3:15 PM MST
Well... I'm back. Back home, back to work. Life on Heron Island was so different that now that it's hard to believe it actually happened. But at the same time, even though I traveled quite literally to the other side of the world, Heron Island doesn't seem that far away. Perhaps it's because when you're stuck in the middle of an airplane at night, you don't really get a sense of going anywhere.
This journey was quite a leap for me. Before Heron Island, I'd never been farther away from home than Yellowstone. Never been out of county. Never seen the ocean. Never done much swimming, or any snorkeling outside of half an hour in a pool (I got cramps). Considering the magnitude of the project, it was a sound success. I didn't get to do everything I wanted to, but I've gained valuable experience and technical expertise.
One of my big reasons for going on this trip was to experiment with marine biology. I enjoy learning about the sea, but would I enjoy working in it? The answer is yes, but as much as I enjoyed snorkeling, I don't feel the call of the ocean. Maybe it's just because I'm two for two with seasickness on large boats, but I think I'd be just as happy working on land as in the ocean, and working on land is quite a bit easier! But I'm glad to have learned to work in the water. I don't know where I'll be going or what I'll be doing when I start my career, and the more skills I have, the better.
Of course, another reason that I wanted to go to Heron is that the reef is at risk and may not be around much longer, and I think I need to talk about that. I've been there, and I've seen things, and I've learned about the things I've seen and things beyond the little bit of reef I visited. The very last assignment for this class is to make a video on threats to the reef, but that's a ways off and will take a lot of work, so I'll talk a bit about it now.
There's a lot of talk that the Great Barrier Reef is dead. Obviously that isn't true, as my photos and video will show (if I can ever find the cable for my camera). Large portions of the reef have been "bleached," which means the tiny animals that make up coral expel the symbiotic algae that produce food for them. This occurs when the reef is under stress. In this case, the root cause is temperature change and increased water pH from climate change. It's only a few degrees warmer and 0.1 pH points more acidic, but that's all it takes.
Bleached coral is not dead, but without the algae it can't get enough food in the nutrient-poor tropical waters. Unless the algae returns, the coral will starve. The only way to reverse coral bleaching is to remove whatever is stressing the coral, but since the stressor in is climate change, we may not be able to do very much. Heron Island has been running a series of experiments for the past several years where they simulate increased temperature, CO2, and combinations of the two to see how coral ecosystems respond to climate change. The study is still ongoing, but so far it's not looking particularly hopeful.
In a double-whammy, climate change is hitting coral (and us) with another problem: rising sea level. Water absorbs sunlight very well, and coral need to live in quite shallow seas in order to get enough sunlight for their algae. Coral are constantly growing upward, but if sea levels rise faster than the coral can grow, they run out of sunlight and die.
Ready for the triple punch? Climate change isn't just bad for coral, it's good for other things: turf algae and crown of thorns sea stars both do well in warmer, more acidic waters. Turf algae is aggressive--if it's not kept in check, it grows out of control and smothers the reef, killing the coral. Crown of thorns sea stars are more direct--they eat coral, and in given the right conditions can experience a population explosion to levels that can threaten the reef.
There are other threats, but you get the point.
So why should we care if the reef goes bye-bye? Yeah it's pretty, but nature is rough. If things aren't strong enough, they die. That's just how nature works.
Well, the death of the coral reefs has ramifications. Reefs provide various services, including serving as hubs of biodiversity and breakwaters. Biodiversity is good: it means there's lots of things we can eat and get medicines from and study. Many open ocean fish that we like to eat live their juvenile lives on reefs. Breakwaters are also good: the ocean works up lots of big, nasty waves, and having barrier reefs between the open ocean and the land provides shelter from things like tropical storms. Without reefs, beachfront property will see bigger and nastier waves and more coastal erosion. We want reefs to stay where they are and keep doing what they're doing, and if they die out then it will create problems.
These threats are not a reason to panic. They are certainly problems, but humans aren't going to go extinct from the disappearance of reefs, or from climate change in general. Climate change is just change, and humans can adapt, though it might be painful. Nature will take it harder because nature's response to change is typically to die, but while we'll lose some ecosystems and it will be a huge mess, life on Earth is in no danger of dying out.
