Saturday, January 23, 2010

My first day of legit Australian snorkeling

Today after dolphin research was done I decided to stay in Byron and snorkle around. Oh, and speaking of research, today we saw two small sharks from the lighthouse! I was so excited. They looked either like spiny dogsharks, or some form of sandshark, most definitely harmless, and too small to really do anything.

Mark and Jared decided to drive up as well. Since both of them were born and raised here in Australia, I just assumed they would know how to snorkel, right? Wrong. Mark had only snorkeling once before in some nasty lake. Jared decided to go to the pub instead. So it was just me and Mark, which meant I got to teach Mark how to snorkel. It was pretty fun. I had my pair of flippers, and he didn't have a pair, so I let him use mine, which meant I got to swim twice as hard. I love it (I really did).

We walked about twenty minutes along the beach until we got to a more sheltered area with smaller and less waves, seeing as it was a pretty windy day. Because of the wind, pretty sure that every blue bottle in Byron Bay was washing towards shore. So what doest that equal? The top of my left foot getting stung like crazy. We were walking right along the waves because it was hot, and we could see all the blue bottles, so we were just jumping over them. I jumped over on, and landed right as another one washed up. Ironically, 2 minutes before that I had said to Mark "I wonder what it feels like to actually get stung by one of those, I'm just curious". Thank you instant karma. And it hurts just as bad as everyone says.

After about an hour of just sticking close to shore, and seeing only a few goatfish, I made Mark swim out to a reef with me. When we got there, I was automatically in heaven. Right there was a school of squid, just waiting to welcome me it seemed. They were pretty shy, so I only swam with them for a few minutes. I then just saw several damsel fish, a few angelfish, a school or some whitefish, and just some random other small reef fish. Then the real treat happened. I saw a peice of seaweed, and then did a double take. This was no peace of seaweed, it was a leafy sea dragon. I nearly had a seizure! They are so beautiful, and not very common, not to mention they are pretty easy to overlook. When I looked up to grab Mark, and looked back down, my sea dragon was gone, but I still felt insanely lucky for seeing him even for just a moment. It was incredible.

It was a wonderful day to spend snorkeling, a bit windy, but still worth it.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

It's a great day(s) to be a scientist

These past 4 days have been solid research days for me. That means waking up at 5 am, getting on the road at 6, and starting observations at 7 in the lighthouse. We don't finish until one, so it's 6 hours on your feet yelling out:

"I GOT A POD! Looks like 6 adults, 2 calves... wait make that 14 adults, 3 calves! They are milling. Definitely milling. Oh, I got a tail slap! Wohoo! OH MY GOSH Did you guys see that leap? Full out of water porpoising! Calf is belly up. Oh man he is the cutest thing ever! Hey we got one more calf over here."

It's pretty awesome. On thursday we initially saw a pod of about 6 adults as soon as we got to the lighthouse. It then went dead. Completely dead. It was a perfect day though, no wind, no waves, and water visibility was awesome. We did not see another dolphin until 11. They were all at some secret meeting or something, and we weren't invited! When we did finally see a dolphin, it was coming around the southern point from Tallows Beach (the other side of the cape of Byron Bay). As I started observing with some binoculars, I slowly started to see more and more as they were making their way around the cape. It was a pod of 44 adults and 4 calves! A pod of nearly 50 dolphins! It was definitely a once in a life time sight. I don't know why I was so lucky to be there. They were so gorgeous. They were all traveling north, and you could see pairs of synchronized dolphins, some were mothers and calves, others were just good friends. Dolphins that are tightly bonded synchronize their movements. It's beautiful. I now know what synchronized swimming was adapted from! Thankfully it was such a perfect day. Looking down from the lighthouse you could almost count everyone with the naked eye, it was such a beautiful day. When they got around the point into the bay, all of sudden it was dolphin central! Another pod of 13 showed up, along with a pod of 4, then another pod of about 6. They then decided to play some tricks on us and all mix up together, and spread around, then clump back up. Lets just say deciphering pods was impossible. Pod D became Pod DE, Pod E became EF, etc etc. They certainly had fun messing up our data.

