On an undeserted island

IMG_2538We are here: 23.4500° S, 151.9167° E.

Heron Island is at the south end of the Great Barrier Reef and is home to what must be thousands of birds, trilling and curlewing, calling and cooing, all day and all night.  It’s also home to a resort and a research station. We are staying at the research station, surrounded by people studying the birds (the shearwaters specifically, not the gray or white herons, nor the terns or the seagulls), the fish on the coral reef just offshore, the sharks, the coral itself.  

It is awesome.

Getting here was no easy task:  We applied to stay at the station, which is run by Queensland University. We ordered food to be delivered by barge before we arrived (it comes once a week, every Wednesday). We arranged for our flights, and made it onto the large catamaran that goes once a day, to the island and back to Gladstone (a growing city on one of the most polluted bays in Australia, as mining interests upstream have dumped their waste downstream).

The trip over on a windy rainy day was a bit extreme: the children aboard kept shrieking in delight every time the boat came down on its rollercoaster ride. But the poor young man next to me was having much less fun, and I started feeling it about an hour and a half in as the boat was slamming against the waves. But after the two-hour trip, here we were on dry land, on a tiny island you can walk around in about an hour.

Shallow waters surround Heron Island, an atoll filled with coral and reef fish, the occasional shark (Matt and I each saw one on Saturday during our first snorkel!), manta rays, and turtles… plus a giant grouper that makes its home under the boats moored near the jetty that serves both the resort and the research station.

Each night, we have listened to the odd calls of adult shearwaters: they yell like goats, like cats in heat, like babies, like ghosts in the woods — and the cacophony peaks at around 4 am.  It is absurd and wonderful and annoying, all at once.  

These seabirds build nests underground, leaving their fat chicks hidden away (we have to watch where we walk on the paths in the woods, so as not to step in the holes or collapse the burrows). The team of scientists working here now are weighing the young, to see how much the adults feed them on their return from up to two weeks of fishing at sea — shearwaters never come to shore unless they are breeding or feeding their young, which get fatter than the adults. (They sleep in the open ocean!) The babies are still harvested, particularly in colonies in Tasmania,  for their fatty oily flesh that supposedly tastes like mutton. The researchers here forbade us to use their coloquial name: muttonbirds.

Last night, we sidestepped shearwaters on the path on our way to the beach to see the stars — We saw the Milky Way!  (Matt can tell you I danced a little jig and shrieked.) And Orion and Sirius, the dog star. Plus Jupiter, hanging bright in the night sky.

This evening, at the jetty as the sun set, we watched as manta rays and sea turtles crossed paths on what looked to us like a water highway, with the animals following the incoming tidal currents around the edge of the island. We saw at least a dozen mantas and half a dozen turtles as we stood and watched. Three sharks (one black tip and two orange-ish snub-nosed ones) cruised the same waters.  I cannot tell you how thrilling it is to see these creatures.  (For those who are interested, some mantas and sharks gained limited protection status for trade under CITES today, which is so great but seemingly not enough — http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-21741648.) We stood and watched turtles and mantas in their watery dance to avoid each other and come together in their own mobs — a manta papal congress? — until the wind gusts became too much to bear.

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Someone told me today that only three islands in the Great Barrier Reef have permanent habitation and infrastructure like this one. I have not checked this, but it does seem difficult to maintain, while not impacting the national park — the Great Barrier Reef is also a UN World Heritage site, and I’ve seen newspaper articles and heard a scientist here comment that there’s no doubt that Australia is going to blow it and destroy the reef, with pesticides and other forms of pollution and overuse.

This morning, I got a brief tour of the wastewater treatment installation here, to see the treatment ponds and more, including the patches of biosolids that they dry and ship off the island, and the freezer that holds the food waste to be sent back to the mainland for treatment.  The sand-filtered, chlorine-treated water gets reused for the toilets and the non-potable cold water showers.  Perhaps I can get a peek at the desalination plant run by the resort later in the week, which makes our drinking/showering/tap water.  They are indeed trying, but it looks difficult…

Meanwhile, I’m impressed by the comfort level here, and the level of scientific infrastructure: wet labs with fish tanks and open tubs for coral, the teaching labs, the library; wetsuits, flippers, and masks for snorkeling; a tidal pool on display, with a blue sea star and sea cucumbers; the massive gas stoves in the kitchen, the massive freezers and fridges, the hot water in the shower and the solar power on the rooftops.  We could even do laundry if need be.  We are definitely comfortable.

We ordered way too much food as well — or rather, we ordered and the grocery store sent more than we asked for, so we are rolling in meat and fish, cucumbers, and more.  We will, however, run out of milk. But we have more than enough ice cream for our morning coffees.

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You can take a tour of Heron Island via Google Maps, which is rather amazing: http://www.heronisland.com/seaview.aspx

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