Heron Island Research Station, Great Barrier Reef

An Academic Journey to Heron Island Research Station in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park\

I am writing about going to Heron Island, the world’s largest coral reef research station in the Southern Great Barrier Reef, a month late, because the salty and flavorful experience needed time to digest. Perhaps my peer Jose said it best when he exclaimed that after seeing the Lemon and Reef sharks for the first time his life was suddenly %50 better.


And yet, for all the feeling that the glass is half full, our professors tended to remind us that the glass is actually more than half empty, with half of the Great Barrier Reef’s coral habitats having been lost in the last 27 years.  This Earthly Fantasia, to which I can now attest exists and in seeming perpetuity, is indeed disappearing.  It is not the oceans that need saving but the myriad microorganisms that compose coral reefs, and all the mega-fauna that thrive in them, such as the fish, sea turtles, whales, and sharks, all slipping down a slimy algae covered slope, out of the light that sustains them, towards ecological extinction.

Our trip north began in Brisbane, a drab concrete city on the banks of a wide, turbid river.  The Brisbane River is notorious for its recent temperaments and gigantic bull-sharks that occasionally eat people, which must have been unnerving during the epic 2001 floods that turned the streets into class five rapids.  After a steak at a Hollywood-tack themed restaurant, my classmates and I walked across the bridge to find an affordable pub, and had no luck.  Eventually, three of the girls and I resigned to a quaint, albeit expensive café called The Last Mule, while the rest of the group returned to the hotel.

The bungalow like cafe had a cozy hipster vibe and there was a fashionable girl who looked straight out of a post card working on her laptop at an upstairs table in a room plastered with old comic books.  We ordered elderberry and lime Kronnenberg “Cider-Spiders.”  The spider is a scoop of vanilla ice cream, and the frothy floats were boozy deliciousness.

It was not long before the rain started falling hard on the aluminum roofing, and we played Uno and took silly pictures until it grew dark. On the way back through the ugly and maze like metropolis, we stumbled into a busy bike path, crossed four lanes in the middle of a busy freeway and generally got lost and drenched.

The following day we had a lecture at the University of Queensland campus, which unlike the city is stately and green, with unfamiliar and towering trees, and wild bush turkeys, a protected species that have been known to burry people alive, wandering the lush grounds.  Dr. Maria Berger, a young German lady, talked to us about modeling using a program called Marxan, the most widely used conservation planning software in the world.  It provides decision support to a range of conservation planning problems, including the design of new reserve systems, reporting on the performance of existing reserve systems and developing multiple-use zoning plans for natural resource management.

Just how the Marxan algorithm takes so much into account was largely lost to my abstract and hung over mind.  I simply understood that the modeling process is largely based on a cost benefit analysis between spatial configurations and maintaining an effective representation of biodiversity, and that the main to the model include targets or features, goals, stratification and assessment units, and information on threats and human uses.

Dr. Berger’s background is in engineering, and I am consistently reminded of the importance of mathematics in the real world of conservation, for example in designing reserves and in setting quotas for fisheries management.  I can’t help but be intimidated by economic and mathematical models, especially when they argue against the common sense goals of ecosystem-based management.  Nevertheless, like my college conservation professor, Lorayne Meltzer, used to say, we must fight the battle with the weapon that most suits us, like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  I know that my strengths are elsewhere, but I too know how it feels to want for talent in another part of the brain.

Kookaburras are terrestrial tree kingfishers of the genus Dacelo native to Australia and New Guinea.

After the lecture, we hopped on an eight-hour bus through the mostly rural West Coast of New South Wales and into Queensland.  From the bus I spotted my first, and only, kangaroo of the trip, other than the one I ate in a mouth-watering kebab.  I have since learned from Bob Irwin’s Facebook posts that eating kangaroos is controversial, but I can’t honestly say I regret the delicious experience.  This was, by the way, at the backpackers, and not at the trucker’s stops where even the simplest food was rubbery and inedible.  From the road I saw a pair of truly gigantic Yellow-Tailed Black Cockatoos (Calyptorhynchus funereus) flying through the forest, the very definition of exotic.  I also spotted my first Kookaburra perched on the sign of a country gas station.

Other than that little bit of excitement it was a long and uncomfortable ride to the port of Gladstone, a markedly industrial harbor town with the aura of somewhere in Middle America, complete with a small town carnival.  Many Australian girls, like the blonde at the carnival ticket booth, may not be renowned for their classic beauty, and yet have the sexiest eyes due to their sharp angles and cool colors.  I wandered into the carnival after having come out of the bathroom at the backpackers, which incidentally contained my nemesis, a sand clock timer for five-minute showers, and realized that I was alone.

I could not stomach a carnival hot dog, and ended up at the yacht club’s restaurant-bar by the marina, the only place with any sign of life.  Here, I was introduced to Australians’ socio-genetic heritage of crime and corruption and made to pay $9 for three spoonful’s of cold soup that I didn’t order.  You would think I would be able to stand up for myself, but I was tired and hungry and did not want my forthcoming Cesar Salad spit on.  The bill came to $32 bloody Australian dollars for a salad and a beer, another typical student meal, but at least there was another waitress with sexy eyes.

