from there, through groves of white dusted ponderosas and hemlocks and the snow clad Rocky Mountains. The Martian landscape had given way to a snowboarder’s paradise, “where the women flock like the salmon of Capistrano”. Fractions of an hour upon exiting a long tunnel named after a dead president (I want to say Teddy Roosevelt but I don’t think that’s correct), we were back on high elevation flat land and in the smoggy mile high city that is Denver. Denver is a dreadful place, only good for layovers and delayed flights due to ice. In Denver we picked up the 25 and changed course due north in route to Fort Collins, arriving at Kelly and Matt’s place just before dark. We spent the next three days touring the college town, drinking Fat Tire straight from the witches’ caldron at New Belgium Breweries, hiking the eastern slope of the Rockies, dancing on frozen creeks (well they did…I don’t dance), fishing for trout on a frozen lake (I was the perch whisperer), playing dominos, staying warm by the wood stove, cooking previously caught trout, and letting the dogs out to create yellow snow. It was a great visit with some really great friends, I miss them already.

To make a long story short we then spent the next two days petal to the metal westbound all the way down the 80, through the gorgeous snow covered high prairie of Wyoming, past the layered mesas of Utah, up and down the basin and range complex and deserted desert of Nevada, over the river and through the woods of the Sierra Nevada, back down into the Central Valley of California, where we merged onto the 99 in Sacramento and rode the pavement to our launching point in Madera. All in all it was a memorable trip for many reasons I won’t go into here. I highly recommend to anyone who has ever thought about throwing caution to the wind and heading where the radiator may take you, to jump in your vehicle and drive. America is a big place, go out and find it. Just make sure you have enough beer in hand before entering Utah…those damn Mormons.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Let the Time Pass

Six emails expressing my interest in volunteer and field tech positions for seabird research across the globe, from Florida to Hawaii, have been submitted with cover letters and resumes attached. Now all that’s left to do is wait and enjoy the free time.

Finally began construction of my first ‘strip-plank’ kayak. I purchased the plans from an online site at the beginning of the year while offshore in the Indian Ocean, as a project for whenever I returned home; so it only seems fitting now that I’m stranded in the central valley for an undefined length of time, that I get started on stripping (the wood planks that is). I’ve chosen to use a lighter cut of Western Red Cedar and a darker cut of pink Redwood for the ¼ inch thick strips. It took me a full day to rip and plane the ¾ inch boards, with another full day to glue and cut out the paper forms from a sheet of plywood and mount them in almost perfect alignment on a 16 foot two by four. In total this hand crafted sea faring kayak will be 19 feet in length from stem to stern, with soft chines and a relatively flat bottom. I finished the first two full length strips this evening, with another 100+ to go. Not to mention the faring, sanding, fiber glassing and outfitting… but we won’t think about that right now. The projects turned out a life lesson already, take everything one day at a time.

Before I glue strip number three down however, I’m taking a side trip with a good friend Rachel and my trusty companion Reef to Colorado, to visit another good friend from college Kelly and her boyfriend Matt. Along the way we plan to meet up with another good friend Esa (an ex girlfriend of mine none the less) with her boyfriend Saylor and camp somewhere outside of Vegas the first night, before driving a likely white and slippery highway 70 through Utah to Denver, and 25 up to Fort Collins, on the following day (assuming all the passes stay open). Kelly reports it was nine degrees at her house yesterday, so I made sure to pack the ear muffs, and chains of course. No need for an ‘esky’ to keep the beer chilled on this trip, I’m not in Australia anymore.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Nothing to do but Surf

On a wet and rainy Sunday morning, car packed with seven gallons of water for Reef, sleeping bag and pad for me, tent, a box of matches, a duffel bag of assorted clothing, my 9’2’’ yellow board strapped to the camper shell, Carl Safina’s “View From Lazy Point” which I still need to finish, a six pack of Fat Tire winter ale, and of course Reef riding shotgun, I began my trek down the 41, 99, and 5 to Southern California. The plan: find a camp site, make myself comfortable, and surf. According to the Internet the ocean was to be flat, but San Onofre always produces even in the most unattractive swell forecasts, so that was my destination.

During the entire drive south I was traveling at a synchronous pace with a low pressure system overhead. It dumped a nearly continuous curtain of water throughout the six hour drive. At times the weather lightened up, as if the interstate was taking away from the saturated clouds, only to be blanketed once again as the storm realigned its path with mine. The Grapevine, a mountain pass on the 5 which takes travelers from the Great Central Valley of California over the Transverse Mountain Range into the LA basin, was particularly hair rising. The combined visible barrier of gallons of rain falling from above and water spraying from tires of passing semi’s and large American vehicles produced a blinding water world. I could barely make out the tail lights of the ora of water 15 meters in front of me.

I survived the less than ideal driving conditions and arrived to Doheny Campgrounds at Dana Point in lot 99 just in time to set up the camper shell and in preparation for a long night of the sound of dripping droplets. As I was arranging my gear I was approached by a neighbor from lot 95, George. Apparently he noticed my unfortunate situation of halving to sleep in the back of my truck in a monsoon, and invited me over for dinner in their RV. I was going to warm up a can of soup, but George and his wife Diane (and dog Toby, an Australian Sheppard) were offering home cooked lasagna with garlic bread and a side of greens, so naturally I said I’ll be right over. Amazing, just when I was beginning to lose hope in all of society, I get reminded that there still are good people out there, and good people that can cook. So Reef and I went over with my six pack of Fat Tire and we chatted about life, and politics, and family; Reef and Toby exchanged a few words as well, probably about how much they like food, and water, and walks, and Kongs (which by the way Toby was not willing to share with Reef, understandable). George is a retired firefighter and Diane a middle school teacher, both extremely nice people. Upon returning to my camper a discovered several leaks which I had not previously known existed; needless to say a saturated several towels that night.

The wet night was all worth it in the morning, after getting wet in warm 59 degree Southern California waters with knee high peelers at San-O. Surfed for several hours in the morning and evening, with a burger and fries from Biggie’s Burgers in San Clemete in between. Made a short time lapse film of the day which you can see by following the following link:

It was a nice four days of surf and sun, now I’m back home trying to survive not having a job, and the holidays, and dreaming about where to go next. I was in the Indian Ocean off Australia last Thanksgiving, so this year I’m looking forward to the turkey.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Not So Away From Home

Well I’m back from Australia, I’ve been back for about a week now, and already I’ve been frantically trying to figure out the next adventure. Luckily it appears I'm not the only one in my cohort of graduating CSUMBers stressing about what direction to take in life. The job market these days is saturated with recent graduates looking for something to do. I had a few rough days dwelling on the prospect of living with my parents again, but I’ve reassured myself that my situation is only temporary; something else is bound to pop up and I’ll be off on my own two feet once again. So I’ve decided to take advantage of my free time and take in some of the hobbies that keep me occupied and happy. I’m planning many surf trips to various breaks across California, a few road trips throughout the US including a visit to the National Parks of Utah and Colorado, and trips up to the snow with Reefer dog. Of course I’m still keeping my eyes and ears open for any potential jobs or research projects that come my way; but I’m spending less time worrying about it. Worry is not a productive emotion.

