Monday, March 28, 2011

William Dampier

The empty water bottle that was resting horizontally on a shelf above my bunk, after a few attempts, has rolled off; it appears it wasn’t so empty after all. The ship is in motion once again signaling our departure from the port of Dampier; the Finnmarken is heading back out to Barrow Island. Looks like I’ll be going back to work, if you want to call it that, sooner than expected.

Interestingly enough, the port we are now leaving is named after William Dampier, who died during this very month in 1715. He was famous for being the first Englishman to land on New Holland (Australia, as it’s known these days) in the natural harbor that now bears his name; although the Dutch had already achieved this feet almost a century prior…not to mention the Aboriginal people some 50,000 years prior. He was a scientist (most explorers took up the hobby of natural history in those days) and a cartographer, also a popular trade amongst explorers. He drafted the first partial maps of Western Australia and New Guinea in 1699, during the final leg of an expedition that left England a day after my birthday on January 14th. He is probably best known for being the first explorer to circumnavigate the globe…3 times. Although the first English colony was established on the other side of the continent in Sydney Cove almost a 80 years after his death, modern day Australia is likely a direct result of his findings and insights. His eyes, over 300 years ago, once studied the very red moonscape that now lies in our wake…isn’t history fascinating.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Celestial Navigation

As the sun sank behind the land of many termite mounds that is Barrow Island, the Finnmarken hoisted anchor, put the sun to stern, and initiated its departure from port limits. Our journey into the Indian Ocean had begun. Apparently the low pressure system to the north is still of sufficient strength to continue cyclone demobilization. If history repeats itself, this cruise should take around six days; I won’t be going back to work until next month.

By 2100 hours the lights of Barrow Island were dim and distant enough to allow the cosmos to open up and reveal its full potential. I discovered last swing that while the Finnmarken is underway, the bow lights are doused so as not to blind the people on the bridge; the perfect place to check out the universe. After spending some time photographing the night sky, I dragged a lounge chair out from the corner onto the middle of the deck, reclined, and soaked up the view. It was as if someone had taken a swig of cold milk from the fridge while watching that video of the mother panda with her cub, and spit it out over a sheet of black velvet in a fine spray concentrated in a dense line with white speckles all about, when the cub comically sneezed and freaked out its mother. Or better yet it was like being in one of those high speed video scenes, in a pitch black room with black lights, as a bullet punctures a canister filled with pressurized white paint causing little vivid particles of white to spatter in all directions. You get the idea.

It’s difficult not to become nostalgic when starring into space. The night sky is one of those few things in life that will always appear constant. Even when your skin turns to leather, your hair falls out, your start losing people close to you, you begin to lose grip on reality…even after all of this, Orion will still be poised with arched bow in hand, Virgo will still be leaping in celebration on the horizon, and the Southern Cross will still guide you south. What a comfort. I can think of countless moments staring at the ever constant constellations, at the Milky Way. From when I used to drag an old cotton sleeping bag up a latter and onto our patio roof as a kid, back when my home town wasn’t drowned out by the city lights to the south, and always waking up completed drenched and miserable. Lying in a swinging hammock beneath palm trees on Kauai, after a long day of snorkeling and standing under frigid waterfalls. To driving home late at night from Monterey after my first year of college, listening to the 350 V8 purr through the firewall and Incubus croon over the stereo; my left arm hanging out of the blue El Camino, with the cool summer air blowing in from the wing window (also directing bees at my face…the one downside to wing windows). The Milky Way always present, never failing to make an appearance.

So as the night went on, I added yet another memory of the night sky to my mental stockpile; reclined on a cruise ship somewhere in the Indian Ocean, pitching up and down with the seas. The occasional shooting star racing across the sky, leaving a streamer in its wake. Trying to find that UFO we had spotted a few years back at Mono Lake…with no luck.

We had been traveling between the only two constellations I can find with any confidence down here, Orion to port (left) and the Southern Cross to starboard (the other left); heading east effectively. While gawking at the spectacle in my lounge chair, the occasional bright white gull flying overhead (which I kept thinking were REALLY close shooting stars), the points of light began to rotate around the ship until the bow mast put Orion on our port quarter (just to the left of left). At 2130 hours we had made about a 60 degree turn to the north; so by my deduction we were now heading north northeast. The ship would need to first sail southeast of Barrow and swing to the north to get around the shallow archipelago, before making yet another 60 degree turn to point the ship northwest; which should happen sometime early in the morning.


I assumed based on my crude judgment of our course last night, that we would be somewhere northwest of Barrow this morning, out to sea. So I was surprised at how calm the ship felt when getting out of bed, I didn’t have to aim at a moving target to relieve myself, and even more surprised to see cargo ships anchored off the starboard beam. Turns out after examining the photos of stars from last night, and learning a few more constellations, my calculations were a bit off. The ship was heading south southeast before the 60 degree turn, putting us on basically an easterly course when I went to bed. We had never made that turn to the northwest, and we’re now at anchor in Dampier, along with the other vessels in the fleet. So much for another paid Indian Ocean cruise.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Under the Stars

A low pressure system off the coast of Darwin, this time well out to sea, has triggered yet another cyclone demobilization. The low pressure trough is weak at this point, still under 1000 isobars, and will likely pass by with only a moderate influence over the wind and waves; but the powers that be of course are required to play it safe. So the vessels are again lifting anchor, securing cargo, and preparing to depart Barrow Island. The Finnmarken is always the last to leave site, and chances are we won’t make it out of port limits before the system passes and the demobilization is called off. But I’ve been wrong many times before on this project, so who knows, maybe we’ll sail out into the deep blue tomorrow. I sure hope so, with the barge and its attractive lights now gone, there really is not much to look at these days. Luckily I found a stock pile of used books in the corner of a bookcase (imagine that) on deck eight. “100 Decisions that Changed the World”, or something along those lines; should be interesting.