The next morning we lay by the docks in the first warm sunshine in months, taking in the scenic mountains in the distance and waiting for the ferry to Heron Island, and I had another opportunity to pat myself on the back.  The owner of the backpackers showed up with a raincoat that I had left in the closet, and I sealed my reputation as the hardened traveler who leaves his raincoat behind on the way to a tropical field station.  At least I learned from this experience, and from chatting with friendly workers at the backpackers the night before, that Australians could also be genuinely obliging.

The ferry is exclusive to Heron Island, which is just a tiny speck in a huge swath of reef the size of Japan.  Nevertheless, it hosts a small village of resort workers, guests, researchers and school groups.  The boat trip out is similarly deceiving, and as we cut through cold, deep, indigo waters, with forested mountains on the landward horizon, I began to doubt that we would come upon the tropical paradise I had so long imagined. I also witnessed a dozen or so massive industry tankers, proof of the unprecedentedly numerous operations neighboring the marine park. Tens of thousand ships move through the GBR every year, with a %20 increase expected in the next twenty years.

Three major groundings since 1996 damaged around 5,000 meters2 of coral, and a further 115,000 m2 were damaged by five tons of oil that spilled from the Shen Neng I  when it hit Douglas Shoal in April 2010.  Toxins, from anti-fouling hull paints, such as the banned but ever present tributylin (TBT) and copper, when not leaching gradually into the water column, are loosed in quantity upon grounding, interfering with the critical life functions of marine organisms and inhibiting the natural recovery of smashed reefs.  A further impact of shipping traffic is the introduction of foreign invasive species in bilge and ballast waster, and attached to the massive hulls.

A couple of hours after losing sight of the mainland, and nodding off on my friends shoulder, the atmosphere and the light began to look different.  I also noticed what appears to be an endless tsunami stretching across the horizon, and realized that this wall of water was the breakwater of the Great Barrier Reef, the greatest structure ever built by living things.  Stretching 2,100km, this has been a reef on and off for millions of years, with most coral taxa being at least 10-20 million years old.  Amazingly, during the last ice age it was not a reef at all, but a grassy plain across which indigenous Australians once walked.

I tried to take pictures of the abrupt line where the water changes colors from cerulean to turquoise, and of the white band in the distance, but the camera could not capture enough length.  Then, out of nowhere, appeared a little white and green strip of land, so small that you can circumvent it on foot in less than half an hour. Heron Island is part of Capricornia Cays National Park, which includes 22 reefs straddling the Tropic of Capricorn at the Great Barrier Reef’s southern end.

There are 16 islands, or coral cays, on these reefs.  Heron Island is just a little cay and yet its surrounding waters and 27km2 platform reef are, according to the University of Queensland, “home to a majority of the vertebrate, invertebrate and algal species identified in the Great Barrier Reef, and likely a similar proportion of the species awaiting ‘discovery’.  The terrestrial environment, while small, supports large populations of migrating birds as well as nesting sites for green turtles, all ripe for study.”

To borrow some history from the Island’s website, Heron island began forming around 6,000 years ago.  Francis Blackwood on the H.M.S Fly discovered the coral cay in 1843 while looking for shipping channels, and the ship’s geologist named it after the “reef herons,” actually Eastern Reef Egrets that I also saw plucking the little tropical fish from the reef flat.

Birdwatchers and bird shit miners then frequented the island, but development didn’t occur until Mr. L. Marsh applied for a special lease in 1925 and established a turtle soup factory.  My grandmother loves turtle soup and I have a vague memory of eating it in the Caribbean as a child.  When I told her I was working in sea turtle conservation she said, “oh that’s wonderful, they are so delicious and their shells make such pretty combs.”  Sadly, the turtle harvest, even before they were endangered, is cruel, with live turtles placed in the sun on their backs, unable to breath, as their lungs are crushed and they die slowly of exposure.  I’m sure a slaughterhouse is not much better, but charismatic megafauna is just that.

The Australian Turtle Company’s run was brief.  Unsurprisingly, within a short time turtle numbers dropped dramatically and the business became unviable.  In the 1930’s, the lease was taken over by Captain Christian Poulsen who built the resort and eventually disappeared at sea.

It was he who was responsible for bringing the damaged naval vessel to rest in the channel in 1943.  He decided it would make a terrific breakwater after finding it abandoned on a beach near Gladstone and buying the wreck (circa 1884) for 10 pounds.  Postcards and photos of Heron Island in the 1950’s show visitors showing off their catches of the day, which are no doubt smaller than they used to be, clasping big cowries and clams and even riding the sea turtles. Happily for the turtles, riding them was forbidden in the 1960s, and collecting from the marine park is now of course prohibited.  In 1951, the Heron Island Research Station was built, and has since been awaiting our arrival.

