Monday, September 1, 2014

Sydney Adventures

For our final weekend in Australia, Katelin and I had to take a break from the small town life of Townsville and its surrounding wilderness and hit the BIG CITY, that is Sydney! Unlike our previous destinations that we could reach by car, this one required a flight. 

We arrived late Friday night, but straight away we braved the cold of Sydney winter in our jumpers and made the long walk from our hostel to the harbor and beheld... 

The Sydney Opera House! at night!

And of course the lovely Harbor Bridge!

We wandered the streets a few hours in the cold, and then called it a night!

I decided a few hours in the big city was too much for me and so the next morning I woke up early and caught a bus at 6:30 am to the Blue Mountains north of Sydney. I left Katelin to tour Sydney by herself. It's ok, she's a teacher-scientist who grew up in Brooklyn, and I knew she could handle navigating the city on her own. 

For me, my first stop was:

My tour guide was amazing, and we got to the Wildlife Park before the park was even officially open. Our small group of 12 had the entire wildlife park to ourselves. 

To be honest, the most impressive aspect of the park was the bird collection. In this small park there was literally over a hundred species of native Australian birds. And since it was morning, they were LOUD. In the following video, I am observing a few parrots. 

Nut most people are more interested in the large charismatic mammals, especially the marsupials. 

Wallabies were everywhere. And you could feed them from your hand. In fact they had many species of wallabies just wandering around freely. The big guys though, the kangaroos, they had to keep behind a fence, because they can hurt humans. Here are some wallabies eating their breakfast. There was nothing between me and the wallabies when I filmed this. In fact I was able to pet some of them!

But perhaps one of my favorite moments was getting my picture taken with a koala!

I saw all of Australia's unique animals in one place: wallabies, kangaroos, Tasmanian devil, wombats, flying foxes, spotted quoll, koalas, and dingos, just to name a few!

And they had puppies!

Dingo puppies at play!
Unfortunately the kangaroos were not so active when I saw them. They were all just sort of... lying around. 

Lazy kangaroo.
After we said good-bye to all the amazing animals, and the tourists started to pour in, we made our way to the actual Blue Mountains. Our first stop was this awesome outlook:

Then we went to another amazing overlook:

Photos simply don't do it justice. The space was so wide and expansive. I felt as though I had never seen so far and wide in my life.

Most of group then boarded a sky tram across the canyon at this point. (Note the wire in the picture above.) However, I opted to skip the sky tram and instead take a walk with an aboriginal tour guide to learn more about the land, his people, and the mythologies and history of this beautiful place. 

The tour was very personal, with just me and one other American tourist from LA. The white marks on our face was his demonstration of how to make facepaint using powdered limestone rock from the cliffs and water. His stories were haunting and magical and shall stay with me a long time. It was my only encounter with some of aboriginal ancestry in Australia during my entire six week stay, and I am very grateful for the opportunity to just get a small taste of this unique and rich perspective and culture. (Obviously there are hundreds of tribes and cultures, and really I only had exposure to one.)

Next our tour guide took us to a place that felt like the top of the world. This place was called the King's Tableland. The view here was insane. A great place to end the day.

After a day of hiking and adventures, I took the bus and a ferry back to Sydney and rejoined Katelin, who was returning from The Lion King!!!

The next day I pretty much ran all over Sydney, trying to pack all of Sydney into a day. 

Here once again is the lovely Sydney harbor:

And a better view of the Harbor Bridge during the day:

I took a tour of the inside of the Opera House, as did Katelin. It was amazing inside. The architecture really is supreme. The outside and inside coexist in harmony. The interior has a cathedral-like feel, yet modern and timeless. I can't describe it. Pictures are better. Here is one example of this tremendous space:

After the tour I grabbed some fish and chips, and then made a dash through the botanical gardens.

And then don't ask me how I fit this in, but I took a bus to Bondi Beach, and ran from Bondi to Coogee. I ran because I didn't have time to walk!

I was very impressed with the weathering process in the limestone rocks!! 