I’ve been playing around with photographing the cosmos, which is proving difficult without a proper tripod…plus the ship drifts around, as they tend to do. With the help of some photo editing software, however, I’ve managed to salvage a few shots from last night. Can you find the Southern Cross?

I’ve also posted the dolphin vs. fish showdown on YouTube. If you have a slow connection (mom), don’t bother trying to view it; it’s HD and 123 MB. So it may take a while to load. Link is below:

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


It turns out sharks have been lurking beneath the Finnmarken’s hull during daylight hours, while making a spectacular emergence at night. Yesterday evening I decided to take a stroll around deck five and check out the waning moon and stars, when to my surprise I came across close to 30 Grey and Black-tipped Reef Sharks herding bait fish in the lights of the loading barge tied to the ship. Reefers in general are harmless to humans, both the shark and the herb (although a bad batch can make you pretty ill I’m told, I don’t really touch the stuff), with fish and cephalopods comprising their main diet. However, they will make a meal out of the drifting bodies of those unfortunate souls lost at sea, especially in open water beyond the reef. So I’ll keep that in mind when hopping onto the transfer vessels.

For some reason fish are attracted to light, which in turn attracts their predators. As I was filming the dozens of circling sharks, a Bottlenose Dolphin swam into the halo of light from the dark beyond. It weaved through the reefers before stopping at the base of the loading platform with its rostrum pointed right at an unsuspecting fish. Realizing the danger it now faced (possible picking up on the pressure waves of the dolphin’s echolocation), the fish became motionless and stunned at the surface; probably thinking ‘shit now what’? It seems we had a showdown on our hands. The dolphin charged but the fish skipped to safety, or at least back into the shadows with the dolphin trailing close behind. We will never know what became of the poor bastard. I have the whole thing on video, really good show.

 Even lightning fast squid were getting in on the feeding frenzy, shooting towards the bait from the murky depths, flashy red and white, before disappearing once again. There was a whole shoal of squid amongst the chaos; in fact I think the dolphins were targeting them more than the fish.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Coffee..."Here Here"

Day three of the stop dredging mandate enacted in response to the coral spawning, and I’ve been trying to keep my mind busy; which is already proving to be difficult on this motionless ship. During cyclone demobilizations, I would distract myself by standing out on deck five and scanning the water for dolphins, whales, sea snakes, seabirds, and other fauna as we sailed around the Indian Ocean. This time it’s different. Instead the Finnmarken will remain at anchor for the duration of the spawning event, so I stand little chance of spotting any usual species. I did, however, manage to sight my first Barrow Island cephalopod from the bow this morning. A 200cm squid was hovering beneath a patch of Sargasso-like algae, possibly depositing egg packets on the drifting refuge. Luckily I had my camera handy as I was taking a series of photos to stitch into a panoramic view of the area (which turned out better than expected), so I snapped a few shots before it retreaded into the shadow of the hull. I can’t image what else may be lingering beneath this massive cruise ship; big sharks, cuttlefish, Elvis?

I’ve been able to make some discoveries with all my free time on the ship. No longer will I be forced to drink instant coffee to get my caffeine fix. I was sneaking around the various offices on deck four, when I picked up the faint unmistakable aroma of real brewed coffee. I KNEW IT. I knew there had to be other like-minded people on this ship that refused to drink that nasty coffee substitute. After some searching I came upon it, the Holy Grail; a stainless steel coffee machine. It was beautiful, it made half cups, whole cups, cappuccinos, lattes, added warm milk, and best of all…it used REAL coffee beans. Finally I can have my three morning cups of black water without the bowel emptying affects of instant coffee. Now I just need to find that hidden bar…

Another entertaining distraction has been following Australian politics on the tube. If you thought watching those CSPAN broadcasts of the American Senate meetings is about as fun as sitting through mass at a Catholic church, well you’re right, it is. The Australian Senate conversely is anything but boring. It is chaos; colorful people shouting out of line, using words like “crap” and “mate” in a supposed professional setting, yelling HERE HERE, and basically acting like they had spent the morning sniffing noxious glue fumes while flinging buggers at their neighbors, in between nap time and afternoon peanut butter and jelly crackers. It’s ridiculous; I don’t see how it’s possible for any real work to get done in such democratic meetings. At one point the argument was being made that the term “climate change none believer” was offensive because it was a reference to the Holocaust none believers; amazing. Politicians will try anything to shock people into following their cause, regardless of its validity or merit. But it is very entertaining none the less, so I thank the Australian government for supplying the show; I raise my mug of real coffee in your direction.