Indeed Poulsen’s rusted shipwreck was the first thing I noticed as we pulled expertly alongside a busy dock with a blue polo wearing crew ready to take bags and greet resort guests.  At the end of the dock the resort guests would go left and the researchers right, from which point we would be treated as second class citizens, and perhaps rightfully so considering the resort’s exorbitant prices.  As we walked along the long dock, we pointed excitedly to a long brown shape, belonging to a four-foot shovel nose ray, familiar to me as a guitar fish, scooting slowly under the dock.

Half an hour later this would seem trivial as we snorkeled under the sunset, surrounded by gliding five-foot Lemon and Black Tipped Reef Sharks.  At one point, I had my masked face out of the water and put it back down to see a lemon shark directly under my feet, causing me to whoop loudly despite myself.  All of a sudden I had lost much of my fear for the graceful and curious fish and gained an insatiable appetite to see them, and to swim with them, again and again.

As tends to happen, this first beach snorkel was the best of the trip, and my camera died during its most epic moments.  A lone lunch-break snorkel, during which a large black tip reef shark scoped me out, was second best,

Actually, nothing quite compares to a night snorkel.  Getting into the cold water after sunset was like a scene out of deep blue sea, as we launched off of a submerged platform into the black abyss, wearing glow-sticks and realizing that if we turned off our faulty lights we could navigate perfectly by the light of the full moon.

Shortly after we glided away from the dock, our fears were dispelled as we were guided by a massive, one and a half meter, ancient patriarch of a Loggerhead named Ben, with barnacles the size of golf balls on his head.

I would have another up close and personal experience with Ben while scuba diving, when he swam directly underneath me, just before we disturbed a shark that was resting on the sand to conserve energy.

In fact the big turtle was there in the channel most nights, sleeping on the sand and hiding his head under a mooring chain or the reef ledge.  Many of the local turtles showed this protective behavior, perhaps a response to sharks or tourists.

Another younger hawksbill even liked to sleep on the submerged stairs of the dock at high tide.

Somehow I split off from the group on the night snorkel, a habit I am too frequently reprimanded for.  This happened when I was exploring the inside of the sunken wreck and upsetting a few sleeping turtles with my flashlight.  As I exited, one small juvenile swam just in front of me showing no apprehension at all, and I couldn’t resist gently petting her plastron a few times before she glided away.  I stuck my arm out of the water to get what would have been my best picture yet but for a stupid water droplet on the lens.  This has thus far been my camera’s biggest weakness and I want to request that Olympus to make an automatic lens wiper on the shutter.

I also spotted two octopi by the light of the full moon and was able to call the group back to see one, and so redeem myself for leaving them.  By the time my peers reached me I had lost sight of the large camouflage master, that had mimicked the color of my blue glow stick when isolated on a sand flat,

and I was ready to apologize for calling them back when a smaller octopus rocketed by me and adopted an amazingly complex and cryptic pattern on an encrusted reef wall where Tom spotted it.

The boat snorkeling was even better than my scuba diving trip, because we strayed further from the island’s shores.  The young, surfer-dude from Moreton Bay who was captain of the bright yellow research zodiac, dropped us off in a current between cays and let us drift a few meters above a luxurious spread of Acropora and other assorted corals, clearly visible through the Bombay Saphire bottle blue water.  The reef was like no reef I had ever seen in the Caribbean, or even in Hawaii.  It was by comparison what a lush flower garden inside a famous botanical garden’s green house is to a front yard plot of lily’s and weeds.

The corals were deep enough that they lost their colors, making the vibrant fish stand out even more.

My favorite sights were the huge swarms of small fish, and the blue and red Crown of Thorns Sea Star (Acanthaster planci), a pest species that is currently the reef’s number one bane, responsible for nearly half of the reef’s destruction in the past 27 years.  Only one particular species of coral can defend itself.  It hosts a symbiotic crab (Trapezia spp.) that, like Goliath’s David, pinches at the giant echinoderm’s tube feet and breaks off its spines, repelling the externally digesting beasties that would otherwise consume 6 m2 of coral in one go.  Unlike an invasive species, such as the Pacific Sea Star (Asterias amurensis), Acanthaster is a native organism that is prone to five-year outbreaks, three major ones having been recorded on the reef thus far.  It is probable that people have enabled these outbreaks by adding nutrients to the system from terrestrial run off, not to mention by over fishing the Sea Star’s main predators.

As I floated through this wonderland, I couldn’t stop picturing the British-Australian illustrator Greame Base’s watercolors of the Great Barrier in “The Sign of the Seahorse,” and thinking that he was not stretching his imagination after all.

From the kid’s book by Greame Base

The only thing missing was his last page spread where the protagonist sea creatures discover a sea of multicolored sea horses floating amidst the crystalline turquoise water, and I’m sure this seahorse garden must exist in another less frequented spot.

