Friday, April 15, 2011

Weighing Anchor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 10, 2011

A Loss for Words

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

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

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

Saturday, April 9, 2011

More Noting of Hydrophiidae

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A Brief Note on Hydrophiidae

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

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

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

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Cyclones Continue

Today is Monday April 4th. After seeing mainland Australia out my porthole window this morning, I found myself back in Dampier once again waiting for the weather offshore to improve. I have spent the entire day in my cabin, playing Mine Sweeper, Hearts, watching old episodes of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, and of course watching for probably the hundredth time The Life Aquatic. This has been the routine for most of my days during this swing; the cyclones just will not let up. I transferred from the Finnmarken to the Gateway on Friday, and there is even less to do on this ship. The following is a brief chronology of the past few days.

Friday, April 1st.

The first day of my last month in Australia (potentially, I may come back in September…and sometime later in life). Never the less it marks the end of an almost year long chapter in my life. I caught a transfer vessel to the Gateway at lunch, and finally got a chance to observe some marine fauna after 11 days on standby on the Finnmarken. Another cyclone demobilization has been issued due to the presence of the 11th tropical cyclone of the season forming to the north, expected to reach Barrow Island by this Wednesday. At dusk, the Finnmarken set sail for Dampier where they will stock up on supplies before voyaging out into the Indian Ocean to avoid the predicted approaching weather. The Gateway will stay on site for a few more days to get some dredging done, they are now a good month behind schedule, before following suit. Watching the Finnmarken disappear over the horizon (after exchanging several spirited blats of the horn as they passed) I have a sense of how the early convict colonists back in 1788 must have felt as the last ship in their fleet, the Supply, sailed out of Sydney Cove; leaving them stranded in a foreign land.

Saturday, April 2nd

Beautiful calm weather this morning, the sea is as flat as can be. Worked a full day, and sighted several Flatback Turtles, a dozen sea snakes of 2 different genera, a couple Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphins, the occasional reef shark, and a mother calf pair of dugongs. The dugongs were a surprise. They appeared suddenly just off the bow as we were negotiating a narrow channel out to the spoil grounds (where they dump the dredged material). We passed about 50 meters clear of where they dove, but I watched for a while in our wake to insure no injuries were inflected. Dugongs are known to shy away from vessel noise, and they were not seen again.

I also spotted another Lesser Frigatebird patrolling the airspace around Barrow. Whenever a seabird is seen out of its rang it usually means one of 2 things; either the bird is not well, or wind is nearby. I’m expecting tomorrow we will encounter the wind.

Sunday, April 3rd

Another full day of work, and the wind is up. It was beauford 3-4 all morning, peaking at beauford 5 by midday. If you’re not familiar with the beauford scale, it’s a measure of the winds interaction on the water; otherwise known as the local sea state. Beauford 3 is characterized by occasional whitecaps, beauford 5 is frequent whitecaps that leave the occasional streak across the sea (about 25 knots of wind). So it’s windy, as the Frigatebird predicted.

The mother calf dugongs were sighted again in almost the same location as yesterday. This time we were dredging, but they were well out of the 100 meter exclusion zone that requires the work to stop. The pair surfaced several times, the calf always very close to its mother, allowing for the entire crew on the bridge to get a good look. They seemed very interested, but of course didn’t allow themselves appear too interest. As with any sighting of wildlife, their first reactions are always “I wonder how they taste” or “I bet they’d cook up good with a nice marinade”. I see through this though, I can tell deep down they actually care about the environment. It’s all an act to keep the alpha male status; after all, it’s not macho to care for and respect nature right? I’m not sure where that mentality formed but it really is a nuisance.

The photos of the dugongs are grainy, they were fairly distant, but you get a general idea of what they look like; a big tube of lard. This would be a female, so I’m assuming the scratches on her back were inflected during mating; maybe from the teeth of males. They do not appear to be propeller scars.

Tonight we pack up and leave for Dampier again, so I hear through the grapevine. Hopefully by Friday will be back on sight working. I’m due to transfer back to the Finnmarken on Saturday, and if all goes to plan, flying out of Barrow Island for the last time on Tuesday April 12th. So close.