Recently I’ve applied for a volunteer position with seabirds on the Northwest Hawaiian Island chain, which would use up 6 months of my 2012 summer; a nice chunk of time away from societal pressures. Fingers crossed for that one.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Time's Running Out

One week left before my return flight to California. Using this remaining time to catch some views of quintessential aussie wildlife, kangaroos, kookaburras, koalas, etc; and to cram as much surfing into my schedule as possible. I really enjoy my morning surf check walks to Peregian Beach (out front). The short trail runs through a barrier forest of gum trees and shrubs, before breaching through a small grass carpeted fore-dune that abruptly ends on the beach. I often see Figbirds vested in green with red blushing faces foraging on ripened fruits, along with a variety of small wren like birds I have yet to identify; all while dodging ghostly camouflaged sand crabs as they scurry sideways across my path into strategically excavated burrows. On a few occasions I’ve spotted large 3 foot Australian Monitor Lizards, also known as Goannas, basking in the beams of light penetrating the canopy; and Green Tree Snakes sprawled out across the trial, none venomous but capable of waking you up faster than a cup of coffee when almost stepping on them. Dawning my wetsuit top at the foot of the beach, I usually hear the gentle peeping call of Rainbow Beaters snatching insects in the morning light. Once in the waves, waiting for the next set to roll in, a quick refreshing dive to the shallow bottom is often accompanied by the faint haunting sound of male Humpback Whales singing just offshore, with long drawn out groans and sharp upsweeping whistles. It’s not often I get to share waves with the melodic chorus of 40 ton marine mammals, bellowing their blowholes out for mysterious reasons. Yes this truly is a unique corner of the globe.

Friday, October 14, 2011

A Day on Carmena

Early four-thirty start this morning to prepare for a day at sea on Carmena; one of a fleet of three small vessels on this project, with a six meter aluminum hull and a bow sprit for ease of tagging. The pre-dawn conditions as usual started out glassy, with not the slightest ripple over the bar crossing; the Noosa River as clear as Mike the project coordinator has ever seen it. Little Pied Cormorants with their white faces and black cloaks stood proud and perched on green and red channel markers, an Eastern Great Egret snow white with yellow bill lurked amongst numerous Little Egrets, stalking juvenile fish along the sandy green back dropped banks as we motored along the meandering flow of water. Before I could finish devouring my cheesy bacon bun and guzzling down a large long black, we were out past the Noosa headland and searching for a south bound “tag friendly” pod.

Straight off the bat we happened upon a mother humpback with her calf. The calf was easy to recognize with a pale cream colored patch on its peduncle (tail stalk). This pod was extremely evasive, changing direction whenever we’d come in for a close approach. Our goal was to slap on a D-tag, a device that records the whales pitch, roll, depth, and acoustics, for a programmed duration of four hours, which is held firmly to the whale via four suction cups, and is administered with a long three meter carbon fiber poll. Once the programmed four hours is up, the suction cups release and the tag floats to the surface, and begins transmitting beeps over a radio frequency, allowing us to find the tag with a directional radio antenna. We struggled to get within tagging range for about fifteen minutes before bailing onto a second pod, this one a mother and calf with an escort, that surfaced several hundred meters away. We nearly managed to tag the escort before it dove, but the pod adopted the same evasive behaviors as the previous mother calf. After another fifteen minutes of fumbling around with pod #2, we gave up and headed for a third pod called in from the hill team; another mom calf pair that had been logging at the surface for some time just a few hundred meters off Sunshine Beach. Of course as soon as we approached they ceased logging and begin avoiding us. After several minutes our tagging window closed, we were out of time.

We spent the remainder of the morning following the third mother calf pair for what is referred to as a “focal follow”, where someone stands on the bow sprit with a micro track and headset, and calls out every behavior the whales make at the surface, including the distance, direction, and heading of the pod. Focal follows last four hours, so that’s four hours of following a single pod while observing and recording its every move. I did the first half of the focal follow, and transcribed it looks something like this:

“Blow from the calf. Blow from the mom. Blow from the calf. Blow from the mom. Fluke up dive from the mom. Round out from the calf. 50 meters to the NE, whales heading south.”

15 minutes pass…

“Blow from the calf. Blow from the mom. Back from the calf. BREACH! from the mom.”

Sounds of chewing a turkey sandwich…more chewing

“Blow from mom. Blow from calf. 70 meters to the NE still heading south”

…..etc etc for the next 3 hours and 45 minutes.

It can be and often is incredibly dull. Luckily the unmistakable gliding flight of Short-tailed Shearwaters, the same bird I worked with last year in Tasmania whose razor beaks left lasting scars on my hands, and the occasional dive bombs of foraging Australian Gannets, kept my imagination occupied. Once the focal follow ended we zipped over to Peregian Beach, where I jumped off and swam back in through the surf, while Carmena went back out to dive on some of the acoustic buoys (pronounced boys here) that were in desperate need of repair. I finished the day trying to finish Carl Safina’s latest book “View from Lazy Point”, and incredibly good read about the changing of seasons in an ever changing increasingly anthro-dominated world.

Friday, October 7, 2011


Morning shift on Emu Mountain today as hill coordinator. Packed up our gear just after 6AM, theo case, theo legs, chairs, computers, binoculars, and radios, and began the 10 minute trek up Emu Mountain’s gentle north slope for a 7AM start. Luckily we packed the umbrellas. After synchronizing computers against the GPS time down at base via VHF radio, we were up and running and tracking pods. Minutes after getting the first few theo shots from what would become Pod A and B we get a call from base…

“Yeah Bret, it’s not looking too good weather wise….massive lighting storm moving in from the west”, Bec announces over channel 13. Apparently everyone except us hill people had known about this storm since last night. “You guys should pack up ASAP and get back down the hill”. Mind you we had just finished setting up and had 2 very close pods that would have been perfect for tracking off the beach.

“Copy that”, I respond looking over my shoulder to a darkening sky.

Turns out the Bureau of Meteorology were actually correct this time in their forecasting. As I’m typing this entry with a warm coffee beneath an awning on the porch, the rain is pelting down in sheets with the bang of thunder claps every few minutes. They are predicting another intense cyclone season for Eastern Australia, and based on the numerous bad weather days we’ve already experienced this field season at BRAHSS, I’d say that prediction will hold true.