Having been a fan of Mr. Base’s children’s books since “Animalia” was published in 1986, you can imagine I was excited to learn that our professor from the University of Queensland, Selena Ward, was a family friend of his.  Apparently the legendary illustrator lives in Melbourne, where perhaps I will one day get to have a beer with him and tell him how inspirational his work was for a young, nature-loving mind.  It seemed like an appropriate connection, as Dr. Ward is one of the cooler professors I’ve had, and having graduated from Prescott College, I’ve had some pretty hip ones.

Dr. Ward, who came with us on all the field excursions, rocks a pair of surfer style ray bans, loose cloths suited to the tropical environs where she works, and fashionable jewelry almost as bright as her eyes, which sparkle with enthusiasm for this veritable paradise on Earth.  With long, wavy black hair, a full physique, and the wisdom of a mother, she reminds me of an Italian matriarch, with a soft loving side balanced by an edge that slices through opponents like fresh pasta.

Her daughter, appropriately named like the goldfish in Pinocchio, is a doll, with her mother’s keenness, a sunny disposition and a bubbly laugh.  Chloe’s lifelong love for the island, from the days when family was still allowed to accompany researchers, brought her back to Heron as our group cook, and a damn good one at that.  Her boyfriend Macka, who helped in the kitchen, was a cool cat, studying to be a professional sound techie and hoping to work at a sound lab in the surf town of Byron Bay where I wound up after our trip.

Despite being a scientist, and primarily focused on coral reef ecology and physiology, Dr. Ward’s job can be very political as she devotes much of her time to the tireless advocacy of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (GBRMP), known as G’brumpa.  Modern management of the Reef began in earnest with the establishment of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority in 1976.  In 1981, UNESCO (the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization) added the Great Barrier Reef to the World Heritage List. 

Nonetheless, Australians seem to need to be constant reminder that their world treasure is something worth protecting, and that it is not simply an obstruction to the immediate multiplication of Australian jobs and dollars.  Once again, the short sightedness of fast money prevents a clear vision for the future of the reef, like seeing it through a fogged up dive mask.

Currently, tens of billions are being poured into mining and shipping developments that now cast a perceivable shadow on the photosynthetic habitat.  It was for this reason that we held a mock senate debate, with teams of two representing significant players in the scientific and political arena surrounding a pretend, but highly plausible, proposal for a new port development near Gladstone Harbor.

Gabrielle and I played Winston Harris, an actual fisheries advisor representing commercial fishing interests that are currently worth about $115 million per annum.  Our opposition to the proposal was based on potentially adverse effects of the development, such as the inevitable dredging up of toxic compounds that have accumulated in the harbor’s muddy bottom. This had recently caused a very real, large scale, toxic-disease induced fish and marine mammal kill in the area.  We backed our claim with a demand for a more thorough environmental impact assessment, carried out by unbiased parties not hired by the developing company, instead of these guys…

Jose, my Mexican peer, stole the show as the CEO of the developing company, Clive Parker, an actual mining magnate billionaire, who is ironically re-building the Titanic, and who Jose mimicked expertly with a pillow under his shirt and the accent and attitude of a big shot who always gets his way.  Jose argued the classic case for creating new jobs, and when Selena asked him how he had gotten the title of Dr. Parker, a controversial claim of Clive’s, he said firmly “with all due respect ma’am, we are here to discuss this development, not my credentials.”

Another of the debating characters was Terry Hughes, a professor at James Cook University whose distinguished name appears in many studies concerning the reef.  Like Selena, Dr. Hughes is a leading coral reef scientist, but unlike her, he is in reality a shy and withdrawn person.  Nevertheless, he has outdone himself by becoming an outspoken campaigner for the reef.  I will share an article that Dr. Hughes wrote on June 14th 2012, because it clearly sums up the issues at hand, and shows how scientists, often criticized for using jargon and ignoring socio-economic issues, can be the voice of reason amidst a socio-political tangle.

Terry claims that despite the recent announcement of a network of marine parks for Australia being a big step forward in marine conservation, major threats to the iconic Great Barrier Reef still prevail.  These threats are largely land-based and include mining, coastal development, and agricultural run-off, threats that the marine park network will do nothing to diminish.

He puts the problem in context in a popular article worth reading, with a reminder that,

 “UNESCO will soon release a detailed assessment of the Great Barrier Reef, which they warn could be downgraded to a World Heritage Site in Danger in the next year. If the in-Danger listing happens, it would be deeply embarrassing to the Queensland and Commonwealth governments, and the worldwide publicity would be an enormous blow to the Australian tourism industry. The comprehensive report expands on a summary released earlier this month, which has triggered a political storm between the Queensland State and Commonwealth governments.

The Great Barrier Reef is slowly declining, an inconvenient truth that is often ignored or denied.  In the past 50 years, it has lost half of its coral cover.  Many coastal reefs and sea grass meadows have been smothered by runoff of sediments from land, and the numbers of turtles, sharks and dugongs today are a small fraction of a few decades ago. Coral bleaching due to global warming has occurred twice throughout most of the length of the Barrier Reef, in 1998 and 2002…

In 2009, the Commonwealth’s Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report concluded that climate change, the continued decline in water quality from catchment runoff, loss of coastal habitats from coastal development and overfishing were the key pressures reducing the resilience of the Great Barrier Reef. It concluded that “the overall outlook for the Great Barrier Reef is poor and catastrophic damage to the ecosystem may not be averted”.