Saturday I was out in the research kayak. It was incredible. Me and Sara (the head of research at SCU) headed out and just waited for some dolphins to show up. And waited...and waited.... Nothing! The entire time we were on the water there were no dolphins! The lighthouse radios us where to go, and they had nothing for us to look at. Just because they had no dolphins for us doesn't mean there was nothing to look at. The way the currents were flowing was causing a huge amount of blue bottles to head into the bay. Blue bottles look like portugese-man-of-war jellyfish. The have this clear bulbous top that floats on the water, then their tentacles are underwater. Blue bottles have a few short tentacles right off the bulb, but they then have one really, really long tentacle that reaches out. Most tentacles were up to a few feet long, while the top floating on the water was only a few centimeters. The biggest one I saw was about half the size of a dollar bill, so one wouldn't expect it to have a huge tentacle flowing out from it. The reason they are called blue bottles is their tentacles are all this electric dark blue. I have never seen a color like that before. It's looks like that electric royal blue you see on peacock's necks. But it's brighter. So we were paddling through hundreds of them. It was another incredible sight. I managed to look down at the water at the perfect time, one blue bottle had a neon blue lizard fish, about 2 inches long wrapped up in it's tentacles. It had it's pectoral fins all fanned out, and it was beautiful. It was almost the exact same color as the tentacle, which I found very interesting. I also found a floating shoe, and we grabbed it to take it and throw it away. As it was sitting in the boat, slowly all these creatures started crawling out! This show was like a little ecosystem! When I looked closer I saw a bunch of little blue and white worms, sand flees, and this creature that looked like a mixture between a crab, spider, and clam. It was bizarre. There was also a blue bottle inside which I was very excited about, so I got to get a really good look at it without getting stung. It's incredible how versitile and flexible sea creatures are. They can make a home out of anything. However, that does not mean it is okay to have trash in the ocean! No excuses world.

Today I was back up in the lighthouse. It was actually a pretty uneventful morning. We saw a pod right away, then nothing until around 10. Seems to be the reoccurring theme with these dolphins. When there aren't dolphins around, I'm still looking for sea life. The bay is packed with turtles, schools of fish, and all kinds of rays. As I was following this ray just cruising around the bay, out of no where he just jumped about 6 feet in the air! This ray ( I believe it was a cownose ray) just launched itself right out of the water! It was like he wanted to fly out of the water as well. I have seen pictures of this happening with whiptail rays, and it's something I have always wanted to see, but seriously, what are the odds of ever seeing that? Today I felt to blessed to be in the right place at the right time. Dolphins did finally show, once again headed in from Tallows. There was 14 adults and 3 calves. One calf was probably only a few weeks old. he was tiny, the smallest dolphin I have ever seen. He was smaller than half the size of the adults. He was so darling. It was definitely play time for him because he was leaping, breaching, slapping, and swimming belly up for us. It was almost like he knew we were there and he wanted to put on a show. Seeing something that small leap it just incredible. It makes human babies seem so useless! They can't leap, they can't do anything! I want a dolphin baby! But seriously, they are such a beautiful species.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Mark's Big Jump

yeah I was way too scared to jump off this cliff, but after some peer pressure we got Mark too.

Waterfall Jumping

So you know how you always see commercials on the travel channel about Australia and there's people jumping off waterfalls into this amazing pools? Yeah, that was totally me this week. There are two waterfalls pretty close to Lismore, about 10 minutes away. One is about 15-20 feet high, and it's just like one cliff into a pool. It's amazing. The second waterfall is like a crater, so there is cliffs all around this pool. Some cliffs are probably 40 or so feet high on one side, and on the other they are smaller, anywhere from 10-30 feet high. There are trees everywhere around the edge that crazy kids climb up into and jump out of, and do back flips, which put them at about 55 feet up I would say. So pretty darn high. And it's not just kids actually. Yesterday when we were all there at the falls, there was a 40ish year old man, probably about 200 pounds who was doing cliff dives, like face first dives! It was incredible! We all thought he was dead for sure when he started climbing up the tree as well, but he survived the jump!

Don't worry mother, I was not climbing up trees, doing backflips, or even jumping off the 40 foot side. I hiked around and jumped off the 20 ft side. Much much safer, I promise. It was so much fun though. Everything was just beautiful, the sun was shinning, and we were totally surrounded by green forests that were stunning. So to climb out of this crater you can go the long way up around the cliff, or you can just climb up a rope right next to the waterfall. So being me, I totally climb up the rope! So much fun. So after a few times of climbing up said rope and jumping in, the 40 year old Aussie started totally hitting on me, it was great. He was like "That's really impressive to see a girl jump, then climb up a cliff face." I just said I was a rough and tough american who enjoyed adventure. He replied "oh, well i'm just a dumb Aussie." ha ha great come-back.

