I had a mere five days to recover from DEMA in Orlando, see family and friends in Washington and Boston, and pack for the next six weeks in Australia and Papua New Guinea. I have learned to use my time at home wisely from visits, getting laundry done, and repacking. Spending time at home gives me a chance to take a deep breath before moving on once more. I am able to switch up my gear, reading material, and run necessary errands to dive shops and banks. These five days went fast so it was not surprising that I suddenly found myself on a plane heading to San Francisco where, after a nice layover, I boarded a plane that would take me on a 14-hour flight to Sydney, Australia. In my interview for the scholarship I was asked where I would like to go if I was chosen. Australia, to dive the Great Barrier Reef, was my first answer. A long flight was not about to curb my excitement to travel to the other side of the world. I arrived two days later in Sydney and was greeted by 2007 Australasian Scholar Mat Kertesz. Mat drove north through the city where I got my first glimpse of the opera house and Sydney harbor bridge. It is truly amazing to finally see such well known structures in real life. Memorialized in post cards, advertisements, and movies, these monuments look exactly as I had thought they would except for the fact that I could now stand next to each.
Jayne Jenkins, Australasian coordinator, and her boyfriend Collin Kestevan were my adopted family during my stay in Sydney. I can’t thank them enough for a wonderful visit and for taking care of me. I also can’t thank Jayne enough for all her help in even making this trip possible. Over the next week and a half, I dove in Sydney Harbor to look for sea horses and weedy sea dragons. My first dive was at Manly Cove to check out a shark net that has become artificial habitat for local sea horses. As it turns out, that day was an important day – thirty White’s sea horses were to be released from a breeding program at the Sydney aquarium. We were told that the press might document the event. When Jayne and I came up from our first dive we saw 20 reporters on the beach with cameras! One reporter came up to me and, noticing my Light and Motion housing, asked if I had videotaped the release of the seahorses. I had indeed and I lent my tape to him. Later that night, Jayne and I turned on the six o’clock evening news and there was a story on the seahorses with my footage! My first full day in Australia and I made it on national news (or at least my filming did!).
Over the next few days, I met people from the Sydney Aquarium conservation fund, researchers, dive shop owners, and many of Jayne’s friends who are in the diving industry. I also had a good chance to explore Sydney thanks to my tour guide, Mat, who was happy to show me his home town. My days were spent either diving, being a tourist, or working. I was thrilled to visit the Taronga Zoo and meet my first Koala and to the Sydney Aquarium to learn more about these new marine ecosystems. Jayne and I spent a lot of time together, diving, eating, talking about the scholarship, and even one day enjoying a thrilling helicopter ride to Kangaroo Valley provided by her friend to help muster cattle at his ranch. One weekend, I took a train north to Woy Woy to sit in on a marine conservation community meeting. The meeting was the last in a series to educate interested community members on the marine environment and public education. The participants’ assignment was to develop their own community education program which could be anything from presenting at a school or making brochures for local hotels on marine awareness. I enjoyed talking with many of the participants and helped brainstorm some ideas. We were all treated to a wonderful talk by an Aboriginal man about his culture, history, and place in today’s Australian society. He played a terrific melody on the didgeridoo that resembled calls from the kookaburra. My stay in Sydney also coincided nicely with the opening of Jayne’s first gallery. Shared with another underwater photographer, this gallery, called "Underwater Australia" concentrated on the animals in Sydney’s waters. We celebrated with an official opening by Valerie Taylor.
I wish I could have stayed in Sydney longer but I was eager to head to my next stop: Papua New Guinea where I am writing from now. I am being accommodated by Max and Cecile Benjamin of the Walindi Plantation Resort. It is nighttime, right now, and as I write I am listening to the lovely sounds of toads and light rain in the forest around me. Walindi is positioned in Kimbe Bay of West New Britain with access to some of the healthiest reefs I have ever seen. My purpose for traveling to Walindi, even with fun dives in mind, was mostly to learn about the next door Mahonia Na Dari Center for Conservation and Research. Primarily concentrating on marine conservation awareness, programs include school group visits, community events, field trips, ecotourism, and providing education to people living in the surrounding islands. Mahonia Na Dari means "Guardian of the Sea." It's quite amazing what they've accomplished.
The Nature Conservancy, the EU, and Walindi helped to start the Mahonia Center in 1994. In 1997 the community education programs began. A year later, the Nature Conservancy left and Mahonia became an autonomous program. The Nature Conservancy still maintains an office on the grounds (as well as in Port Moresby on mainland PNG) and the partnership continues.
There are four main programs associated with the Mahonia Center:
1. Community based conservation – aims to assist local communities in resource management and facilitate locally managed marine areas (LMAs) Youths are highly involved and produce dramas to their communities. This program also includes a specific Women in Conservation course.
2. Research program – began in 1992 when Max Benjamin noticed that Kimbe Bay showed an unusually high biodiversity in such a small area. Such diversity has been the topic of many research projects, primarily from James Cook University (Townsville, Queensland, Australia). The program provides boats and laboratory space to visiting scientists and any findings are given to Mahonia to interpret to the community.
3. Education – these programs began in 1998 and include intensive courses for high school students, marine camps and excursions, snorkeling trips, training for primary school teachers, and community awareness programs. Classes use discussions, debate, fish dissections, dramas, and research to learn about the marine environment and conservation.
4. Walindi Nature Center – any income from rent, boat hire, big groups and conference space usage is used to support staff wages, insurance, and other costs, as well as the above programs.
I am thrilled to learn about such a wonderful organization and it is clear that a lot of good, hard work has been done in the last few years. I eagerly talked with many of the staff who told me how Mahonia is run and introduced me to the programs. Due to some heavy rains, the local airport has not been able to accept all the flights and many of the school groups had to cancel their programs. Luckily, I was able to sit in on a class for a local school about coral reef biology, conservation, and food webs. About 30 students attended accompanied by teachers and parents. The whole class was taught in a mixture of English and the local pidgin language. It was certainly an interesting lecture to listen to as the English was broken up by words I couldn’t understand at all. Thanks to context I managed to pick up a few phrases here and there. I also helped with a graduation ceremony for the first Women in Conservation class. About ten women participated in this new course over three month period to learn about marine conservation and community education. Speeches were given, certificates handed out, and we celebrated with a delicious picnic.
When I am not helping at Mahonia, I go diving on the nearby reefs. The diving here is beautiful with large, healthy reefs teeming with fish and invertebrate life. I am excited to see such life as upside down jellyfish, moray eels, gorgeous nudibranchs, anemone fish, lion fish, and tiny popcorn shrimp. The dive staff at Walindi has taken very good care of me and the other guests and the days out on the water are fabulous.
As December arrives, I look forward to another week here at Walindi before moving on to more adventures in Australia. As for my answer during my interview that I would like to go to Australia to dive the Great Barrier Reef, Queensland is my next stop along the way to do just that.
This month has been fantastic but it could not have happened without the help of Jayne Jenkins. A huge thanks to Jayne for not only making this trip a success but also taking care of me while in Sydney. Thank you also to Max and Cecile Benjamin for their very kind and wonderful accommodations at Walindi (thanks also to the staff!) and for helping me with complicated travel logistics.
1. Seahorse at Manly Beach
2) Weedy sea dragon in the Manly Harbor. Picture by Alex Mustard
3. Mat and I at the Sydney Opera House
4. Jayne Jenkins and I enjoy a helicopter ride
5. Max and Cecilie Benjamin at the Walindi Plantation Resort
6. Underwater Papua New Guinea
7. Christmas tree worms
8. Out on a dive, Papua New Guinea
9. Mahonia Na Dari
10. Students at Mahonia