I've done it. It's been decided. My spirit animal of the water is the spotted eagle ray. It's taken me the whole tripe, but I've come to this conclusion after a period of great reflection and pondering. That period of reflection being slight sleep depravation and the prospect of cold water enveloping me.
To explain, I woke up this morning to the sound of rain, which was incredibly relaxing, and helped me to have the best sleep I've probably had the best sleep I've had all trip, but also induced an immediate sense of dread as soon as I remembered my towel sitting out on the banister, no doubt getting delightfully soggy. However, I had committed to going on this morning snorkel, so I shuffled out the door with Sean, Russ, and Zach, and we got ready to face the morning waters. Hailey, Nora, and Katie also were in the bathrooms, getting ready with a certain sense of distaste for the oncoming weather. However, a cup of tea usually seems to help, and soon we were off with Edd to go investigate the harbor. We went out on the dock to get into the water, and as soon as we reached the bottom of the jetty, Edd proudly pronounced that he would be taking the penguins way out, and jumped straight up and down into the water with a strangled squawk. Russ went right after as a Spanish mackerel and seemed to freeze in midair before full on slamming into the waves. With all my gear on, I went to the jump off point, and made a snap choice: I would be, embody, personify, the grace and majesty of an eagle ray we had seen flapping his wings with all his might to fly out of the ocean. I lept off the dock, my elbows at my stomach, flapping my hands as fast as I could , and face-first into the water. That hurt a little more than my pride. But it was all worth it. I had become the eagle ray, and earned a solid ten out of ten from the peanut gallery. After that, our dive was fairly uneventful, seeing a couple peeved looking grouper, the same hawksbill Edd almost sat on from the day before, and a cowtail ray the size of a oriental throw rug.
We came back to the harbor with almost no incident, (Nora managed to slip down the stairs but gracefully cushioned the landing with her butt, mostly unharmed.) and the rest of the day was to be dedicated to the presentations of our final projects. We had mostly finished all of the presentation the day before, and Kenen's data was impressive enough that I was going to need a textbook to fully understand it, so I figured we were doing all right. We rehearsed a couple times, and then sat around waiting for our last group snorkel of the trip.
We went out to North Beach, where we hadn't ever snorkeled before, and quickly pairing up, slipped into the water. I was with Zach, and we quickly realized that there was two groups that had developed in very different spots in the lagoon, and we were stuck smack dab in the middle, fighting a current to get to either one. With the rain and the storm we didn't see much, a couple anemone fish, and apparently an octopus spotted by Kenen. While swimming to catch up to one of the groups, I looked over to the left, and saw a huge green sea turtle pushing off into the distance. I followed it, not totally sure I was seeing correctly. From the size, I would have said it was a leatherback, but when it lifted its face out of the water, it was most definitely a green. It took off before I even thought, and nobody else near me had seen it! Eventually I met up with the other group that we had been trying to catch up with, and they confirmed that they had seen the huge green gliding above the reef, and I wasn't in fact crazy. We had a good time swimming in the rain, finding little gaps in the reef to stand up and mess around, and then swam back for lunch. Even without any huge sightings, I had a really good time, listening to Zach laugh and talk with everybody, pulling on Brynn's fins to try to get a rise out of her. It was just a nice indication of how far we've come as a group that we didn't even really have to see anything to have a good time.
After lunch, Hailey taught me and Katie how to play Hearts, we got our absolute asses handed to us, and then we got ready for our presentations. I'm pleased to say that ours went off with out a hitch. Its funny, I feel like working with Kenen and Jeni has taught me what an A effort feels like for any assignment, which honestly is a skill I've been looking for for quite some time. I'm grateful that they let me into the group, and even more so that they gave me time to try to understand and assimilate to their work style. Kenen and Jeni are willing to work as hard as they have to for a professional level submission for their assignments, and I hope I don't forget that.
After our presentations, we went out and watched the "sunset", which was actually just the clouds moving across the ocean, but the storm was amazing. The rain hung in the air off the horizon, and closer to us, the giant fluffy grey clouds pushed forward with surprising speed. We talked about the same stuff as always, what we had seen that day, books we had read while growing up, spotting the big blacktip that has passed by the last couple of days.
After the last of the pink had disappeared from the grey on the sides of the sky, we came back to Pats kitchen where he had prepared the most wonderful steak and potatoes I've tasted in quite some time. I do love that man. Tonight is our last night on the island, but there will be more about that tomorrow.
Those old Cuke boys are at it again. Our three days of working on final projects has officially begun. Kennan, Jeni, and I have begun our work on Sea Cucumbers, attempting to understand what drives these multicolored mush balls to appear everywhere, and yet apparently do nothing at all. But that's getting ahead of the program.
To start, everybody in the class seemed to be relishing the fact that we were done with formal lectures, labs, and dive times, and almost everyone took an extra hour to sleep in. It also helped that there was no early morning dive, as most people were going on scuba dives later in the day. I woke up, feeling well rested for the first time in a while, and laid in bed for a while, waiting for the last second before I had to get up for breakfast. Finally, I rolled myself out, and headed over to the kitchen. There seemed to be a pretty relaxed air as everyone was either excited about their deeper dives, or was still reveling in the close encounter of the shark kind from yesterday. I was mostly focused on the book that I had been reading "In a Sunburned Country", a travel journal of Bill Bryson as he traversed through the entire Australian landscape. I liked reading about all of the deadly things that could happen in the country, and the human cultural side as well. I made the decision that if at all possible, mainland Australia would have to be a return trip, because one taste of the far off continent was just not enough.
After breakfast, us Cuke boys gathered up to set the parameters for our experiment. We were looking at 4 different kinds of sea cucumbers, professionally named: Black, Spiky, Poppy, and Burnt Sausage. They don't have common names that we can find in the book, and I empathized much more with Charles Darwin naming all his variations of finch after bequeathing titles to just 4 of our cucumber friends. Trying to determine what habitat preference these sea cucumbers might have, we decided to go out, counting as many as we could of each kind, and noting what kind of substance their mouth was on, and what the general makeup of the land around them seemed to be. Sea Cucumbers are supposedly detritivores, but a lot of the literature on them seemed to be fairly contradictory, so we decided to go out for ourselves and see what we could see. We split up our slates into the necessary categories to house all our data, and then broke off to wait until high tide.