Good day for watching baseball.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

One for the Record Books

Strong offshore winds yesterday, which means only one thing in the minds of anyone who spends their days thinking about waves…great surf. The surf in fact was much more than great, it was awesome. Although the swell wasn’t as high as I had hoped it would be yesterday, it was big enough to catch the wind blowing in from the west, sculpting the waves into perfect smooth walled up faces. The gusting breeze from the beach lifted my yellow board like an airplane wing, reducing friction with the water and allowing me to glide effortlessly down the line; with bottom turns as soft as butter. It was like surfing on a cloud. I’ve experienced such excellence in offshore conditions only a few times in my life, with yesterday’s waves rivaling the surf Louie, Paul, Carl and I had in Costa Rica back in our college days. Just sitting out beyond the breakers, feeling the wind rip the wave crests into a glittering arch of spray raining down around us in Australia’s warm endless summer sun, was enough to make this one of the more memorable surf sessions I’ve had. And it gets better.

While waiting for the next set to roll in, a light grey/brown body appeared just below the surface about five meters beyond us. My mind searched for possibilities as to what it could be…a shark, dolphin most likely. When it finally surfaced I recognized its walrus-like head and broad round finless back right away, I had seen several of them during my time around Barrow Island in my MFO days…Dugong.

“Holy Shit!” I yelled through the wind and spray to Elise who was sitting a distance away from me, “It’s a Dugong!”

“Was that a Dugong?” she yelled back, apparently in doubt as to what we were seeing. We waited a minute for it to resurface in order validate our sighting.

“There!” I yelled again and pointed to it as it leisurely lifted its nostrils out of the water for a breath, before arching its bulbous back and rolling out its whale-like fluke just above the surface for a dive. “Dugong!, It’s a freaking Dugong!” I yelled again and slapped the water in excitement.

It was literally close enough for us to hear its exhalation and see the characteristic scarred back and tiny sunken eyes of this species. Dugongs are related to manatees. The only differences I can think of between the two are that Dugongs strictly reside in the sea, where as manatees are often more brackish; swimming in the marriage between fresh and salt water systems. Manatees also have a rounded paddle-like tail fin similar in shape to a beaver tail, differing from the Dugongs whale fluke. Both groups are grazers, the only herbivorous marine mammals, feeding on sea grass beds and thus containing poor vision, which would explain their reduced sunken eyes. Dugongs and manatees are in the order Sirenia, and evolved separate from the Cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoise) and Pinnipeds (sea lions, seals, and the walrus).

What a day indeed. Unfortunately I have no photos of the event, but the images in my mind are quite vivid.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Routine

That familiar call of “BLOW 95 degrees, 1.5 reticules!” interrupts the unfamiliar “tee tee” call of a White-cheeked Honeyeater obscured by the pale green leaves of the bush it’s perched on to my right. I can only see its head and neck, but the contrasting white cheek patch on black plumage with a white streaked breast and a slender down-curved black bill aids in identification. I turn my gaze from the bushes to the sea. I Nankeen Kestrel (a relative of the kites) hovers in the strong NE winds in my view, its tan wings poised and motionless, binocular eyes fixed to the bush below waiting for an unsuspecting prey. No time for birds though, I’m supposed to be watching whales. So I stare at 95 degrees, waiting for a blow at about 5 kilometers from shore. Better yet I catch the full breach of an adult humpback whale, the eruption of water easy to spot with the naked eye. The French tourists standing next to me begin vigorously pointing in excitement. I swing the gun sight of the theodolite around to the foamy froth of disturbed ocean and focus in on the exact spot where the whale re-entered the water…and shoot. The theo knows its height above sea level, and both the horizontal bearing and vertical angle of the whales position; and uses these measurements, based on the Pythagorean Theorem a^2 + b^2 = c^2, to calculate the distance of the whale. This information is sent via cable link to a laptop computer running a program called “VADAR”, where it is then plotted on a map. Using the updated theo shot we determine that it’s Pod C, a mom calf pair that has been meandering around between 90 and 100 degrees for hours. As the day progresses we continue to take ‘shots’ of Pod C and all other pods in the area, plotting their course using the theo and VADAR, as they migrate down the coast from the Great Barrier Reef where they breed in the winter, to the Southern Ocean where they gorge on krill along Antarctica’s ice shelf in the summer. The role of tracking all visible pods and vessels within the study site has been coined the ‘Scan Station’, responsible for documenting the bigger picture of each day. I have volunteered to coordinate the Scan Station this year, allowing for enough time in the morning and sometimes midday during break, for a few good surf sessions out front. After all, the main reason I came back to Oz is to surf…I’ve seen enough whales.

My routine for the next five weeks will be as follows: wake up at 6:30 to drive the first round of hill crew to Emu Mountain. Come back and surf for about an hour out front until 8:00. Do a bit of writing and emailing with a morning coffee and breakfast from 8:00 to 9:00. Walk up Emu Mountain for a 2 hour shift on scan from 10:00 to 12:00. Have a quick surf and lunch back at Peregian from 12:30 to 13:20. Head back up the hill for a 3 hour shift on scan from 14:00 to 17:00. Finish the day with a quick dip in the sea and a few beers at debrief at 18:00 with dinner 19:00. Watch a few episodes of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” , read a few chapters of “View From Lazy Point” and hit the hay around 21:30. Wake up the next morning and repeat. Occasionally during bad weather days I’ll drive up to Noosa for some epic point break surf at the heads, or go out on the small vessels for tagging and biopsying when the weathers nice. Not a bad gig, so far it’s been a blast to be back.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Day Off #1

The much anticipated day off has arrived. Had a morning surf out front at marker 63; clean waist high translucent wedges rolling in over shallow four foot sandbars. Water temperature roughly 75 degrees, are temp in the uppers 80’s with no wind and baking sunshine. Not a shark in sight; only the falcate dorsal fin of an Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphin patrolling for a morning morsel beyond the breakers. The occasional plunge of a Lesser-crested Tern is all that disrupts the pristine beauford 0 glass of the seas mirrored surface. My hands bat tiny Ctenophores as I paddle into the lineup, ocean drifters superficially identical to Cnidarians (jelly fish) but morphologically separated into a phylum of their own. Currents have amassed them in the shallows; their sting delivered from the thousands of nematocysts on their tentacles produce only a mild burning sensation. My yellow board reflects the shimmer of the sun’s hot rays into my eyes, my yellow fin flashes like the flanks of a stimulated tuna slicing through the folding waves. Soon the weather will change. The pleasant North Westerly will shift to a strong cold South Easterly; bringing whitecaps, currents, and a confused sea. But for now, the ocean is brilliant; I plan to spend all day in it.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Surf Bumps

Rashes. Let’s talk about rashes. The one upside to surfing in Northern California is the protection from rashes…chaffing to be more precise. The 4mm wetsuit (or steamer as an Aussie would call it) worn to insulate the body from the frigid 50 F (10 C) waters of Monterey and beyond also provides protection from the inevitable surf rash experienced in warmer clines. When surfing without a steamer, one is bound to develop rashes. I now have rashes. Every part of my body where twp planes of skin interact with each other, in the salty sandy environment of the sea, have developed a bumpy red irritating rash. Personally I welcome the rash, I cherish the rash. It’s like a rite of passage; suffering surf rash on every crevasse of my body is a direct result of getting waves, which is always a good thing. Getting waves in warm sub-tropical waters none the less. The great thing about surf rashes, something the one timer never realizes, is with time they develop into tough calyces. Some have already begun to form on my knees, referred to by old school board riders as ‘surf bumps’. Soon I won’t have to worry about surf rash; my skin will with time develop a natural armor of surf bumps to defend my dermal layers from the abrasive environment of the sea. Now I just need to develop a method for defending my dermal layer from mosquitoes (mosies).

