Sunday, February 27, 2011

Wedge Island

My stay in Hobart will be short lived; however given time it would likely have become my new favorite Australian city. It’s like a condensed version of the Brooklyn’s streets, San Francisco’s waterfront, and Quebec Cities’ architecture; except all the transients here are homeless by choice. The climate is perfect. Today I awoke to sunshine, followed by a cold midday breeze, ending with a chilly overcast evening. I’m sure by midnight it will clear up enough to reveal the other worlds that litter the night sky before repeating the cycle tomorrow morning. And of course it wouldn’t be Australia without the deafening rants of flocking Rainbow Lorikeets to give you an early rise.

Tomorrow I catch a city bus to UTAS (University of Tasmania), apparently not too far from here, and meet with my fellow seabird volunteers at the Zoology Institute; where we will exchange the usual small talk and load up our gear. From the Sandy Shore boat ramp we will then embark on an hour’s cruise through Hobart’s natural harbor to Wedge Island; for a 5 day camping experience harassing nesting seabirds in the name of science. I have all the appropriate gear packed away; sleeping pad that doesn’t do much expect add weight my pack, one of Bill Bryson’s books “The Lost Continent” in case the campfire talk goes sour, and of course insect repellent to fend off the many flees and other nasty ecto-parasites that will inevitably attempt to invade the “hard-to-reach without looking inappropriate” parts of my body.

Time to get dirty.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Hobart: I Think I Like This Place

I left Christchurch in the clouds around 8 this morning, after a night of occasional magnitude 4 aftershocks. There was a good one that lasted a few seconds just before we boarded Jetstar’s Airbus 330. Once in the air it was a quick 36 minute flight to Queenstown. To be honest I have no idea where Queenstown is, or if it’s even on the South Island, but it sure is gorgeous. Our approach into the runway took us through a steep sinuous U shaped gorge no doubt carved by the gradual march of a now receded glacier. The peaks were spectacular, looking up at the summits through the cabin window; I can’t imagine what a sight it must be flying into this airport in the snowy winter. I need to figure out where I am so I can pay a visit in the future. I wish I had more than a week to spend here; you really need a whole month or more to get the full New Zealand experience. Definitely coming back.

I typically don’t study my itinerary very closely, I like to pretend I’m a ungulate and just follow the rest of the herd, so I was surprised when I finally looked at my schedule and discovered I have a 5 hour layover in this small stop over port. Damn, wasn’t expecting that. And of course the internet isn’t free. I guess it’s time to invest in a new book…or maybe watch re-runs of the World Series. I’ve been looking for Carl Safina’s recent novel “Forget the title that’s supposed to go here” (it will come to me later) which just came out last month, but apparently the Southern Hemisphere hasn’t caught onto his talent yet; maybe they’re waiting to see if it sells in the States. At any rate I’m looking forward to reading it, “View from Lazy Point”…that’s the title. He’s mastered the art of natural history writing while educating the general public on environmental awareness and the status of endangered species across the globe. Really inspiring reads, I recommend everyone at least pick up“Song for the Blue Ocean”, I couldn’t put it down and you will learn a lot about the world’s fisheries.

Still haven’t found a good cup of coffee here, it looks like a hopeless cause. This cappuccino however is the best I’ve had in an airport so far.

….after much traveling….

I’ve learned in my days of traveling around Australia that hostels, or backpackers as they call them here, can be hit or miss. More often than not it seems the quality of the building itself and the types of people that inhabited the beds is highly depended on the town. Take Cairns for example. If you want a dingy old concrete building with little maintenance, and a creaky dorm bed to share with some just-out-of-high school Irish dudes looking to score some easy syphilis, than Cairns is the place for you. I managed to avoid most of this by getting out onto the Great Barrier Reef whenever possible, but the STD’s were always ready and waiting in the shadows for the chance to colonize new land; not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Hobart, completely different. Walking down the suburban street lined with old colonial style buildings which remind me of French Canada, I found the Narrara Backpackers. Upon opening the front door adorned with stain class windows, I was greeted with a smile by a gorgeous Italian girl sitting around a table sharing pasta with her friends, in a cozy living area with wooden trim. She obviously noticed the recessed look in my eyes and proceeded to help me find my key in the mailbox outside (it was past check in, and being American I’m apparently completely inept without the instructions of a receptionist). Plus how could I resist that smile. Needless to say I like it here already. Even the stars seem brighter.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