Right after breakfast, Nora and I walked around the shoreline, just looking at the edge of the beach to see what had happened over the last night. Nora has a gift for spotting jellyfish, and she pointed out several to me that had washed ashore. Most of them were harmless, but she warily called out one tiny Man of War jelly that was still in the process of drying, it's blue tentacles wilting around the bottom. As we wound around the island and back towards the dock, we saw the first scuba group heading out, and right below them on the dock, the shadow of a spotted eagle ray. It seemed to have been blown in close to shore, and was struggling against the formidable current to get back out into deeper waters. Nora and I followed it on the beach, back over our footsteps as it flapped its wings, trying to get enough power to push forward. As we sat there, a whole group of roseate terns that have just barely showed up on the island pulled up landed one by one next to us, watching the spectacle of the ray as well. They appeared to be waiting to see if the ray would get tired and be beached, one of the terns flying over the ray every once in a while, then returning disappointedly to the group, as if to say "No no, the food'll be another 5 minutes". They were going to be waiting longer than that, though, as the eagle ray pushed over the row of rocks just off shore, and then caught a current bringing him into water just deep enough that he could get full range of motion. The tips of his wings kept rising out of the water, and he curled them back every once in a while, slightly decreasing the pull of the current on him while taking a break. Slowly but surely, he made his way out into deeper water, and I was ready to go back in, satisfied with my happy ending. Nora was determined to stick around, though, as she had never seen a ray jump out of the water and was positive that this ray would set the record straight. We waited, and I shifted my feet to keep warm. There was a decent wind blowing, and I was ready to get back to the gustless treeline. After a few minutes, though, the ray disappeared, and then threw itself up in the air with a sort of tired gusto, like runners holding up their hands after a marathon directly before vomiting off to the side. It flopped back into the water and then swam off, tips moving away, and then disappearing into the deep. We headed back to camp, content with the now complete saga of the eagle ray that almost wasn't.
I read for a little while, sitting and watching the rails (tiny birds, not poles of metal) peck around in the street. Eventually though, I got bored, and went and asked Nora, Jenna, and Katie if they'd like to play cards. Hailey and Sean joined in just in time to see me get thoroughly trounced at scum by Katie and Nora. Katie has a strategic side that emerges when we play cards that always seems to be three moves ahead. I think my fire from the hip style of playing might be a little exasperating to her, but then again, what she seems to sigh almost as a reflex when I do things, so that might just be par for the course. We played for a little while, then after lunch, we all split to either go on the second scuba dive, or continue the long wait for low tide. I decided to split off for Shark Bay and read my book for a while, and Hailey came along with me. Walking over to the beach, we noticed that they had swept the path, making it much easier, and less pungent, and soon we were emerging out onto the beautiful sunny North Beach. We were getting to low tide, the wind had dropped, and it was a beautiful day. Hailey and I both plopped down our towels and read, stopping intermittently to laugh at the seagulls bizarre, neck-bending squawking, or bicker about when the seasons officially change. (Equinoxes be damned, I'm still sure summer starts in May.) Eventually, I gathered up my stuff and crossed back over to camp to begin the great cucumber count.
Kennan was still on his scuba dive, so Jeni and I gathered up our transect line, slates, and quadrats, and headed out to research beach to get started. We set the line, and slowly started to count cucumbers. It quickly became evident that the overwhelming majority of them were the black cucumbers, which seemed to accumulate sand except for in distinct little circles on their back, and had no reaction at all when you picked them up. The only way to tell what they were eating was to look for the puckered hole on the bottom that serves the purpose of a mouth. Anuses and mouths are about the only distinguishing factors that sea cucumbers have, and even that can get kind of switched around, but we did our best. I also noticed, as we worked our way down the beach, that the spiky's seemed to always have their rear end parked within the base of overhanging rocks and coral, and contracted their whole bodies whenever I tried to expect for a mouth. Turns out, I stopped having to look for a mouth at all, because I realized that their mouths had little branches coming off the side, giving a passable impression for a face. Fine by me. The less cukes I bother the better. They may be mostly brainless and poop our their face sometimes, but everybody deserves a little space. Jenni and I moved further down the beach, and eventually Kennan showed up. We kept counting, with the ratios mostly unchanging. Countless blacks, with the occasional "Look! A sausage!" or "Theres a poppy, under the coral!". What really perplexed us was that the spiky's looked almost nothing like the ones in the books, and they didn't behave like the regular black ones either. One fairly noticeable way to determine this was when Kennan picked the spiky ones up, after they had determined to contract down to their smallest size, they promptly spit their intestines all over him. If that isn't a clear indication of how they felt about the whole interaction, I don't know what is. Their intestines are white and tubular, and according to Kennan, very sticky. Its actually a fairly common response in most sea cucumbers, but none of the other ones in the lagoon seemed to do it except for the spiky ones, which lead Kennan to dub the them the stringy cucumbers. This was further confirmed by the fact that we found a more spiking cucumber that looked like the one we originally found in the book, and realized that they were, in fact, two distinct species. Right around the second expulsion of intestines, though, I looked over at the sun and realized we were getting pretty close to dark. We gathered up our gear, and quickly made it back to the library, rinsed off our gear, and Jeni and Kennan graciously let me split off for my recurring appointment with the sunset.
It was spectacular. Low tide has been shifting later and later, and so as I sat on the dock, looking out across the lagoon, there were great clear stretches of water where the waves were completely stopped by the coral. The colors changed every five minutes, with great stretches of gold, purple, pink and orange shifting backwards across the sky and over the clouds. The larger blacktip that has made an appearance over the last couple days swam under the dock, and most of the class slowly trickled in. There was discussion in the background of the scuba dives of the day, apparently they saw a Manta and some lobsters the size of my arm, and varied exclamations of appreciation for just how beautiful this island was. Off to the side, blue footed boobies to their place on top of the ship wreck, and baby black tips swam by, tips poking out the water. The sunset continued for the better part of an hour, people leaving little by little, until it was just deep, crimson reds poking tendrils right over the horizon, but giving a glow all across the sides of where the sun set. A few of us walked back and forth across the dock, laughing and taking pictures of each other, just appreciating how the views around us could continually get better and better, even after the sun was gone, and the colors behind it raced to catch up.
Today, for the first day since our the morning after we got here, I got up to go on the early morning scuba. I woke up several times during the night, but still felt relatively well rested when I woke up, still no alarm or sign of stirring from any of my roommates. I got out of bed, considered getting ready, and then Shakira's "Hips Don't Lie" started blaring behind me at full volume. Now, I'm not totally sure, but I think it might be a law world wide that you have to stop what you're doing and bust a move whenever that song comes on, and so, there beside me bunk, in t shirt and underwear, I did my best to honor shakira by butt wagging to my best ability. After that, I felt as though I had earned a rest, and went back to
Okay, listen, I had this whole thing about taking the test today, and how I saw a hawksbill, loggerhead, and green sea turtle today, but I'll just say that I lived today to what I think was the fullest, and so I am way too tired to write it all out tonight. Sorry, my adoring fans, and future me. I hope you still remember today. It was a good one, the animals were beautiful, the stars shone bright in the milky way, and that's what matters.
