Thursday, June 23, 2011

All Good Things Must End

Here I am, three months later, once again in a backpacker's hostel in the Brisbane Central Business District.  I have turned in both of my final assignments - not perfect, but done.  This trip started out very slowly, but the past several months have just flown by.  This is the least stressful quarter I have ever had, despite the fact that my program was 21 quarter units.  I snorkeled on the Great Barrier Reef for research, watched hundreds of hatching baby green turtles run to the water, woke to the sound of kookaburras calling, hiked below majestic tree ferns and up moss-covered ravines, waded through rushing creeks, hung out with kangaroos and wallabies, gazed up at massive Eucalyptus trees, viewed ancient and modern Aboriginal art, meandered past strangler figs and venomous snakes in the rainforest, slogged through chest-deep water to stake dead fish to the sand, saw dolphins surfing waves and humpback whales breaching, and learned about the amazing ecology all around me.  And that was just for school!  In my spare time, there was dancing (including teaching lindy hop), karaoke, mountain climbing, weekend trips to explore the Sunshine Coast and Byron Bay, comparisons of culture between the United States and Australia, time to relax with my homestay family or with friends, and so much more.  Living in a foreign country on my own has been both exciting and challenging, and I am both very ready and very sad to return to my regularly scheduled life (after I tour around Australia for a while longer, of course).  Overall, I am very grateful that I made the decision 2 years ago to stay in college an extra year, in order to fit studying abroad into my schedule.

Some Reflections, Recommendations & Life Lessons:
- Trust that things will work out
- Getting a few points below perfect on an assignment may not be the end of the world (*gulp*)
- Don't eat vegemite unless you really like salt
- Sometimes activities that involve getting cold, wet, sandy, muddy, or handling stinky dead things can be fantastic experiences
- Take the time to watch the sunset
- Don't touch it unless you know for sure that it can't kill you
- Don't let the talent of any good cooks go to waste
- Be aware of your surroundings.  Several benefits: you're unlikely to get mugged, and you might spot something really cool like a koala in a tree.
- Dance at every good opportunity
- Learn new things every day
- Have conversations with people you don't know (just not the sketchy ones)
- Travel, even if you're just visiting a location close to home that you've never taken the time to see before

Sunset at N. Stradbroke Island

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Mangroves and Stinky Prawns: Straddie Days 5-7

Life is busy with data analysis, report writing, and NSF grant proposal writing, so this will have to be brief!

I am finally done wading through cold, murky, chest-deep water to stake both freshly dead and rancid fish and prawns to the sand flat in order to see how quickly they were eaten.  Surprisingly, it appears that rancid fish are consumed more quickly than freshly dead fish, though we haven't done the data crunching yet to see if this is significant.  In terms of prawns, not many of either age of dead prawn were eaten.  Also, just for the record, 2-day-old prawns smell MUCH worse than 3-day-old fish.

Last night, our professor made us churros and hot chocolate!  They were amazing.  We also roasted marshmallows at a small bonfire on the beach, which was fun.

This morning, we took a walk at Myora Springs, which has both creek and mangrove habitat, and is very nice.

The creek was yellow from the tannins of the trees. 

Root structures that allow mangroves to "breathe"

Snails live in seemingly-unlikely places, like on tree trunks 

Mangrove roots look really neat 

Me standing in mud near some mangroves

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Sad Fate of Mr. Deaddington: Straddie Days 3-4

For me, the last several days have been filled with work on research projects: a) experiments in the field regarding consumption rates (preferences) of whole carrion versus mangled/damaged carrion, and b) prep work for our experiment on the rates of consumption of fresh vs. aged carrion.  It has certainly been a learning experience.

Preparing prawns for aging (experiment in a couple of days)

Yesterday, we found a wobbegong shark trying to eat one of our fish.  It was about 2 feet long, and really neat!  (Kind of scary to be in the water close to a shark, but at least it wasn't a bull shark.)  We named him George.  We also became familiar with another set of scavengers: Icarus and the Rat Pack (all birds).  They were out in force during yesterday's experiment, trying pitifully to dive and get the fish that we'd staked just a little too deep for their reach.  For some reason, they weren't really around during today's experiments.

