Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Time's Running Out

One week left before my return flight to California. Using this remaining time to catch some views of quintessential aussie wildlife, kangaroos, kookaburras, koalas, etc; and to cram as much surfing into my schedule as possible. I really enjoy my morning surf check walks to Peregian Beach (out front). The short trail runs through a barrier forest of gum trees and shrubs, before breaching through a small grass carpeted fore-dune that abruptly ends on the beach. I often see Figbirds vested in green with red blushing faces foraging on ripened fruits, along with a variety of small wren like birds I have yet to identify; all while dodging ghostly camouflaged sand crabs as they scurry sideways across my path into strategically excavated burrows. On a few occasions I’ve spotted large 3 foot Australian Monitor Lizards, also known as Goannas, basking in the beams of light penetrating the canopy; and Green Tree Snakes sprawled out across the trial, none venomous but capable of waking you up faster than a cup of coffee when almost stepping on them. Dawning my wetsuit top at the foot of the beach, I usually hear the gentle peeping call of Rainbow Beaters snatching insects in the morning light. Once in the waves, waiting for the next set to roll in, a quick refreshing dive to the shallow bottom is often accompanied by the faint haunting sound of male Humpback Whales singing just offshore, with long drawn out groans and sharp upsweeping whistles. It’s not often I get to share waves with the melodic chorus of 40 ton marine mammals, bellowing their blowholes out for mysterious reasons. Yes this truly is a unique corner of the globe.

Friday, October 14, 2011

A Day on Carmena

Early four-thirty start this morning to prepare for a day at sea on Carmena; one of a fleet of three small vessels on this project, with a six meter aluminum hull and a bow sprit for ease of tagging. The pre-dawn conditions as usual started out glassy, with not the slightest ripple over the bar crossing; the Noosa River as clear as Mike the project coordinator has ever seen it. Little Pied Cormorants with their white faces and black cloaks stood proud and perched on green and red channel markers, an Eastern Great Egret snow white with yellow bill lurked amongst numerous Little Egrets, stalking juvenile fish along the sandy green back dropped banks as we motored along the meandering flow of water. Before I could finish devouring my cheesy bacon bun and guzzling down a large long black, we were out past the Noosa headland and searching for a south bound “tag friendly” pod.

Straight off the bat we happened upon a mother humpback with her calf. The calf was easy to recognize with a pale cream colored patch on its peduncle (tail stalk). This pod was extremely evasive, changing direction whenever we’d come in for a close approach. Our goal was to slap on a D-tag, a device that records the whales pitch, roll, depth, and acoustics, for a programmed duration of four hours, which is held firmly to the whale via four suction cups, and is administered with a long three meter carbon fiber poll. Once the programmed four hours is up, the suction cups release and the tag floats to the surface, and begins transmitting beeps over a radio frequency, allowing us to find the tag with a directional radio antenna. We struggled to get within tagging range for about fifteen minutes before bailing onto a second pod, this one a mother and calf with an escort, that surfaced several hundred meters away. We nearly managed to tag the escort before it dove, but the pod adopted the same evasive behaviors as the previous mother calf. After another fifteen minutes of fumbling around with pod #2, we gave up and headed for a third pod called in from the hill team; another mom calf pair that had been logging at the surface for some time just a few hundred meters off Sunshine Beach. Of course as soon as we approached they ceased logging and begin avoiding us. After several minutes our tagging window closed, we were out of time.

We spent the remainder of the morning following the third mother calf pair for what is referred to as a “focal follow”, where someone stands on the bow sprit with a micro track and headset, and calls out every behavior the whales make at the surface, including the distance, direction, and heading of the pod. Focal follows last four hours, so that’s four hours of following a single pod while observing and recording its every move. I did the first half of the focal follow, and transcribed it looks something like this:

“Blow from the calf. Blow from the mom. Blow from the calf. Blow from the mom. Fluke up dive from the mom. Round out from the calf. 50 meters to the NE, whales heading south.”

15 minutes pass…

“Blow from the calf. Blow from the mom. Back from the calf. BREACH! from the mom.”

Sounds of chewing a turkey sandwich…more chewing

“Blow from mom. Blow from calf. 70 meters to the NE still heading south”

…..etc etc for the next 3 hours and 45 minutes.

