Saturday, January 28, 2012

Ninja Turtle Tagging

Loggerhead Turtle, Caretta caretta (Tyler Roberts)
Now that I have posted pictures and comments all about Dirk Hartog Island I thought, maybe I should actually write about the reason I was there in the first place.  My boss Kirk worked it out for Adriana and I to volunteer with The Australian Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) as turtle taggers during the Loggerhead Turtle breeding season on the Island.  We have been working with turtles out on the water for the last few months but have not yet had the chance to see them nesting.  I was ecstatic about the opportunity to see a little further into this ancient reptile’s life history.

Work would begin for us around 9:30 pm, after the sun had dropped its last rays from the sky and the only light came from the moon and stars. The stars, by the way, are incredible here, hundreds of miles away from everything.  The first night we all went out together, six people in total, to have our introduction to the process.  After that night the team was split in two so that we could cover more ground each night.  The DEC ranger took two people with here and because Adriana and I were already proficient in the procedure of turtle tagging and behavioral analysis we headed our own group, which actually only included one other person who was more than capable herself and keen to learn anything she could.

A short break for the team. (Tyler Roberts)

Some of the turtles had to be marked in order to avoid redundancy. (Adriana Weil)
Our team, self-titled “Ninja” as in “Ninja Turtle”, would cover 2-3 beaches a night, walking up an down the full length of each beach spotting turtles, assessing behavior and tagging those that were far enough along in the process that we would not interrupt their behavior.  It was only after they had laid their eggs and were covering up the nests that we were allowed to take some measurements, clear them of obstructing barnacles and tag them.

There are four behaviors exhibited by turtles during the nesting process.  The first is body pitting, after they decide a spot is suitable to dig a nest they begin to throw sand about with all flippers and work them selves down a few inches through the soft and loose top sand.  Then they dig the egg chamber using only their back flippers.  It is a hole perhaps 1-1.5 feet down and up to a foot wide.  Once this is complete they begin laying eggs.  A turtle will lay about 150 eggs on average in a single nest and it can take 10 minutes for some or 45 for others.  Once laid they immediately begin covering the nest with sand and it is then that we are allowed to start taking information and tag them.  The turtles are so affixed to what they are doing at that point that they hardly seem to notice our presence.

The full Turtle Team; Me, Kasey, Clare, Mira, Lia, Adriana (Tyler Roberts)

Earlier in the process turtles can be easily disturbed and will move locations if you are not careful.  They are quite sensitive to light and though we did have head lights we avoided using them as much as possible.  When the moon was high in the sky and shining bright they were pointless anyways.

A great view of egg laying through a shark bite window. (Adriana Weil)

(Lia Scagliani)
On the last day we decided to tag through the night and sleep on the beach till sunrise. As we walked back towards the car along the beach we spotted a turtle that had gotten stuck in a crack in the rocks on its way back towards the ocean.  It’s rear end was wedged into the crack with its head and fore flippers poking out of the top.  There is no telling how long it had been there but that position is very unnatural for a sea turtle and it was clearly on its way out.  Its eyes were sunken in and it’s breathing labored with each inhalation.  The poor thing had made it within two meters of the waters edge we just couldn’t let it go out like that.  We hurried over to it and Lia and I got ourselves in a position to lift it free from the bottom while the others helped from the front end.  We lifted it smoothly and it immediately made its way the short distance to freedom.

It was a great feeling, the best feeling, to help save an animal from certain death.  It is a feeling of worth and importance, a high that comes on quick and fades slowly.  It was the perfect way to end our time on Dirk Hartog Island.

Around 5:30 am on the last night tagging.(Adriana Weil)

(Tyler Roberts)

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Lightning Crashes

(Tyler Roberts)

"I can feel it coming back again,
Like a rolling thunder chasing the wind,
Forces pulling from the center of the earth again
I can feel it."


Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Dirk Hartog Snorkeling

What a clam. (Adriana Weil)

An Eel (Adriana Weil)
While on Dirk Hartog Island we had heaps of time during the day to travel about and do as we pleased.  Much of the time was spent exploring and snorkeling.  I would have gone snorkeling everyday if the conditions had remained calm enough.  Instead we were only able to get out on the water a few times but every time it was spectacular.  The first day we went down the cliff and off the beach next to our camp.  The waves were breaking hard on the west side of the cape so we went in on the East side where the surge was reduced to a light pull.

(Adriana Weil)
Shark bay is in a unique area where the tropical currents of the North and the cooler currents of the south mix.  You are bound to come across all sorts of creatures from both habitats giving it an especially high rate biodiversity.  Dirk Hartog sits right at the entrance to Shark Bay.  It is one of the most under appreciated systems of reef structure anywhere around Australia.  Within the Bay itself you find sand and seagrass blanketing the sea floor but here on the edge it is nothing but reef and rock, the perfect place to go searching for animals.