These threats are also not a reason to feel angry or guilty about humanity. The problems we're causing are not because of some special wickedness or stupidity. They're because we're moving forward with no precedent, no idea what's coming around the bend, so of course we make blunders. The behavioral flaws that prevent us from addressing problems with climate change aren't some special blindness on the part of humanity, they're the result of biology. Nature built us to be selfish and short-sighted, to focus our thinking around where and when we are, and on our own genetic relatives to the exclusion of all others.
So how do we address threats to the reef and the world in general when nature built us to be exploitative? The answer is simple, but difficult: Change our nature. Break out of the egocentric focus built into our genetics. Travel. Read. Watch documentaries. Study people you've never met. Study people you disagree with, and look for the special bits of knowledge they have. Collaborate with people who hold different views than you. Vote with your judgement, not with your party.
And have hope in humanity. No species on Earth has ever been able to look at the world and understand it like we do. This gives us power--power to be exploitative and destructive on a scale the planet has never seen before, but also the power to escape the selfish bounds of natural selection and learn to do better. Nobody can learn without making mistakes. Just keep your eyes on what comes after.
Last night on Heron. Tomorrow we leave. Many of my fellow students are going to continue on adventuring elsewhere in Australia, but I have to start the long journey home.
Presentation went reasonably well, and was followed by an "award" ceremony, wherin I was awarded the "most improved in the water" award (a toy dolphin who looks like he's aghast about something) for going from just barely swimming well enough to pass the swim test to braving the rough seas of the last couple days.
From there it was onto lunch and then out to the reef. We started out on the conservation side, which turned out fairly unremarkable, and then we moved on to the wreck. Choppy again, but this time we saw some nice marine life. An eagle ray shot past us on the way out, and while we were tooling around the wreck we ran into a gigantic grouper. On the way back we saw the eagle ray again, a couple turtles, and a white-tip reef shark. Finally! I've been hoping to run into a shark this whole trip, and I got a pretty nice view. It was six feet long or so, and quite slender. It did a lap of us before swimming off.
Now it's on to packing and cleaning. I'm currently extracting the footage form the GoPro I was issued. I must have 6 - 8 hours of footage, so it's going to take a while to distill it one I get home, but a lot of the trip's best moments are there (albeit shaky as all get out): our first octopus, Edd's shark freakout and elephant seal impression, the rays, the turtles, the sharks.
Originally posted here.
8:30 PM AEST
Just two more days! Not looking forward to the long trip home. I'm going to have to stay at the SLC airport overnight, so I'm considering staying on Australia time until I'm safely at home. We'll see.
Went out on the reef twice today, once on the conversation side and once to the wreck. Nothing particularly earth-shattering on either trip, though we did see another octopus. The weather was rough again, but nothing we couldn't handle. Edd ended our trip with a spot-on impersonation of an elephant seal.
Tomorrow we present our project report on microplastics. Wish us luck!
Originally posted here.
9:23 PM AEST
Phew! Done sifting sediment now it's on to writing up our findings. Turns out there is more plastic on the beach than in the lagoon. Not a lot, but definitely more.
The class swam out to a different part of the reef today. The coral growth there is much denser than most of the areas we've been working on, with many giant clams and many, many fish. We also stumbled across a small eel and another octopus. We grabbed our instructor Trisha because after our last encounter (which she missed), Edd told us that Trisha has really wanted to see octopus, so today she got her wish. He wouldn't come out of his hole, but he was there.
Our second swim trip was smaller: Edd, Colten, Audree, and I went swimming out around 4:30. The weather had deteriorated--the wind had picked up, the sky was dark, and the water choppy. As we stood on the beach getting ready, sand stung at our skin and we were eager to hit the water to escape it. When we got in, we discovered a significant current. The lagoon where the boats dock is off-limits to swimmers until 5 PM, but the current was so strong that I thought I was going to end up there whether I wanted to or not. I'm a weak swimmer, so I almost turned back, but the current eased off as we got farther from the beach, so we swum out to the wreck that sits at the edge of the channel that boats use to travel to and from the island. There we were shielded form most of the waves and the wind.
Turns out a lot of marine life went there for the same reason. There must have been dozens of parrotfish, jacks and the like, along with a school of small, shimmery fish, a grouper or two, and probably five or so sea turtles. The turtles let us get in quite close, and I think I got some good footage of one.