I’m telling you the reader these personal details of my crevasses partly because I want to convey how much surfing I’ve been cramming in over past few weeks, partly because I have not much else to report, and partly because I’m 3 beers down of Cooper’s red and still counting, with nothing much to do except escape the persistent chatter of massed people and stare at the moonless stares. Turns out my social anxiety still persists, although I’m thinking it’s more just a longing for quiet. So I think I’ll head off to the beach, beer in hand. Not a bad way to end the night.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Water's Still Warm Down Here

Ordering 6 pints of Samuel Adams from the Cabo Wabo Mexican bar at LAX was the best decision I could have made to prepare myself for the long haul back to this sun burnt continent; as Bill Bryson would have put it. After getting pleasantly glazed over while chatting with a babe from San Francisco about my ignorance on the subject of everything organized sport (we were watching college football on the television above the bar), I found myself wandering around the Tom Bradley International terminal in a last ditch effort to stretch my 25 year old legs and work through any bawl movements that would have otherwise forced me to climb over the corpse of a body accompanying me in my row. Interestingly enough I ran into Rob, a former Australian colleague of mine from Blue Planet Marine, during my zombie walks back and forth in front of gate 12. Rob has a characteristically bald dome that caught my eye as it glistened in the artificial lights of the terminal. Turns out he had been on a road trip with his son, stopping at all the usual tourist destinations: Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Owens Valley, San Francisco, and of course Monterey’s Fisherman’s Wharf. Rob was on my flight back to Brisbane to do some dolphin work, before returning to the project I’m currently a part of in a few weeks.

Thanks to my 6 pints of booze, I spent the first half of the flight, around 6 hours, passed out with my head drooling on my travel pillow against the window. For the remainder of the flight, I tossed and turned, watched Troy, snacked on plastic airplane cookies, gazed at the stars, and noted our updated position over the South Pacific Islands. I particularly like to watch when the plane crosses the equator into the Southern Hemisphere, which is generally just before we cross the international dateline…demarking the exact moment of time travel. The relatively large women in the ail seat to my left remained fairly quite through the journey, although her arm was precariously protruding over the arm rest and into my zone of comfort. In retrospect it would have sense to cushion the left side of my head on her plump arm, but unfortunately we never established that level of affection during the 13 hours we shared in our flying prison. I did show her the ways of the arm rest remote; which pretty much controls all necessary life support functions of the flight; that is calling the steward for water, booze, and cookies; turning on and off the blinding over illuminated reading light; scrolling through a poor selection of the latest Hollywood hits; checking the flight path of course; and balancing the volume as it fluctuated from menu music to movie sounds. Needless to say knowledge of basic arm rest functions is vital to surviving 13 hours on a Boeing 747. It’s too bad Roles Royse can’t seem to keep the 4 engines of the Airbus A380 from exploding…that really is a nice plane when it’s not in danger of bursting to flames in mid flight.

Touching back down in Oz was a gratifying experience; it almost felt like I was returning home….which is not what I expected to feel. The stewardess even said “welcome home mate”…instead of “enjoy your stay sir” as they usual say to people who fit the bill of a tourist. Perhaps it was the mustache I decided to sculpt from my Alaska beard. Maybe it’s an omen. Doubt it though, there’s not a chance I’ll be ditching Reef this soon, and of course my humans back home too.

A few noteworthy events have occurred during the past couple of days, verifying that I am in fact back amongst the Aussies; the most obvious being the long blacks, Rainbow Lorikeets, roundabouts, and left sided driving. While waiting in a bus at the Brisbane Airport for my shuttle to Peregian, the driver noticed that the passenger count exceeded the number of paying customers. While calling out names as he walked towards the back of the bus, he came across a dark skinned Indian man sitting alone a few rows ahead of mine, whose name was not on the list. Unfortunately for him he had boarded the wrong bus, prompting the driver to respond “well you must be my nigger in the wood pile”. Shocking, I know! For a while I thought perhaps I had misheard the man. Even more shocking was the reaction of the other passengers, which was laughter. Laughter. This country has a long way to go with its racial issues, but it was a sure sign that I had again entered Oz.

To make a long story short, the past week as it goes with BRAHSS, formerly known as HARC, has been full of set up and vollie training. This season I’ll be taking a more active role as hill coordinator and standby boat crew, so I’ve been doing my best to mingle with the newbie’s and answer any questions they may have about the ins and outs of the project. My face hurts from all the forced smiling I’ve been putting my cheek mussels through, but at least I’m making an effort this season to not be such an antisocial jackass like last season. I’m finding that being nice to random people isn’t as difficult as I initially thought. Still, I’m sure there will be a few duds this season that will rub me the wrong way…along with a few that could rub me the right way as well! (Sorry for those of you that weren’t supposed to read that, mom in particular).

My Durrell surfboard survived the flight, free of charge by the way as Qantas considers board bags part of your 2 checked bag allowance; however it did suffer a minor puncture and some crushed rails which I’ve already sealed and filled with resin. I am happy to announce that I am the first person to surf a Durrell longboard in Australia, and I’m damn proud of it. The yellow pintail has been great so far, fast enough to get me through those intense sections and long enough to still allow for the occasional toes on the nose. Hopefully the sharks don’t notice its school bus yellow paint job.

So consider this my message to those of you back home that I’m alive and safe in Australia. Sorry if I had you worried over the past week, I’ve been too busy to deal with trivial things like internet.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Australia Again?

Shirts are neatly rolled, camera batteries charged, and surfboard is stuffed away with wetsuits and leashes…I’m off to Australia again. It’s phase 2 of HARC, and despite my best intentions to stick around California for a while, I’ll be rejoining the crew for another season of humpback whale research. The study will take place at Peregian Beach, still minutes from epic Noosa Heads surfing on the Sunshine Coast. I’ll have my own board this time, a 9’2’’ yellow pintail shaped by my best bud Durrell, assuming the damage won’t be too great from the transport. The study will end early November, so I should be back from down under before Thanksgiving; however these plans are prone to changes.

