As expected I have not had Internet connection (or even a computer, since I accidently left it behind in the rush to get out of the house) the past 11 days. So here is what I have been up to during my incredible journey up north.
On Tuesday we were picked up at the house at 6:30am. We were told to pack light, so I did just that, cramming my clothes for the ten day trip into my backpack with my tightly rolled sleeping bag on the back and another bag with my fins (flippers) and bootys (reef shoes). We drove ten hours straight to Carnarvon only making several stops for petrol (gas) along the way. Once in Carnarvon, a town of roughly 2,000 in the middle of nowhere, we pulled into a caravan park (RV park) for the night. The four kids all piled into a tiny portable house that was about 20ft by 10ft while Paul and Jo stayed in an identical place right next door. The girls shared the queen-sized bed and Peyton and I chose the bunks located in the kitchen/living room. There was also a small bathroom about the size of an airplane bathroom with a shower. We had dinner at Eagle Boy’s pizza before heading back to the cramped accommodation for some z’s.
The next morning we hit the road bright and early in route for Coral Bay. After about maybe two hours we had made it, and pulled into a backpacker’s hostel where we would be staying the night in a $27 dorm room. The weather was beautiful, sunny and in the 80’s, something we desperately needed after weeks of rainy weather in Perth. Glimpses of the bright blue ocean and white sandy beaches on the drive in made us so eager to hop in the water and start snorkeling that we skipped lunch. The beach at Coral Bay was simply breath taking and I quickly claimed it as the most amazing beach I had ever seen. The area was definitely properly named, as an aerial photo showed that the entire bay was packed full of coral perfect for world class snorkeling right off the beach. We slipped on our fins, spit in our masks (to prevent fogging), and jumped in the water to enjoy an afternoon of reef investigating and fish gawking. After a late lunch of Nutella and peanut butter sandwiches, Peyton and I explored the surrounding towering sand dunes and discovered breathtaking views of the bay. After a couple hours of walking the beach and dodging blue spotted sting rays that seemed to zoom by every several steps we headed in for a burger cookout and a lecture about the reef and it’s animal inhabitants from the unofficial mayor of Coral Bay, Frazier (he has been giving tours for 13 years and has lived in the town of roughly 1,000 for 20 years and knows just about everything about the area). We enjoyed a PowerPoint presentation in his little beach house where we were introduced to the many species of fish and different types of coral in the bay. Frazier is a Manta Ray expert, and prepped us for the all day tour we would be taking the following day in his boat where we would snorkel at a couple of his favorite spots and swim with his favorite marine animal, the Manta Ray. After a game of Ping-Pong with Peyton back at the hostel, us four kids headed to our dorm room for the night.
We boarded the boat at 9am Thursday morning along with nine others from an assortment of nations and began the cruise on the crystal clear waters of Coral Bay. After about 30 minutes of cruising through the flat turquoise water we anchored at our first snorkel spot. In about 40 feet of water we hopped in and spent the next hour taking in the massive coral structures, hundreds of different colorful fish, sea turtles, and sharks. We hopped back on deck to warm up in the sun and snack on some coffee cake and tea. Peyton and I took to the top deck to bask in the sun as we took of in search of a Manta Ray. It wasn’t long before the plane flying above spotted one (after mistaking one for a massive Bull Ray which was impressive in its own right) and we were in the water swimming with the two meter wide Manta Ray. Frazier, in the process of earning a PhD studying Manta Rays, proudly told us that Mantas have the largest brain/body ratio of any marine animal, and it seemed to be pretty at ease with a group of curious tourists chasing after it for a closer look. One of the guides dove down for a picture of the Ray for future identification, and the beast pulled up, exposing its belly, and seemed to pose. Once the Ray had had enough and swam away, we boarded the boat again and were greeted with ham and cheese toasties. Peyton and I headed back to our perch on the top of the boat to take in some more rays before we were alerted that we had pulled up next to an 11 foot Tiger Shark! As if that wasn’t enough, shortly after we came within a football field of three breaching Humpback Whales! It was safe to say we got our moneys worth at this point. We anchored once more for a final snorkel through the branching corals, a favorite home to fish and sea turtles, before boarding the boat a final time to head back to shore. Once we docked we were told to go observe the huge shadow next to the dock, which turned out to be their absolutely massive resident Sand Grouper. This beast must have been a couple hundred pounds, and had been living near the docks for a while because the fishermen feed it. Peyton attempted to capture the creature on his GoPro camera, attached to an ore we borrowed, but I’m yet to see the footage. Next, we headed to Exmouth where we checked in at a motel and met up with our Marine Biology professor, Jen, who would lead our research on the Maxima Clam the upcoming week in the Cape Range National Park in Exmouth. We picked up groceries to keep us fed during our stay, agreeing to each pay for and cook one dinner each, and then munched down some burgers at a local diner before heading to bed in our two person motel rooms.