Here’s to hoping for a cyclone, three weeks to go.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Spawning Under a Full Moon

Work in construction as a rule, whether it be installing a slider door or dredging for natural gas, is inherently subject to unexpected delays from unlikely places. Since Chevron is trying to do right by the environment during this project, the source of delays are generally environmental. The project is facing a potential two week delay, translating into hundreds of thousands in monetary loss, due to an extremely full moon and thousands of little colonial polyps otherwise known as coral. A massive coral spawning event is due to take place on this 19th night of March; where little packets of genetic material will be simultaneously released into the sea.

I’m assuming you haven’t put much thought into coral sex, so let me take this opportunity to explain the process. For starters, corals are essentially a colony of polyps, polyps in turn are essentially small fleshy cup-like organisms with ‘arms’; think of them as very small anemones that build calcium carbonate houses to live in (in fact they’re in the same class as anemones Anthozoa). Coral polyps feed by capturing plankton with their arms, but they get most of their energy from zooxanthellae, mutualistic algae that live in their tissue. The polyp gives the zooxanthellae a home; the zooxanthellae in turn provide the polyp with sugar produced through photosynthesis.

Each polyp can reproduce in two ways. It can either engage in sexual reproduction where gametes (both eggs and sperm) are released into the water in a process called broadcast spawning; or through asexual reproduction, where an individual polyp will bud a clone of itself, which then matures into a genetically identical polyp. Like Richard Simmons, corals are hermaphroditic, producing both egg and sperm.

The ocean is a very big space from the perspective of a polyp (if they in fact could perceive their world…I wonder what they would ponder), so if each polyp released its gametes at random intervals, the chances of gametes from neighboring coral colonies interacting would be slim, thus defeating the purpose of sexual reproduction; which is the produce variation in the gene pool and ‘spread the seed’ so to speak, through sex. It would be like showing up to a party at 7am, after everyone has already passed out from excessive drinking, and expecting to make some offspring…it’s just not going to happen. Better to show up at the right time. So corals have evolved a method of insuring their gametes get put to good use, with a synchronized broadcasting of sperm and eggs during one night out of the year, across an entire region. This allows for the greatest chance for the coupling of sperm and egg from different coral colonies throughout a reef.

Broadcast spawning events typically only happen once a year, so it’s a big deal, and its timing depends on three key conditions. First, an increase in water temperature triggers the production of gametes. Second and thirdly, spawning events are related to the diurnal and lunar cycles, only happening in the dead of night during a full moon.

The sea becomes a soup of genetic material, billions of sperm and egg packets drift around the reef with the currents, and when the two meet, they form a kind of embryonic coral called a planula larvae. The planula will drift around for days to weeks, until it eventually settles on the sea floor, where it then undergoes a radical change leading to a new polyp. The founding polyp will then begin asexual budding and produce thousands of clones. Give these founding polyps a few hundred thousand years, and they will produce something as massive and awe inspiring as the Great Barrier Reef.

So, all of this sex will be happening under my feet tonight. Given the rarity and importance of the event, dredging will cease for at least 10 days to avoid interfering with the fertilization process. At the stroke of midnight, coral polyps all across the Barrow Island region, gravid and ready to burst, will release their seed into the sea under the light of a full moon. At least someone is getting some action.

The moon, as a side note, will make a very close approach on its orbit around the earth. In fact closer to earth than it’s been in two decades, 221,567 miles away. A historic night indeed.

Thursday, March 17, 2011


Today was my first 12 hour day at Barrow without spotting a single dolphin, turtle, whale, or dugong…no marine fauna what so ever (well except the millions of bait fish that hide below the hull, and the tuna and sharks that relentlessly chase them from the shadows). All day staring at the ocean without a purpose. Western Australian humpbacks are still somewhere in the Southern Ocean, possibly along the Antarctic ice sheet, gorging on krill. The Flatback Turtles that were nesting in the thousands a few months back all around the island have finished their breeding cycle are have disserted the near shore shelf and are back out to sea also gorging themselves. Dugongs are always around, but never in large numbers and are difficult to spot in any sort of wind chop.

So as usual I’ve reverted to watching the birds. An osprey (a type of marine fishing bird of prey) landed atop the crane tower on the Taurus. It held its regal posture for several minutes, scanning the ocean below with its sensitive golden yellow eyes. The Taurus however is a noisy ship, and the crashing sound of the moving spud startled the bird from its post; revealing that it had already finished hunting and was clutching a large needle fish in its razor sharp talons (“Do the chickens have large talons?”). A nice treat for an otherwise extremely lack luster day. Not a bad sunset either.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Touchdown among the Termites

A few noteworthy events that have led to this 3rd and possibly final swing at Barrow, of which I’m too tired to elaborate on now, but I may come back to in subsequent days…

Sold my surfboard for 50 bucks to a random dude at the YHA backpackers in Coolie; upon discovering that I would not have an easy method for getting it back to Mindi’s house in time, that the random dude expressed great interest, and ultimately coming to the conclusion that if I left it there for someone or myself to pick up later (what I was planning on doing), the random dude would likely have just taken it anyway and I would have been out a board and 50 bucks. I wasn’t too attached to the longboard, plus Mindi has a much better single fin pintail lying around her house that I shall mooch whenever I’m back on the Gold Coast (plus it’s green and is very similar in shape to my primary board back in CA).

