Friday, October 25, 2002

The Great Barrier Reef

It began with a midnight rendezvous at Uni, the beginning of a seven-hour coach ride up the coast from Brisbane to Gladstone. The initial chatterment as we all shared stories of our week’s holidays soon died down as we fell into various stages of unconsciousness. I sat in the very front seat, and watched the nighttime scenery fly past, dazed by the surreality of it all, fingers of white fog laying low across the road.

We arrived at Gladstone hours before the ferry for our final destination, Heron Island, was due to leave. It was here that I began an occupation that was to keep us all amused for the duration of the trip--skin illustration, or pen tattoos. It began when I told David I saw an echidna in Tassie, and he actually didn’t know what an echidna was.

So, lacking paper, I drew an echidna on him. I then drew a nudibranch on the back of Diana’s leg, at her request. On the ferry ride, I did a weedy sea dragon on Lelia’s back, which I am still proud of and of which I hope someone has a good photograph. I went on to illustrate all manner of sea creatures during the ensuing ten days, including a great white shark and a lionfish, and generally received chocolate in payment for my services.

I’ve decided I really need to get my hands on some henna.

And so we arrived at Heron Island. Our welcoming party consisted of Ian, all our tutors, and some 60,000 white-capped noddies (birds). Over the next few days, as it is the season of twitterpation down under, this number began to increase to what would be an eventual count of 60,000 breeding pairs of noddies.

Lacking Hobbes' olfactory language, I can only leave you to imagine the scent of the island.

The noddies were also joined by a large population of shearwaters, or muttonbirds, which are oceanic birds that rest in flocks of thousands out on the waves, but visited our island every night. The muttonbird has a truly frightening call that reminds one of a zombie’s moan, or perhaps the whining of young children. After the first few hours, though, it ceases to be frightening and becomes really, really annoying. Especially along about 3-4 in the morning, which is when they all take off for the open ocean again and leave us mercifully with about an hour to sleep in silence.

Of course, we didn’t have to get up at five o’clock. But the rewards for doing so were so spectacular that by the end of the trip at least half of us made this our regular rising time. There are two reasons for this.

First, Heron Island is very small. At high tide you can walk around it in about 15 minutes. There are two facilities on Heron, the research station (where we stayed) and the resort (where we did not stay). Whatever space left is “revegetation area,” as Heron Island is part of a national marine park, and that’s it. This means that in the morning, you can walk around to the island’s east side, and watch the sun rise over the ocean. In the evening, you walk back around to the west side, and watch the sun set over the ocean. The colors are pure, soft, delicate; the peace in the air is indescribable. I wrote most of my most recent poem while watching sunrises and sunsets on Heron.

The second reason has to do with turtles. Heron Island and surrounding waters are a national park because it is a fairly large breeding and laying ground for green and loggerhead turtles. Early morning is the best time to catch sight of them mating in shallow water, or even up on the beach laying eggs. From the beach, I saw over the course of our stay several breeding pairs and two turtles up on the sand.

From the outrigger canoe that I got to take a trip on one morning, I passed almost close enough to touch another breeding pair (or triplet, as there’s usually an extra male or two trying to get in on the act). The trip was a lucky break, as Ted, the man who owns the canoe, only took it out once or twice a day, and there were seats for but a few of us. I didn’t get on the list initially, but determined not to miss the opportunity, I simply showed up at the canoe early one morning, and Ted allowed me to sit on the back of the canoe and come out with them. At first I was a bit disappointed not to be able to paddle with the others, but on the way back Ida, one of the tutors, switched with me, and the work was so exhausting that I was grateful for my earlier free ride.

When I say we went “out” I mean we paddled to another reef, Wistari, and snorkeled there for a little while before paddling back. Of course we brought our snorkeling gear. For ten days we all lived in bathers, mask, snorkel, and fins. Besides allowing for a consistent tan, this also permitted us to jump into the water at the slightest provocation, whether it was research needs, heat, boredom, or the presence of sharks, rays, turtles, or any other remarkable sea creature (which, in the end, was simply inevitable).

And even when I saw no individual animal of particular noteworthiness, I was always surrounded with scenes of such incomparable beauty and wonder that I never counted a moment in the water poorly spent. The colors of the corals and the fish living in and around them led me to feel I was swimming in a huge tropical fish tank, and the reality of the place was difficult to grasp. One of my most treasured memories is of an entire school of tiny cuttlefish, only an inch or two in length, that fled past us just as we were ready to board the boat.

I mentioned research needs, didn’t I? Let it here be recorded that this was far from a mere pleasure trip, and in fact we did a whole lot of work. Some did more than others, but our group probably worked harder than most due to numerous frustrations. We wanted to do a project on cuttlefish (yay cephalopods! It wasn’t even my idea!) but time constraints led us to a more sessile and predictable organism, the starfish.

We proposed both field and laboratory components, to discover their preferred substrates and feeding habits. The field bit worked out very well, just as we’d planned, and involved lots of walking out over the reef at low tide, hunting for starfish. Pretty nifty. The reef surrounding Heron, incidentally, is quite large, and at low tide the water is usually knee high all the way out to the edge of the reef, where the coral drops off sharply. This area is called the reef flat, and is much, much bigger than the island itself, giving quite a lot of roaming area.

At high tide, of course, the water is several meters deep, ideal for snorkeling, and at the aptly named Shark Bay we could and regularly did swim mere feet away from innumerable stingrays and reef sharks.

Anyway, the field bit was lovely. The laboratory bit was extremely frustrating, not least due to our tutor’s “help.” He meant well, he really did, but it was his first time as a tutor and he tried to take control of what was essentially not his project, but ours. And in addition, we made the important discovery that when you put sea stars in tanks in the laboratory, escape is far more important to them than eating. I bet you never thought of an escaping starfish, did you? Well, believe you me, they can be pretty troublesome. They’re like Houdini in slow motion. You put it back in the tank, come back in half an hour, and it’s trying to get out again.

In addition I was trying desperately to finish up a proposal for a research project on octopuses that I want to do when I get back to Santa Barbara, which did not decrease my stress level. However, when it got too much, I would just take a few deep breaths, realize I was living in a tropical paradise, and relax again.

It really was like a dream. Everything was too bright to be real: the sky, the sand, the water. We were all salty and sandy from the first day on. I stopped bothering to towel off after showers, once my towel reached the point where it was more salty and damp than me. But none of it mattered; in fact it was part of the fun.

On the last night we went over to the resort’s lounge/bar area, where there was a life-size chess set and a live entertainer. At the request of one of our girls, he started off with “Hotel California,” and it only got better from there. We even got Ian and Jeff to dance with us. After the guitarist left, though, people were just drinking, and so I went back to the research station, where I collected a sleeping bag and opened it up to sleep at the beach.

I opened it up because I was going to be sharing it with Cara and Annie, who woke me an hour later when they crawled in on either side of me. You see, we were provided with beds and bedding, but we all wanted to sleep on the beach. Those of us who brought sleeping bags slept happily on the beach for the whole trip, but the rest of us (including Cara, Annie, and me) were not so lucky. However, on the last night Craig opted to sleep indoors, so we borrowed his sleeping bag. It was not a particularly restful night, lying sandwiched between the two girls on the sand, but I was certainly warm enough. And it was pretty spectacular to just wake up and walk a few meters down the beach for the sunrise.

And so we packed, and left, dragging our heels and longing for more.

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