I'll Be Back New Zealand

I’ve only experienced a small fraction of what New Zealand has to offer, and still I am overwhelmed by its diversity of charismatic marine life, stunning steep mountain faces, and multitude of various ecosystems all converging in one fascinating archipelago. If you have thought about visiting these islands at some point, my suggestion is you definitely should. New Zealand has a lot to offer; for me, the seabirds were all I needed for a perfect week in this country. If you do end up coming down here, you must pay a visit to Kaikoura and book a trip to see the most iconic bird of the sea, the albatross. And when you finally get up close and personal with the world’s largest wingspan, don’t forget to say hi to Gary for me.

In a few hours I’ll catch a bus down to the crippled city of Christchurch, where I will spend a night at the airport before my 8am flight back to Australia tomorrow. Hopefully the ground will stay settled during my stay. Once in mainland Australia I’ll board another flight south again to Tasmania, where I’m to spend another week surrounded by seabirds. We will be camping on a small island about an hour’s boat ride from Hobart, to measure, weigh, band, and take blood samples of nesting Short-tailed Shearwaters and Little Penguins. This will be my first seabird study. I’m thinking of getting into nesting seabird ecology research as a career, and this study will test my enthusiasm in the subject.

So long New Zealand, I wish you and your wealth of natural history well.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Moby Dick

I figured I’d later regret coming to New Zealand without seeing the Sperm Whales that take up residence in the deep trench off Kaikoura. So today I paid 3 times what one would pay for a whale watch in California to go out and see the whale made famous by Herman Melville. Similar to the bird trips, they herded us like sheep (something people here should be very good at) onto a bus to South Harbor, and similar yet again was that pungent smell of European musk. The ride out to the trip was very theatrical, and catered to the ignorant tourist. The naturalist used all of the lines I once used on boats in Monterey:

“If you see you’re crew floating away on a life raft you know something’s wrong”

“Make sure you vomit downwind from you fellow passengers”

“If you feel like you life is over, whatever you do DO NOT go into the bathroom”

“ Baleen is made from the same material as your hair and fingernails”

“ We don’t use any special equipment to find them, we only use our eyes”

The only difference was the billion dollar custom built catamaran with stunning graphics of the canyon system, overlaid with our updated GPS fix, speed, heading, and depth of water. The major downside was we had to sit inside while underway. Searching for the blows and other marine life is what makes whale watching fun; not actually looking at the whales (admittedly that gets boring after 15 min). Passengers want to feel like they’re playing an active role in the hunt; although there are those that would rather have the whales handed to them (they’re the ones that usually ask what time they start jumping). On the upside though it was amusing watching people slowly turn pale and drop their faces into their spew bags. One guy stuck his face into a used one that had been put back in the seat…boy was he not happy about that one.

We eventually caught up with a Sperm Whale that has been recorded regularly off Kaikoura for the last 20 years, named Tiaki (which means the guardian in Maori I think). He (I’m assuming since it mostly males they see here) had just come up from a foraging dive no doubt, and spent a good 20 minutes replenishing his oxygen stores at the surface. Once the myoglobin in his tissues were maxed out he kicked his fluke up for a strong power stroke, stuck his left facing single blow hole out for one last breath, arched his back and raised his massive flukes on a vertical dive back down into darkness. He would probably then spend the next hour at 5000+ foot depth using his sonar to seek out sharks, lantern fish, squid of various species, and other deep dwelling delicacies.

And that was it for the whales, we spent the remainder of the short 3 hour tour watching thousands of horny Dusky Dolphins chasing females and leaping under the bow. Monterey may not have the bounty of exotic seabirds found here but it does offer much more in the realm of Cetaceans. I was surprised to hear the guide actually mention Monterey when he saw me photographing a Buller’s Shearwater, announcing to the group that these birds fly all the way to America near Monterey Bay to feed in the winter (Northern Hemi Summer), little did he know he was preaching to the choir.