Finished Bill Bryson’s book about his travels through Australia. It was nice to read his opinions and anecdotes on some of the places I’ve visited. There is so much to see in this vast continent. Picked up a book on the historical account of the first fleet of convicts that settled what was then called New Holland (Australia) in 1788. British convicts were once sent to the Americas, but following the American colonies’ revolutionary revolt and succession in 1776, Britain was forced to find a new land to alleviate their growing criminal population. After much debate and political influencing over the best location for the convicts (Africa, Eastern Canada, Indonesia, etc), they finally settled on the southern continent; although they knew almost nothing about the climate, flora and fauna, character of the soil, or temperament of the natives; and what little they did know was based on the brief and biased accounts of Joseph Banks (a naturalist and man of wealth) and Captain Cook on the Endeavor during their visit to Botany Bay (south of what is now Sydney Harbor) almost a decade earlier. Imagine being forced to settle a land scarcely viewed by the new world, after an 8 month sail in cramped leaking wooden vessels through some of the worst conditions, with no prospect of ever seeing home or loved ones again. Amazing history; and what a great country has become of it.

Scored a window seat with no one on the isle side of my row for my flight from Brisbane to Perth and was pretty stoked about it (it is a 5 hour flight). During the flight an attractive older women in her late 40’s early 50’s, also known as a ‘cougar’ or an acronym that I won’t post here since my Mom is the number one fan of this blog, was hovering in the isle next to mine in an effort to catch a glimpse of the interior bush land we were flying over. I had done this flight several times so I asked her if she’d like to take my seat and soak up the view. She was very grateful and we ended up chatting the entire flight about her life, her children, her religious views, her work on a dairy farm, the benefits and joys of using a squat toilet, my life, my aspirations, my parents, my work in marine science, Reef, my friends back home, country music, Nashville, the Grand Canyon, Uluru (also known as Aires Rock)…and countless other topics of various tangents. I think it may have been the single longest conversation I’ve ever had (my interactions with others can be few and far between)…and yet I can’t remember her name. What a shame. I want to say it was Sally. Never the less I have no desire to have another conversation for some time; I was considerably worn out after the ordeal. Worn out in a good way.

Now I’m back on the Finnmarken which is still moored in the placid blue Indian Ocean waters that surround Barrow Island. I worked a half day on the Taurus (cutter dredge), and have many full days ahead.

My computer gave me the blue screen of death while checking my email. The CPU (or some other gismo that heats up) fan is currently humming away faster than normal, never a good sign. Currently I’m running no antivirus software. I’m sure the gamble will soon be my demise. I know of a few likely sources for the virus that may be sweeping through my files, but again since the mom is the number one reader, I’ll skip the details.

A Manta Ray leaped a meter out of the water during my post; it was my only sighting of the day and an impressive one at that.

So much for brevity, perhaps I won’t elaborate on these subjects later.

Day 1 of MFO work, 27 more to go.

Photo: View of what Australia once looked like, from the Barrow Is runnway. It looks green due to the wet season, it will turn grey and red when the rain stops. You can see one of many termite mounds that thrive on the vegitation.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

They Tell Me "We've All Been There"

There is something about my genetic makeup that inhibits me from ever acting suave and relaxed while sitting at a crowded table in a busy restaurant. Invariably I find myself a part of a very uncomfortable and embarrassing scenario, that sends blood to my cheeks and floods my brain with noxious neurotoxins which halt all forms of coherent thought. Thus my situation last night during dinner with folks from the whale lab at UQ (University of Queensland), a final 'pie-in-the-face' to what had already been a sort of ‘step in dog shit’ kind of day.

For starters, I regrettably decided to stay in bed, actually more like a box of chicken wire than a bed, instead of starting my day as they all should with a surf. My first of many mistakes to come. So I slept in for a few extra hours, dragged my crippled body from all the walking I did in Tasmania which I’m still recovering from, into the kitchen for a complimentary Corn Flakes breakfast, and spent the majority of the morning finishing Bill Bryson’s ‘Lost Continent’. He’s convinced me that in order to truly understand my own country, I must drive around it aimlessly while sampling the various fast food and Motel 6 options. I’m sold.

I realized once I finished the last paragraph that I’d be embarking on a two hour bus and train ride into the city that night without a good book to distract me from all the other whack jobs , and also that I had thoroughly burnt my now Rudolf red nose while laying in the sand reading about the American Midwest. My nose is perpetually red down here on account of the relentless sun; even its reflection off a full moon requires a sufficient application of white goo for protection. So I scoured the various strip malls and shopping centers in the pursuit of another Bill Bryson classic, only to find an endless selection of crap fiction novels and the Twilight series.

Exhausted I gave up my search and reluctantly boarded the train at Varsity Lakes, which would take me on a one and a half hour journey into Brisbane. Varsity Lakes is the first stop from the Gold Coast, so the ride began promising with only a single other person in the car. My solitude slowly deteriorated one stop at a time. First with a couple of popped-collared feminine law students who sat behind me, ranting in forced pre-pubescent voices about “like how insanely hot the weather is” and “OH MY GOSH when is like school going to be over all ready…I MEAN HELLO?”. I’ve always been slightly envious of my Dad’s ability to turn his ears off and effectively mute annoying people at his leisure, a trait which would have come in handy at this point. Still I think even the thought of them babbling away behind me would still have been irritating.