I anticipate posting much more drunken rambling about social anxiety, exotic birds, and sharky surf over the next several months. I even purchased GRE vocabulary flash cards which I plan to utilize in upcoming posts. First, I must somehow survive the grueling 15 hour red eye nonstop from LAX to Brisbane. Hopefully someone will be able to accommodate my board and me at the airport…the surf has been too good in California to worry about planning for any of this (overhead by the way in Southern California!). I’m confident it will all work out.

Cheers, mates

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A Short History of Nearly Everything...Middleton Island May5-Aug15

Around this time last year, I began a transient lifestyle in the southern hemisphere, working for various projects in an effort to gain field experience in marine science. I started this online journal to keep family, friends, and anyone else interested informed, educated, and entertained during my travels. Since returning from Australia, I’ve spent that last three and a half months on Middleton Island, a small remote outcropping of seabed in the Gulf of Alaska as a volunteer (slave laborer) for a seabird project with the US Geological Survey. Given the protracted distance from civilization, and the limited range of cell phone reception and internet access, I have been unable to update this blog on my experiences. Now that I’m back in the land of the living, I’ve attempted to sum up that past 15 weeks with enough brevity to keep you the reader from slamming your head on the desk in front of you in sheer boredom.

Middleton Island, otherwise referred to as MDO, was once another subsurface bump in the ever shifting contours of the continental shelf. Luckily for me, and for thousands of seabirds that use this now above surface bump as nesting habitat, the continental shelf in the Gulf of Alaska is indeed actively and in times quite violently shifting. This region where MDO now stands is part of a subduction zone, where the Pacific Plate is grinding and sliding beneath the North American plate; forming the stunning uplifted crests of mountains that lure swarms of tourists to Alaska, and allowing me to place my feet on a piece of land that was once flooded by the Pacific 4000 years ago. Middleton Island is young in geologic time, the most recent uplifted terrace to be added emerged less than 50 years ago; when in 1964 a massive earthquake centered in Prince William Sound elevated the island by 30 feet in one thrusting event. Fox farmers living on MDO during the quake feared the entire island would crumble into the sea, rather than rapidly grow in elevation. There’s some serious tectonic activity happening here.

For nesting seabirds, the geological activity is both a blessing and a curse. Historical uplift of the region created steep cliff faces that jutted from the sea, prefect nesting habitat for black-legged kittiwakes, common murres, and pelagic cormorants. The 1964 quake, however, changed the landscape in ways which now threaten the success of these cliff nesters. The newly added land has extended the beach by several hundred yards, creating an impenetrable barrier of vegetation for murre chicks that fledge to the sea just weeks after hatching. They could once jump straight from their cliffs to the sea, but now must walk through walls of tall grasses and willow shrubs, all while avoiding the glaucous-winged gulls and bald eagles that are always eager to make of snack of them. The new land has also changed the erosion characteristics of the island, replacing the steep cliff faces with slumped moraines of eroded material from older terraces, forcing the kittiwakes and cormorants to find other structures for nesting.

What makes MDO unique for seabirds and in turn seabird research is the availability of artificial structures suitable enough to be used as nesting habitat. During the Cold War, MDO was part of a string of 50 radar stations that spanned the Gulf of Alaska, collectively known as the Distant Early Warning Line or DEW-Line. These remote outposts were used to monitor soviet activity in Alaskan waters to protect the ‘homeland’ from foreign invasion. The derelict towers, barracks, and various other buildings from the old radar facility still stand, although there structural integrity has been severely compromised after the quake, and are now used by the birds as ledges to nest upon. The main tower, standing approximately 100 meters, has been specially outfitted with nest sized ledges, complete with partitions from neighboring nests and one way mirrors between the inside of the tower and each nest. The one-way mirrors offer a front stage view for those inside the tower into the lives of nesting kittiwakes. The mirrors can also be lifted, providing access to the birds for measuring eggs, chick growth, adult morphometrics, and access for experimental studies involving manipulation of broods, blood work, and banding. It truly is a unique set up for both seabird and seabird researcher.

Cliff faces and aging radar structures are not the only features suitable for raising a chick; birds have adopted many strategies for incubating an egg. Rhinoceros auklets and tufted puffins utilize the uppermost sedimentary layer of cliffs as substrate for digging burrows. Burrow nesting is popular among seabirds; they provide protection from the constant aerial assault of predators, giving parents the freedom to leave their chick alone for an extended period of time to forage at sea. Birds that have exposed nests must always have a parent on guard to protect the chick, until that chick is old enough to fledge. The limiting factor with burrow nesting is the ground must be consolidated enough to maintain the structure of the burrow. It seems MDO has such a geological structure, as the rhinoceros auklet and tufted puffin breeding populations on MDO are growing; possibly translating to an increase in the glaucous-winged gull population. Glaucous-winged gulls build rudimentary nests on the ground, and aside from the bald eagle, are the main predator of chicks on the island.

Those that devote a quarter of their year to studying seabirds on MDO also utilize the old dilapidated buildings. The main living space for volunteers like myself, researchers, staff, and visitors alike is the chateau, a modest warehouse-like dwelling adjacent to the main tower; outfitted with a kitchen, an office for entering data, and a woodstove to warm wet moldy socks. After hours, when the sun would finally sink below the horizon, we would retreat to our own personal tents called bomb shelters in a gully behind the chateau (although some decided to share midway through the project). There’s a warehouse for various flavors of gear, a murre building with windows for watching murres, a small cabin for our VIP guests and the ‘mayor’ of MDO when he was around, a port-o-potty (or port-o-lue for the proper English readers) for writing poetry, and three ATV’s for getting around the island. We collected drinking water from a spring near the runway on the north side of the island, and wash water from a stream to the south. The chateau had a washing machine for our clothes when the bird shit and BO became too strong to tolerate, with which we had to manually load with water. Planes touched down randomly as various people came and went, on occasion bringing us mail and news from the outside world. I also found one AM radio station with enough reception to listen to NPR news during my morning coffee.

The core group of volunteers that remained on the island for the complete 15 week field season consisted of a 4 person American team (Lena originally from Turkey who now resides in the US, Sharon from the Netherlands, Lucy from England...or is it Britain?, and myself from the land of the free) and the French team (Thomas, Romain, and Elise, all from France). We welcomed many visitors, including Scott, the USGS scientist who heads the work on MDO; Perriek, the PhD adviser of Thomas from France; Jorg and Chris from the University of Alaska Fairbanks working with kittiwakes; Emily and Veronica from the University of Alaska Anchorage working with stickleback (a type of fish); 5 people from US Fish and Wildlife Service working with Canada geese; Angus, Trey, and Harry, three well off kids exploring the world and working on their philanthropy; 3 marine geologist from Woods Hole and other places working on whatever geologists work on; a surfer pilot and his lady friend; and various FAA employees who used their own facilities and who avoided us ‘bird people’. At times the dinner table felt overcrowded, but the new stories, personalities, and relationships our visitors contributed to the group were a welcomed relief from the routine we inevitably developed.

