Saturday, January 29, 2011

Missing the Weather Already

The Finnmarken arrived in the offshore waters around Barrow Island at dawn, and we are now firmly anchored in placid seas once again. I’m told there have been some mechanical issues with both the Gateway and Taurus, so there won’t be any dredging for at least two more days. I’m going to do my best to law low in my cabin during this time, so I’m not put on the same “wild goose chase” projects as last time this happened. I am only contracted to be an MFO, and that is the only work I will be doing on this project. They are are just going to have to pay me to dream about my trip to New Zealand while I stand by for the dredging to commence. Don't get me wrong, I like working, just not bullshit assignments.

I had a great time on my paid 5-6 day cruise into the Indian Ocean, and really enjoyed the rough weather thanks to Bianca. I have been reading more about the White-tailed Tropicbird I spotted a few days ago; apparently they are very rare in this part of the Indian Ocean and are typically only sighting during cyclones, as the wind pushes them further south than their normal range. Makes sense that we happened upon one right after the storm had passed, and that it seemed eager to land and circled the ship, like it had been flying for some time and was lost.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


I wanted to experience weather at sea, and it looks like I’m going to get it. The wind has increased, building the swell to a sharp 4 meters; the weather is bearing its teeth now. My cabin looks stationary, but the surface of the water in the mug on my desk and the curtains hanging from the window reveal the shifting plane of gravity. There’s something comforting about that weightless feeling one gets while lying in bed as the ship pitches and rolls over mountains of water. Along with the wind we’ve been having heavy monsoon rain squalls off and on all day. And we are still traveling north, I’m assuming we will make our turn south tomorrow and follow the weather back to Barrow Island.
That was yesterday, the ship began rocking differently last night, and I woke up to the sun rising to the left ; we are heading south again. Tropical Cyclone Bianca (I think that’s what they have named her) is now centered over Barrow Island and should pass later this evening. The predicted swell tomorrow morning as we approach Barrow will be around 8-10 meters, should be a lot of fun.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

No Beer for Australia Day

The cyclone is now forming beyond our stern, a good place for it I guess (although I was hoping to experience some extreme weather). A rim of grey cumulous clouds stretch from 4-8 o-clock, with a dark shadowy backdrop. Rain looks heavy inside the maelstrom of humid air, with occasional sparks of lightning. We are still traveling northwest; I believe we are at 12 degrees latitude at this point. And still the weather here is calm, light 12 knots winds blowing straight into the cyclone, and a descent 3 meter swell (enough to roll the Finnmarken and make everyone on this dry ship look drunk).

Today is apparently Australia Day. I day when all of the Aussie drink more than they usually do and celebrate the day that Captain Cook set foot on this continent. Cook’s “discovery” of this land provided the solution to Britain’s overwhelming crime problems. Britain now had a place where it could ship all of its convicts, since the newly forming America didn’t want them anymore. Although historically Cook had no intention of leaving his ship while navigating the eastern coast, but was forced to when their vessel the Endeavor struck the dangerous coral formations of the Great Barrier Reef.

A quick note about the stars. Orion does in fact rise in the northeast and set in the northwest, but because it’s summer here it appears higher in the sky than it did back in the days of the Straddie study last July. Still working out the Southern Cross, it’s been too difficult due to the humidity and the clouds to locate. So if you watch the constellation Orion and follow whether it’s rising of setting, and you know what season you’re in, you can technically get a rough idea of north based on where Orion is in the night sky. This would opposite for the northern hemisphere, where Orion should rise in the south. I could be full of shit but I think I’m correct.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Who Dropped the Floaters?

I haven’t seen a sea snake all day and the water has taken on that rich brilliant blue color characteristic of the tropics… we’re getting deeper. As far as I can tell we continued our northerly course all of last night and today. The swell is still only a few meters and the wind a steady 15 knots, classic beauford 3-4 trade wind conditions. Still plenty of Wedge-tailed Shearwaters scouring the wave crests, and a new seabird species for my life list. Hovering overhead was a dark ominous looking bird with a forked tail and long beak, the ultimate parasitic bird of the tropics, a frigatebird. These birds cannot land on the water and will harass gulls and terns until they forfeit their hard earned catch. After consulting the bird book, it was a Lesser Frigatebird (Fregata ariel), which nests on islands offshore of northern Australia, in both the Indian and Pacific Oceans. This is the third species of frigatebird I’ve seen; Magnificent in the Sea of Cortez, Greater in Kauia and Costa Rica, and now the Lesser here in the Indian Ocean.

There have been quite a few pelagic drifters in the form of Siphonophores (similar to jellies only in that they are “jelly like” but in a different phyla and morphologically distinct). I even spotted a coconut bobbing alongside the ship, arguably the world’s first true open ocean explorer. Unfortunately not all the drifters were naturally occurring. I saw more plastic trash than living organism floating at the surface during my post on the bow, all small enough to be devoured by the shearwaters scanning these offshore feeding grounds for a meal. The open ocean may as well be a back alley in some major metropolis slum town. It’s easy to neglect when no one’s watching.

Photos: Magnificent Frigatebird taken in Bahia de los Angeles, Wedge-tailed Sheawater taken today.