It can be and often is incredibly dull. Luckily the unmistakable gliding flight of Short-tailed Shearwaters, the same bird I worked with last year in Tasmania whose razor beaks left lasting scars on my hands, and the occasional dive bombs of foraging Australian Gannets, kept my imagination occupied. Once the focal follow ended we zipped over to Peregian Beach, where I jumped off and swam back in through the surf, while Carmena went back out to dive on some of the acoustic buoys (pronounced boys here) that were in desperate need of repair. I finished the day trying to finish Carl Safina’s latest book “View from Lazy Point”, and incredibly good read about the changing of seasons in an ever changing increasingly anthro-dominated world.

Friday, October 7, 2011


Morning shift on Emu Mountain today as hill coordinator. Packed up our gear just after 6AM, theo case, theo legs, chairs, computers, binoculars, and radios, and began the 10 minute trek up Emu Mountain’s gentle north slope for a 7AM start. Luckily we packed the umbrellas. After synchronizing computers against the GPS time down at base via VHF radio, we were up and running and tracking pods. Minutes after getting the first few theo shots from what would become Pod A and B we get a call from base…

“Yeah Bret, it’s not looking too good weather wise….massive lighting storm moving in from the west”, Bec announces over channel 13. Apparently everyone except us hill people had known about this storm since last night. “You guys should pack up ASAP and get back down the hill”. Mind you we had just finished setting up and had 2 very close pods that would have been perfect for tracking off the beach.

“Copy that”, I respond looking over my shoulder to a darkening sky.

Turns out the Bureau of Meteorology were actually correct this time in their forecasting. As I’m typing this entry with a warm coffee beneath an awning on the porch, the rain is pelting down in sheets with the bang of thunder claps every few minutes. They are predicting another intense cyclone season for Eastern Australia, and based on the numerous bad weather days we’ve already experienced this field season at BRAHSS, I’d say that prediction will hold true.

Good day for watching baseball.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

One for the Record Books

Strong offshore winds yesterday, which means only one thing in the minds of anyone who spends their days thinking about waves…great surf. The surf in fact was much more than great, it was awesome. Although the swell wasn’t as high as I had hoped it would be yesterday, it was big enough to catch the wind blowing in from the west, sculpting the waves into perfect smooth walled up faces. The gusting breeze from the beach lifted my yellow board like an airplane wing, reducing friction with the water and allowing me to glide effortlessly down the line; with bottom turns as soft as butter. It was like surfing on a cloud. I’ve experienced such excellence in offshore conditions only a few times in my life, with yesterday’s waves rivaling the surf Louie, Paul, Carl and I had in Costa Rica back in our college days. Just sitting out beyond the breakers, feeling the wind rip the wave crests into a glittering arch of spray raining down around us in Australia’s warm endless summer sun, was enough to make this one of the more memorable surf sessions I’ve had. And it gets better.

While waiting for the next set to roll in, a light grey/brown body appeared just below the surface about five meters beyond us. My mind searched for possibilities as to what it could be…a shark, dolphin most likely. When it finally surfaced I recognized its walrus-like head and broad round finless back right away, I had seen several of them during my time around Barrow Island in my MFO days…Dugong.

“Holy Shit!” I yelled through the wind and spray to Elise who was sitting a distance away from me, “It’s a Dugong!”

“Was that a Dugong?” she yelled back, apparently in doubt as to what we were seeing. We waited a minute for it to resurface in order validate our sighting.

“There!” I yelled again and pointed to it as it leisurely lifted its nostrils out of the water for a breath, before arching its bulbous back and rolling out its whale-like fluke just above the surface for a dive. “Dugong!, It’s a freaking Dugong!” I yelled again and slapped the water in excitement.

It was literally close enough for us to hear its exhalation and see the characteristic scarred back and tiny sunken eyes of this species. Dugongs are related to manatees. The only differences I can think of between the two are that Dugongs strictly reside in the sea, where as manatees are often more brackish; swimming in the marriage between fresh and salt water systems. Manatees also have a rounded paddle-like tail fin similar in shape to a beaver tail, differing from the Dugongs whale fluke. Both groups are grazers, the only herbivorous marine mammals, feeding on sea grass beds and thus containing poor vision, which would explain their reduced sunken eyes. Dugongs and manatees are in the order Sirenia, and evolved separate from the Cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoise) and Pinnipeds (sea lions, seals, and the walrus).

What a day indeed. Unfortunately I have no photos of the event, but the images in my mind are quite vivid.