Oh and somewhere in Sydney I ran into my husband, but I left him behind there because I had to get back to the lab and go to work!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Reefs & Rainforest

What happened to the last two weeks in Australia?? 

I know you have been asking yourself this question day in and day out for the past month. I know you have been checking this blog every hour with bated breath, just hoping for word from your two favorite teacher-scientist-explorers. 

"What happened in Australia during your last two weeks?" you ask. A lot happened. Our greatest adventures yet! For starters we took our two biggest weekend trips: Cairns and Sydney. Big because they were the furthest distances from Townsville we had yet traveled, and big because we packed them full of adventures. In addition, exciting developments occurred in each of our respective labs. For Katelin, a fellow researcher expressed interest in purchasing the salinity probe she was developing. This caused a flurry of activity as all the scientists in her lab flocked to learn about her progress and help her see the project to completion. As for me, I was preparing samples for SEM, a process that proved much trickier than initially thought. In my last week in the lab I presented on an article on management of pests in open-water algae systems as part of our journal club, and also had the opportunity to take some fabulous photos on SEM. (More on that later.) 

But first, Cairns. 

Cairns is about 350 km north of Townsville, about a 4 hour drive. Being about 2 degrees latitude further north is subtle shift that makes Cairns warmer and more tropical. It is a place where the rainforest meets the sea. Oh, and it is pronounced "Cans." (Australians are notoriously soft on their "r's." )

We drove up Friday after work, arriving late in the evening. First thing we did was drive to the Cairns airport and pick up my good friend Yukari. Yukari is a friend of mine from Sarah Lawrence College. She studied Environmental Science and went on to have a career in sustainable investing. Originating from Japan, she spent nearly a decade in the United States before returning to Japan and then finally moving to Melbourne for graduate studies and a new job. She has been in Australia for a few years now and we asked her many questions concerning contrasting cultures from Japan, the US, and Australia. It was great to reconnect with this friend on the other side of the world, whom I don't get to see with much frequency!

But our first full day in Cairns we all went separate ways! Kaitlin wanted to try kayaking on the ocean and went to Fitzroy Island. Yukari also went to Fitzroy Island but more with the intention to beach it and do some hiking. As it turns out Fitzroy is a small island and both ran into each other more than once! 

As for me, I ran away and took a high speed catamaran to the Outer Reef. An hour and half ride out and one seasickness pill later, I was there. The sea was quite choppy and the ride was rough going out on account of a receding storm. However, as a result of the rain, we were treated to a beautiful rainbow, which all three of us enjoyed from our respective places.

Here is a video of me about to dive in at the Outer Reef. I was quite nervous as this was my first dive without my dive instructor. Also, all my training dives were done by walking in from the shore. This time I was jumping off the side of a ship into deep water with no land in sight. 

Once again I was transported to a magical world surrounded by fish and corals!

I took over 200 photos and video clips during my day of diving and snorkeling. I made two dives, both about 40 minutes in length. After my second dive I stayed in the water to continue snorkeling around the reef. I stayed in as long as I could. I think I snorkeled for over an hour. Finally the boat was about to leave and they blew a whistle to call me back in. If only I could survive like a grouper fish, I would have stayed there forever.

Here are just a few examples of some of the pictures I took:

I love the little fish that hovered in schools around many of the corals.

It should be noted, that the first notable thing I saw upon diving, was a shark. Yes, that's right, I swam with a shark!

 As you can see, I kept a healthy distance!

Later, upon returning to the lab, I shared my dive pictures with my fellow scientists, almost all of whom are marine biologists with diving experience. They helped me identify a number of the species. They were quite impressed with some of the rare species I managed to capture by camera. For example, the following is the Chinese trumpetfish, Aulostomus chinesis, which has an unusual upturned mouth, and can hover vertically. It is fish-eater, and quite shy, so it is special that I was able to see it. 
The secretive Chinese trumpetfish, Aulostomus chinesis.
Then there were these guys:

Lizard fish, Synodus variegatus

I thought they were unusual because they were just sitting there on the coral, chillin'. Not busy swimming around like the other fish. You rarely see fish just sitting around, so this pair caught my attention. Again the lab was excited by my photo and identified the fish as a type of lizard fish. I believe the species is Synodus variegatus. One person in my lab said that apparently their numbers had dropped off for unknown reasons, and lizard fish had not been commonly seen in the past few years. So this was an exciting find.