No early morning swim this morning, it was time to count some fish. I woke up to Russ's alarm, The Final Countdown, feeling a surge of energy that only the one hit wonder Europe can bestow. We hit breakfast quick, and then suited up and headed off to Attenborough point, right next to Shark Bay. Todays experiment was the Fish Lab, and once again, it sounded deceptively easy. All we had to do was get out into the patch reefs, measure a thirty meter transect line (just perpendicular to the beach) and swim slowly along, filming the fish in front of us with the Go Pro. Jenna and I were paired together for the fish lab, and luckily for us, she had some experience with the camera, because I was more than lacking in experience with fish cinematography.
For the first time in our experiments, we were trying to gather data at high tide, which proved tricky from the start. Jenna and I placed our bucket o'stuff on the beach near a clear spot, and then had to climb over the rock outcropping upon Mr. Attenborough pontificates the destiny of the coral reefs. Right now, the only thing I was pontificating was what it would feel like if I at crap before even getting in the water. A couple wobbly steps later, we were sitting on the edge of the rocks, being hit every couple of seconds with a light wave coming over the top. We put on our flippers, masks, and Trisha came over to make sure we knew what we were doing. Right before she got to us, I was unwinding the measuring line, and the end snapped right off. I looked up and smiled at Jenna. "I broke it."
Jenna looked at me with a surprising modicum of patience, although to be fair, she was probably still thinking about just not falling off the rocks, and didn't really have too much time to be disappointed in my lack of deftness with measuring tape. "We'll just have to tie it" she said, "Just make sure to tie it tight, it'll last for now".
We turned back to Trisha, and she told us that some guitar sharks had been spotted right up the shore, but they probably would be a problem. Guitar sharks or guitar fish, are neither rays, nor fish, nor can you strum them to impress college girls at a party with your rendition of "Hallelujah", but are in fact in the family of rays, and kind of look like you replaced the front half of a shark with a ray. In any case, Jenna clearly did not like the sound of that, as she looked up at Trisha and asked her just how many of theses sharks were in the water. Right at that point, I jumped in and saw a 4 foot guitar shark 10 feet in front us, moving to the right. I turned back to Jenna. "All clear!" I lied, "The must have left off!" I knew that the shark was taking off, and it probably wouldn't help anyone to know that they had recently touched the sand in front of us. We took off swimming, found our spot along the patch reef, and Trisha explained really clearly how we would need to swim out, and to make sure not to lay our line over too many of the coral, to avoid as much damage as possible. I swam our line out and came back, because Janna was going to be the first one to film, to give me a chance to observe and hopefully learn something. She swam out and finished, then started winding up the line. As she was about halfway back, Trisha swam by, and called us both. I thought she was pointing to the transect line, so I started to bring it over, but then realized that she must have spotted something in the reef. Janna swam over and looked excited (I mean, its kind of hard to tell from the backside of someones head, back and butt) and then returned to winding up the transect line. I swam past Trisha, and then did a kind of about face so I could see the coral she was talking about. I looked where her finger was pointing, and saw a black and white striped eel, tucked into the base of the coral. Trisha told me where to look for its head, and sure enough, when I dove a little closer, there it poked out, clearly confused what it had to done to receive so much unwanted attention. The moray eels are definitively the oceans butter faces, with beautiful patterns on their body, and the face of a fairy tale crone that decided heroin would be a welcome addition to trapping fair maidens in the forest. But still, watching them swim is a work of art. The tide pushed us away from the outcropping with the eel, and I figured I should probably catch up to Jenna. I got her just as she finished reeling up, and we collected the measuring tape from the bottom, and weights in hand, swam to the next spot for our transect line. I was having a lot more difficulty swimming than normal, and then I realized that it was probably because I had two 5 pound weights hugged to my chest. We kept swimming, my legs starting to get tired for the first time, and then came to a reasonable sized patch reef where we layed our second transect. My turn to film. I swam out, placed the end of the line, and then came back. Janna showed me how to operate the camera, and how to hold it to try and keep the footage as stable as possible, and I was off. Trish said we should try to swim to the beat of "Another One Bites the Dust" and I started humming it in my head. I swam out, almost diagonally, but the current pushed back into a straight line, reached the end of the transect line, and prayed I had gotten usable footage. Janna and I swam back to shore, and came onto the rocks right next to Hailey and Katie. I looked up and noticed the Sea Eagle that had followed us out to shore on the way to start the experiment. Its under feathers were a stark white, with two big black blotches near the back of its wings. It was so far above on the currents of air, that it barely flapped its wings. "You're doing great, sweetie!" called our Hailey to the eagle, "Very majestic!" I laughed, wondering what the eagle was focused on at that moment, but picturing him dressed in a tiny soccer jersey with a supportive mom (Hailey) in the background.
We grabbed our gear and walked back to the lab, where we dropped off our equipment with a freshwater rinse, and then did the same to our selves at the outdoor showers. There was still sand on my feet though, and I as I walked into the patio where we hang our wetsuits, the research station worker that cleans the area gave me one glance, and then turned her hose to spray my entire bottom half, without a word. Surprised, I stopped moving, and made eye contact. I saw that this was clearly not her first rodeo, as she gave me a small curtesy smile, and then back down to chase the sand falling off me out the entryway behind me. I get the feeling she fights a Sisyphean battle to keep that place clean. After we dried off, we were back in the lab and analyzing the footage we got and counting fish. I was surprised with how many fish there actually were, hiding in the crevices of the rocks, only appearing for a split second as I looked frame by frame at the video. I'm proud to say that my video skills were passing, although I probably shouldn't expect a call from National Geographic anytime soon. There were mostly damselfish, a lot of sand perch, and aimless little puffer fish right at the beginning. As soon as we were finished counting, I started working on the introduction to the paper, the first time that I had actually worked on one of the writing sections of the paper outside of a little analysis of results to interpret the graph. I was a little rusty, but looked at the papers from the previous labs and tried to model it after Brynn and Katies.