Lost in the Indian Ocean

I wrote this yesterday (Jan 24th)

Just after 12 noon today the Finnmarken set sail out into the Indian Ocean in an effort to avoid the tropical low that is expected to morph into a cyclone, hitting Barrow Island on Wednesday. The handheld GPS that used to be in the MFO cabin was transferred onto the Gateway last month, so I won’t be able to plot our course as we transit. Based on the angle of the sun and the direction of the swell, we are heading in a northerly direction at about 12 knots. I’m going to practice navigating with the stars tonight (although I have no idea how). I do know that my favorite constellation Orion should appear over the horizon to the north, and I’m assuming the Sothern Cross is to the south, or points south somehow. The storm is predicted to hug the coastline, and depending on how it tracks when it becomes a cyclone, we may end up several hundred miles out to sea…Singapore would be nice.

I’ll probably spend most of my time on deck watching for seabirds and Cetaceans. I’ve already counted about 20 sea snakes, several dozen Wedge-tailed Shearwaters, a couple of sharks, numerous flying fish of various shapes and sizes that I've watched glid at least 300 feet, and a possible Masked Booby ( I didn’t have the binos handy and couldn’t make a confident identification). It was flying like a booby, and had enough white on it to make it a Masked rather than a Brown. The creamy tan sea snakes with dark brown horizontal stripes are literally everywhere, which leads me to believe that the depth we are traveling in isn’t great. I can’t imagine a sea snake diving more than a couple hundred feet. From what I remember from looking at maps before the internet cut out, the continental shelf has a gradual slope on this side of Australia.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

It's About to Get Windy

Yet another tropical low forming in the northern territory near Darwin has triggered cyclone demobilization #3 for Barrow Island and all vessels. Currently the sea surface is a mirror and the weather pleasant, but the placid conditions are forecasted to turn nasty by Wednesday; winds upwards of 50 knots are possible. The slower vessels, the barges and their tugs, packed up and left for the mainland yesterday; along with the small transfer and survey vessels. The only ships remaining are the Finnmarken (where I am now), the Taurus which is preparing to leave this evening, and the Gateway also preparing to sail away at sunset. The Finnmarken will set out on a cruise into the Indian Ocean to avoid the weather, not sure what direction yet. I have a GPS handy so I plan to plot our course as we go along.

It appears I will be stuck on this floating hotel for the next 5-7 days. I may post myself on the back deck and continue to observe marine fauna, the odds of seeing albatross increase as we move offshore (assuming we go offshore and not towards the mainland). Ben, the other MFO, spotted a few palm sized turtle hatchlings yesterday from the 20 meter high bridge of the Gateway; I have yet to see one so that will give me a goal to work towards over the next week…there’s really NOTHING else to do.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Back to Work

After a short and comfortable flight on Cobham airlines I once again touched down on the runway of Barrow Island, with an audience of termite mounds and spinifex grasses going to seed in response to the squall like showers that have been marching over the parched land. Then came the long and dusty bus shuttle along the winding dirt roads that connect the various camps and drill sites on the island, followed by a boat transfer to the Finnmarken. Bridled Terns scoured our wake and Brown Boobies watched from their perches as we passed the steep sandstone cliffs of the north side, and wove between the many islets that shelter the transfer dock. Once aboard the Finnmarken I immediately found my room, found my bed, and took a nap…which didn’t last long as the voice from above announced crew transfers to the fleet would begin at 1300; time to go back to work.

I will be on the Taurus for the next few weeks, which is the cutter dredge, before switching to the new Gateway (suction dredge) that arrived on site last month. I will have a room on the Gateway so I won’t have to transfer back and forth between the Finnmarken everyday, which will be nice.
I am also happy to report that the turtles have apparently finished their nesting and have buggered off back out to sea. No more 120 turtle sightings per day. In fact I only saw 4 yesterday, along with 8 Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphins. The whales aren’t scheduled to arrive for several months, so there should be a lot of starring at nothing in my future. I can always count on the birds though.

My fist night back at see was a picturesque one. There is still a tropical low lingering to the North West, which put on a spectacular lightning show on the horizon, as a full moon rose from the East and the sun, brilliant orange and red from the dust of the island, set to the West.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Sydney: What Can I Say?

My 25th birthday didn’t last very long traveling 500 mph in a Qantas Airbus 330, in fact I skipped the 14th altogether and went straight to the 15th ,when I finally touched ground in the southern continent once again here in Sydney. I’ve been in the city for two days and fly to Perth tomorrow for an overnighter before catching yet another flight to Barrow Island. Not much to say about Sydney, it’s like any other city; men carry purses, the horn is used frequently in automobiles, blue tooth headsets and computer bags are quite popular, the streets smell of urine, and people are generally in a hurry to get somewhere. I haven’t down much sightseeing mainly because I don’t care much for cities for these reasons.

I did however check out Australians oldest natural history museum and discovered that Drop Bears really did exist at one point and died out about the same time early humans began to inhabit the continent around 50,000 years ago. I also sat through a show at the Sydney Opera House, it was the best of opera and it wasn’t very exciting. I was expecting an orchestra and a grand arena, but instead got a grand piano and concrete walls. There isn’t much to the Sydney Opera house on the inside; it reminded me of the theater at Yosemite High. I was hoping some pelagic seabird trips would be running so I could check out the southern seabird assemblage, but I guess that will have to wait until Tasmania.

And no, Sydney is not flooding. Brisbane was but is now drying out once again, although the devastation is widespread. They are predicting 12 cyclones in Western Australia this season (the Indian Ocean side), it’s yet to be seen how that may affect work near Barrow. They’ve already demobilized 3 times in the last 2 months.

Photos: The better side of the Sydney Opera House, don’t bother seeing a show. A Drop Bear (actually an extinct lion-like marsupial, similar in morphology but completely unrelated to lions. Drop Bears of course live in trees).