This morning, we attempted our first experiment at high tide.  We waded out into chest-deep, cold, somewhat murky water, wearing wetsuits and snorkeling gear, and carrying dead fish attached to stakes and buoys.  My borrowed wetsuit was a tiny bit too big, so it managed to let in water - not so good for retaining heat.  Our first challenge was attempting to actually put the stakes in the sand.  This is harder than it sounds, in 4-5 feet of water with a decently strong current.  The experiment involved checking on the fish in 15-minute intervals, to see if they'd been eaten.  Unfortunately, given how far out we were, it wasn't particularly feasible to go back to shore in between checking the fish, so we stood or floated in the chilly water for an hour.  Some of the fish still hadn't been eaten at the hour mark, but we decided to modify our experiment slightly at that point, since we'd been in the water for about an hour and a half (including experiment set-up time), and were all shivering.  Science can occasionally give way to not dying of hypothermia.

Immediately after we got out of the water, we had the option of going for a snorkel with our instructor and other classmates.  I declined.  Tea and warmth were more important.

In the afternoon, we took a walk on the other side of the island - the ocean side.  So beautiful!  We saw humpback whales migrating off the coast, and dolphins playing in the waves.

Humpback whale 

Dolphins surfing the waves

This afternoon was Round 2 of today's experiment - at low tide, thank goodness.  We attached the usual number of dead fish to the stakes and headed out.  We named one particularly mangled fish Mr. Deaddington.  Waded out - the water much warmer than that morning - and placed the fish.  Mr. Deaddington was eaten in half an hour, probably by the large fish I saw nearby - one of the first bait items to go.  R.I.P.

About 15 minutes into our experiment, we looked down the channel a few hundred meters and saw two dolphins fishing!  They would speed through the water at an incredibly fast pace, the fish jumping frantically into the air, and the dolphins catching the fish.  Amazing to watch!  In other news, one of my team members stepped on a little stingray (which didn't sting her), and one of my other team members got within about 3 feet of a 2-foot-long shark (that was NOT a wobbegong, but has not yet been positively identified as a bull shark) that then decided to swim directly towards him.  Just goes to show that science can increase your adrenaline levels.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

To Squish a Fish? Straddie Day 2

Science never goes as planned.  I think my group has completely re-worked our experimental design at least 4 or 5 times today.  We started the morning out with gathering supplies, setting up equipment, and discussing our plan of attack - all fairly straight forward.  Since we need to wait until Friday to have "old" dead fish available to us (we are testing freshly dead vs. 3-day old fish in this experiment, and their respective rates of uptake in a sandy shore environment), we decided to perform a trial run of attaching fish to the sand flat to perfect our methods.  The initial idea was that we would observe fish stuck to the benthos (bottom environment) twice daily, with the expectation that we could observe the same fish getting slowly consumed over the course of several days.  

So we took four freshly dead fish, and attached each of them to the sand with a different method - staking, tying to a rock, etc.  The first fish was easy to place, as it was tied to a rock, and we moved on a few paces.  We stuck the second fish through with two tent stakes (head and tail) looked a bit like a morbid, sacrificial offering.  We walked another few paces to place a fish that was attached to a stake using wire.  One of our group members looked back towards the previous site.  "Didn't that fish have a tail?" he asked.  "I don't think all of them did," was the response, presuming that he was talking about the tail fin - some of which had been missing from the fish to begin with.  

Well, no, actually by "tail" he meant "entire body."  We'd been gone from the double-staked fish for about two minutes, and it was now mostly just a floating head, with no sign as to what had eaten it.  So much for our ability to "observe the fish over the course of three days"!!  We placed our fourth fish (tied to two tent stakes with fishing line), and then decided to stand and observe for 10 minutes.  The fish that had been damaged by stakes or wire were partially consumed by small fish within that time period, though the other (un-mutilated) fish were untouched.  [We have since decided to consider this damaged vs. non-mutilated variable in our experiment, but that's a different story.] We decided to come back and check the fish in 2 hours.

Two hours later, we waded back out to our sample site.  Not only were all four fish completely gone, but  one of our stakes from the tied-to-two-stakes fish had been ripped out of the sand and dragged along the bottom for several meters.  Obviously something pretty big had come along and found a great snack!  But back to the drawing board for us.

At the research station

A nice bag of dead fish, waiting on a table (in a caged area) for the next three days

Arts and Crafts for Biologists: designing buoys, markers, and methods of fish attachment

Looking out towards our study site in the bay; very pretty, but not without challenges

Suiting up for field work!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Welcome to Stradbroke: This Might Get In-Seine

Thought of the day: studying life (that is, the subject of biology) often seems to necessitate a close proximity to death as well.