After an a couple hours, the tide dropped and we headed out to the same beach. Again, I was struck by how big of a difference low and high tide make, as the rocks that had waves crashing over them just hours before were now only dripping, the water down to knee level almost everywhere in the lagoon. Janna and I walked off to roughly where we had taken our video before, set our transect, and then Jenna took the first video. As she did, I wandered off to the side, and tried to step lightly, looking for anything fun. All of the sudden, there was a quick flick of tail, and an epaulette sat right in front of me, straight as an arrow, and I noticed how well its camouflage really was. From a distance, it looks exactly like the strings of algae that hang off the rocks and corals edge. I called Janna over, but with another flick of its tail, it was gone. As we walked over to place our second transect though, another one appeared right in front of us. How could we not be getting any of this on camera! It swam languidly, knowing we were coming, and moved up current and out of reach. The epaulettes are quickly becoming my favorite shark. Their coloration is beautiful, they have proto-limbs, and something about the way they swim just makes me want to watch them for hours. We took the second video (me filming, and decidedly more bumpy than the first), and then headed back to analyze more video. I liked writing the introduction, but was also glad when I suck over and got to watch Jenna graph all of the fish seen per second as an average across the class. Excel has gotten ahold of me, and there's just something about watching those numbers do what they should that makes me very happy. That might be the most lasting effect of Dr. Taylors engineering processes course my freshman year, along with a slight PTSD every time I hear the world enthalpy.
After we finished up our lab, I headed out to watch the sunset as is the daily ritual. I was excited as I walked over, because the sky was clear for the first time in three days, and I could already see some of the pinks and oranges that promised something beautiful. As soon as I rounded the corner to the jetty though, I could see something big, red, and really noisy. No, not the Kool-Aid man. The Scuber boat.
Uber has recently come up with a ride share adventure where for the low price of three grand, you can ride in a submarine around the great barrier reef. While great as an idea, the boat they use to house the submarine is big, obnoxious, and scares all the fish, so I don't know what exactly they plan on seeing in their submarine besides a bunch of coral and sand. Usually the boat is forced to park out on the outer reef, but for some reason today they were able to come park at the jetty and scared away almost all of the usual evening crowd. No eagle rays, one lonely turtle, and when the blacktip swam by, I was afraid he was going to get pulled into the workings of the boat. With the boat parked right on the dock, about half the vista was blocked out, and the hum of the engine was a constant in the background, but most of us still hung out and waited for the sun to set. They were parked there even after dark, lighting up the whole bay with giant white lights that are supposed to be a big no-go on the island since it can mess with the turtles and the shearwaters learning to fly. I'm grateful for this island because its teaching me the value of natural rhythm. And so it's jarring to see it disrupted. I hope the boat is gone tomorrow.
I slept, mercifully, for eight hours last night. Thats a pretty large accomplishment for me as is, being a procrastinator extraordinare, along with a college student, but the jet lag from losing a whole day when I crossed over has taken me almost a week to get over. The timing of that was slightly unfortunate, as when I woke up and looked over at my phone, I realized that all of the guys in my room were still there, and that we had missed the morning dive. Even still, I had to get up to work on my work for my other classes, so I gathered my backpack and shuffled off to the teaching lab, land of free and reliable WiFi. I ran into Edd on my way over, and realized that apparently the sleeping in had stretched further than just our room. No one had gotten up for the morning snorkel, and without a buddy, Edd had just canceled the morning dive. I felt bad, especially since I had missed the morning before. I'll try to make more of them from here on out. We got talking about jellyfish, and how ocean acidification has allowed them to more readily penetrate the shells of crustaceans, allowing them to have a wider and wider spread over the ocean. In Sydney already the box jellyfish pose a serious threat to anybody spread out at the golden beaches. One thing that I have learned about climate change is that it doesn't kill every species, like some people suppose. But it does weaken SOME species, and the ones that remain unaffected or benefit, quickly start to overrun whatever ecosystem the inhabit. Life in general has a way of acting against its best interests when it fails to show foresight.
I made my way over to the teaching lab, and after some quick work and then breakfast, we all convened for our lecture of the day. Trisha taught, covering the wide range of "Reef Fishes". One of the first things that we learned is that reef fish are essentially a misnomer. Fish and coral have cohabited for roughly 400 million years, but they still maintain the ability to exist independently. They just make each others lives a lot easier. All life came from the ocean, so it makes a lot of sense that fish species have been developing for quite some time. Some of the oldest, the coelacanth and its relatives, are mostly gone now, leaving behind much more diverse descendants that have partitioned practically every nice available in the vast blue ocean.
One of the more interesting families that has come about are the Wrasses, which can range in size from the cleaner wrasse, at the length of your pinky, to the giant 300 pound hump headed wrasse. The tiny cleaning wrasse are prevalent in the Great Barrier Reef, and will actually set up cleaning stations around the reef, like little roadside attractions, and all of the animals nearby will stop and come to get cleaned. This ranges from fish to moray eels, turtles, and even sharks. Predator and prey alike have an understanding that the cleaning station is a peaceful zone. The cleaning wrasse will even climb inside the mouth of the predators give a good dental checkup, and the predators will simply sit there, patiently waiting reminding themselves that fish are friends, not food.
However, not every participant in the cleaning station will play by the rules. Some of the predators with chomp down on the occasional cleaners. Anybody who is caught eating the wrasse is remembered by the other fish though, and will be shunned from the other cleaning stations, because nobody likes to be eaten by there customers, and even on the reef, there are rules to the streets. The rules go both ways though, as occasionally the wrasse will sometimes bite a little more off than just the algae, they'll take some skin with them, and fish remember those cleaning stations and will stop going to them. And trust me, once your reputation gets out as a biter, it's time to close up shop and mosey on over to the next reef, because your business is downhill from there.
After our lesson on fish diversity in the reef, we had a quick lunch, and then we were off for our first official back reef dive. We had waited until low tide so that it would be easier to get out to the boat, an rubber dinghy just big enough for the 15 of us. The weather had been decent, but there was still a decent wind, and grey clouds hung over the sky, just to remind us that they could choose to end our trip any time if they really wanted. Waves chuffed the boat up and down and the Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack started playing in the back of my head, as we passed the boat wreck at the jetty , came around the entrance to island, and doubled back, northward, to help to someplace called the Blue pools. We were officially out of the lagoon. We arrived at blue pools, and with all the grace and elegance of an crosseyed rock tipped over backwards into the water. I took one look down though, and everything else faded into the background. Literally at first, because when I had fallen backwards off the boat, I had forgotten to press down on my goggles, and they came right off my face, but as soon as I took care of that, the more metaphorical side could begin. Giant coral vistas faded into the background to the right, and to the left, you could see the gradual slope of the reef coming up to lagoon level. We were to float along the edge of the reef until we met up where the boat moored at a jetty a couple hundred meters away, trying as best we could to stay in a cohesive group, but also not kick each other in the head. I would estimate about a 50% success rate on both of those things. The current was strong, pulling us towards our destination, but my partner Sam and I swam back and forth across the edge of the reef, looking at the different corals and fish making up the immense landscape underneath us. A couple minutes in, I spotted some of the fluorescent coral that I am working on back at USU, outlining the corals in ghostly greens and blues. A soft rain began to fall, and as I dove down into the water, I looked up and was taken aback by the strangeness of seeing the tiny pinpricks fall on the clear surface of the water, light streaming through above me. Then I realized that I hadn't breathed any air in around 30 seconds and if I kept waxing poetic I was probably going to die. I headed for the surface. We swam past our original meet up point, the current pushing us quickly downstream of where the boat was moored, and we decided to meet at a further anchor just down the way. We swam down, got on board, and were off to our next destination.