The next edition to the dysfunctional group of public transitors came a few stops later. A mentally handicapped individual holding a red cup in one hand and gesturing with an extended pinkie with the other, who took a seat to my right. His method of dealing with social anxiety it seemed was toooo taaaalk veeeeerry sllloooowwwllyyy to himself about the varying levels of husbandry requirements for zoo wildlife. From HIIIGGGGHHH PRIORITY for the Giraffes and LOOOOOWWW PRIORITY for things like lizards. This went on and on, I think the extended pinkie was an attempt to mimic a cell phone hovering miles from his ear. When the effeminate couple behind me elevated the volume of their conversation, which in retrospect was on the same level as the topic of cleaning up Giraffe droppings (and drop they do), so he too would elevate his conversation to his finger. Not a bad strategy actually, why didn’t I think of that?

The rest of the train ride was dominated by a gang of high school students, jumping around and being obnoxious. Public transportation is a circus, and I hate clowns. And I didn’t have a book to get lost in. And that’s just the beginning.

After wandering around the bustling city, with its grey mirage of sky scrapers, the same strange public statues found in every big city, several McDonalds and of course a Farris Wheel; I met up with Zeus who now lives in Brisbane and had a few beers. I also managed to find a Borders and pick up ‘Down Under’ also by Bill Bryson, and also gut wrenchingly funny. After drinking two jugs between us we stammered briskly under overpasses and through traffic to South Brisbane, where we were to meet up with the rest of the gang at a place called the German Club. Australia is a big proponent of clubs; everyone wants to be a member. Now this is where I step in a big pile of dog shit, much like a pile Reef would make on the beach after a healthy serving Kibbles-and-Bits and avocados.

The reason for the dinner was to celebrate Elen’s recent publication of her dissertation on the evolution of song patterns among humpback whales in the South Pacific. Male humpbacks, as you may know, sing elaborate structured songs during the breeding season in the tropics; and individuals within each ‘breeding stock’ sing the same notes and chorus by the end of the season; isn’t that amazingly odd? Well she’s worked out the regional breeding stocks well adopt pieces of song from neighboring stocks, thus changing the song of various populations in the South Pacific through time, like a wave. Pieces of song have even been recorded to propagate into other oceans, say from populations in the Pacific to whales that breed in the Indian Ocean. Crazy! What on earth are they singing about?

I of course was wearing sandals, and since I don’t have breasts and I’m supposed to dress like a proper man, I would be not allowed into the restaurant with such monstrosities on my feet. “I Do Say look at that massive big toe and ungroomed nails Belvedere…take my food away at ONCE waiter I CANNOT be expected to shovel it into my face with such a sight as this man’s exposed feet!”. We pleaded that I was only visiting for the night, and that we were all in celebration, and that I had no other option…but the decidedly un-German door man would not budge. The no sandals rule by far is my least favorite rule in the universe, and people who enforce it should have their faces stepped on by countless sweaty old feet for all eternity when they die and go to hell.

Zeus suggested to Bec who lives just blocks down the street (a PhD who runs the whale lab….who’s also a scary Irish), that I walk to her house and barrow some of Heath’s shoes (her scary Irish boyfriend). Not a bad idea right? She proceeded to give me directions:

“It’s easy, you just walk straight down this road past the GARGON until you see an indiscriminant unlabeled street that looks like cars can’t go down it, and you make a left. Then you go through the round-a-bout until you reach another unlabeled and equally inconspicuous alley, and you make a right. From there it’s just a few houses down on your left, past the gum tree and next to the ‘Bubble Gum’. Oh yeah and watch out for Rusty…..You with me?”

Long pause with blank stare….”What’s a GARGON?”

This would only end in tragedy. But without hesitation she handed me a bulging ring of keys and sent me on my way.

“Remember…past the GARGON…left, right, left….simple”

It’s never that simple.

Miraculously I returned to the German Club with a pair of shoes in hand (well more like on feet), the first pair I could find, and I only briefly got lost. Basically it went well, so I thought. I walked up to the table of whale people and proceeded to catch up with everyone. They all seemed very happy to see me, which after many months of traveling solo made me feel good about myself…that would all change very soon. I of course took the shoes off and replaced them with my sandals after making it past the turban wearing non-German and through the door, as I kind of FUCK YOU to the joint. Heath noticed that in my haste I had picked up his pair of expensive dress shoes, and he did not look amused by this. He then asked me for the keys.

“AW YES the keys, I have them right……ugghhh. Did I not already give you the keys?” His already furled expression dropped to a new low.

He stared at me long and hard….”NO”. Panic swept over my face, all table conversations lowered and all eyes were on me. I hate it when all eyes are on me.

“You’re joking right? I must have given them to you. They were in my pocket; I remember fondling them on my walk back, sockless in your fancy shoes.”

Another long and increasingly murderous stare, mind you this guy had an ear piercing, you don’t fuck with those kinds of people….”NO, you didn’t”.

I proceeded to walk around the table and check everyone’s feet for the keys, all the while I could feel his fuming Irish eyes following me every move (did you catch the accent?). ‘He’s going to kill me’ I thought. After all I had lost his lucky charms. ‘This is it; I’ve had a good run’. Finally I couldn’t take the eyes watching me anymore and I proceeded to venture back out the German Club, past the GARGON, down the unlabeled streets, past the Bubble Gum (whatever the hell that was) and up to the house in hopes of finding the missing, and apparently very precious, ring of keys. I called Zeus to ensure he wasn’t screwing with me; he is somewhat of a shit head after all. He answered no, and that Heath and now Bec were extremely pissed off…and that I’d better find those keys. What kind of thing to say was that? ‘They’re just keys’, I thought, ‘it was a simple mistake’. These people were obviously being a bit dramatic, it's not like I had stolen their pot of gold. What a shitty way to treat someone who obviously is a complete dope.