Thanks again to a labmate (Hao) I was able to identify the following fish as a Moorish idol. Again, I just took the picture because it was pretty and different from any other fish I saw there. Turns out it was a rare fish indeed! Moorish idol, or Zanclus cornutus is the only extant member of its genus Zanclidae. Apparently they are solitary fish.

Moorish idol, or Zanclus cornutus
Then there was this beast:

Green humphead parrotfish, Bolbometopon muricatum
This impressive fish was easily over three feet long. I didn't know what it was, but I chased it around the reef a bit, which I don't think it liked, so I finally let it go. Upon later research I discovered it was green humphead parrotfish, Bolbometopon muricatum. Apparently this is the largest species of parrotfish that exists, sometimes reaching over 1.3m or 46 kg. (That's 4 feet, or 100 lbs.) This guy was definitely a full grown adult and on the larger end of the spectrum. Parrotfish, for those not in the know, have parrot-like beaks (actually made of teeth and jaw) that scrape algae from the reef. The are largely responsible for turning coral skeleton into sand, as the hard part of the reef passes through their digestive system and comes out as beautiful white sand on the other end. So thank a parrotfish next time you are enjoying some luminous white sand on your vacation.

Towards the end of my dive I saw this adorable pufferfish. Aside from their remarkable ability to puff up when frightened, pufferfish have some other special talents. Pufferfish eyes can move independently of one another, and they are very agile in water, able to swim forwards and backwards. 

Blackspotted pufferfish? Arothron nigropunctatus I believe.

I saw a number of giant clams that were quite lovely.

Giant clams.
There were also a number of impressive sea cucumbers that our dive guide boldly picked up and invited us to touch. (They were squishy.)

Leopard Sea Cucumber (Bohadschia argus)

I also tried to take many video clips while diving to capture both the feeling and sounds of diving, but also the fish behaviors. Unfortunately many of these videos are extremely jerky. I am still new to diving and I was constantly thinking about my buoyancy while diving, struggling to swim at the proper depth and not brush against any of the sensitive corals. The following video is one of the few relatively smooth pieces of footage I managed:

The following video is a bit shaky, but it captured some interesting behavior that is quite common on the reef: cleaning commensalism.  The large fish in this video is some kind of triggerfish, I believe it is a titan triggerfish, although with over 40 species of triggerfish, exact identification is difficult. It wasn't until reading about triggerfish later that I found out these fish are known to be quite aggressive and have been documented attacking divers. Oblivious to this fact, I got quite close and filmed it for a few minutes as it was getting cleaned. The smaller blue fish is some kind of cleaner wrasse. These little guys have a smart business. They set up stations at various points in the reef and wait until they have a customer, like this triggerfish. The larger fish will then hold still and open its mouth. The cleaner fish will move about the larger fish, picking off and eating any parasites or organisms growing on the bigger fish. It will even move inside its mouth and gills, giving a thorough cleaning. It is careful not to bite the fish, and the larger fish will not eat the wrasse. I saw this many times on the reef. Sometimes the cleaner wrasses hitch a ride and stay with the larger fish for some time.

 And one final video. I got some beautiful footage of a sting-ray swimming. Yes, in addition to sharks, I swam among sting rays. 

It was an amazing day on the reef. I have so many more photos of fish I could talk about, but I think I have given enough information. It is incredible that I took over 200 photos from just one day of diving. It is a testament to the extravagant biodiversity on the Great Barrier Reef.

But wait, there's more!

