I love this island. Today was the last day: we presented reports, cleaned up, packed up, played hide and seek, snorkeled the conservation side again, free dove the wreck again, Josh walked us through the tank area and explained the importance of long term predictive analysis of coral health, went for a night hike through the forest and back down to the beach, finished blogs and reflected on experience. Simple the best class ever!
Heron Island is split into two sides, the research side (which we spend most of our time in), and the resort/conservation side. I took my first snorkel out into a conservation area today, which is extremely protected, both physically (from the prevailing winds) and regulatory (no collection, no fishing, no muckin about)! I was flabbergasted by the density of the coral structure, the species diversity, and abundance of all the fauna. It reminded me of one of my favorite childhood books growing up, "One fish, Two fish, Red fish, Blue fish". Everywhere I looked more fish, more colors, all shapes, all sizes. It may only be a 40 acre island but the 30,000+ acres of reef structure just keeps on giving. Within an hours time I saw three distinct species of puffer fish, sharks, a blue ringed octopus, clams, coral, grouper hunting, parrot fish munching on coral, cleaner wrasse of all shapes/colors parasite cleansing, three different variants of Nemo, star fish, eels, eagle rays, sea turtles, and on, and on, and on! Sensory overload to say the least, another experience of a lifetime to say the most. My only regret was not wearing a thicker wet suit so I could stay out there longer. The best part was watching the whole group chasing down individual species they where interested in then instantly seeing something else, and switching their focus to their new target of interest and off in another direction they went. Well that, and watching everyone inverting themselves, plopping their heads on the ocean floor, and contorting their bodies to get the best possible shot of these unique creatures.
Today we switch gears and focused in on our own research projects. Audree and I have collected a vast amount of data over the past few days and now we have gotten the opportunity to work on analyzing it. The first few hours of watching our videos where quite enjoyable, but at a certain point staring at a screen identifying fish, in a library, on a tropical island where the vast amounts of biodiversity and reef structure right there started to become torturous. Forever the Masters, our professors on the trip sternly suggested taking a break and getting is back in the water to help clear our heads. Not everyone went because the wind was still pretty bad but it was an opportunity to go and dive the ship wreck. Getting there was fairly interesting in the sense that due to the weather conditions we where all swimming out at a 45 degree angle. Once we where on the channel side of the wreck it severed as a great current and wind break. The best part, all of the mega fauna decided it was a good place to get out of the storm as well. Dozens of sea turtles, massive groupers, eagle rays and sting rays, parrot fish, and hundreds of beautiful small herbivorous fish as well. What and experience. It was like we where all seeking refuge from the stresses in our own life.
I have spent so much time in the water I am beginning to feel like a fish. Up until this point we have had pristine weather conditions for our water outings. The wind has picked up so much that our research site in the protected lagoon is now white capped. It was bad, but we had a job to do and this time Audrey and I were on our own. We made our plan to deal with it and headed out. The 200 meter swim was a real smoker. My legs where burning only 50 meters off shore but I pushed on. At our transect lines it was so violent it took all I had to just manage the bucket while Audrey set the cameras and lettuce. We did our best to stay close and find our individual sample sites as quickly as possible. While she was setting I would move the next 10 meters, get the equipment ready, and dig in for the upcoming boxing match with the bucket. Every few seconds another wave came crashing in, often pushing me right off my feet and back a meter. Occasionally a big one would come in and the bucket half full of water, weighing approximately 20lbs would smack me right in the face ringing my bell. Audrey was a saint taking it back in so all I had to do was make it to shore. Fortuitously we had more help going back out to take it all down and the wind had subsided a bit. I have never been so grateful to be done collecting data. Once we where all packed up and sure that we had everything we put out there the five of us that went out had to get the hundred or so pounds of gear back to shore. We had three bucket carriers and two of us flanking to cleanup anything that fell out as we worked back toward shore. About half way back we where swarmed by hundreds of large jack fish that appeared to be fleeing. Then all the rays unbedded and started fleeing as well. We all paused, looked at each other underwater with big eyes that uniformly said, "We need to get the hell out of this water!" What only took a matter of minutes seemed like forever kicking as hard as possible. At one point a guitar shark just about headbutted me as it too was fleeing the area, but we both turned left and I screamed my first expletives underwater as I thought I was a goner before I was able to recognize him. He clearly wasn't the threat. I tucked my head and continued straight to shore, no time to think about it. Back on land we all caught our breath and eventually laughed at the experience. It was nerve racking to say the least but something I'm glad I experienced. I have always respected the ocean, much more so now.