I figured I must have locked them in the house, and a scrambled for a way to get inside. After several spider webs to the face, no doubt spun by some deadly arachnid, I returned to the porch shit-out-of-luck. And with shit all over my exposed toes to keep with the theme. Then I discovered a single key attached to some gadget sitting on a ledge next to the door. It looked like a replica of the house key. It didn’t occur to me at the time that this was likely NOT the house key, seeing as how it was placed next to the front door and thus would defeat the purpose of locking it in the first place. But I tried it anyways, I jiggled and turned, pushed and pulled, and in my frustration of the situation I yanked the key ring off the key, which remained lodged in the lock.


Not only had I lost the keys to their house during a simple five minute walk down the street, along with their car, office, cabinet, and all other forms of keys necessary to access their lives; I had now also managed to get whatever this key opened stock in the door. ‘That’s it’, I thought, ‘there’s just no way I can go back there. I’ll just have to live off my toenail clippings and somehow manage to hitchhike back to the US’. I was legitimately shattered, ruined, I felt like a total schmuck. This entire day just kept eating away at my soul, until I was now left with nothing, no hope. They were going to kill me, and I would never live this down.

I sat there in the pitch dark on the porch, brewing over my options, and finally decided to call Bec. I was going to tell her the whole story, and accept the punishment, which would undoubtedly be stoning to death with heaps of rock hard potatoes. However, when she answered, she told me in a calm and casual tone to just come back. Zeus had gone to the bar and asked for the keys and found them (I did the same and they told me they couldn’t help, probably because my toes were showing). He HAD been fucking with me. I COULD KILL SOMEONE. Steaming I walked back to German Club, straight past the door man WEARING sandals, giving him the casual finger as a passed. Looked Zeus in the eyes and grabbed his beer. He would be buying the rest of the night, and I would be drinking beer with my toes out. What a shitty night….I hate Germans. (Not really, I’ve met some really agreeable Germans over the past 6 months).

I can’t stay mad long, and after an hour or so, and several pints of some German concoction, I had managed to temporarily put the unfortunate and embarrassing events out of my mind; and actually had a very nice evening (and the duck was good). I had a good chat with Mike (the main PhD of the whale lab) about research, and teaching, and grad school, and everything else that’s been occupying my mind lately. After all he seems to be distinguised in his field and was a good source for advice. He even offered to pay for my flight if I came back for HARC in September. I wish he hadn’t of offered this, I wasn’t planning on coming back. Especially not after that night. But I’m learning that in this game you can’t really plan for anything. Life is about decisions, and there is no right path, just and endless course of junctions….past the GARGON and down some inconspicuous alley.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

People Movers

After spending much of my time in airports without the feeling that I would almost certainly gouge the eyes out of the next person that hurried past me with one of those annoying rolling travel bags that always seem to wander and strike my feet, I assumed that airline travel had improved over the past few years. However, I discovered yesterday that all was right with the world again when due to an hour’s delay in Hobart, after moving from my seat in the lounge to escape the babble of an old British couple only to have a clueless mother move in with her screaming offspring, I found myself flying to Brisbane without the accompaniment of my until now reliable backpack. It of course didn’t get the memo that it would have to rush to make the connecting flight in Sydney (figures, those backpacks are all body and no brains). Actually this worked in my favor in the end since I didn’t have to lug the heavy pack onto a 30 minute train and 20 minute bus from the Brisbane Airport to Coolanghatta, where I’ll be staying for the next week.

My opinion of public transportation and the quality of people that utilize the service was also reaffirmed on my rail trip through the city and on to the Gold Coast. I couldn’t help but be distracted from my reading of Bill Bryson’s ‘Lost Continent’ (a hilarious anecdote on American life by the way), by the nagging chatter of 2 elderly women on my right discussing the popular subject of the Australian snake variety, with their increasing intensity of venom, from ‘will kill you in 2 seconds’ to ‘will kill you before you have a chance to piss yourself and think about how long the venom will take to kill you’. Then there was the strange expressive yawning sounds coming from the unidentified most likely morbidly obese man behind me, as if he had just awoke from a deep and satisfying coma. And of course there was the overarching general talk of weather and the cricket (a game similar to baseball played in the “other” countries). It was all very mildly interesting; I wonder what the yawning blob behind me was dreaming before he started serenading in my ear.