Marine reserves rebuild depleted stocks of fisheries, but they do not address the impacts of coastal developments and pollution.  The number of major coastal development projects along the Great Barrier Reef has grown hugely in the past decade, and the new Queensland government has promised to reduce “green tape” in the future to speed up planning approvals.

In response, the UNESCO report has formally requested that the Australian Commonwealth prohibits the construction of new ports along the Queensland coast, and that all future coastal developments must not affect the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.  Most of these are port developments linked to the explosive growth in export of coal and liquefied natural gas.

Ironically, the State of Queensland is home to the world’s largest coral reef system, but is also has 200 years of coal reserves.  But Queensland’s coal and gas industry has a much more limited life-span, because rising levels of CO₂ in the atmosphere will inevitably trigger global action to curb the use of carbon-based fuels, far beyond today’s tentative steps to introduce carbon taxes and market-based instruments.

As far as I know, no Labor or Coalition MP has acknowledged this reality.  The rush to get as much fossil fuel out of the ground as quickly as possible, before the transition to alternative sources of energy occurs, has pushed environmental concerns far into the background.  The Commonwealth has been complicit in the damage coal mining is causing to the inner Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area by allowing an unprecedented level of dredging and dumping within the boundaries of the World Heritage Area.

The Queensland Premier, Campbell Newman, responded to the draft UNESCO report, released earlier, by saying that “we are in the coal business.  If you want decent hospitals, schools and police on the beat we all need to understand that”.  Really? Queensland is also in the tourism business, big time.

If we look after the Reef, tourism will persist as a vibrant industry long after burning coal has followed the dinosaurs into oblivion. According to Access Economics, the Great Barrier Reef contributes over $5 billion to the Australian economy each year, and it supports more than 50,000 jobs, overwhelmingly in tourism.  The short-term benefits to Queenslanders of coal and gas jobs are tempered by the long-term negative costs of a polluted atmosphere, global warming, and the diminished heritage values of the Great Barrier Reef, as highlighted by the blunt UNESCO report.

The establishment of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park by the Commonwealth in 1976, then the world’s largest marine protected area, was a visionary step.  It created an agency that had jurisdiction and responsibility for the whole ecosystem (GBRMPA – the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority). The State of Queensland opposed the Park, took the Commonwealth to the High Court, and lost.  But GBRMPA has almost no capacity to influence two major drivers of change that are increasingly affecting the Great Barrier Reef – activities on land and in Queensland coastal waters, and climate change.  It’s time to rethink how the Great Barrier Reef should be governed for the future.  A good outcome will depend on improved State-Commonwealth management of coal ports, and waking up to the reality of climate change.”


During the mock debate, Selena was a strict and expert judge, revealing a political savvy that would come in handy for a real debate at the upcoming international coral reef symposium.  Nevertheless, we had a chance to see her truer colors when she lectured for us with genuine interest and passion.

Selena seemed to be always on the verge of either laughing or crying when teaching us about the happy, and more often sad, sagas of the reef.  Her confession about a dribbling, erect sea cucumber and her referencing “Team America: World Police” in a lecture had us all in stiches.

On the other hand, her review of the potential impacts of the recent port developments on the reef, in lieu of so much recent progress by Australia’s community based waterway management initiative, was heart breaking and brought tears to Selena’s eyes.  In Selena’s words, the greatest achievements for conservation felt like a pin drop in a vast ocean of doubt, but she also said, “We have to keep trying.”

a young scientist studies the effects of ocean acidification on the coral reef community

I was reminded of a lecture from Ana Louisa Figueroa Carranza, the director of SEMARNAT in Sonora Mexico, the Mexican government’s version of the National Park Service.  Ana spoke of her career, as a conservationist and struggling single mother, as being defined by ninety-nine failures in return for one victory, with those single and dedicated baby steps being always worth the effort.  Listening to these committed conservationists, it is evident that having a laissez faire attitude towards corporate greed and relying on market forces will not lead to ecosystem restoration and stability.  Our society will sink the ship first and only then try to recover it to its former glory.

Perhaps the second most memorable moment on Heron was when my friend Animish and I found Chloe and Macka hiding behind a storage box on the dock one windy night after we had just been released from a 3-hour lecture.  We shared a smoke, swigged off a bottle of Bundie Rum, and watched stealthy sharks and Ben the sea turtle hovering up to the surface for a puff of air between long periods of slumber on the clearly visible bottom.

 Perhaps the moment became more outstanding after my partner for the mock senate debate, descended upon us, screaming at me for not being in the library preparing with her.  We got an A on the debate, and the whole trip we all made sacrifices for school while trying to absorb the spiritual and heady experience in such a short period of time.  It took a year of living on the beach with the nesting Olive Ridley turtles of Costa Rica to begin to piece together the beach ecosystem, and I imagine it must take at least a lifetime to begin to cognize the complexity of this vast marine rainforest.