Spending the rest of the day hanging around the hostel. Still no internet connection here, I plan to search for a café with free wireless tomorrow. Luckily domestic flights from Christchurch started running this morning, so I shouldn’t have any major problems with my flight to Hobart on Saturday.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Minor Shake

Third bird trip in 3 days, I just can’t get enough. This time I signed onto a longer 4 hour trip instead of the short 2.5 hour tours, in an effort to put myself further offshore for some variety; and it paid off. The trip was scheduled for 1PM, and I of course checked in 15 minutes early (I hate being late). I was sitting outside of the Encounter Café enjoying the cold damp afternoon, waiting for my fellow birders to arrive, when I felt a suitable shifting below my feet. I looked over at the door to my right, moving slightly in and out, to confirm that what I was feeling was a small earthquake. I glanced inside to see if anyone else was taking notice of this natural event, but only one woman seemed to grasp what was happening. She was looking around at the floor probably looking for confirmation of the quake herself (sometimes it’s just your heartbeat you know).

The mini quake only lasted a few seconds, and my mind quickly wondered back to seabirds as we boarded the van and made our way to the launch ramp at South Harbor. I knew the couple sitting in front of me had to be European since they smelled heavily of armpit rote. I wasn’t sure about the old man behind me, but he was making strange whistle-like sounds to the chorus of a song. I figured it was some form of breathing therapy, and didn’t bother to ask what he was singing.

Once on the water we charged straight out over the canyon, ignoring the Wandering Albatross and Giant Petrels flying in our wake; we would be seeing plenty of them later. On the ride out I learned that the BO couple was from Sweden and the old man, who was going on his sixth birding trip out of Kaikoura, was from the UK. In fact the wheezing old man spotted the first of four Common Diving Petrels of the day; it looked similar to the murrelets of the Northern Hemisphere, flying with a quick wing beat low on the water. As the seafloor beneath our aluminum dingy dropped to well over 6,000 feet, Alastair the skipper killed the engine and tossed a bag of fish livers over the stern. This soon drew in so many albatross that I very well could have overdosed on seabirds, it was overwhelming. At one point we had all seven species with their subspecies sitting or flying around us at once; cooperatively displaying their various field marks for us to identify. By the end of the trip we could all discern between Gibson’s Wandering, Northern Royal, Southern Royal, Northern Buller’s, Southern Buller’s, Salvin’s, and New Zealand White-capped Albatross. What an incredible opportunity to learn these birds, such an amazing group of animals.

A few hours passed and Alastair got a call on the radio. He came out from behind his chair and asked if any were planning on going to Christchurch soon. I wasn’t sure why he was asking this, until he announced that the town was yet again hit by a massive earthquake that caused widespread damage. Well that explains the shaking in the café…Shit. Christchurch has already been crippled by a previous 6+ quake a few weeks ago, and this one was apparently bigger. The deep canyon that gives Kaikoura its bounty of seabirds is actually a subduction zone; the island nation is no stranger to violent quakes. Christchurch is the airport where I had my slumber party, and where I was planning on flying out of in 3 days. I noticed while on the bus to Kaikoura from the wounded town that many of the older historic brick buildings were being held up by external braces; I wonder how many of them are still standing.

Well we still had a few hours at sea, so we put those thoughts aside and continued birding. I was glancing at the various albatross flying around, trying to find the other common species I haven’t seen yet the Black-browed, when I noticed a small bird with a fluttering to gliding flight pattern just over the tops of the 1.5 meter swell….

“There…6 O-Clock, it’s a small petrel!”

By small petrel I mean a bird in the genus Pterodroma, a bird that spends most of its time well offshore (off California you sometimes have to travel over 200 miles before you stand a chance of seeing one). At this point we forgot all about the massive Wandering Albatross at arm’s length, and devoted the rest of the trip to finding one of the smallest of the tubenoses that wouldn’t approach any more than a football field’s length. We had a few more glimpses, and snapped a series of grainy photos, but never got a close look at the bird. It was most likely a Cook’s Petrel, but I’ll have to show the photo to a keen birder to figure it out. At any rate it was a Pterodroma, and that’s worth something.