Edd was poking around in front of us, popping down to look at things. Quite abruptly he popped back up practically screaming about a massive shark. He had poked his head into a hole only to find that it was already occupied by a shark which was apparently just as startled as he was and shot out past him, thoroughly startling him before disappearing off into the blue. No real threat after the initial panic moment, but it freaked him out.
I'm quite pleased with how that second swim turned out. I haven't felt very strong in the water, but I think I'm finally starting to become proficient in snorkeling. Today's rough seas were challenging, but also a confidence booster. Still, that current was a force to be reckoned with, and I'd be wary of tangling with it again. The buoyancy of my wetsuit means that I can float essentially indefinitely, but the idea of being swept away to God knows where stirs a rather primal fear. Or maybe I'm just a wimp.
But currents aside, I'm feeling pretty good about snorkeling now. Just in time for the class to be over in three days so I can return to my home thousands of miles from the sea. Here's hoping for another opportunity to snorkel in the future.
Originally posted here.
Not a lot to report today. The better way of sifting sediment that I had hoped for has not materialized, so we spent pretty much all day sorting through sediment samples by hand. Aside from contaminating one of our samples with a dish cloth and discovering a small snail in one of my samples, there's not very much worth writing about.
We only have four samples left to sort so we should be done with the time sinky part of the project by tomorrow morning, hopefully giving me some time to run out to the ocean and see what I can see on my own (or with a partner, rather). Only a few days left before the class ends and it's time to return home, so here's hoping I see something interesting!
Originally posted here.
10:05 PM AEST
We're coming into the home stretch. The focus of the course has turned to our own research projects. I've partnered with Melissa Cobo, working on a study on microplastics (small plastic fragments of less than 5 mm) in ocean sediment. Plastic in the ocean is a major problem because creatures eat it and it gets stuck in their bodies because it doesn't degrade, so we'll be examining whether wave action washes up enough plastic onto the beach to be worth collecting.
Aside from that, the day's been pretty slow. A few of us went out to the jetty at sunset, where Edd, one of our instructors, and a student we call Camp slipped into the water. Edd posted me up on the dock to keep an eye on a black-tip reef shark he'd spotted. But I wasn't supposed to warn them away, my task was to guide them to it. Black-tips are not particularly dangerous, and it would make great footage. Unfortunately, the black-tip was swift and agile in the water, while Edd and Camp were... not. We spent half an hour chasing the shark around the bay, with me bellowing directions across to them while the shark slipped past faster than they could react. They never got close, but I did get many pictures of a spectacular sunset, including a picture of a seagull against the sunset which prompted Edd to suggest a photo series entitled "Crap Animals Looking Majestic." We ended the day by watching an episode of Planet Earth.
Tomorrow we start working on our project in earnest. This will involve sifting through sediment samples for plastic for 40 minutes per sample. We'll take 20 samples, so we're looking at 13 hours, 20 minutes of staring at sediment... Yeah, I'm hoping we can figure a better way.
Originally posted here.
Originally posted here.
8:43 PM AEST
A slower day today. The main event was another trip to the back reef. We saw more big animals this time: no less than six sea turtles, one of which swam very close by, a manta ray which I missed because I was too far away, and an octopus that I found on a massive coral (a massive coral is a single, large, boulder-like coral) which scooted around the top of its perch, occasionally adjusting its camouflage. It was most likely examining us just as closely as we were examining it. It wasn't a huge octopus, but it was decent sized, with the mantle being the size of a football or so.
It was a long swim against the current, and I eventually reached the limits of my (admittedly poor) endurance. I was in no danger of drowning considering I could remain afloat indefinitely just from the buoyancy of my wet suit, but when we reached the boat and started taking off our fins I could feel my legs threatening to cramp up. They never went into a full-on cramp, but I made a point to take it easy for the next few days.
We're starting to look toward the end of the course. We had our last lecture today--from here we'll start designing and conducting our own research. The reef around Heron has multiple zones, among them a scientific zone and a research zone where collections are forbidden. I'm considering doing my project on evaluating whether there's an actual difference in coral impact between them.
The weather is turning. We may get storms, and we seem to be getting cooler temperatures already.
That's it for tonight. The only scheduled event tomorrow is a morning swim. After that, it's all working on developing proposals for our research projects.
Originally posted here.
