December 2007

I rounded off the year 2007 with an excellent month full of adventures. The first week of December I was still diving regularly at the Walindi Plantation Resort in Kimbe Bay, Papua New Guinea. I got to know several of the reef sites quite well during my two week stay. One of my favorite dives was to a reef where we could usually find one or two pygmy sea horses on a beautiful gorgonian coral. They are exceptionally difficult to see so I would float at 20 meters straining my eyes to find these little seahorses! Even when I would finally find one, by the time I got my camera focused, I would lose the seahorse from my field of vision. Luckily I managed to get a few good shots of these neat animals.

After each day of diving I would sit at the Walindi main house with the other divers and staff talking about travel and diving. Walking back after dinner to my bungalow I would often stop in the darkness to listen to the frogs chirping and the sea washing up on the nearby beach. I am thrilled to have had this opportunity to visit West New Britain, Papua New Guinea. While the reefs in this area are quite pristine and diverse, Papua New Guinea continues to be off the beaten path for most divers. Thanks to the hospitality of Max and Cecile Benjamin of the Walindi Resort and, of course, help through the scholarship, this trip was made possible and I would welcome the chance to travel back again.

Soon my two weeks were up and after a visit to the Kimbe Bay Market to check out the local crafts and produce, I was on my way back to Australia – this time to tropical Queensland. From Cairns (a city I could never quite learn to pronounce correctly; sounds like ‘cans’ like ‘cans of soda’), I made my way north to Port Douglas in order to board the Undersea Explorer. The Undersea Explorer is not only a world famous live-aboard but has also sponsored many scholars before me. This trip was "a must" as a scholar so I was very excited to finally stand on the dock bags in hand and ready to dive. The Undersea Explorer specializes in combining Great Barrier Reef Diving with continued research on sharks, corals, nautilus, and whales. There are always two berths available to visiting researchers and divers are encouraged to become involved during and in between dives. As luck would have it, my trip consisted of four researchers as well as a professional photographer!

Carden Wallace and Paul Muir from the Museum of Tropical Queensland, Townsville, were on board in order to continue their work on corals and sea anemones. I was very excited to meet Carden who is one of the world’s experts in Acropora corals, and I gladly offered my assistance to her and Paul. Also on board were Andy Dunstan and Peter Ward, the two nautilus researchers. I had known that nautilus work was to be done on this trip so was also very excited to meet Andy and Peter to learn more about the animals and their research. We were also fortunate to have aboard photographer Jürgen (Yogi) and book producer Stella Freund.

This was going to be a great trip!

When all guests were on board, we were given a thorough briefing by the skipper, mate, divemaster, and biologist. We were also introduced to Louise and Grant Bernstein, the proprietors of Undersea, whom I had met the month before at DEMA. A huge thanks to Louise and Grant for this trip! After the briefing, I settled into my bunk and fell asleep to the ship’s droning engine. The next morning I would wake up to my first dive on the Great Barrier Reef.

Ever since I learned to dive I have wanted to come to the Great Barrier Reef and I was not disappointed. Our schedule was fairly simple: wake up and have a light breakfast, go diving, snack, go diving, lunch, go diving, snack, go diving, watch a beautiful sunset, go diving, dinner, sleep, repeat. Each time I ducked underwater I was greeted with beautiful reef structure, diverse coral, schools of fish, many sharks, enormous cod, and often sea turtles. The dives were all relatively shallow and easy allowing us a lot of time to explore each site to look for shrimps, nudibranchs, flatworms, and lion fish. I also had fun with the few of our drift dives some of them with fairly fast currents. It was a wonderful feeling to almost just sit in the water column while watching the ecosystem pass me by or hang onto a piece of dead coral to watch the large fish and sharks swim.

We were kept busy and entertained during our surface intervals with wonderful lectures from the visiting scientists and the marine biologist on staff. This is a component that, I believe, not many live-aboards have regularly and it was fascinating to learn more about the ecosystems and animals that we saw every day. Andy gave a wonderfully detailed talk on nautilus anatomy, biology, and species concerns as well as continued research. Carden, similarly, taught us how to find and identify common and not so common sea anemones as well as the anemone fish that use them as homes. Every evening we also delighted in putting light traps in the water and exploring the amazing plankton that the traps would collect, including a few baby octopuses and flying fish!

One of my favorite experiences on board was helping with the nautilus research with Andy, Peter, and the Undersea staff biologist, Chris. Nautilus are well known to undergo extensive vertical migrations in the water column at night in order to feed. To this end, Andy and Peter assembled traps baited with chicken and fish and attached to about 400m worth of line. Luckily they needed some help out on the water so one night I ended up on a zodiac in the middle of the pitch-black ocean helping them throw the traps into the water and secure with buoys. After a few hours we went back out to retrieve one trap and we had caught 12! We brought them back keeping them in ice water and Peter and Andy set to work. The nautiluses were measured, sexed, marked, and released (with us guests helping). Two individuals were fixed with small, neutrally buoyant, ultrasonic transmitters, and also released. Over the next few days Andy and Peter continued to collect nautiluses for the database and tagged a few more. Using a surface receiver they were able to track the depth and location of nautiluses that had been ultrasonically tagged. It was certainly an interesting sight to watch the tiny zodiac move across the horizon in search of these invertebrates.