Well I think I’ve had my fill of seabirds for a few days, so I’m taking tomorrow off. I’m sitting in my bunk writing this journal entry, listening to the rain outside. The internet is out at the moment, probably a combination of people flooding the servers for the latest news of the quake and damage to the telecommunications infrastructure. I’m not sure what’s going to happen with my flight out of here, but really it’s not a bad place to be stranded. Everyone at this hostel seems very friendly so at least I’ll be in good company. Currently I’m told the Christchurch Airport has a disclaimer on its website that reads “Do not travel to airport, closed.” In all likelihood I may just have to take a ferry up to Wellington, but I won’t know until the internet returns. Mom, hopefully you’re not freaking out at this point; remember…everything’s going to be OK. In fact maybe I’ll give you a call before you book a flight down here yourself.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Second Venture Out to Sea

Yesterday, after a long and well needed nap, I took a 20 minute walk to the Peninsula south of the Albatross Backpackers. My plan was to test out my new 17-40 wide angle lens I bought on an impulse while purchasing a new camera body (went with the Canon 60D in the end…why not?). I didn’t get too many…any…good photos, but I did get a rather unexpected close up look at a Blue Penguin perched on a rock next to the road. Blue Penguins, or Little Penguins as they are known elsewhere, nest in burrows all over New Zealand and its surrounding islands, Tasmania (where I’ll be harassing them in a week), and certain parts of Southern Australia. As you can read from my previous post we spotted one on the bird trip yesterday morning, but this was the first one that was standing a few meters from my position. Shortly after this the almost full moon began its ascent into the sky, like a big golden coin emerging from the deep. The moonlight washed out any chance of photographing the stars, but Orion to the north and the Southern Cross to the south were clearly visible on this cloudless night.

At dawn this morning I was out the door again, ready for another morning of Southern Ocean birding. This time there were 7 other people signed on for the tour, 2 guys from Britain, 1 dude and a couple from Australia, 1 guy from I think from Spain, and a mother and daughter pair from New Zealand who showed up 5 minutes late. Same routine as yesterday, only today the swell was up from a strong wind last night, the sky was crisp and free of clouds. About 15 minutes into the trip, even before the sun had time to wake up and swap places with the moon, the mother from NZ began hurling her oily breakfast into the sea (the late people are always trouble). Her partially digested deposits however attracted the attention of our first of many Wandering Albatross. She would alternate between aiming her massive Canon lens at the giant bird and spitting up tasty bile, she had the whole system worked out.

Not as many Westland Petrels as yesterday and no sign of a White-Chinned Petrel, but I was able to add 2 more albatross species to my list. As we gathered around the stern to photograph the Wandering Albatross and Giant Petrels fighting over the chum amongst the chirping Cape Petrels, a slightly different looking albatross gliding just beyond our view caught my eye. It appeared whiter around the tail area, and the wings were a more uniform black color, lacking the white speckles of the wandering. I called out to Gary to get his opinion, and he confirmed it was a Royal Albatross, equally as impressive as the wandering and very similar in appearance. I was stoked. We also spotted a Flesh-footed Shearwater and had some beautiful looks at Buller’s Shearwaters in the golden light.

 As we starting getting settled for the short run back to the beach, yet another albatross caught my attention. It looked like a Salvin’s but with a bright yellow and black bill. As it circled the boat I knew instantly what it was, but couldn’t think of the name.

“Gary….this albatross flying at out 6…it looks like a. “
“Yep”, he responded “That’s a Buller’s Albatross”.

Sweet as! I was hoping to see the Buller’s today, I was ecstatic. What a gorgeous looking bird. The bill color is such a brilliant contrast to the sleek white to grey plumage. I was satisfied with trip #2, smiling the whole way in.