The waves were picking up by just a bit as we drove back to the front of the island, as we didn't have the land to break any of the motion, and we bounced right by the red and white tugboat that was housing our resident corporate interest, a ride share submarine called a Scuber, that was forced to dock off shore because it was scaring all the fish in the lagoon. We got a good distance from them, and then were dropped off right near Heron Bommie, just to the south of the lagoon. Sam decided he'd had about enough, so I paired up with Katie and Nora for this dive. Remembering my last attempt at exiting the boat, I covered my goggles with both my hands, triumphantly thinking, "Haha, you silly waves, I've bested you with my superior inte-"THUNK. I came back up directly into the side of the boat, sputtering and pushing myself away with some kernel of respect I thought I had lost already but found just for this moment. I waited for Katie and Nora, and then dove down to the level of the coral a couple times, spooking some trumpeter fish, but being totally ignored by the giant schools of tiny fish that were hanging around by the surface. As I came back up, I swam with the surface level fish for a while, and noticed several jellyfish that were floating peacefully a meter down, like they didn't know I was ready to pee myself if they got too close. Luckily, right at that moment, I poked my head up and heard peoples voices through their snorkel yelling "SHRRRRKK!!!! sHrK!!, AGGUNGOUGHTOSRSBSBSSSKKK", or something to that degree. A shark! And in the deep water, probably a big one! We should swim towards it, maybe it wants to be friends! We all hurried over, and sure enough, there it was, right near the bottom, a chunky blacktip, about a meter and a half long. It turned and curled off into the brine, right before Katie could get there to see it. We swam a little further, past the boat now, and Nora peeled off to get aboard with Jenna. Right as we split, Katie and I bumped into each other, and a unexpecting green seaturtle that was rising rapidly a foot underneath us! It was the closest I'd ever been, and I could see each individual plate, it's beaked mouth, and its total preparedness to smash into me if I didn't get out of the way. Fair enough. His ocean, his rules. Katie and I swam on, reaching the Bommie, and swimming all around it to see the forests of stag horn coral encroaching on all sides, until it reached the sudden drop off of ocean floor. We dove down as deep as we could a couple more times, and then it was time to get back aboard and head to shore. We were waterlogged, and jellyfish stung, but baptized into the the outer reef.
dLet me tell you, there was something deeply satisfying about waking up and watching my friends get ready for the early morning dive, and then contentedly turning back over into bed. I could hear the wind blowing about through the trees, and it almost sounded like the waves. Cold waves, from the sounds of it. When I finally did wake up and get out of bed a little while later, one look outside confirmed my thought. The sky was grey, and cold wind blew through the main street of the camp. About 15 minutes after they had left, my classmates were back onshore due to low visibility and poor conditions. I worked on my math homework that I had long delayed (for good reason, I promise, Mom), and waited for whatever new miracle Pat had planned for breakfast. I swear the man was born with a skillet in hand.
Class was right after breakfast, and Trish and Edd changed plans, deciding to do our invert lecture and lab today as the wind would likely prove challenging in gathering any data further out at sea. After two days of talking about the big and beautiful statement pieces of the ocean, we were turning our attention to the less obvious foundation of animal life in the ocean, invertebrates. According to Edd's lecture, invertebrates make up about 80% of the biomass in the ocean, they're just all so small that we hardly notice them tucked away in the seabeds and crevices all around us. Not all invertebrates are small though. The major phyla we covered today ranged from the tiniest of jellyfish (cnidarians), to the humungous monolith of the giant squid (Mollusks). Lots of invertebrates remain relatively unchanged since the times of the Cambrian explosion, while it apparently took us spend creatures (Chordata) a little more time to figure everything out.
We learned about all of these creatures and more (I skipped echinodermata and arthropods) because our lab for the day was going to be taking soil samples out near patch corals and counting all the little beasties we could find skulking about beneath the surface. With a slightly more than friendly wind blowing, we all got suited and booted and headed over the north part of the island, towards Shark Beach. There, Edd and Trish explained the challenge before us. We were to take a syringe and a measuring tape, walk out into the reef, measure out 15 meters, and take three samples of soil starting at a coral base and moving away into open sand. Now, the easiness of the concept made the absolute blinding difficulty of carrying it out all the more frustrating. Hailey, Brynn and I wandered out into the reef, attempting not to step on any innocent sea cucumbers, and trying to find a clear patch of sand big enough to satiate our parameters. The wind decreased any visibility into the water and I eventually gave up and put my snorkel on to see better. However, the water was shallow enough that I just had to pray to the buoyancy gods that I would be light enough to float over all the coral and not dash myself to pieces. Or the coral to pieces. Come to think of it, the coral probably takes priority. Eventually, we found our way fairly far back into the water (which was still at knee level) and in a patch that was not perfect, but enough. Then came the second problem of pushing the syringe into the sand and attempting to get it to the right depth and bringing it back up without losing any of the sample. For our first sample that we took, I stood right behind Brynn and plunged my syringe into the ground. Almost immediately I hit rock and felt something on the syringe bend. I brought it back up and could see a sad trickling of sand with a spout bent into one of the sides. On my second attempt, I moved a little over to the right and plunged my head under the water to make sure I could see what I was doing. I managed to get the first part in, but the syringe was catching and making it hard to get all the way to base. The ocean water kept rising and falling, hitting me in the face just enough to make me wish it was a person that I could punch. I settled for yelling into the current, and drove the plunger all the way into the sand. I dug out the bottom and brought up the plunger, pushing the sand into the back. As we moved to the next sample, the sand gave a little less resistance, and by the third one, Brynn was able to push it in with practically just her foot.