At the University of Queensland research station on Heron Island, understanding the ecosystem is an ongoing mission.  It is a world-class facility, run by aggressive, small-chicken sized birds called Buff-banded Rails (Gallirallus philippensis).  Closely related to Velociraptors, the rogue fouls run around the island freely, and being a protected species they are not afraid to jump into your lap to snatch your lunch out of your hand.

Our T.A., Paul, a tough amateur kick-boxer said, “I don’t like the birds, but I respect them as adversaries.”  When he was doing his PHD studies on larval connectivity on the island, a rail crept under the table where he was eating and ripped a scab off his leg for its own lunch, adding a new context to the birds’ status as “an omnivorous scavenger.”  Zach, a classmate with U.S. Coast Guard training, captured a rail by dropping a sweatshirt on it, only to realize with embarrassment that the station manager was standing right next to him.  The humor, nevertheless, was not lost on her.

During the wet season, in the Southern Hemisphere’s summer, sea birds take control of the island, namely the terns called White Capped and Black Noddys (Anous minutus), along with Wedge Tailed Shearwaters that burrow in the leaf litter to make their nests in an overlapping season.  Together they make it a challenge to sleep over a notorious cacophony that I’m glad we missed out on.  Noddy’s form nesting colonies in the low Pisonia grandis trees, a species of flowering tree in the Bougainvillea family.  This dominant vegetation only forests small, largely uninhabited islands where there is abundant sea bird guano to fertilize them, a unique example of convergent evolution.

In contrast to their elegant appearance, the Noddy nests are crude piles of spit, poo and Pisonia leaves, and their single eggs and chicks often fall to their deaths.  If the fall doesn’t kill them, the Pisonia seeds, notorious for their ability to stick to bird feathers, sometimes render them immobile and helpless to scavengers.  The national park service does not allow interfering with such natural processes, but like certain researchers said, it would be more unnatural to stand by and not help a bird in such conditions.

Because of the huge amounts of energy it requires to catch food at sea and bring it back to the nests, all of these sea birds have only one chick per pair.  The foraging success of the birds, and their ability to feed this chick, is affected by sea surface temperatures, and not just in El Niño years.  SST’s impact the schools of small baitfish, commonly known as Hardy-heads, and excesses of 28o C for extended periods will result in chicks starving, as occurred in 2002 with a total reproductive collapse.  This was, by no coincidence, the worst coral bleaching event that ever occurred on the GBR, proving that sea birds are sensitive indicators of climate change at the higher levels of the food chain.  Studying them is thus worth scientist’s time and effort.

The other few, undesirable realities of the island include bird ticks and nocturnal centipedes that live in the easily broken and rotting Pisonia branches, and that will happily curl inside your shoes or wetsuit.  After all, it wouldn’t be Australia without such pleasantries.

As expected, the field station was more ecological than the resort.  A behind the scenes tour revealed that they collect huge amounts of rainwater in massive cisterns, but find no use for it, and that they are eliminating their solar panels due to the inconvenience of the falling Pisonia branches instead of moving them elsewhere.  Instead of replacing the failing desalinization plant, the hotel was steadily shipping in barges full of fresh water almost daily, each trip costing a fortune, not to mention offering the guests crates of bottled water.

The field station, meanwhile, provided just as suitable housing, with sturdy concrete and aluminum buildings freshly built after a recent fire.  Normally the resort’s de-salinization plant provides fresh water, though we made do without for our stay.  The laboratories are spacious, and replete with state of the art equipment, some of which we learned how to use.

Moreover, in the spirit of marine biology’s voguish reputation, two beautiful girls were in residence, conducting student research on the effects of coral acidification.  One was a mulata from Trinidad and the other a blonde from Dubai with lips like coral and eyes like the water in the lagoon.

Heron from space, courtesy of Duke University

Most researchers were immersed in their work, came and went without paying us much attention.  One of them was conducting behavioral experiments on the chic looking, White-tailed Damselfish, Dascyllus aruanus, that were a common sight when snorkeling.

Our own mock experiments involved extracting zooxanthellae and isolating chlorophylls from coral nubbins, to test for the effects of temperature-stress related bleaching.  Stripping the nubbins was done with water from an airbrush and zoox were counted under the microscope.

We also did a brief study on my old friends the Aplysiomorphs, marine gastropods that look like the genetic combination of a snail, a rhinoceros, a hare, a hippo and a vagina.  They were my favorite intertidal animals when studying marine bio in the Gulf of California, and have not lost their slimy appeal to be touched and induced to squirt bright purple ink, part of their Molluskan defense mechanism.