Species to add to yesterday’s list:

Royal Albatross
Buller’s Albatross
Sooty Shearwater
Flesh-footed Shearwater

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Arrived in Kaikoura

I had a rough last night. Initially I started getting anxious about returning home. The loneliness and uncertainty of solo traveling starts to wear on me, leading to unnecessary melt downs every few weeks. I like knowing I have control over my situation, and when your 20,000 miles away from home and you want to see your dog, you have little control over making that happen. This was all amplified by either food poisoning, or a repeat of the dehydration event I had on my last home visit. I only had a banana all day, and my first meal was a giant plate of green New Zealand mussels, and some very delicious homemade bread with a pint of Kaikoura lager from a restaurant/brewery called Sonic. I think this is where Lisa Melendy told me to go. I was feeling pretty good about the mussels and the beer so I decided to pop into another pub and grab a second pint of Tui IPA (a Tui is a an endemic passerine…song bird…to New Zealand, which is what attracted me to the brew). This second pint led to stomach pains which kept me up all night. The combination of stress and drinking for the first time in a month with no water in my system made last night a sleepless one, I think I slept better on the floor of the airport.

By a quarter to six I felt fine and was over the stress, and was out the door with my eggs, bacon, and French pressed coffee on my way to Albatross Encounter. I have been anticipating this trip for months now, and it was everything I expected. After signing in I met up with the only other birder on the charter, (Insert Name) from Zimbabwe. No name has been taking people into the African bush since he was 17. This was going to be his first encounter with an albatross. We then met Gary, the skipper, who carted us via van to the small aluminum outboard boat that would take us out into the Southern Ocean and into the realm of the albatross and their kin. I made sure to say hi to Gary for Roger Wolf, who leads the trips in Monterey that I used to skipper for. We both agreed that Roger is a very enthusiastic birder. This of course led to chatting about the latest Debbie Shearwater gossip (who operates a competing pelagic bird trip in Monterey).

With the help of a tractor, the boat was launched and we were out on the water before the crack of dawn. The wind was light and the seas were calm, sky was overcast. Right off the bat we had Westland and Cape Petrels on our stern, 2 new species and less than 10 minutes. We continued on a short run to the edge to the 30,000 foot canyon that snakes its way along the coast of Kaikoura, stretching all the way to Tonga in the South Pacific. Just like Monterey the drop off is where you find the highest upwelling driven food production, and it’s along this edge that you encounter those true open ocean species. And just minutes after plucking the chum bag of oily meat into the water, we had the most majestic and iconic open ocean species of them all…

As the sun pierced its golden pink rays through the clouds on the horizon, a pink billed Wandering Albatross, the largest of all the 24 named species, glided effortlessly into view landing less than a meter from our stern. I was completely overwhelmed; already we had the most impressive seabird I’ve ever seen, along with 2 new petrels. The trip just kept getting better from here. By the end of the 2.5 hour trek into the bay, we spotted a total of 5 more Wandering Albatross, New Zealand White-capped Albatross, Salvin’s Albatross, Northern and Southern (upon reviewing the photos) Giant Petrel, White-chinned Petrel, and around 10 other new species for me. The most special seabird of the day was the Hutton’s Shearwater, which is endemic to New Zealand only nesting on the alpine slopes of Kaikoura. We even watched Dusky Dolphins engage in mating behaviors, jumping in pairs along the side of the boat, and New Zealand Fur Seals basking in the now mid-day sun along the rocky islands that line the coast.

Kaikoura’s steep coastal ranges, lush riparian vegetation, and small town community atmosphere is reminiscent of the Big Sur coast, which is why I think I feel so comfortable in this place. I can see way Jessica Riggin moved here. This place has it all, uncrowded waves, numerous spectacular seabirds, whales, dolphins, and a climate that never reaches the uncomfortable upper 90’s. If I didn’t miss California so much I could move here.

I plan to spend the rest of the day relaxing, without beer this time. Tomorrow, possibly whale watching, and at some point I’ll be going on another (maybe a couple more) bird watching trips. There are still I few more albatross and petrel species that have yet to be sighted by my eyes.