That was only Day 1 or our two days in Cairns!! That evening I reunited with my scientifically minded friends and we swapped stories. The next day we decided to explore the rainforest together! Unlike the reef, land animals tend to hide during the day, so I don't have any worthy pictures of animals. But it was wonderful to be in a different ecosystem that was also rich in biodiversity. We took the skyrail to Kuranda, a small town atop a mountain in the rainforest. The skyrail sails you above the canopy for 7.5 km and makes two stops allowing you to walk the understory as well. It was an amazing way to see the rainforest! 

Here are my two friends, one of whom was quite pinkened by the Queensland sun while on Fitzroy.

Yukari & Kaitlin in the Skyrail

Here are a shots of one of the walkways at a skyrail stop:

 There was a beautiful waterfall visible on one of the stops, although the waterfall is only a trickle compared to the rainy season.

Barron Falls
After visiting Kuranda, we took an old historic train back down through the rainforest. Here is Barron Falls again, as seen from the other side from the train:

Barron Falls
 And in fact there were several beautiful waterfalls along the train ride, like this one:

Our train! Taking it slow in a difficult curve!
It was a long drive home after two very full days, but it was worth it. On the drive home we hit a red light in the middle of the highway due to construction. There were no cars behind us and no clouds in the sky. It was a moonless night. We craned our necks out the car windows and marveled at the expanse of the Milky Way as we had never seen it before and contemplated our place in the universe and how fortunate we were to be alive and in Australia!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Measurements with the Salinity Probe

This week I took my first measurement using the circuit I built and the code that I wrote!

Step one was to make salt water.  Not all that difficult to do.  I researched the appropriate salt content of ocean water.  Get some salt and some water of course.  Calculated and measured the exact amount of salt needed. Boiled water… had some tea.  Used the boiled water to dissolve the salt and put the salt water into a giant bucket.  


Step two - find a new bucket because the one used has a giant hole

Step three- clean split water

Step four- place the probe in the bucket of water and run the program. 

Step five- sit back down at the computer and resolve all error messages.

Step six – interpret findings.  

Step Seven will be to trouble shoot and eventually calibrate the values received with the true salt concentration of the water. 

Yay Science!

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

SCUBA! Magnetic Island

For the sake of science, I sacrificed my free time last weekend to expand my knowledge of marine biology through scuba diving. In order to achieve this I took an online course and spent Saturday and Sunday completing my open-water diving certification through Pleasure Dives at Magnetic Island.

I left on an early morning ferry from Townsville to Magnetic Island.
Sunrise over Magnetic Island
The first day I spent mostly in the pool and I did one dive in a shipwreck at Geoffrey Bay! How exciting to dive in the ocean for my first time! It was chilly!! Even with a wet-suit I was shivering and cold most of the day. But I braved winter on this tropical island for the sake of science, so that I will be better prepared to collect microalgae samples from the deep.

The next day I did two dives in the morning at Alma Bay, then we took a break before completing my open-water certification and doing my final dive at Geoffrey Bay.

Here is a brief video with a panoramic view of Geoffrey Bay:

But first I took a walk to collect some algae samples from the bay at low tide. Here is one of my sampling sites:

Algae Sampling site, Geoffrey Bay, Magnetic Island
While I was wading in the water collecting algae, I had a close encounter with a group of sting-rays! I managed to capture one on film before fleeing for my life!

I was told that this was not sting-ray season, but I saw a number of sting-rays including during my dive. The locals told me that even in "off-season" there are always sting-rays in this bay.

And it was a good thing I fled the water, because a moment later I saw a number of shark fins!! I tried to get some footage. It is a little shaky because I was so excited and was too busy watching them with my eyes instead of through the camera.

After being frightened by the sharks, which I later found out are blacktip reef sharks, I decided to head to higher ground and make friends with some more congenial animals. I am speaking of course of the rock wallabies.

Finally I donned my SCUBA gear and headed back into the water for my final dive to complete my open water certification. I also obtained some algae samples for lab work while I was down there!

Here are some pictures from the experience:


All in a days work! The next day I took my samples back to the lab and took some photos and video under the microscope.

(In the above video, the brown spinning things are dinoflagellates, and the longer slow moving things are diatoms.)