Over all though, it was a wonderful way to spend the afternoon. This is definitely living.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Flying Foxes and Vegimite

So this week I discovered two great things about Australia: Vegimite and flying foxes.

Why is Vegimite so under appreciated in the USA? It's amazing! It's seriously the best salt substitute ever! I bought my first jar ever this week. I went home and made a vegimite and avacado sandwich, it was awesome! Also tomatoes and vegimite, delicious! What's that problem that america has with everyone eating too much salt? I can't remember the name of all the ridiculous diseases, but they would not exist if people used vegimite. It's healthy for you too!

My friend Mark here at Orion introduced me to Vegimite. He was making vegimite pasta, which is incredible. You throw some cheese and a spoonful of vegimite in a bowl, then pour the hot pasta over it and mix it all up. It melts the vegimite and it's so good! Thank you Mark. He's pretty cool. My first thought when I saw him was "wow I'm looking at an 80's musician, I didn't know they still existed". But in reality he's fun. Constantly insulting me though, or rather just my life (the music I like, the tv shows I like, the fact I use a mac etc). P.s. He's awesome (he's sitting behind me eating ice cream singing Toto Hold the Line.)

So enough about vegimite, now on to the flying foxes! I had no idea that Australia had fruit bats! They are huge! So cool! One day driving to the plaza my friend Jared was like "hey look over there" and there was just trees full of them! I nearly jumped out of the car to go look at them! Then tonight me and Mark walked to the plaza and we walked on the street with all the bat trees (I call them bat trees) and it was sunset, so they were all silhouetted hanging in the trees, by a pink sky. I just stood there and watched them stretch their wings getting ready to head out for the night. So beautiful. Why doesn't the US have flying foxes? They are by far one of the coolest land mammals alive. I think tomorrow I'll head down that road and watch them for a while again.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Dolphins in Byron Bay.

So last saturday was my dolphin research training day in byron bay, which is about 30 miles away from here. There are buses running all day, but in order to be there in time, I had to catch the 4 am bus. Yes, that's right, 4 am. Lovely. So after about a 45 bus ride, I arrived in Byron at, ooh 5 am! It was absolutely gorgeous then. The sun was coming up, so the sky was all lavender and pink and just beautiful. All the old, hard core surfers were out, getting in their old style rides before all the young hot shots got there to hog their waves.

The lighthouse in Byron is the highest point there is in the area, which means it's a bit of a hike. When the bus dropped me off, I had about a mile beach walk before I actually got to the trail. The trail wound up around this hillside(mountainside) through a littoral rainforest, so some parts of the trail were completely surrounded by trees and moss and birds, just like walked through some mystical jungle tunnel. Other parts were right on the cliff side, overlooking all of Byron Bay. It was the best way to start a morning. I finally arrived at the lighthouse around 7, 2 hours before I needed to be there, so I just sat against the lighthouse and watched my ocean. I also watched a GIANT beetle climb up some metal cable next to me. He fell off once, and when I used my pen to turn him right side up, he hissed at me! I thought he was going to charge! I have never been more afraid of a beetle in my life. I then saw a lizard running along the path where it meets the grass. He was picking insects out of the grass line, while he ran along the warm cement. He seemed unconcerned with my presence. He let me walk with him for quite a while until he scampered over to a rock outcrop.

When the time for dolphin research came, I was so excited. I was the only one from the US there, so I was pretty psyched. Everyone seemed kind of shocked that I was from so far away. They were all mostly australian. So for the first half of the training we went up into the lighthouse to do observations, and learn how to run the program Cyclops. Using a camera scope and focus, it plots GPS points of where dolphins, fish, boats, etc are. We saw a pod of dolphins, one had a calf. They were gorgeous. I couldn't believe that they were just right there off shore. It makes me wonder how many times dolphins have been around me and I've never noticed. I also saw about an 8 foot manta ray! I just wanted to run out of the lighthouse and jump into the water and swim with him. He was so beautiful! I've never seen a manta in the wild, and it left me speechless. There were also multiple loggerhead sea turtles just kicking around. They are really big, much bigger than the green sea turtles I've seen in Hawaii. Australia definitely is the place to come for sea life. You don't even have to try to find it, if you just open your eyes, it's everywhere! I can't wait to get in the boat and do some water research!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Arrival in Australia!