Friday we headed to The Bothy, our “employees only” accommodation in the Cape Range National Park. There were no buildings for the public to stay in the park, only camp and caravan sites, so we were extremely fortunate to have a place to stay. The park was extremely secluded, and we were completely robbed of all cell and Internet service. This was truly a week of isolation with focus on research and snorkeling. The Bothy was by no means a five-star accommodation, not even a one-star. The place consisted of a living room/kitchen, a bunkroom for the four kids, and an extremely stinky bathroom with pit toilet, shower, and washing machine. There was a two gallon bucket of saw dust next to the toilet to try to keep the smell down, but we still had to make sure the door was closed the entire time to keep the entire house from smelling like feces. There were spiders, cockroaches, and other pesky insects everywhere in the house, but we never complained, thankful for the opportunity to stay in such an amazing location. The park was very flat, with no trees, only low shrubbery in the desert environment. There were some hills in the distance, including one near The Bothy where Peyton and I would sneak away to watch the sunset and stars each night (how romantic). Beautiful coast and white sand beaches ran along the entire park where we would be doing our research. The research would consist of measuring the clam and sea urchin population densities in 19 predetermined sites. We would split into two groups at low tide (typically 6am-7am and 4pm-6pm) with an adult to supervise (Jen or Jo, Paul’s friend with research experience) and after slipping into our wet suits, trod out to the different sites (we would do 4-8 a day, two in the morning and two in the afternoon) with gear in hand (mask and snorkel, clipboard with waterproof paper and pencil, viewing tube for seeing clearly under the water without having to submerge your head, tape measurer, and camera) and randomly throw a meter^2 quadrat 25 times in a 50 meter^2 area. We would record the substrate of each quadrat, the visibility, whether or not there was a clam or urchin present, and the size of the clam. If the substrate ever changed, or we found a clam (some sites we would find zero life in all 25 quadrats, and others we would find a lot, once coming across 14 clams in 25 quadrat throws) we would snap a picture with an underwater camera for later verification. The research required three straight days of very early wake up calls, and a lot of time recording data, but at the end we felt as if we had done a solid job and it felt good to contribute to the knowledge of the national park on their clam and urchin populations. We have a lab report due later in the semester for a grade.
During the days when we weren’t busy being scientists we turned our attention to the world famous Ningaloo Reef and some snorkeling. Our favorite spot was called Oyster Stacks, where we swam amongst monstrous coral structures and their fish inhabitants, observed extra big Maxima clams in abundance, admired Octopus and Sea Stars, and I even swam with a Sea Turtle for about a half-hour before heading in. The sunny weather (sometimes hitting 90 during the days) dried us quickly and warmed us after the rather chilly snorkel, although the water was quite not too cold considering it was the dead of winter in Australia. One day instead of snorkeling we decided to enjoy the beauty of Turquoise Bay, a popular beach in the park because of its powerful current that sweeps snorkelers along the beach and over the coral without having to swim. Snorkelers are warmed to stay aware of their surroundings and not become too engaged in the fish watching, as there was definite danger of being swept out to sea (next stop, Africa). We saw this danger first hand, as a park ranger giving us a lecture on the park the following day was called on an emergency rescue.
The nights at The Bothy consisted of a different person slaving over a hot stove in the kitchen, trying their best to present a meal that would impress the others. The first night Paul made a huge BBQ (I ate way too much), followed my Chloe’s stir-fry the next night, Emma made a yellow curry, Peyton made pasta with a meat and veggie sauce, Jo made a vegetarian pesto and quinoa dish, and I crafted a chicken picatta meal (a personal favorite back home). All in all we ate like kings during our time in Exmouth.
Other highlights of the trip were: watching Finding Nemo with the big “family”, stargazing on the hill with Peyton with absolutely no light pollution in the middle of nowhere, dodging countless Kangaroos on the road back to The Bothy each night (Roo’s are crepuscular, meaning they eat at dawn and dusk and are absolutely everywhere), watching a sunset near the lighthouse on the top of the tallest hill overlooking the endless ocean and witnessing the “green flash” as the sun disappeared beyond the horizon, and living life with no connection or thoughts to the outside world.
The tough parts of the trip were the extremely early and active mornings, having to do a “class four” hike over sharp rocks in my thin reef shoes because I had forgotten my tennis shoes in the morning rush, and being assigned the chore of cleaning the absolutely repulsive bathroom as we moved out. The life of a scientist isn’t glamorous, but I think we all enjoyed roughing it for the week.
Wednesday we cleaned up The Bothy and headed to the town of Exmouth where we stayed in the same motel and said goodbye to Jen.
Before the sun had peaked above the horizon we were on the road once more with the goal of making it back to Perth in one day, a straight shot. We accomplished the goal, and by 8pm we were dropped off at 232 South St., White Gum Valley for the first nights sleep in our own beds in a while.
What a trip!
Here is a brief list of the species I saw on this trip, this excludes hundreds of different fish, birds, bugs, and whatever else that I can’t remember.
- Western Grey kangaroo
- Humpback whale
- Tiger shark
- Reef Shark
- Blue spotted ray
- White tip reef shark?
- Shovelnose ray
- Coastal manta ray
- Giant clam
- Butterfly fish
- Parenti lizard (varanus species)
- Reef banner fish
- Juvenile angelfish
- Some sort of adult angelfish
- Drunken sea stars (blue starfish)
- Other sea star (brown, spotted, little, thin arms)
- Blue-green pullers/chromies
- Moorish idol
- Black anemone fish
- Sea cucumbers
- Hawaiian triggerfish
- Octopus (of some sort)
- Several different species of Sea Turtle
- Sea urchin
- Blue spine unicorn fish
- Black tip reef shark
- Rock wallaby