Sunday, April 17, 2011

Look but don't touch! Our time at the Great Barrier Reef

Last week was spent at the Great Barrier Reef on a coral cay called Heron Island. It’s located off the Queensland Coast right on the Tropic of Capricorn. If we were on the north side of the island we were in the tropics and if on the south side the sub-tropics. Either way, we were in paradise.

Getting to paradise wasn’t easy. We took a two-hour catamaran ride through stomach-churning seas. Philip and I came through OK, Philip because he took a couple of Dramamine tablets. Me? Well, I think I’ve got my Swedish sea captain lineage to thank. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t happy to reach shore, but at least I didn’t need a barf bag at the ready the way some of the students did.

After arriving at Heron Island we had a quick lunch and then attended a lecture on venomous and poisonous marine organisms. (Venom is injected while poison is not. Yes, I had that question too.) What should you never, never touch? Cone shells and stonefish, for starters. The innocuous looking cone shell can fire a dart-like protuberance into its victim, causing respiratory paralysis and possibly death. The camouflaged stonefish hides out in sand and coral, waiting for unsuspecting victims to touch one of its 13 venomous spines. What happens if you do touch one? You can expect excruciating pain, paralysis, shock, and, yes, the very real possibility of death. Anti-venom is available in the case of stonefish stings. If you have a run-in with a cone shell? You’re on your own, mate . . . Let’s see, what else can we add to the catalog of nasty stuff that can kill you? Ooh, there’s the blue ringed octopus, lionfish, box jellyfish, and irukandji jellyfish. The fact that you could be minding your own business and inadvertently swim into a colony of potentially fatal jellyfish is cause for concern, wouldn’t you say? According to our lecturer, Derek, stings from the box jellyfish can kill within 15 minutes; the pain is so intense that victims go into a delirium and drown as a result. Which brings us to the irukandji—particularly terrifying because it’s miniscule and therefore difficult to detect. The sting of the irukandji can cause pain so intense that, even after a victim has been rendered unconscious with morphine/anesthesia, he or she will go on screaming . . . and screaming . . . and . . . By the way, you might be wondering about sharks. The vast majority of them go about their business without paying humans any mind. Just don’t harass them and you’re OK. (Of course, encountering a Tiger Shark is a different story.)

At the end of his hair-raising lecture, Derek assured us that the chance of coming across and being killed by one of the aforementioned beasties was extremely small, smaller than getting run over by a truck while crossing a busy street. Philip and I decided his logic was faulty, given that far more people cross busy streets than swim at the Great Barrier Reef. Nevertheless, we and the students put our trust in Derek—and our full-body stinger suits!—as we snorkeled around the island for the rest of the week. The stinger suits left our chins exposed, but only one student got stung by a jellyfish—fortunately only a blue bottle, whose sting hurts but isn’t fatal. After overcoming our initial fears, all of us came to love snorkeling above and around the coral—not only during the day but also at night (courtesy of underwater flashlights and glow sticks attached to our snorkel tubes). It’s hard to convey the beauty of the reef, which teems with life of every shape and size, from sea cucumbers to sting rays. We were especially excited to see reef sharks and giant turtles. Stunning!

The turtles were a treat on shore as well as at sea. We happened to catch the tail end of the egg laying and hatching season, which meant we were able to watch heaps of unbearably cute turtle hatchlings make their way across the beach and into the ocean. They tend to do this at night, when the temperature cools, and they find their way to the water by the reflected light of the moon. The little turtles have trouble distinguishing between natural and artificial light, so if you use a flashlight to spot them, you have to wade into the water and then shut off your light before walking back onto the beach. Otherwise you’ll have a train of baby sea turtles reversing course and following you back onto land. Sadly, turtles that happen to hatch near the resort often head toward the light streaming from patio doors instead of the ocean. There’s nothing more pitiful than a baby turtle bumping its head repeatedly against a glass door. Of course, even if a turtle makes it to the water, it can still get picked off by a host of predators. Our group cheered on a baby turtle as it crawled to the water’s edge, only to see a sea gull swoop down and carry it off for dinner. On a happier note, Philip and I were also lucky to see several enormous turtles (about four feet long and three feet across) digging nests in the sand. There’s nothing like being hit by sand propelled by giant turtle flippers.

I can’t end this post without mentioning one more inhabitant of Heron Island: the mutton bird. This homely looking thing is so clumsy that it sometimes smacks into buildings when trying to land. Worse, its cry sounds like a wailing human baby—not exactly what you want to hear between 2 and 4 in the morning, as we often did. But despite the mutton birds—as well as the jellyfish, untimely deaths of baby turtles, and occasional squalls of wind and rain—we fell in love with Heron Island. The pictures below will show you why. Tomorrow we head to the Lamington Plateau to study rainforest ecology. We hear there’s a plant with a big, heart-shaped leaf full of tiny, hair-like stingers that can remain embedded in your skin for years should you brush against them. We’ll keep you posted!


Shipwreck in Heron Island's harbor

On the beach

Sting rays!

Coral reef flat research

Reef flat photo op

On the boat to our snorkeling site

Can you tell Nat's pregnant? :-)

Suited up and ready to snorkel!

Ready for our night snorkel

More students ready for our night snorkel

Entering the watery darkness

This baby turtle has only a one in one thousand chance of making it to adulthood. 

Turtles on the march--and a hungry seagull

We wished them well . . . 

The "it's safe to touch these things" tank at the research station

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