Our daily schedule varied, expect for one chore we could always count on…feeding. Each day at 9AM, Noon, and 6PM we would walk the 6 flights of stairs to the tower, grab a bucket of partially frozen to uncomfortably thawed capelin (a type of schooling fish and popular food source for marine life in the Gulf of Alaska), and fed our panel of kittiwakes. Sharon, Lucy, and I each had our own panel of 27 nesting pairs of kittiwakes, and everyday…3 times a day… their diet was supplemented with as much capelin as they could eat. This was part of a long term study on how diet affects the breeding success of kittiwakes (the more fish they consume, the more reproductively successful they become), compared to panels of nesting kittiwakes that were not fed. A surplus of food may also influence the sex ratio of the chicks, energetics and longevity of adults, and the timing of chick fledging, among other biological and physiological factors.

Between feeding, both of the birds and ourselves, the days were filled with various tasks, down time, movies, and drama. We banded adult kittiwakes and tufted puffin chicks, bled known aged birds with needles for their telomerase (the redundant ends of DNA that fray over time), walked for hours along the low and high tide lines in search of dead marine bird and mammal beach casts, measured glaucous-winged gull eggs and got vomited on by the chicks that hatched from them, and nearly lost a few eyes, lips, and fingers to vicious and extremely pissed off pelagic cormorants. We made many pies, cakes, and cookies, perfected of art of bread making, drank voluminous amounts of coffee, and constantly snacked on Snickers and Gold Fishes. I spent a lot of time staring at the sea, mostly wishing I had packed a board and wetsuit (the waves at times would have been a nice escape from island life), and in the process spotted a male killer whale, Steller sea lions, harbor seals, whale blows, a long-tailed and parasitic jeager, a horned puffin, ancient murrelets, harlequin ducks, a forked-tailed storm petrel, flocks of shearwaters and northern fulmars, and a possible albatross, among a lengthy list of other sightings. Needless to say we kept busy during our 15 weeks on MDO.

Many noteworthy events have happened since the season began, too many to mention here, but several stand out in my mind. Like the nights we went rhino catching. Rhinoceros auklets spend the evenings at sea foraging for their chicks, using their short stiff wings to propel through the water in pursuit of various small fish. At the stroke of midnight, when darkness eventually settles at this latitude, rhino parents fly back from the sea to their burrows, bills loaded with fish. The burrow colonies are densely vegetated, making landing somewhat of a challenge. They use long narrow strips of un-vegetated soil, basically a runway, to bring themselves down from flight. Once on the solid ground, they then scurry around the colony, likely using smell to locate the appropriate burrow that contains their chick. Rhinoceros auklets have a varied diet, including commercially important prey species like salmon and sablefish yearlings; so knowing how much of which type of fish they are bringing back to the colony is a valid question. Every 5th night towards the end of the season, about 15 days after the chicks had hatched, we would take a team of 3 to several landing strips late at night and scare the shit out of incoming birds until they dropped their fish. Well perhaps it wasn’t that dramatic; we used nets to capture them as they passed by and landed. Once netted, the birds would drop their bill loads for us to collect, before being released. Our target was 30 bill loads in 2 hours, and it was loads of fun. Laying flat on the cold white shit covered ground (actually its mostly uric acid and not shit, but who’s checking) under thorny salmon berry bushes, with only the dim light of the sun somewhere just over the horizon to the north. The birds sounded like mini helicopters crash landing all around with a hard hollow thump, their bluish webbed feet pattering as they waddled just in range of our nets…then SLAM! Some were caught in midflight, some while wandering around, others bounced off the aluminum frame of our nets and rolled back down the runway. However the method, they would inevitably drop their fish for our collection. Of the different types of fish we identified, including the salmon and sablefish I already mentioned, their bills contained capelin, sandlance, greenling, Pacific cod, lingcod, squid, and a few unknown juvenile fish; some with up to 12 fish is one bill load!

One night, after a long drawn out dramatic event with one of the team members; the most amazing atmospheric event unfolded before me. It was the last night before Scott the project organizer would arrive to help us pack up camp, so naturally we decided to break out the rum and orange juice and spend the night chatting around the camp fire. To make a long story short, and to keep from offending anyone, one of the team members had a blow out and went a little crazy. After the dust settled, and the fire began to lose its heat sometime around one in the morning, I started the muddy dark walk back to my tent. Just as I was about to unzip the rain fly and crash into my sleeping bag, I noticed a light green diffuse arc across the northern portion of the sky; like a muted and blurred Milky Way. This puzzled me, the Milky Way is supposed to arc from the north to south, not east to west. After watching it for a few minutes, it started to build in intensity, as waves of green began to work through the arc. Within seconds it hit me….aurora…whispering it to myself as if I just had solved a complicated puzzle. Instantly I ran back to the Chateau, stumbling over ditches and splashing through hidden puddles from the series of rain storms we had had a few weeks prior, mind you I had yet to piss out the rum I had been drinking. Romain was still listening to Bob Dylan when I reached the Chateau, and I urged him outside as a grabbed my camera and tripod. Sharon emerged from the bushes; she had also noticed the phenomenon to the north before retiring to her tent. So the 3 of us stood there and stared in awe at the spectacle before us, a bright curtain of green waving and dancing thousands of miles above us, as solar particles reacted with the magnetic field of earth. I stayed up and watched it for an hour; the lights coming in pulses, sometimes disappearing for several minutes. The color reminded me of the green light emitted from the thick soup of bioluminescent algae I’ve seen in the Sea of Cortez and Monterey Bay on dark moonless nights. It was the single night in the entire season that the Aurora Borealis was seen, and I was pretty stoked to have been awake for the event…and sober enough to understand what was happening ta boot.