Species List: Venture Offshore #1

Wandering Albatross (Gibson’s)              
New Zealand White-capped Albatross    
Salvin’s Albatross                                   
Northern Giant Petrel                              
Southern Giant Petrel                              
Westland Petrel                                       
White-chinned Petrel                               
Cape Petrel                                             
Hutton’s Shearwater                               
Buller’s Shearwater                                 
Sooty Shearwater                                  
Spotted Shag Arctic
Skua (Parasitic Jeager)
White-fronted Tern
Black-fronted Tern
Black-backed Gull
Black-billed Gull
Red-billed Gull (Silver Gull)
Australasian Gannet
Blue Penguin (Little Penguin)
Dusky Dolphin
New Zealand Fur Seal

 Photos (Top to Bottom): Wandering Albatross, NZ White-capped Albatross with Sooty Shearwater, Dusky Dolphins

Friday, February 18, 2011

Night Over

Survived the slumber party at the airport; turns out I wasn’t the only person who didn’t book a lift in time for their ultimate destination, and was too big of a pansy to hitchhike. There were probably about 20 other backpackers pilled around the international terminal sleeping on the floor embracing their packs. It felt like I was back at science camp during sleepover night. I now wish I had kept that REI sleeping bag, the artificial climate in the Christchurch terminal apparently is set to Sub-Antarctic. I was hoping New Zealand would branch away from their sister country’s love for shitty coffee (i.e. that miserable hot milk drink “flat white” and bong water “long black”) and serve a descend fresh brew like everywhere else, but no. At least I’m starting to feel the effects of the cappuccino I’m drinking, despite the cardboard taste it’s leaving in my mouth. In 2 hours I’m back on the road, I should be in Kaikoura by 10am. First on the itinerary… a shower.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

A Night at the Airport

This is going to be a long night. Word of advice for those of you planning on visiting Kaikoura New Zealand; organize transportation before the plane touches down, better yet make it a few days before the plane leaves. Otherwise you will end up pulling an all nighter in a bustling Christchurch terminal, trying to ignore that persistent nagging voice from above that you’ll in time learn to despise. Apparently the bus service from the airport to the seaside city only runs at 7am, so for the next 12 hours this sterile fluorescent dudgeon of strangers will be my home. Sure I could rent a car or call a taxi for a few hundred bucks, or try my luck on the street with a cardboard sign; but I’ve already spent too much on new camera gear to justify hiring a car and begging on the street has never been my style. Luckily I have experience sleeping in airports; Paul, Louie, Carl and I had to do it in Miami during our lengthy layover from Costa Rica…or was it Dallas? Either way it was hell. But this is what traveling on a whim is all about, things aren’t supposed to go to plan. You just have to embrace the unknown and go with it. Soon I will be immersed in a world of abundant seabirds new to me, in one the best and most accessible pelagic marine fauna portals in the world.  At least I have that to look forward to.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Oh Shit!

I’ve been on a good number of flights by now. I feel as comfortable in the sky as I am when peeing in my wetsuit between sets. This flight I just disembarked from, a short 2 hour jump between Karratha and Perth, was the first flight were a felt, only for a split second, that I was about to die. This may sound dramatic, but at the time it felt very real. And it wasn’t just me, you could sense that everyone on the flight felt a momentary emotional impulse of “Oh Shit!”.

To start with, the turbulence was throwing the plane around quite a bit throughout the flight. But any experienced flyer would have hardly taken any notice to the motion, and would have gone about their routines of alternating between hanging their heads in their laps and awkwardly tweaking them from side to side on the stiff seats. It wasn’t until the final approach that I, and everyone else with the slightest sense of self preservation, in our heads went “Oh Shit!”.

As we made our descent, I noticed that the buildings and vegetation seemed to be zipping by at a slightly more rapid rate than I’m used to. My initial thought was that due to the strong winds that had been causing all the shaking and free falling, the pilots had to maintain a good air speed in order to keep the craft stable. Couple hundred meters of air between us and the ground now, the plane was shifting from side to side a bit, nothing overly concerning. Less than a hundred meters now, we were almost at eye level with the Koalas in the gum trees lining the runway when, WOOSH!. We were suddenly hit by a strong gust of side wind that violently pitched the plane at a strong angle to the left. I watched out my window as the left wing came within about 20 meters of contacting the concrete. Oh Shit! The dangerous angle was quickly corrected, but by then we were going too fast and in the wrong alignment to land. The back wheel screeched as they hit the runway, the plane bounced once, and the pilots maxed the throttle. The engines roared and we were back up in the air, shaken but uninjured.