I joined Carden and Paul on dives to watch their collecting techniques and attempt to learn to differentiate Acropora species. Carden would point to her slate with the scientific name then point to the coral she was identifying. I would look back and forth a few times at the name and the coral, look at her and nod, and then would promptly forget the information. Even though I still can’t identify to the species level any of the corals I saw during my dives, I enjoyed the practice of learning what characteristics to look for when examining corals to the species level.

During many dives I would often come across Yogi and Stella with their huge cameras taking pictures of anemone fish, corals, sharks, and the giant cod. We were all treated to a beautiful slide show of some of Yogi’s best work and stories from his travels. Yogi and Stella were excited to learn about my scholarship and they amazingly took a few pictures of me underwater! These pictures are a wonderful gift from a great photographer.

I can’t say enough about my time on the Undersea Explorer. Not only was the diving amazing but it was certainly a better trip due to the staff on board. We were all well cared for, fed amazingly, and given great dive support. I would recommend a trip on the Undersea to any diver.

Sadly, the trip came to an end and I found myself back in Cairns with a few friends I had met on the trip. After a celebratory dinner full of diving stories from the previous week, I sat down to think about how to spend my last week in Australia. It was nearing the end of the month as well as the holiday season and unfortunately most of the people I had been talking to through email would soon be on holidays. I was determined to head to Townsville anyway and after renting a car with a friend we drove south through hours of sugar cane and banana fields and stopping to swim in gorgeous waterfalls.

In Townsville we visited Carden and Paul at the Museum of Tropical Queensland and got a great behind the scenes tour of Carden’s Acropora collection as well as some newly acquired historical diving gear. The next day we visited the famous ReefHQ aquarium and got a personal tour by a volunteer. I wasn’t about to leave Townsville without diving the famous Yongala Wreck that is considered one of the top wreck dives in the world. We managed to get spots on a large zodiac running out of Ayr, about an hour south of Townsville, and got ready for the dive. I am still fairly new to wreck diving and while the Yongala is just over 100m long and lying beautifully on its side, it isn’t so much a wreck as it is its own reef ecosystem. The ship is almost completely covered by coral and coral fish schools. On the two dives we saw a few turtles, sharks, and a huge eagle ray. I also finally got to see my first couple of sea snakes and marveled as they slithered and swam in and out of the coral structures. The dives were beautiful even though the visibility could have been a bit better, and I would enjoy diving on this wreck again.

I only had a mere few days left in Australia and I decided to take them easy. It had gotten very hot in the past few weeks and I spent most of the time inside working on the computer or visiting the museums. I still had the rental car to return but for the last night I drove back up north to Port Douglas to see Linda Rumney. Linda and John Rumney have been long time friends of the scholarship and after meeting them at DEMA in October they had been of great help in finding the proper contacts in Queensland. After a beautiful drive up north (I am very proud of my ability to drive on the left!) I had dinner with Linda (John was on a boat at the time) and we talked the night away about the scholarship, traveling, and her and John’s new charter business.

I left Cairns on the morning of December 24th and made it back to San Francisco on the morning of December 24th. I had two Christmas eves! Luckily the 14-hour flight wasn’t actually all that bad as I had four seats to myself to stretch out and sleep. Unfortunately a 10 hour layover in San Francisco greeted me when I landed but I decided to treat myself to a daily-use hotel room and room service. That night I finally boarded a red-eye to bring me across the country and back home just in time to be picked up by none other than Santa himself (well, my dad in a Santa hat). After opening presents and sharing some stories with my family I promptly crashed and recovered from the 15 hour time difference over the next five days.

A year ago I had just begun a new part-time job as a program educator at the New England Aquarium in Boston, MA. At that point I had already sent in my application to the scholarship but would not hear back from the society for another few weeks. A few months after that, I was the new scholar. 2007 was certainly a life-changing year and I know that 2008 will continue to be just as amazing. I rang in the New Year with my sister and her husband in Indianapolis and toasted to a wonderful year.

Here’s to 2008!

1. Beautiful volcanic Papua New Guinea

2. Kimbe Bay Market

3. A Japanese fighter pilot plane from WWII in about 10 meters of water near Walindi Resport

4. On the Undersea Explorer with Louise and Grant Bernstein

5. Out with Andy and Peter to find nautiluses

6. Measuring and tagging a nautilus on board the Undersea

7. Filming a sea turtle on the Great Barrier Reef

8. Lionfish

9. Photo by Yogi Freund

10. On board the Undersea Explorer

11. At the bow of the Yongala near Townsville, QLD