The progression of summer has come to a close out on MDO. The island is slowly turning brown again as the vegetation begins to dry out; the wildflowers, aside from the purple fire weed, have all died back in preparation for the coming fall. The kittiwakes have spent the season building nests, incubating eggs, and rearing chicks. Now the new fledglings are learning the art of flight; leaping from the ledge, abandoning the comfort of the nest into a new world at sea. For me, it’s bittersweet. I’ve learned more than I intended about seabirds, came up with a few ideas of what to eventually do with my life, battled with persistent fleas that found some very creative places to hide, and as customary with these projects I’ve met some very interesting and genuinely good natured people along the way. Sure we all had our share of ups and downs, ups during the beginning and downs towards the end, but it was all worth it. Now that I’m back in my comfort zone it’s nice to be surrounded by the people I know best, taking Reef for walks on the beach, surfing and all the rest; but much like the fledging kittiwakes it won’t be long before I’ll be ready to head out over the open ocean once again, in search of more experiences and projects that allow me to postpone reality for just a little longer. Maybe I’ll head to South America, still high on my priority list, likely back to Australia, or maybe something completely unexpected. So stay tuned people, hopefully there will be more to report shortly.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

North to Alaska

Well I’ve put away the surfboards and pulled out the binoculars for 3 plus months of birding and seabird harassing in Alaska. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to update this blog during my time up north; the internet does not reach my soon to be remote location on a small uninhabited Alaskan island. I could tell you more about the project, but I won’t know the details until I start getting my hands dirty, plus I’m spent from trying to pack for 3 months of camping in Alaskan summer weather; so you’ll have to check back in mid August for my post season posts. In a nut shell the project is aimed to measure the long-term breeding success of Black Legged Kittiwakes, Horned Puffins, and a few Auklets on Middleton Island. If you want to contact me you can send letters through the mail, strange concept tell me about it. I won’t post the address here, but if you send me an email my account may regurgitate a response with the postage details.

Tomorrow, I’m back up in the air.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Weighing Anchor

My time down under has come to an end, and it’s only appropriate I pay tribute to the last 9 months.

Once I touch down in North America, I will have flown a sufficient distance to circumnavigate the globe twice; around 80,450 kilometers or 50,000 miles. The summation of 3 roundtrip flights from LA to Australia’s east coast, 3 return flights across the sun burnt continent from Perth to Brisbane and Sydney, and a series of connecting flights from Sydney to New Zealand, New Zealand to Melbourne, Melbourne to Hobart, and Hobart back to Sydney. Not to mention countless flights throughout the east coast between Northern Queensland and Southern New South Wales.

Between the flights I’ve completed 8 dives on the Great Barrier Reef. Surfed superb waves in Noosa on the Sunshine Coast to Snapper on the Goldie. Added at least 50 new birds, 5 new marine mammals, 7 new marine reptiles, and a few new fish to my life lists. I’ve seen the bird with the longest wingspan, a fish that ‘walks’ on land, and a mammal that lays eggs. I’ve had sharks investigate my feet, saved a panicked English swimmer from a watery death, counted thousands humpback whales, received a vigorous pecking from shearwater chicks, and navigated somewhat successfully with the Southern Cross. I’ve stood beneath strange pine-like eucalyptus trees with even stranger dog sized bats hanging from limbs and birds with a call that would rival the most dominate howler monkey.

I’ve cautiously ordered flat whites, long blacks, short blacks, Cornish pasties, sausage rolls, and Vegemite on toast with avocado. I’ve cooked kangaroo on a Barbie and eaten thousands of Tim Tams saturated with milk. I’ve used phrases like ‘No Worries’ and ‘Too Easy’, adjectives like ‘heaps’ and ‘loads’, and happily managed to avoid saying ‘mate’. I’ve spelled color and behavior with a ‘U’ without setting off spell check. I’ve hiked to the top of Emu Mountain, braved the scaffolding of Mt. Olympus, and bush-wacked to the end of the earth in Tasmania. Breathed in coal dust, diesel exhaust, whale blow, red clay powder, mud from the seabed, and salt spray from waves. I’ve won and lost a few battles with an unrelenting tarp. Drank Tooheys, Victoria Bitter (VB), Carlton Draught, XXXX Gold, James Bogues, Coopers of all colours, and a boxed wine called GOONE. I’ve been given suspicious looks by the Australian Police, interrogated by the Australian Police, and detained by the Australian Police. Passed out on the beach, sang “American Pie” intoxicated, relaxed in a hammock under the shade of a gum tree, and pretended to be a koala without contracting ‘the clap’.

I’ve befriended Germans, Canadians, Brazilians, Italians, Britons, Dutch, French, Columbians, Irish, Kiwi’s, Americans, and of course Australians. I was followed by a stalker dubbed Mel from Brisbane. I’ve seen the sad state of Aboriginal people in Cairns and the affluent state of whites in Sydney. I’ve shared possibly too many jugs, schooners, and stubbies of brew with very interesting aspiring and accomplished marine bird and mammal scientists. Laughed over episodes of Flight of the Concords and struggled to keep my sanity with large groups of volunteers. I’ve camped on a remote Tasmanian island, slept on stabbing hostel bunks, over-nighted in a yellow van, been rocked to sleep on a cruise ship, shaken awake in a dredger, and crashed the homes of some awfully hospitable and generous mates….damn I said it.

Australia truly is a country with much to offer. As I sit here in the Brisbane airport awaiting the Qantas flight that will carry me over the spatter of islands across the Pacific, I’m preparing to finish this chapter. I’ll be leaving a land ripe with potential, taking with me a trove of experiences and fond memories I won’t soon forget.

This time last year, I unintentionally began following the annual migration of Eastern Australian Humpback Whales. I Volunteered for a census of that population during their migration north in June, insured they didn’t get tangled up with explosives where they breed in August off the Great Barrier Reef, trekked back down for another study off the Sunshine Coast in October as the mothers escorted their new claves south, and watched some spectacular seabirds in February in the Southern Ocean where those new calves will learn to feed as individuals, thus completing the cycle. It is in the Southern Ocean in Tasmania where I ditched the humpbacks and began to follow a new migration, that of the shearwaters. Short-tailed Shearwaters nest on Wedge and other remote islands around Australia during the Southern Hemisphere summer, and embark on an ambitious 33,000 mile journey around the Pacific each year. So instead of the whales, I will be following these shearwaters across the equator to Alaska, where they spend the Northern Hemisphere’s summer foraging in the cold productive waters of the North Pacific. Just like Bruce Brown’s classic surf film, I will be skipping winter this year and heading to Middleton Island, a wedge of exposed seabed in the Gulf of Alaska, for an endless summer; unlike Bruce Brown unfortunately I won’t be doing much surfing.

But first, it’s time for 2 weeks of good company and good times in California. See you in 15 hours.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

A Loss for Words

I’m happy to report that today will be my last day of work at Barrow Island, although I’m suspicious whether this will be my last day of work as a marine fauna observer. Either way tomorrow I get the hell out of here on the first Cobham flight back to Perth, connecting to Brisbane later in the evening. Don’t get me wrong, Barrow Island is a beautiful and unique place full of interesting and noteworthy fauna…but I’ve been living and working on freaking dredgers, not exactly the most mentally stimulating of environments; especially when you run out of reading material and the only method for maintaining the interest of anyone during a conversation requires inserting the F-bomb after every other syllable. (Luckily there are enough girlie magazines around to last a lifetime). As a side note it has been amusing listening to the Dutch adopt the Aussie’s prolific use of the word fuck; “ Dusheiv dagen ban un FUCK’N flarven von on FUCK vitchebein sausage FUCKING FUCK duetch.” In the absence of books by real writers, I have discovered that reading past posts are a good way to reflect on my time down here; I’m especially enjoying reliving June of last year…”he sounds a bit pretentious if you ask me” (that was a fictitious quote from a made up reader by the way).