With our samples gathered, we made our way back to the lab and began the long process of sifting through all of the sand under a microscope and picking out all of the organisms that we noticed in our petri dishes. To keep all the organisms inside alive, we filled our sample bags with sea water, and made sure each petri dish had about a millimeter for things for flit about. The annelids (sea worms) were by far the most prevalent, and looked like little black strings trying their very best to tie themselves into a knot that would make them unappetizing. Fortunately for me, this made them all the easier to pick up with the forceps and gently place them in our white bin to be returned to the ocean. Pretty soon in my first plate, I also caught sight of a tiny arthropod, making his way right across the bottom of the petri dish, leaving a tiny trail behind him wherever he went. The arthropods mostly looked like tiny clear lobsters with a small black dot in the middle, and two specks for eyes. They moved around in quick bursts of energy, stalled for a second to pick a direction, and then jetted off again. There was another that looked slightly like a small tick, but bright red, and they would get right up on the surface of the water and just take off as fast as they could until they ran into the wall of the petri dish or something pushed them in a direction. These two phyla were the most common, and pretty soon, the whole class settled into a routine of sifting through sand while vaguely singing along to the 80's classics in the background that Hailey played from her phone. We took a lunch break a little ways through and then were back at it again. Even with the three of us it took almost 4 hours to sift through our three baggies of sand, picking out every worm or translucent crustacean we could find. One cool find in the middle of all this was a clam that was pushing itself about and making quite the fuss in one of my samples. It's appendage poked out of the shell, picked up rocks, and through them to the side, flipping it self closed to the side of the petri dish in the process. As soon as my tweezers got close though, the clam retreated inside its shell, and all you could see was the vague outline of mass through its bright white shell.
We compiled our data and finalized our report (I might have to write more later about my deep and abiding love for excel) and rushed off to try to catch the sunset. I figured it probably wouldn't be anything too crazy today given the still overcast sky, but as I got to the docks, I decided that even on a non sunny day, the beautiful color of the water gave this place a paradisiacal element. A couple eagle rays swam languidly near the end of the jetty, two sea turtle occasionally poked their heads out, but most everything seem fairly subdued. Sharing their frustrations near the beach were a whole conference of cow headed rays, at least twelve of them, all gathered right in the same area, in many cases even overlapping. I don't know if they were planning a complaint about the lack of sunset or what, but they settled into the sand together as though they weren't planning on moving any time soon. Almost without any sign at all, the sun had set, and most of us headed back to the main compound to wait for dinner. Janna, Brynn and I sat talking for a little while about Frankenstein and Sir Gowther, an Middle English hero who was the son of a fiend, pillaged from the age of ten, and then turned his life around and decided to repent. Gowther allegedly ate from the mouths of dogs and slept in stables for years as a servant to pay penance, but when time came, he served his kingdom and his God, and totally snagged to hand of a bodacious princess in the meanwhile. Be like Sir Gowther: pay your debts, be humble, and snag whichever bomb-diggity prince or princess life has in store for you. Maybe don't pillage first though, that part I don't think has to be a prerequisite.
After feasting once again on the delicious machinations of Pat, we all spread out to study, write, or look at the stars. I was sitting on the stairs by the teaching lab, when all of the sudden a winged shadowy spasm exploded across the corner of my view and crashed staring into one of the wooden beams holding up the shade overhang of the kitchen. I looked closer to see what had just fallen, and it was a bird, all black and with a skinny tapered beak, but also some downy feathers still sticking out from its neck and underside. Unsure of if it was going to get back up or not, I sat there and watched it from a distance, until Brynn walked out of the bathrooms right past it, and it didn't move at all. She noticed it and I walked over and got a closer look at the bird with her. It sat, almost like it was nesting, right next to the base of the pillar. Nothing appeared to be wrong with it, no sticky seeds or broken wings, but it just sat there, as if the dirt was exactly where young scruffy birds belonged, and it was just including us in the program. Then, without warning, it stood up on shaky legs and put its wings all the way back waddling away as quickly as it could without losing balance to a corner by a pipe, where it tucked its head and sat down in fake nesting position once again. Pat walked by, and saw Brynn and I watching the odd bird doing its best impression of its larger ostrich cousin and began to explain to us that it was a juvenile short tailed shearwater bird, or mutton bird. As adults, shearwater birds spend their whole lives out on the open ocean, only returning to land to mate. As a result, they are entirely USELESS on land, like a plane where someone forgot the third wheel in the front leaving it hopelessly top heavy and little recourses to balance. This poses quite the ordeal for the juveniles as they start on land, and have to learn how to walk and fly at the same time. They're genetically hopeless at walking, but don't have quite strong enough wings to fly yet, and have a tendency to fly towards any kind of light, resulting in the aforementioned explosion of feathers that I had witness shortly before. Eventually, when they get good enough, they fly around the island a few times, gather their courage, and fly out into the open slipstreams of the the ocean air, not returning for at least a year. Some shearwaters will attempt to fly out, and end up crash-landing in the ocean, waterlogged, and forced to try again. If they stay in the water too long, often sharks will come along and snatch them right off the surface of the water. Mutton birds have what they call a severe learning curve.
I feel like in science, I identify quite often with the shearwater birds as juveniles. They know they have a critically important task in front of them, and they really, honestly want to complete it. It just turns out they're not gifted right away with the knowledge of how to fly. And so, they fling themselves headlong into the dearest doorpost, just trying to get the hang of things until eventually their wings are strong enough. I've moved around the island a fair bit in the last couple days, and tomorrow, we're supposed to head out to the ocean. I'm headed out to open air, and even if I crash land, I'll try not to sit on the surface for too long.
Today was the first of our 6:15 early morning swims along the coast. Not that I needed to set an alarm. The tropical warm weather, combined with a jet lag that keeps hanging on like a hungry cookie cutter shark has me waking up around 4 in the morning every day. I woke up this morning to something that I have to assume is going to be a constant. Sand in my sheets. I had acknowledged before that sand was going to invade every crevice of my life (we are living on an island after all) but the immediacy and placement of this tiny sandbox still seemed to be a personal affront by the beach. In any case, I lay around for a little while, then when Russ's alarm went off (When I Grow Up, by the Pussycat Dolls) I started to gather my things to meet by the Touch Tanks at 6:15. Luckily for me, my wetsuit was surprisingly dry, so it was a little less of a battle to wrestle my body into it than I had anticipated. The scales of karma began to tip back towards the middle, and my mood improved. In fact my mood rose like a rocket as soon as we started moving and arrived at the beach. The sky was light pink, with good weather ahead, and I already felt less like an absolute poof while trying to get my fins, mask, and snorkel all adjusted. Trisha, one of my professors, said that there was a sea turtle not far off the shoreline, so I put my fins on out of the water, and walked like a demented penguin towards the water until I realized that I could just walk backwards and still retain maybe a fraction of my dignity.