Living on a small island you start to notice the same animals living here as well. Hop and Flip (I have endearingly named) are two of the small ground birds that seem to always be around. Hop only has one leg but is still alive non the less, and Flip cant seem to take a step without his tail feathers shooting straight up and then back down. They are very curious birds who will always come up to you if you are sitting anywhere near the main research buildings. I will miss them when the time comes to leave. One thing that I will most definitely not miss will be the massive herd of cowhead stingrays we have to navigate through in shark bay. Every day we head out for our 200 meter bucket swim challenge and end up zig-zagging through 40ish of the megafuana. Whenever we go out in a group of more than 2 they seem to want to un-bed and start swirling about. They are very docile creatures but the potential for harm can be very unnerving. We started talking our research projects today and it was a load of fun working with others on what they are interested in studying. What really makes me laugh is how this back and forth dialogue can lead to some very off topic discussions. Trisha and I got into the grey wolf reintroduction program, we where both so convinced of our own knowledge we ended up breaking for a short time, pulling some papers, and then sharing what we found. I'm not sure how much education I passed to Trisha, but the process really opened my eyes to how you can vet research, researchers, journals, their impact, and most importantly the review process.
Today we were fortunate enough to go out on the boat again and work with some awesome free-divers. We covered a lot of water, down, back up, and out. We saw manta's, shark, turtles, octopus, groupers, and where able to view underwater cleaning stations for the mega fauna. Honestly, I work up sick and not wanting to leave my bunk. Getting out into the Ocean really helped clear out my sinus's. It was a long snorkel with many free dives but the activity gave me the recharge I needed to get through the day. The second we got back, Audrey, Ed, Trisha, and anyone else who was up for it had to race across the island to the research area to set up our ongoing experiment. That 200 meter swim to our research site in the lagoon is really a good workout. I was surprised at how much this extra time in the water is helping my back by strengthening my core. After we got set up, Ed gave me a crash course in snorkeling in low tide trying not to crash! He helped me learn to navigate and move in close quarters without damaging the reefs or myself. The best part was learning to move methodically to not scare away all the fish that you want to see. I was able to get up close and personal with many little buddies, most of which i'm still trying to learn to identify. I was really glad Ed and Trisha have taken safety so seriously from the moment the trip started. First, they have the experience and knowledge to encounter all sorts of marine species without getting hurt, and equally important they have taught us how to watch out for ourselves, along with each other. If they had not taken the time to get us up to speed I most likely would have died 5 meters from the beach when I encountered what I am now calling MegalaConus. As I snorkeled in as far as I could go without beaching myself I remembered to "Look all around you before putting your hands or feet on the ocean floor to make sure you do not touch or startle any wildlife. I was looking down, all clear, I looked left, just as clear, then I looked right and may or may not have pissed myself. 2 feet away, right where I was going to place my right hand was the single largest Cone Shell I have ever seen (Including pictures). It was approximately the length of my forearm, and much wider. Conus species come in many shapes, sizes, and colors, but one common theme is that they poses highly lethal neurotoxins that can kill you in minutes. The are relatively slow moving, except for their proboscis, that contains the equivalent of natures hypodermic needle. If i had placed my hand down as intended with out the safety check it would have easily, and justifiably defended itself ensuring my demise. THANK YOU ED, THANK YOU TRISHA! You are not only taking care of us, but teaching us how to watch out for ourselves. So, instead of putting Audrey through the trauma of watching me thrash about on the beach until I no longer was able to ever thrash again. I recognized the danger, and gave it some distance while I took care of my gear and called her over to share this amazing siting. We stayed there for a while awestruck as it hunted all the little hidy holes and debated exactly what it might me. Later we where able to identify with footage that it was indeed a massive cone shell, and I couldn't be more grateful for the experience!