And so it is….that is that….moving on. My loss of words about this place sums up my feelings about living. Although I’ve only worked a total of 3 months out here, split between 3 swings, it feels like it’s been an eternity. So as the story goes, theTaurus II will keep breaking up that coral, the Gateway will keep sucking it up, and the Finnmarken will remain more boring than a speech from Bob Dole. Me, I’m out.

Good luck termite mounds and spinifex…keep on keeping on.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

More Noting of Hydrophiidae

I transferred back onto the Finnmarken this morning after working a few hours on the Gateway; and with the Taurus not yet on site from the last cyclone demobilization, I’ve had the afternoon free to delve deeper into the lives of sea snakes. Although I had to wait several hours after jumping ship for my laptop power cable to catch up with me; in my haste I left it behind in the MFO cabin on the Gateway.

Apparently, sea snakes were one of the first marine fauna noted by early European explorers to Australia (New Holland as they knew it then), particularly in the northwest where numerous species are found (and where I happen to be located). Turns out our old pal William Dampier was one of the first to describe their presence in northwestern Australia during his visit in the early 18th century. The first formal description from an Australian specimen was of Aipysurus laevis a century later in 1804. Commonly known as the Olive Sea Snake, it is a species that I often spot basking in the sun around the spoil grounds, and which happens to be one of the most aggressive in the region. In fact whenever the Gateway’s massive 100 meter hull passes by one at the surface, it will typically hold its ground more than any other species observed, as if it’s sizing us up. I have no doubt its venom could reek havoc on the entire crew, but that steel hull may pose a problem at getting to them (although I wouldn’t put it past any Australian, sea snake or otherwise). The other common species found around Barrow, Astrotia stokesii and Hydrophis elegans, may not be as aggressive, but are amongst some of the largest sea snakes in the world; stretching over 2 meters in length.

Like any true aquatic animal, they’ve evolved a suite of adaptations that allow them to thrive in an aqueous medium. Similar to whales and seals, sea snakes have a pair of valvular nostrils that must be actively opened for respiration, allowing for a tight ‘seal’ during dives. These nostrils are situated higher on the snout than those of terrestrial snakes, making a breath at the surface just that much easier. Given a few million or more years the nostrils may migrate to the top of the head like a whale’s blowhole. Sea snakes have broad laterally flattened tails providing propulsion when whipped back and forth. In some species much of the body is also laterally compressed, like a ribbon, to aid in swimming. Not a necessity, as terrestrial snakes are very capable in the water, but definitely an advantage. Surprisingly, a sea snake, given a motive or possibly a sense of adventure, could actually follow a humpback whale on a 100 meter dive and stay submerged with a sperm whale for up to 2 hours. They can achieve this feat partly by absorbing oxygen and expelling carbon dioxide through their skin, a process known as cutaneuos respiration (skin breathing). And of course since the body chemistry of reptiles is far less salty than the oceans, sea snakes can secrete salt from a glad in their lower jaw. These along with countless other adaptations similar to those found across the animal kingdom from marine mammals to birds, opened up a whole new niche to the traditional snake; and have given me something to look at during my 12 hour shifts of boredom.

Speaking of boredom, it would appear there’s a sail on the horizon (not sure if that makes sense but I wanted to use it). I have just 2 days left at Barrow Island before I fly back to the east coast. Not Boston but the other east coast, Brisbane, for 2 more days of surf. By my calculation that’s only 4 days to go in Australia, not counting the time in the air. I may need a few moments to decide what I think about that…

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A Brief Note on Hydrophiidae

INSECTS! Freaking driving me crazy I tell you. Of course they’re not just the normal kind that simply land on your flesh and wait for you to shun them away. This is Australia, where creatures take everything to a new extreme. These damn things are super spastic, writhing around all over my face, arms, and legs like they’re jacked up on speed, or just drank 5 consecutive cans of RedBull (which I’ve done by the way. I don’t recommend it; I ended up having Denise pull the rental car over so I could attempt to puke onto the red clay of Kauai. It was an ordeal). Every time I step out of the bridge they immediately gravitate to my face, zipping aimlessly about my eyes and mouth at lightning speed. What a terrible subdivision of the arthropods. It’ a shame we’re losing bats at an astonishing rate to habitat destruction, we could use more of our ecolocating, big eared, hairy winged, insect eating allies in this world (and I don’t mean the French).

Despite the swarming insects, today was ripe with interesting fauna sightings. Like most days out here, it started with a glorious sunrise over the ocean, followed by many intense hours of boredom staring into a void while listening to “It’s All Politics” and “This American Life” on my IPod, broken by the sudden emergence of Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphins. They appeared to be feeding along the edge of the dredge plume, and stayed near the ship for several hours. Once the Gateway’s hopper was filled to the brim with crushed coral and ancient rocks, we set a course for the spoil grounds, and in transit I spotted my first positively indentified Hawksbill Turtle and about a dozen sea snakes. Sea snakes are often seen in route to and around the area where we dump the dredged material.

Sea snakes are in the family Hydrophiidae, a close branch to the family Elapidae, or the cobras. And like cobras, all true sea snakes are extremely venomous. Thus, not much is known about their life history or taxonomy; that is the number, distribution, relatedness, and status of species worldwide. There are likely over 32 species of sea snakes in tropical waters around Australia, both in the Indian and Pacific Oceans; 11 of which have only been observed in Australian waters (according to my fellow MMOer Ben). Superficially sea snakes don’t vary much by way of coloration or patterns. To accurately identify them, one must take meticulous measurements and counts of various physical features; such as counting scales and noting the placement of teeth. In order to do this the animal has to be dead. So I don’t bother trying. Locally the striped sea snakes tend to be in the genus Hyrophis, while snakes with a solid color fall into the genus Aipysurus. I’m almost certain the snake pictured is Hydrophis elegans, supposedly common around Barrow. Anyway a sea snake is a sea snake, and they’re pretty damn cool to watch… from a distance.
In the event that anyone else besides my mom follows these posts, you’ll note that it would appear I am back on site working and not sailing around the Indian Ocean avoiding cyclones. Well you are correct, we returned to Barrow Island yesterday afternoon once the captain determined the low pressure system moving down the coast posed no threat. Not a bad call, today was a pleasant sunny day.