Now I find myself back in a hostel, drinking beer and eating junk food after a successful morning of surf at Snapper. It’s like freshman year of college all over again, luckily beer, potato chips and bags of cookies made with chemically enhanced ingredients are just as readily available here as in the US. God Bless Australia.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Final Days of Tasmania

My feet may be covered in blisters, my legs may detach and run away from my body at any moment, and my face may feel like it could crack into a million smaller pieces, but at least I made it out of the Tasmanian Bush alive; as if there were any doubts. I spent the last 3.5 days camping along the Tasman Peninsula Coast, alone. It was a challenging yet rewarding hike, with spectacular views of steep dolerite cliffs; eroded into vertical geometric pillars of rock. I spent the first day hiking for 5 hours in a perpetual hail storm; the trail was a sloppy white mess. I was completely soaked when I arrived at Bivouac Bay and spent the rest of the evening curled up in my sleeping bag trying to get warm. The following day I hiked another 5 hours to Cape Huay, and fund myself standing on the edge of the world, as far south as I’ve ever stood; or at least on the edge of certain death with a 600 ft fall into the chilly Tasman Sea. The third day was all sunshine, and I swam naked in the refreshing Bivouac Bay; which likely made the elderly couple trying to enjoy their lunch break a tad uneasy at the sight of the homely bearded naked man leaving an oil slick in his wake. The following is an expert of my journal writings, which I think sums up my thoughts and sights during the trek:

Sunday March 6th, 2011

I was fortunate enough to spend a few good days with a nice group of people on Wedge Island, and now as usual I find myself alone again in the middle of what feels like nowhere. Although this place is more spectacular than Wedge, with its 300 meter cliffs and dense gum tree forests, it feels dull and muted in comparison. On Wedge, I could laugh about the freezing cold and frequent hail squalls with the company of others, talk about the brilliance of the stars; here alone in the woods, I’m only lost in my thoughts hiding away in my tent.

The most important lesson I will take away from my many days alone over the past 9 months is how important the human connection is. I didn’t think I needed it, thought I could find comfort in nature alone. Yet I’m finding that experiences are worth nothing unless shared; maybe that’s why I feel compelled to write in this journal (or this blog for that matter). Just as we’ve evolved the desire to pass on our genes, perhaps a vestige of this evolution is the desire to pass on our experiences. To teach others the lessons learned. If anything it seems selfish to live a life of solitude.

Shortly after writing this a group of hikers pitched camp at the site across mine. We exchanged hellos, that was all I needed. I left my dungeon of a tent and went for walk, more like a climb, around the jagged point of Bivouac Bay. I found myself a nice pillar to perch upon and took in the view.

I’m looking across Fortescue Bay to the cathedrals of rock, reaching vertically 600 ft. The sun’s low light absorbed by the lichen, paints a golden orange on the cliff faces, with contrasting black boxy shadows. The wind is high, blowing wave tops into spray, creating miniature rainbows as the water rains down. Dozens of Shy Albatross, with feruled brows, patrol the surface in the wind, while Australasian Gannets, with a flash of white wings dipped in black ink, soar high above. Black Faced Cormorants dawned in elegant tuxedos stand idle by on the rocks around me, their wings outstretched and heated by the suns reseeding rays. Sooty Oystercatchers pierce the exposed limpets and mussels with their fire red bills, while the broad leafy fronds of Bull Kelp dance and slap as they fold in and out with the waves. Somewhere in the distance I hear the muted bark of an Australian Fur Seal, masked by the howling wind and the crash of the boiling surf. The entire scene, the setting sun, the chill in the air, the epic cliffs, and the abundant wildlife, is absolutely beautiful…and all it took, was a simple hello.

Anyways enough with the poetry. I’m in Hobart for the last time, flying to the Gold Coast tomorrow for surfing and good company. Hoping the waves are rolling in and the beer is cold.

Photos: Evil molting Little Penguin, hiding in its burrow along the trail. These guys had burrows everywhere, you can find them by following the smell of fish and by piles of feathers. Views from Cape Hauy.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Digging for Shearwaters

Sadly due to the severe winds and a high swell advisory predicted over the next week, the Wedge Island seabird study had to be cut short by a few days. We are after all around latitude 40 south, which is well known for its nautical name as the roaring 40’s; and how appropriate that name is. It was an awesome 3 days regardless; I got to handle shearwater chicks, camp on an amazing island under brilliant stars, and learn a lot about seabird ecology. Now I’m back at the Narrara Backpackers in Hobart, getting reading to embark on a 3-4 day walk around the Tasman Peninsula to kill time and hopefully not myself. The following is a summary of my notes while on Wedge Island.

February 28th, 2011

Caught a city bus to University of Tasmania’s (UTAS) main campus in Sandy Bay, a short 15 minute ride, where I wandered around for some time trying to find the Southern Elephant Seals where I was told we would all meet. Jaimie, the project leader and honors student at UTAS, has been on Wedge Island for a few weeks now, and we were to meet her upon arrival on the island. As usual I was an hour early, and as usual our ride out to the island was a half hour late. Eventually the two other volunteers, a couple from Germany who had been traveling around Tasmania for a couple of months, strolled in with mounted backpacks. Joss (pronounced Yoss) is an evolutionary biology student and Norrah a student of medicine, both in Germany. They decided to take a break half way through their studies to travel and gain some field experience, not a bad move. We chatted for a while until our boat driver Andy finally appeared. We loaded the gear, filled up 5 jugs of water, grabbed a box of needles and several bags of food, threw in an inflatable dingy, and headed down the road to the launch ramp.

Andy put the boat in the water and gave us the usual rundown on safety. As we started the twin outboard motors and began on taxi out of the harbor, Andy turned and announced,

“Now the engines have been giving a warning alarm lately, so we’re just going to hope they stay quiet today.”

We nodded in approval.


I chimed in, “They’re not being quiet”.