Then again, dignity may be overrated.
I was partnered with Sam today, who I had spent part of my time in Sydney with. We swam out towards where the turtles were, and immediately spotted the lethargic greenback on the floor, who was apparently still waking up and slightly put off to discover there were several humans inbound. With a couple gentle strokes, it lifted off the floor and was moving out towards the end of the jetty. We had just turned away to follow Trisha, when we spotted several cow headed rays laying on the floor and moving gently across the bottom as well. Something about the size and their gentle floating motion was both beautiful and alien. We swam under the jetty, spotting already a couple more green sea turtles moving around. We kept a gentle distance from them, not wanting to disturb their early morning ritual, and moved over the the divider wall, which just earlier the day before had been completely exposed, giving me a much more tangible realization of just how much tide affects the island each day. The parrotfish were already munching away at small pieces of coral, and the butterfly fish were picking away at the sand on either side of the wall, creating a continual crackling in the background all throughout the water. Apparently part of that is even contributed by the tiny shrimp that invisibly move around, cleaning and maintaining the beach, but I have yet to confirm that for myself. Apparently cleaner shrimp are still in the "a good servant is neither seen nor heard" phase of their ocean service.
Once past the divider wall, we swam out into the open, deeper water, and several of the class, including Sean, gave diving down beneath the surface a go. Most people seemed to manage getting a couple feet down, and then the natural buoyancy and air bubbles trapped in our wet suits would inevitably bring us back to the surface. Surprisingly quickly, we were at the base of the old shipwreck just off the coast, but no octopus guarding a chest of treasure was hiding in the keel. Thankfully. Instead, a couple Orange Spotted Surgeon fish lurked in the back, looking like they were trying to have a private conversation and would appreciate it if I left them too it, thank you very much. I decided they had a fair point, and returned back to find Sam and some of the others outside of the boat. Sam pointed out that we were falling a little behind, and so I shifted directions, powered forward, and prompltly swam past the entire group without seeing them. I had to lift up my head and look back before I realized that there were most definitely no flippers in front of me. I turned around and tried to swim as though I had seen something interesting, and was now returning, satisfied in my exploratory efforts. I don't think Sam bought it.
I was glad to return to the group, however, because as soon as I met back with everyone at the boat, Edd pointed out that slightly beneath the shelf in the rock at the very base of the boat was a Wobbegong, a type of shark with a beautifully Australian name, that kind of looked like a mossy boulder had decided it was a good idea to grow teeth. They are a mottled brown color, have absolutely outrageous bumpy fronts to their mouths, and three rows of razor sharp teeth that can break off like shards of glass when they bite you. I was quite excited at the prospect of hovering just over one, to say the least. I made my best effort to swim down and see him, and indeed, there was a slightly mobile, off color boulder. It was slightly blurry, and I was trying quite hard to ignore the pressure building in my ears, but there was no way I wasn't going to see this shark. I caught a glimpse, and that was enough, I returned back to the surface. We swam around the ship and over some deeper reefs, eventually turning around and swimming right over some giant cowheaded rays. They don't move when you swim over them, but there is something bizarre about looking down and seeing their outline in the sand with large pair of eyes poking out and keeping watch. Right past the rays, Sam and I stopped as we saw a black tipped shark slide into view. Even at their small size, Black tipped sharks move as a top tier predator. No unkempt movements, constant and metered, they push their tail and glide through the water keeping track of everything beneath them. It passed us and swam into the distance, disappearing in between seconds, its grey tail blending in with the green of the seawater. We swam back to shore and everyone began swapping stories about what they had seen, what had jumped, what had disappeared, and in pieces broke off to go shower and get ready for our first day of actual schoolwork.
Okay, brief side note: Breakfast was absolutely amazing. The chef here, Pat, is an absolute wizard, and I am convinced that all the kids in the class are slowly becoming convinced he is capable of actual food magic. We had eggs, bacon, and toaster breakfast, nachos for lunch, and quinoa for dinner, but saying that is like calling the David some nice chiseling. This man knows his way around the stove, and breakfast, lunch and dinner were absolutely phenomenal.
In any case, we had our first lecture on coral reefs history, dietary habits, and growth patterns, and if I hadnt've (theres a word) been thinking of how we had seen them literally that morning I'm pretty positive I would have fallen asleep right at my desk. I didn't realize how much being in the water so often was going to tire me out. Luckily, I managed to avoid a total faceplant off of my rolling chair, and was able to learn about how barrier building reefs actually go through stages. You always hear the name the Great Barrier Reef, but you don't really think about how it is quite literally a barrier from the outside sea for all of the little islands that dot the Australian coast, and the continent itself. Apparently the fact that the reef is a barrier reef is due to the fact that Australia, and its surrounding islands, have sunk slightly below the ocean due to melting glaciers, rising sea levels, and time (all things which are currently having their reality debated by the US government). This sinking leaves a gap between where the water starts and the reef begins, with a mostly empty stretch of sand in between, with only the corals that could withstand the temperatures and wave motion vaguely dispersed without. Our task for today was observe sample parts of the ocean floor along a straight line out from the beach and determine if this gap-then-reef theory actually held true. The key is to walk in a straight line, to get as deep as possible within the thirty meters, so you can get at least some of the back reef, maybe.
Walking in a straight line in the water is apparently a lot harder than it seems, or so my partner Katie tells me. She patiently pointed out to me when I was walking it a bit of a squirrelly line, even when I was quite sure that I was straight out from her and maybe she was just standing at an angle which she could tilt a little towards me if she would be so kind...like I said, she's a patient woman. We mostly measured sand, but we were able to see a Sea Hare that Edd found, and an Epaulette shark which was hiding under a little rock outcropping which was taking advantage of the low tide. Epaulette sharks are some of the only sharks whose fins double as proto-limbs, allowing them to walk (wiggle) across rocks when the water gets low. There was also a nudibranch pointed out to us by Trisha which was sitting on the top of a small rock outcropping. The nudibranch (pronounce New-di-brank, not nudie branch, as I first thought) eats coral polyps, and with keep the cnidocytes (which I haven't the faintest idea how to pronounce), or toxic barbs that corals use to bring in food, and will expel them through their back when touched. It makes a fair amount of sense. Why create your own self defense system when you can just hijack your foods?