In this experiment we dipped algae, of the same species and weight, in baths   with varying acidity, and then fed the algae, tied in individual bundles, to the sea hares to see which they preferred.  Results were insignificant, due to experimental error associated with having 18 students conduct a simple method no doubt, and preparing the report cost Selena a view of a pod of migrating humpbacks that cruised right by the station at sunset, breaching and flipper slapping in the distance.

the white underside of a Humpback’s fin rises like a white sail

Like I said, we all made sacrifices to conduct schoolwork while simply trying to absorb the experience.  I am also grateful in that I am currently using some of what I learned in this experiment to conduct behavioral research on sea urchin “ideal free distribution” feeding behavior at the VUW marine lab.


The best learning is experiential, done hands-on, and so we all enjoyed visiting the reef flat.  This habitat is just what it sounds like, a very flat expanse of sand and coral covered by shallow water and with parts of it completely exposed at low tide.

Corals must survive the relentless sun for hours, and they have adapted the capacity to repair their DNA along with producing their own microbial sunscreen in the form of Mycosporine-like Amino Acids, or MAA’s.

These photo-protective compounds absorb UV light and are found in coral mucus as well as on other reef organisms like in the mucus of the Pallid Damselfish Pomacentrus amboinensis, incidentally the first fish to be tested positively for color vision.

When I noticed that I was getting badly sunburnt during our transect studies for coral bleaching, I lay down in the knee deep water that was flowing strongly with the incoming tide, and let the coral mucus slime over my body.  For the next hour I felt gross but greatly protected from the Sun’s harmful rays.  MAA’s may also increase photosynthetic capacity for the coral’s symbiotic algae and buffer against oxygen, salt, desiccation and thermal stress.  These amazing compounds are a reminder of the potential assets to medicine that are yet undisclosed in these endangered coral ecosystems.

Being on the reef flat is a little unnerving as there are stonefish that can poke through your shoe and kill you within minutes, not to mention sharks circling with the approaching tide,

but once you let go of your fear, it is like taking a stroll through a salt water aquarium.  Some of us used plastic cones with open tops and glass bottoms to see into the shallow water, but I preferred to adjust my eyes to the rippled water and refracted light to experience the life beneath more directly.

Being so close to the corals that you have to tip toe around them, or step on them unwillingly, allows you to appreciate their vibrant colors, which are due to a combination of pigments in the coral tissue and in the symbiotic zooxanthellae that live within.

For this reason, the tops of the Acropora corals, stripped of algae by exposure and bleaching, are a bright purple color belonging to the more visible coral tissue.  They are also identifiable by terminal polyps on the tips of each branch.  These endangered species form highly 3-dimensional habitats in the form of calcium bushes or “tables,” but not quite as flat as the species below.

and small fish can hide very effectively in and underneath the horny structures, effectively disappearing and making it exceedingly frustrating to try to photograph them.  Small schools of Blue-green Chromis (Chromis viridis) would hang out just long enough so that you could catch a glimpse of their addictive colors, and then disappear as soon as you tried to get a good look at them.  They would then peek out from behind the corals until the camera came out, at which point they disappeared completely.

It has been shown that acidification causes behavioral changes in coral reef fish, inciting them to leave their already depleted shelters more often and exposing them to higher rates of predation, and I wonder if this is what the researcher collecting damselfish was studying.

Many-spotted Sweetlip (Plectorhincus chaetodonoides)

Some of my favorite sights on the reef flat were the soft corals, with their amorphous, rounded forms that look like a wet clay pot on a pottery wheel that is spinning too fast.

The diversity of algae was also impressive, with one bright green species composed of hair like strands forming little tufts on the eroded reef, that when submerged looked like trees from a landscape drawn by Dr. Seuss.  Calcareous algae species, meanwhile, looked like ornate pink lace, and literally cement the reef together, while fleshy macro-algae like kelp is missing entirely from the scene.  It competes directly with the coral, and uses too much of the precious sunlight and nutrients.

“Darwin’s Paradox” refers to the famous naturalists’ bewilderment at how such a low nutrient environment could be so productive.

Only by sitting down to rest in the shallow water, like a child in a kiddy-pool, can one come upon the answer.  For before long, crabs begin to poke their heads out of crevices, and tiny fish with upwards facing eyes and colorful fins crawl across the sand to get a closer look at you.

You begin to notice strands of mucus stretched across the landscape from one coral to the next, exploring and enforcing dominance over competing species, and Spaghetti Polychaete Worms connecting one colony to the next.

These are the agents of symbiosis, the socio-cultural network of the reef, sometimes obvious and other times illusive.  The reef, and for that matter, each coral colony, is like a city, composed of thousands of polyps, each assigned a task such as feeding, or defense, and together they create a home for myriad other species.

Through complex relationships, some of them mutualistic, some commensal, and others parasitic, an abundance of organism can co-exist and make the most of the limited bottom-up resources, constantly recycling them into a new trophic (food chain) level.  Not all of what goes on in the reef is immediately available to a clumsy person wading around, and it was often the more impressive animals that caught my eye.  Very rarely did I see fish on the flats, and I was stoked to catch a glimpse of a shy little puffer fish.