Phew... the trouble with being at a field school is that your days are so full that by the time you have an opportunity to stop and write up your log, you're exhausted! Today we went to the outer part of the reef (known more properly as the back reef). This is an area where the water is deeper, but the reef is still protected from the harsher ocean waves by the reef wall. The depth ranged between 2 and 6 meters, so more diving was required than normal. Call me a wimp, but I didn't do much diving--I can't quite get the hang of equalizing, and if you go farther than about 2 meters your head starts to hurt from the pressure.
The back reef is a more complex and diverse environment than the patch reefs in the lagoon where we've been wondering, and has a much more numerous and diverse community of fish. Damselfish, butterfly fish, parrotfish, and even an occasional predator like a grouper. We even encountered a white-tip reef shark resting beneath a coral ledge. Contrary to popular belief, these sharks can pump water past their gills so they don't die if they stop swimming, but they do sink.
At the end of the snorkel, we caught sight of a medium-sized green sea turtle and chased it around a bit. I say "chased," but I don't think it was actually fleeing from us. It swam away and kept its distance, but it also looped around and around as if it was curious about us. I was issued a GoPro this time out, so hopefully I'll have some good footage of the turtle to share when I get home.
On the way back, we glimpsed some dolphins, but they didn't stick around to show off. We did spot about five medium to large spotted eagle rays coming back into the harbor.
Aside from that, the day has been mostly dedicated to catching up on lectures or taking a fish ID exam. It's really hard to learn scientific names just from a list--you only really learn scientific names when you use them--but I did okay.
The weather may deteriorate soon, so we're pushing our megafauna dive up to tomorrow. Hopefully some interesting stories to tell then!
Originally posted here.
Originally posted here.
Just a short entry tonight because it's late, I'm beat, I get up early tomorrow, and have a quiz later in the day. Today's activities (a snorkel and reef walk) were hosted by CoralWatch, a citizen science group whose purpose is to train normal people how to collect basic data about coral reefs that scientists can use to evaluate reef health. This is useful because there aren't anywhere near enough scientists to study every reef, the downside being that the data quality from relatively untrained civilians often isn't that good. Nevertheless, it gets people interested and involved.
Probably the highlight of the day was during the reef walk when our CoralWatch guide plunged his hand into the water and pulled out a small epauletted shark to show to us.
Originally posted here.
9:02 PM AEST
Another pretty full day. After breakfast, it was straight out to the reef to begin today's lesson in study methods, this time in fish surveys. We began by laying out long transects much like yesterday, but rather than taking core samples, we swam along the transects with GoPros recording video that we could use to count and identify reef fish. This proved to be easier said then done, as the waves were big and choppy. My wetsuit kept me on the surface without any real effort, but the wave action made it difficult to do anything in a straight line, and made it harder to swim out along the transect. Everything not attached to the bottom moves: more than once I stopped to have a conversation and when I finished less than a minute later I discovered that I had been carried twenty or thirty feet from where I was. The waves also made the already shaky GoPro video even shakier.
Turns out I'm a pretty weak swimmer. No surprise. Even with fins, I'm extremely slow, mostly because the resistance from the water on my finds causes me ankle pain, so I have to keep my movements small. I'm hoping that it's just because I'm using muscles I don't typically use, and it'll get better as time goes on.
We analyzed the video until lunch time, and afterward it was a lecture and then back to the reef for the low tide treatment. The water had dropped from about 7 feet to more like 3, so rather than swim we waded along our transects. It's harder then it sounds: you pick your steps slowly due to the abundance of easily injured coral and sea cucumbers, but the waves knock you off balance, and if you do fall there's usually a sharp rock or patch reef waiting to cut you. Nobody fell, though, and the session went smoothly.
After dinner, we attended a talk by CoralWatch, a citizen science group out of the University of Queensland which instructs regular people in how to monitor coral color to evaluate coral bleaching. Coral bleaching is a process where coral respond to stress from increasing water temperature by expelling the photosynthetic algae that live inside them and provide a large portion of their energy. This makes the coral lose its coral and starve. It's a widespread problem due to climate change.
I feel bad for the CoralWatch team giving the presentation. We were at the resort, among tourists, and as soon as they finished their intro on what CoralWatch was and how it works, the audience lit into them with questions like "most emissions are coming from the USA and China, why should Australia do anything if they won't?" and other societal structure problems that reef scientists aren't really equipped to handle.
Tomorrow we'll be going out with CoralWatch to learn their system. Punctuality is going to be important, so I'd best get to bed. See you tomorrow!