Once all the data had been gathered, we were back to the classroom, where we worked of combining and analyzing our data and writing our lab reports. Katie and I bickered in a fun way about what to put where (she didn't share my love of all the tiny strokes in excel) but came out with a very nice looking final product, just in time to go out for sunset. It was beautiful, again, and I was struck by how I already felt more comfortable with everyone on the team. Cat, Brynn, Janna and I sat out on the edge of the dock and saw a turtle poke his head out the water just where he had last evening, and I sat comfortably until I decided to make my way back a little closer to the island. Katie was right by where the jetty connected to the water, and she pointed out 5 baby blacktail sharks swimming in a group all together close to the shore. I remarked how strange it was to see them so close to being beached and Katie turned to me and said "Well, they're a lot better swimmers than you".with a smile on her face. I mean, she's right, but dang. Katie walked out to join the rest of the group, and I went ashore to try to get a better look at the birds coming in to roost. There are some beautifully noisy gulls fond of stealing muffins right out of your hand, and the naughty terns, that sit in their poop filled nests, on poop covered trees, pooping, but then there are the egrets.
Egrets are funny looking birds, with long necks and legs, but spend most of the time scrunched up, walking around with long steps. When explorers first came to this island, they took one look at the egrets, and being the gifted taxonomists they were, saw the long stretched out birds, and decided that this island was filled with herons. Again, it seems to me that Australia has themes, and one that keeps coming back is that no matter how sure you are of something, there's always a twist left to be uncovered, something to prove you wrong. But as I saw the tern picking through leaves with the sunset behind it, that kind of seemed like it might be okay.
It was my third day here in Australia, but the sunset I saw when I came up the stairs challenged even the most beautiful of sunrises I had ever seen in my home state of Utah. The colors of purple, orange, golden yellow, and blue merged together into one perfect backdrop that you would expect a cigarette smoking cowboy to ride off into with his little Señorita and trusty horse Trigger. The color explosion lasted for about 15 minutes, and then slid apart, leaving behind a welcoming yellow color that promised warmer weather to come.
After a quick brekky and the 1,045th form that we had to fill out, we all gathered our suitcases and jammed into the van outside the hostel we had been staying at for the past couple days. The van was old, mostly bare metal, and had a concerning amount of lights blinking angry colors inside the dash, but was totally functional and roomy, so I have nothing but praise for it. We took the van to the marina, had a short wait, and the boarded the catamaran to come over to Heron Island.
That yellow sun from before was true to its promise about good weather, and we had smooth waters the entire ride. It was slightly disconcerting to look back at the land once we were a little ways out and actually see the haze of pollution sitting around the town. Gladstone is primarily a factory town, so I guess the smoke shouldn't be that surprising, but its always a little disconcerting to see streaks of brown in an otherwise clear blue sky. With the weather being as good as it was, most of the class passed the trip up on the top deck, spotting islands as they came into view and talking. I spent part of the ride up top, and part of it inside the cabin on the bottom deck practicing naming fish and talking about the incontrovertible merits of sea turtles with Nora and Janna. (There's a lot, in case you were wondering.)
Finally Heron Island came into view. The water was a bright blue, which was kind of a jarring sight for someone who grew up around the toxic waste dump that is Utah Lake, and so clear that you could see all the coral benches as we passed, and even the occasional flitting shadows of some fish near the surface. Right by the dock, the is a shipwrecked boat which was very beautiful, but slightly menacing in the same stroke. It seemed like the island was offering a picturesque opening but also trying to remind us that at any minute this place could just decide to up and kill us. I get the feeling thats a running theme in Australia.
Once the resort guests that had come over on the catamaran with us had gotten off the boat, we grouped up and got out onto our home for the next eleven days. The island was slightly bigger than I expected, and certainly had more buildings. And more bird poop. I shouldn't be that surprised. There are a lot of birds out here, and everybody has to poop somewhere. We were lead by Megan the guide from the University of Queensland through parts of the research facility, past the kitchens and finally to our rooms. Outside the rooms, off to the side, we already had some permanent residents of the island though: Golden Silk Orb Weavers. Big beautiful spiders whose webs really do look golden, and have wonderfully menacing legs to match their formidable size. Just in one spot there was ten of them all clustered together, a family reunion that is doubtless to end in cannibalism. Once we had all suitably freaked out about the spiders, everyone passed by and went to their rooms. We met back up for lunch (which was amazing) and then had some free time before we had to meet up with Edd and Trish at the teaching lab. Sam and I, killing some time, wandered off the back end up the path through camp through some trees and over to beach. It was coming back from low tide and so the water was still fairly receded, and we were lucky enough to see some guitar fish, parrot fish, and several chitons clamped on to the rock side. The chitons are interesting, they kind of look like rocks themselves, but like a lot of things in the reef, are just moving very, very slowly. While we were walking we also came across something that both Sam and I agreed was a cone shell, a highly toxic something-or-other apparently can kill me, although no one has bothered to tell me so far. My current bet is a very tiny handgun hidden within its shell. I poked it once with my phone and then thought better of it and left it alone. Hopefully it doesn't tell its friends.
We went back to the classroom, got all of our scuba gear, had a brief explanation of class information, and then decided that with the time left in the day we would have an afternoon scuba excursion to acclimatize to spending the next 11 days facedown and floating around. The trip was amazing. We saw parrotfish, butterfly fish, 2 gigantic grouper, and as we swam out into deeper water, my partner Russ pointed out a pike to me. It looked like a sword held perfectly aloft in the air, ready to strike at any movement. We swam over it, but it didn't pay any attention to us, likely because we are too big to eat, and too slow to pose it any real threat. As we came back into shore, we saw a couple black tipped sharks, and Russ was able to see them feeding some dead crabs a little further down the beach. We came ashore right before dark, and so we all rinsed off as quick as we could and the headed over to the marina to watch the sunset. We got there right in time. Its a beautiful sight, watch the sun rapidly plummet into an endless expanse of ocean, and as it got closer and closer to dark, the larger animals in the water started to show some action. Almost all of us were sitting on the edge of the dock watching the colors change when all of the sudden there came a splash to our left and an eagle spotted ray jumped right out of the water, a foot into the air, and then came back down. It was amazing! The rays already are beautiful when they swim, but there is little known about why they jump, and that somehow makes it even more startling and beautiful. As if given the signal, right after that, all the wildlife came out, with a black tip shark swimming right under the dock, and four green sea turtles swam around, coming up for air, as within 3 minutes, the sun was falling, falling, gone.