The more obvious residents included giant sea cucumbers, which are all deposit or filter feeders with hydro-vascular systems.  Giant clams, whose eye spotted mantle comes in a variety of neon colors depending on the individual, and who can squirt a powerful jet of water several meters into the air when they feel threatened, were also prolific.

Our professor, Simon, came upon an impressive marine gastropod, which looked like your ordinary Olive Shell only it was the size of an American football!  I was not prepared to be impressed when the Dr. beckoned that we walk a considerable distance back in between the maze of sharp coral heads to where he stood to see “a really big snail.” When I saw it, however, he became Dr. Doolittle and I was but a child in awe of a creature I never thought could exist in modern times.

To imagine that just decades ago such sights were probably commonplace, and that many of these species’ ancestors likely dwarfed them.  I wonder if in the future, before the inevitable microbial era, if everything will be the size of knick-knack salt-shakers, like tiny bite lobsters and brain corals the size of golf balls.

The reef flat was scattered with mini corals, many of the rounder taxonomic varieties and displaying intricate geometric patterns.  Some had hard, jagged textures like teeth (Platygyra sp.), and others soft surfaces like pillows with the fluff worn off parts of them, where the polyps were dead or hiding.

While doing our transect studies, I also came upon some gorgeous Nudibranchs, or naked-gilled sea slugs, one tan, bumpy one and another more common species that was velvety black with a fine two tone blue strip around the mantle.

Perhaps the most common animals were those extended echinoderms, known appetizingly as sea cucumbers by Westerners who find them repulsive, and less appealingly as “sand fish” by Indonesians that eat them.  Some hide under coral heads while other species bask pompously on the open sand.

The sheer abundance of the cukes makes it obvious that they play a crucial function in filtering the reef water and recycling nutrients and minerals through their digestive system, which they will eviscerate if molested.

The Black-fringed Sea Cucumber, Holothuria leucospilota (above), can be impressively long and reacts quickly to prodding, while the smaller, stiffer Holothuria atra is mesmerizingly verdant.

The massive, olive, spotted Stichopus variegatus meanwhile look like aliens out of Dune or Calvin and Hobbes.

Less abundant, but in equal variety, were the seastars (some argue that they are not fish and should not be referred to as such, and yet they are no more stars than they are fish).  The most beautiful being the big, royal blue Linckia laevigata, which contrasted with the more humble and patterned New Caledonian Seastar, Nardoa novacaledoniae.

The reef flat is like a patchwork quilt, constantly being torn, redesigned and fixed by the forces of nature.  Even our walking on the corals and hearing them crunch like Captain Crunch Cereal had a notable impact, but we comforted ourselves with the idea that this was after all an opportunity for us and other students of biology and conservation to become, for those few hours, awkward members of the reef flat, trodding as lightly as humanly possible and picking things up only to photograph them.

Perhaps as exciting and otherworldly as exploring the waters, was simply circumventing the island by foot, a predictable but variable experience, like going around a race track.  The clutch turn was at shark bay, where the silhouettes of sharks were clearly visible from the gritty, white sand beach, and were distinguishable from the stingrays by the way they moved.

I took a couple of chances with the long-tailed rays, a la Steve Irwin, to get some cool shots of them underwater, but had less luck with the wary sharks.

When we walked as a group my friend Stephanie pointed out that people were walking too fast and missing out.  I agreed, and the moment we slowed our pace we noticed cuttlefish bones, goose barnacles on a piece of driftwood and a baby Shovel Nose Ray.

The beach at night was even more thrilling, with scuttling ghost crabs, red eyed crabs and giant chitons.

and on a solo mission to recover my flip-flops, which are now floating in some trashy gyre, I encountered an Epaulette Shark (Hemiscyllium ocellatum).  A skinny, leopard spotted, serpentine fish, the length of my leg, it prowled in remarkably shallow water.  This shark is known for crawling with its pectoral fins and for being able to survive in tide-pools with extremely anoxic conditions.  I braved the stonefish and wandered barefoot out onto the sandy flat, snapping a flash picture that attracted the shark, and started it swimming right for my leg! I budged at the last minute in case it meant to sample my ankle, and in the excitement wound up fumbling a photo that could have been a Nat Geo moment.

On our last night at Heron, after drinking and dancing at the resort, a group of us followed Chloe and Macka down the trail through the enchanted Pisonia forest to Shark Bay.  When we came out of the trees onto the beach it was a moment as surreal as any I have ever lived.  By the moonlight the beach was clearly visible in a soft pink and blue light, and looked essentially immaculate.

“Welcome to paradise,” Chloe said chuckling at the perfect time, and indeed with my bare feet in the cold sand in a place where man is not meant to be, I stood in awe of creation.  It was like the movie Contact where Helen Hunt travels through a wormhole to meet her deceased father on a beach on a distant planet.

Some things and places are indescribable, but that doesn’t mean that they do not exist, or that they do not need our help.

Half of the Great Barrier Reef has been lost in the last 28 years, my lifetime.  I’m not set on having children, but I may one day, and some of my closest friends have them.  What will be left of this wonderland for them to see?