Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Routine

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

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

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Day Off #1

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

Friday, September 16, 2011

Surf Bumps

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

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

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Water's Still Warm Down Here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Australia Again?

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

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

Cheers, mates