I arrived on another island research station this morning - not near a beautiful coral reef this time, but next to the wonderful seagrass beds and other habitats of Moreton Bay.  After a brief orientation, lunch, and settling into our rooms, we headed out to the water.  Stepping carefully to avoid things that might kill us, like stonefish and blue ringed octopuses, we waded out to a sand bar.  Saw a variety of neat creatures: a porcupine fish (looks like a puffer fish), a bearded ghoul (looks rather like a stonefish, is not, but is second to the stonefish in terms of deadliness), a couple of crinoids (feather stars), hundreds of crabs (including scuttling armies of soldier crabs), and many other organisms.

Tomorrow, our research projects start for real.  I am working with a group that is studying the impacts of carrion on marine systems, with the variable being the age of the carrion.  It sounds like a simple research project, given our hypothesis, but nothing is easy in science.  Fortunately, we have 3 days of prep work to figure out how this is going to actually become a functional experiment, while we wait for some dead fish to get older and stinkier.

After dinner (and therefore after dark, since it is winter here in Australia), the entire group took a seine net down to the beach, both as an opportunity for everyone to see what sorts of fish are found here as well as practice for the smaller group whose project involves catching fish and performing gut analyses.  We must have all looked rather strange: wearing shorts and water shoes/booties on the bottom, and layers of jackets, hats, and other warm clothing on the top.  Several of the guys waded out into the (dark, and rather cold) water, to drag the large seine net around in a circle.  We found a lot of garfish, a couple of shovel-nosed rays, a squid (which inked in the bucket and made it challenging to find the other fish), and many smaller fish, tossing most of them back after we'd admired them.  Unfortunately, as with any fishing activity, there ended up being some bycatch - fish that got caught in the net and suffered because of it.  I tried to help sort through the net, as well as catch the few fish that were washing up onto the sand; saved some, lost others.  Such is the research life, and I will have to get used to it, though it also provides experience that gives me some food for thought regarding the much bigger issues of bycatch in the commercial fishing industry.

Ten days left of this program, and I still don't know where the time went.

I Leave (Brisbane) and Heave a Sigh and Say Goodbye

Two months in Brisbane went by incredibly quickly!  I finished two finals this past week, and then had the weekend off before leaving for Stradbroke Island this morning.  The hardest part of all this was not the part where I had to take final exams - it was leaving the friends that I have made during my stay here (mostly dancers, from both Australia and the U.S.).  I was fortunate to be able to spend a fantastic final weekend in their company; going out on a great note, I guess.

I took a mini road trip up to the Sunshine Coast with several of these friends on Friday.  We went to the Ettamoga Pub, to be touristy, and I got to try a classic Australian dessert known as pavlova (which my marine biology teacher uses as a model for reef formation, but that's another story).

We also ended up going to the beach (cold but sunny), cooking an amazing vegetarian dinner, and finding a koala crossing road sign, among other things.  Lots of fun!

The rest of the weekend was filled with more time with friends, including another fantastic dinner/dessert (made by two excellent cooks, who also happen to dance), as well as a nice evening out with nearly the entire dance group.  I will certainly miss them when I head back to my 'real life,' but I appreciate how much better my stay has been while in Brisbane because I met them.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Mount Tibrogargan Or, How I Hiked 1.5 Mountains Without Reaching the Top

Yesterday, 20 dancers from UQ (including myself) went hiking at Mt. Tibrogargen, one of the Glasshouse Mountains at the Sunshine Coast.  Only a couple of people in our group had been there before, and so the rest of us had no idea what we were in for.  We carpooled to the mountain in the morning, and split up into two hiking groups.  They were initially dubbed the "Easy" and "Hard" hiking groups, but it quickly became apparent that it was actually "Hard" and "Harder."  I set out in the hard group (per the initial classification), along with 11 other people.  We hiked around the base of the mountain, and then up to the base of the rocky part of the mountain, where we met some climbers who told us we couldn't get to the top at that spot without climbing gear.  They told us where we should go instead, but shook their heads as if they thought we were insane.  So we hiked back down the mountain, around the base some more, and up a different path.  We hiked to the base of the rocky part of the mountain once again, at which point we decided to split into two groups: I didn't particularly want to attempt the insane, steep climb, so myself and 5 others headed back down to the "Easy" way up the mountain, while the others continued up.  My group had a nice lunch, and then hiked halfway up the mountain for a third time.  I ended up deciding not to try the last part of the trip, which was more rock climbing.  So I didn't actually reach the top of the mountain, but I had fun and got my exercise anyway!

The view from Halfway Up #3 

 The "Easy" way up the mountain; pretty much straight up, with a nice big drop-off.  The guy in the picture is ~6 feet tall, for comparison.  I didn't make it past the point that I took this picture from.

My carpool group, after the hike.  We survived!  (Photo: Marina Ar)