Luckily the second landing attempt was a success, this time into the wind on a different runway. I hope we use that same runway to take off on my next flight to Sydney.

Monday, February 14, 2011


With any luck this will be my final full day of work on this swing. The morning started off pretty typical for the weather we’ve been having; heavy monsoon rain squalls and about 20 knots of wind. It’s midday now and the rain has lightened up, but the windows are still wet, not with fresh evaporative water but with salty water hurled off the tops of swells and over our bow. The wind has now doubled, approaching 40 knots; the sea has taken on the appearance of a foamy mess, one giant herd of sea sheep. Despite the wind the swell has remained light. I’ve heard that the wind may get up to 60 knots by tonight, one can only hope.

We will be departing Barrow Island around midnight, arriving in Dampier some time before dawn. The crossing is over fairly shallow water, the continental shelf extents far offshore in Western Australia, so I’m hoping it will be heaving rocky ride. Once we arrive in Dampier I am to meet up with a man who has my box of nerdy goods (camera, binos, bird book, etc.) I left on the Finnmarken last week. Than a 20 minute taxi to Karratha, 2 hour flight to Perth, followed by another 5 hour flight and I will be back in Sydney by Midnight on the 16th. From there I’ll have 2 days to stock up on supplies before starting my holiday of seabirds in New Zealand and Tasmania.

That’s the plan at least, one more day to get through before it becomes a reality.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Low Pressure Blues

The crap weather has really foiled my plans this time. I made the mistake of leaving some of my gear, including essential items every naturalist should never leave home without (i.e. telephoto lens, binoculars, bird book, and head lamp), on the Finnmarken. I didn’t want to carry them onto the Gateway, and was supposed to transfer back to the Finnmarken before flying out of Barrow. But a series of low pressure systems have frightened the Finnmarken and the rest of the fleet away, leaving us behind to continue working. Now my items are in a box at the Boskalis office in Dampier… The Gateway was scheduled to sail to Dampier for a crew change and to fix the crane…but bad weather may keep us from doing that. SO no I have a box waiting for me, but no way to get to it, and I don’t want to leave Barrow without it. Not sure how this is all going to work out, but I need to be back in Sydney by Thursday to make my flight to New Zealand on Friday. Damn you cyclones!

I don’t doubt that I’ll make it to NZ eventually with my naturalist gear; I may just have to cut a few days out of my trip. I’ll potentially be spending 8 days (18-25 of Feb) in Kaikoura, where I hope to overdose on Procellariiformes. This is not the latest and greatest drug, it’s an order of birds commonly known as the “tubenoses”; albatross, shearwaters, petrels, storm-petrels, prions, and fulmars. These birds are extremely abundant in the Southern Ocean, with numerous species not found in the northern hemisphere. Needless to say I’ll be in birding heaven. Even the hostel I’ll be staying in is called The Albatross. I should also see New Zealand Fur Seals, Common Dolphins, Dusky Dolphins, possible Hector’s Dolphins, and hopefully with little effort a few Sperm Whales.

The next step is figuring out how to get off this damn boat…

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Red Sky's in the Morning

You know what they say about red sky’s in the morning…

A low pressure system in the area has triggered another cyclone demobilization. All of the vessels have now retreated from the area, expect for us. We are a much larger vessel (250 meters I believe), capable of handling rough conditions, so we’ve decided to stick it out and continue working. I’m eager to experience rough conditions at sea so I was happy with this decision. The system isn’t very strong and it’s mostly to the south of Barrow, still just a tropical low and probably won’t develop into a cyclone.

So I signed on this morning at 0540 hours as the sun began to pierce through the thick clouds to the east. Heavy rain squalls roll in every 30 minutes or so. I’ve been trying to decide whether the conditions are beauford 5 or 6. I’m not often in beauford 6 weather so it’s hard to judge. I think it will be a 6 by the end of the day…maybe more.