So Tuesday night (the 5th) I hopped on a plane headed 14 hours over the pacific. Best decision I ever made!

The plane ride over was pretty great. I was in the middle seat. To my left was an Airforce guy, with huge shoulders.. enough said as to the proximity of airline seating. To my right was this skinny canadian going to discipleship school. Pretty much the three of us just laughed for the first three hours of the flight. I'm almost positive that the guy in front of mr. airforce was trying to shut us up by out of the blue leaning his seat back as far as possible (right as Chris was leaning forward) and smacking him right in the head! Have you ever been on one of those 2 leveled airbuses? The seats in economy lean almost all the way back! It's great. Even though we were flying during the am hours and I should have been sleeping, I didn't. The whole flight. Lots of movies...

When I got into Brisbane it was overcast and humid and warm. Never been happier. I'm pretty sure all the Aussie's thought I was an idiot cause I was smiling like a fool. I just couldn't stop. As I was walking to the bus I was laughing. They were all laughing at me though cause I had a backpack on, and was somehow trying to wheel three suitcases along. Yeah, really don't recommend that.

Brisbane is a wonderful city. It's a beautiful mix of old world Australian Colonial and Ultra-Modern. It's fantastic. All the new buildings have all this wonderful metal artwork outside them, and all these beautiful glass walls. The same however can not be said about the transit center. It is this total ghetto building, that looks abandoned. It's full of back-packers there. Everyone backpacks through Australia! It looks like a blast.

The bus ride to Lismore was 5 hours. It was really fun though, cause all we were driving through were these awesome little coastal towns with rows and rows of surf shops, bead shops, hippie shops etc etc. Hippies are big here in Australia. I feel like I fit right in! There's this one town we drove through called surfers paradise that was literally just one road. On the left was the ocean, and on the right were surf shops for just miles and miles. I just wanted to get off and walk around.

Lismore Is 30 minutes inland, and just this country po-dunk kind of town. I love it! Lismore is built all over these hills and valleys, so my apartment is on a hill, overlooking the Uni which is in a valley. Oh here in Aussieland they don't really say University. They say Uni. So I do too. When I first pulled up to my apartment all I could think was "This looks absolutely nothing like the pictures online." The grounds hadn't even been looked at I think all summer, and the buildings just looked old. When I walked in, all I could think was that exact same thought, just worse. There were piles of dead cockroaches everywhere! There's a little pile in the hall, there's one in the kitchen, one in the living room, and one in the corner of my room. It's awesome! Then, I found a living one, running around inside my fridge! My FRIDGE!!!! talk about gross. Then I found one in my freezer, but I think he was just chilling on the door and fell in when i opened it. It was great.... All the bugs are just bigger here. Bigger spiders, bigger dragonflies, bigger beetles, every bug just looks like it could eat you! And probably can.

Having only been here 3 days, I already love my little apartment. I really do. I have a twin bed that I am too tall for, a shower that I have to totally bend over in to get my hair wet, and cockroaches for flat mates but I wouldn't change it! I love it here!

I would encourage everyone who has aver wanted to come here, do it! It's wonderful.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Really Really Unexpected!!

So this week has been truly a wild wild adventure! I origianlly was planning to move to Australia sometime in the first week of February, a reasonable time before school started. Well wednesday came around, and I logged on to check my SCU email, and had one in my inbox titled "Dolphin Research in Byron Bay". I opened it and what I saw was a dream come true. The whale research team at SCU needed more volunteers for a dolphin research project about their habitat use, and the effects of human vessels on their habitat use in Byron Bay (just outside lismore).
I of course immediately replied back to the email saying I wanted to be part of the project and if they could guarantee me a place in the project, I would guarantee I would be there, and the hardest working volunteer they had. Friday night they emailed me back saying they wanted me to come out and would guarantee me a place in the project! The great part about this project is I have to be in Australia on January 9th for training, meaning I needed to leave January 5th in order to get there on time! So in doing the math, I needed to be ready to leave in only 4 days, 6 weeks before I had intended. So this week has been quite an adventure, mainly just lots of adrenaline, frantic packing/running around, and really excited phone calls to random friends and family.
So my timetable just got thrown on warped speed, and I love it!