Andy gave a blank expression; I would have done the same. So we charged out of no wake zone and out into the open harbor. The water was glass calm, not a ripple in sight. With these conditions we’d be out to the island in less than 40 minutes. But after the engines died we drifted for a while and limped back to the launch ramp. We then sat around for an hour until Andy found another boat, this time a fiberglass hull instead of aluminum. So all in all it took about 3 hours to reach Wedge Island, and in that time the conditions went from beauford 0 to 3. It was a jumpy ride out, but a nice one. We passed massive flocks of shearwaters by the thousands, interspersed with an occasional Shy Albatross. The dark brown birds at times blanketed the rolling sea, and would lift off in unison as the bow parted the black sea. It was amazing no one was shit on, that was to come later.

Finally Wedge Island came into view, and from our angle it did indeed look like a giant rocky wedge covered in lush green vegetation contrasted with golden plumes of bunch grasses. The apex of the island had bushy pin- like gum trees and more traditional eucalyptus. The steep rocky pinnacles that lined the western slopes of Wedge were covered in a bright orange lichen, with a gradual slope ending in a cobble beach on the eastern side. Our camp and the nesting colony we studied are located on the eastern slope. There are no sandy beachs on the island, so shuffling gear and people from the cobble shoreline to the transfer boat was tricky. We had to row the now deflated overloaded dingy back and forth, getting everything wet in the process. Field work is never easy. Luckily the swell was not big, and all the gear and precious volunteers made it on and off the island without a hitch.

After lunch we settled into camp, pitched our tents, and got ready for our first venture up into the colony. Our tents were situated at the base of the colony, so the walk to the burrows was only a few hundred meters. According to Jaime, if I remember correctly, around 20,000 breeding pairs of Short-tailed Shearwaters have a burrow on Wedge. I may be wrong on the exact figure, but it’s in the tens of thousands. The island is also a breeding site for Little Penguins. Both the shearwaters and penguins arrive on the island at dusk, and leave the following dawn. So we heard a lot of birds, but hardly ever saw them.

The plan was this; during the day we would walk around the colony and conduct morphometric measurements (measurements of various growth rates) of a select number of chicks. This involved locating the correct burrow number and shoving your hand down a arm’s length hole until your face is resting on the ground, and grouping around until you felt the chick, or in some unfortunate and surprising cases an angry adult that decided not to leave the burrow like the rest. Or even worse a penguin…luckily we didn’t encounter any; they apparently get very angry when disturbed. Fortunately there are no snakes on Wedge, so there were no poisonous fangs waiting at the end of the rabbit hole; only potential scorpions, ants, flees, ticks, angry penguins, and the gentle nibble of curious and slightly pissed off chicks.

Once we got a good handle on the puff balls, we slowly pulled them out to weight them, measure their bill length, depth, and head length. After the leg bands were read off to insure the correct chick, the chirping ball of lent was gently settled back into place at the end of the burrow. This was repeated for around 30 burrows, and took about 2 hours. We also noted any dead birds scattered around the colony, and checked for plastic in their gut; plastic of course being the number one killer of seabirds today.

Nightfall was when the real show began. Like clockwork, approximately 20 minutes after sunset, the first shearwater would arrive over the island, and was quickly joined by hundreds more. It’s a real treat to see these ocean roaming birds awkwardly flapping over land. They appear graceful at sea, with outstretched wings like little stealth gliders; but when trying to land on solid ground, they have to constantly beat their wings to slow down, as they circle the island to locate their burrows. Dusk was also when the penguins began to emerge from the waves, and march along the very tracks we used to navigate the bunch grass. Often we had to wait for the penguins to waddle off the trails so we could pass.

Around 30 minutes after they arrive, the shearwaters located their burrows and begin to feed their chicks. As the activity in the sky decrease the noise from the burrows amps up. Bird colonies are notoriously noisy, as the parents call to their chicks, the chicks respond, and the rest just seem to feel like expressing themselves. Jaime tells us that it often seems as though the shearwaters compete with the penguins for most vocal seabird of the year.

Our task at night was to capture birds containing data loggers. These are small computer chips and battery, with light and temperature sensors incased in resin. They record the duration of daylight the bird experiences, and the water temperate while they rest on the sea. The amount of daylight recorded can be used to determine the bird’s position on earth, biased on a known starting date and location, and complex mathematical equations. This information will help shed light (as it were), on where these birds go to gather food for their chicks, how long it takes, and the implications this may have on commercial fishing and environmental regulations. The loggers have a battery life of 5 years, but have to be removed from the bird’s leg in order to extract the data. So it was important to check the burrows of birds with loggers each night after they return to feed their chicks. Unfortunately they sometimes can be 20 days at sea on foraging bouts before they “fly home”, so we only encountered one bird with a logger, but it was still very interesting to learn about the technology and its implications. The loggers are about the size of your thumb nail; science has come a long way.

At the end of the night, we retreated back to camp and huddled around a fire under the spectacular array of stars, roasting marshmallows (which was a real treat for the Germans, who have never tried such a thing). I’m currently listening to the rain patterning on my tend, masking the sounds of the plump chicks in their cozy burrows with their noisy parents vomiting up tasty bits of krill and fish oil, while Little Penguins stand around molting and making themselves heard in the bushes. Surrounded by seabirds and a few great people, on a small southern ocean island at the southern tip of Tasmania.