The photo is of the calm before the storm, yesterday morning.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Gateway

It is now the third going on forth week of my second swing at Barrow. It seems I have recovered from my mental low I suffered several days ago. The isolation and lack of mental stimulation finally broke me, and was on the verge of calling off my next swing in March to go back to the States early. A man needs to be challenged, and I find very little challenges me here. This job has however tested the limits of my patience, but I have survived the storm (literally and figuratively), and I’m back to taking it one day at a time. It’s easy to get overwhelmed when thinking of all the things I could be doing with my time instead of standing around looking at a blue void all day, especially when there seems to be no end in sight. But if I think of this experience as one big challenge, then there is potential to grow, and when this is all said and done I’ll feel all the more better knowing I completed something I set out to do.

My change in mood stems mostly I think from moving to a different vessel. I transferred over the Gateway 2 days ago, the large Trailer Suction Hooper Dredge. I will be living on this vessel for the next 5 days, cutting the lengthy and tedious crew transfers from my routine. I can simply roll out of bed and onto the bridge; no need to wear hot and cumbersome Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), or even shoes for that matter. Finally I can work in board shorts, a T-shirt, and sandals…as it should be. The Gateway also must travel further offshore to dump the dredge material, so I get a chance to see more fauna; such as numerous sea snakes, shearwaters, and even a greater variety of fish if I’m lucky. Today I spotted a pair of Emperor Angelfish at the surface, most likely attempting to defend their piece of reef from our massive 250 meter invading hull. I regrettably left my telephoto lens on the Finnmarken, so instead I snatched a photo from Google.

As predicted this cyclone season is a heavy one. Another low pressure system is expected to approach the area from offshore, possibly resulting in another cyclone threat. I won’t be going out to sea to avoid this possible event if it occurs. I’m due to leave in 9 days so instead I will just fly back to the mainland early.

I’m lying in my cabin as I’m writing this, the sharp seas out my porthole windows are playing tricks on affirmation of gravity once again, shifting the curtains off center. One thing I’ve discovered about myself during these days at Barrow that I've always assumed but was never certain on…I love being at sea.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Australia Gets Hit Again

Today was an exciting day for several reasons. I’ve been looking for an older Tacoma with low mileage for a while now, and I was finally able to purchase one. Now I just have to wait until April when I return to California to drive it. It’s a Burgundy 97 Tacoma with only 78,000 miles…stoked. I had to compromise with the color, but it has all the other features that I’ve been looking for and I finally had the money to put down an offer.

Secondly, as you may or may not know it is hatchling season here on Barrow Island. The sea turtle eggs have been incubating for several weeks, and the new hatchlings are now bursting from their sand tombs like the zombies from Thriller, in a frantic effort to get off the beach and out to sea. Most of the hatchlings emerge at night, and leave the immediate perimeter of the island by sunrise. Expect for the one we found in a space called the “spud carrier” on the ship this morning. The spud carrier is essentially a hole in the vessel where the stabilizer spud resides. Somehow the daredevil hatchling found it’s way into the space and was at risk of being crushed by the spud. So the captain and I climbed into the hole and wrangled the little guy until it was cornered (unfortunately it swam to the captain, I really wanted to do the rescue). They are amazing little suckers and it was nice more first experience with one was a rescue. I later identified it as a flatback hatchling.

This was all followed by 8 hours of INTENSE boredom. Only 13 more days to go…and slowly counting.

It is especially exciting for the people in Northeast Queensland tonight. At this moment it’s 9PM (11PM in Queensland) and a category 5 cyclone is about to make landfall near Cairns. It’s the second cyclone to hit the coast in last 2 weeks and the region has already been devastated by epic rainfall and flooding. They are comparing this extreme low pressure system to Katrina, and will most likely cause similar wide spread destruction. Two of my fellow MFOers who live in Townsville (an area expected to be heavily impacted) are bunkering down in the dark, waiting for cyclone Yasi to pass. This is Australia’s largest super cyclone on record, winds upwards of 290 km/hour near the eye, storm surges over 7 meters, and of course more rain. In a way I wish I could be there with them to experience it.

You can see how humid it has been here by the photo of the hatchling; cameras, binoculars, and glasses instantly fog up once you leave the air-conditioned bridge.