Today, like all days on heron, started early. Ate breaky, got changed into swim gear, and finally got to go to the outer reef. We have been in the water for days now and are quickly becoming more competent in one of the most important skills in conducting marine field research. First you need to know to swim, then you get to learn how to manage all that gear (wet suits, fins, mask, snorkel, go pro, survey line, dive weights, stakes, and even boats). Today we spent refining our free-diving and snorkeling techniques as we tried to track down mega fauna and live down in their environment (however short it may be)! To be perfectly honest, I was excited to come on this trip to see all the wildlife. However being able to work on my personal development, strengthen weaknesses, and develop entirely new skills has reaffirmed a lifelong commitment to trying new things, you never know what you might be missing out on!
A citizen is a member of a society who should have a vested interest in the well being, overall stability, and betterment of the world the live in. For very obvious reasons, not everyone is a scientist. It takes time, training, schooling, and an enormous amount of experience. Scientist are great at caring about their research, and often citizens care about it as well. They read our studies, they fund our research, and they learn more about themselves and the world they live in by doing so. However, as scientist, we will always be limited by man/women power to gather the actual data. Enter Coral Watch! A citizen scientist initiative designed to overcome this limitation of resources. The idea is this, by using simple apparatus and collections methods we can readily train an entire cohort of divers, fisherman, and beach bums to collect vital data on reef health. Additionally, by utilizing the citizens desire to not only protect their environment we can enable them to take action in process. By doing so we may gather greater amounts of data, increase dialogue to those who are voting on policy, and increase our ability as humans to understand and utilize the scientific method. Today we trained in the coral watch mantra, and where able to observe how the team trains ambassadors, how these ambassadors are taking the knowledge they learn to educate civilians in conservation efforts, and in doing so creating a new hope.
Our day started early, 0530 wake up, grab your gear, and off to the lagoon for an initial scouting of possible research sites. I stayed up late the night before looking a sat images for terrain recognition but was surprised at how quickly I woke up. Getting into the water at 0600 as the sun is coming up will take you from full zombie to alert and oriented. I have partnered with a driven, competent, young researcher to help her accomplish her goals. Additionally most of our study abroad group has been more than willing to lend a hand and put in the work. Of which, I can assure you, is impossible by yourself. It would be a horrible idea to swim 200 meters off coast without a buddy, not to mention exhausting try to explore all potential collection areas.
So you think you are a great swimmer? How about free diving, or navigating underwater in a 3D environment trying to find areas based off your 2D overhead sat map you've memorized in your head? Now you need to consider the currents, which can be strong when the tide is high, and the chop, when the wind picks up. We needed to make sure the sites we found met the parameters for our design so we spent the next hour setting transect lines out to 30 meters to make sure we had what we needed. Again, you have to work as a team, watch each others backs, and then figure out how to actually perform under changing/unknown conditions all the while struggling with your inexperience. Their will be growing pains. Maybe now you are starting to get an idea of what else you have do deal with outside the constant control of your lab when you conduct the science in the real outside world. Fortunately we are working as great team, and progressing the work.
Semper Tentare Semper Gumby
P.S. This was just the first couple of hours of the day! We learned new surveying techniques at high/low tides later on, had a great lecture on Coral Reef Ecology, and finished it off with more snorkeling and yoga on the beach as the sun went down.
What do you fear? Flying? Water? Electricity? Sharks? Sea Clams? Rip tides? Mortal injury? Spiders? Fledgling flightless birds? Today I observed a small group of undergraduates from the desert face their fears, consciously choosing to get outside their comfort zones to pursue their passions. The only thing more impressive than the wildlife I encountered ( including the black tip shark ), was the personal courage demonstrated throughout the day. These young apprehensive scientist in training showed how you can take your fear, contextually gain control, and turn it into into an exciting life changing experience.
-Semper Tentare Semper Gumby
p.s. Today reinforced that non of us are as smart and capable as all of us, science is a team effort and what would have taken one person all day to collect our team accomplished in a few short hours!