Tasselled Wobegong, Eucrossorhinus dasypogon (Tyler Roberts)

Back end of the Wobegong (Tyler Roberts) 
That first day we were wowed by the massive clams and intricate coral heads all around.  There were fish everywhere; Bluebone, parrotfish, squirrelfish, Gobies, Damselfish, Butterflyfish, Angelfish, Moorfish, Wrasse, pipefish and really to many to mention them all.  To many to even identify.  The highlights that first day were the little Eel, a Bar Bellied Sea Snake, a large Honeycomb Ray, and the best for last… a Tasselled Wobegong (pronounced Wob-ee-gong).  Wobegongs are actually sharks though they are one of the few that do not need to constantly swim to breath.  They are relatively docile predators of small fish and invertebrates.  I spotted this one hiding under a ledge trying to look as rock-like as possible.  It is one of my main highlights from being on the island.
Tasselled Wobegong's head (Tyler Roberts)

Another day we went out and spotted a beautiful little Bluespotted Maskray.  It was only about a foot across but they tend to stay fairly small even when they reach full maturity.  The maskrays of the genus Neotrygon are an interesting group of rays.  In this area you can find three species of Maskray; bluespotted, Painted and a recently described species.  This new one was discovered by my research group in a previous year and seems to be endemic to the Shark Bay area.

Bar Bellied Sea Snake (Tyler Roberts)
One of my absolute favorite underwater creatures is the octopus.  They are the true masters of disguise, changing not only their color but their skin color and behavior as well in the blink of an eye.  Every time we had gone out I would keep my eyes open for one.  I would always make a point to search under every ledgeand in every crevice in the hopes of seeing one.  Instead I bumped into all sorts of other things in those places.  There were lobsters, soft corals, eels, the wobegong and until the last day no sign of an octopus.

Me and the Wobegong (Adriana Weil)

Bluespotted Maskray, Neotrygon khulii (Tyler Roberts)
That afternoon, after sleeping off the late night of turtle tagging Adriana and I decided to go for one more snorkel before we were forced to leave the island.  Down the cliff we went and into the water.  While doing my usual search pattern of every dark and covered area I noticed a couple eyes staring out at me.  They were odd looking bulbous eyes with skin the exact color of the sand and the texture of the rocks.  As I moved towards it, it retreated under the ledge that it had been peering out from and simultaneously turned a dark burgundy red.  It was such a dark red that it appeared black and when you looked at it from a distance further than a foot away its shape would disappear into the shadows all together.  I was very excited to finally see an octopus so I immediately signaled Adriana to come check it out.  It had done such a convincing job of camouflaging itself that on her first look Adriana could not spot it though it sat right in front of her.  I admired it for a bit and then moved on, happy as a clam to have seen all those wonderful animals and to have topped it all off with an octopus.

The next day we boarded a boat and headed for home.  It is about an hour and a half boat ride with chances of seeing whales and whale sharks so we all kept out eyes peeled for any sign of them.  We saw neither of those but we did get to see one the most beautiful, most elegant, most impressive animals.  Three Manta Rays came to the surface of the water not 20 meters from the boat.  Much like the Lynx had been for me in Alaska, though perhaps a little less moving, this is a sea creature I have dreamed of seeing since before I first dove in an ocean.  They are enormous and incredible, expansive and graceful.  They are the kings of all the rays and I feel privileged to have had them come so near if even just for a moment.

Bluespotted Maskray, Neotrygon khulii (Tyler Roberts)

A curious creature... and also a Seasnake. (Adriana Weil)

(Adriana Weil)

(Adriana Weil)

Monday, January 23, 2012

Dirk Hartog Island

These poles mark where the first recoded European stepped onto Australian soil. (Tyler Roberts)

The ledge at Cape Inscription. (Adriana Weil)
When people visit Australia they rarely come to the West side of the continent because it is so remote and many think that there is probably not much worth seeing.  It’s a terrible misconception causing droves of people to miss out on the beautiful sights, amazing wildlife and rich history of the area.  Dirk Hartog Island is the landing spot of the first recorded European to set foot on this country.  In actuality many had before, mainly the Portuguese, but they never recorded their visits and usually disregarded Australia as a barren wasteland not worth the effort of exploration.

Captain Dirk Hartog, for whom the island is named, landed his ship the “Eeendracht” in 1616 on the northernmost point of the island.  He inscribed on a pewter plate his name and the date then attached it to a wooden pole wedged between the rocks on the cliff top of what is now known as Cape Inscription.

Cape Inscription Lighthouse. (Adriana Weil)

A Flemish captain, William de Vlamingh, landed on the same spot in 1697. Upon seeing the badly weathered plate he copied the information to a second pewter plate adding a few of his own details.

In the early 1900’s the island was an outpost for the pearling and guano mining industries.  They erected a lighthouse and several other buildings at cape inscription.  It was here that we stayed during our time on the island, camping inside the stone frame of a house that still remained originally meant as quarters for the keepers of the lighthouse.

Our sleeping quarters. (Tyler Roberts)
The island was used for years as a goat farm with thousands of goats covering the landscape.  It wasn’t until the 1990’s that the first steps were taken to protect the land and the wildlife.  The Australian Department of Environment and Conservation was charged with controlling and eliminating the populations of feral cats and goats that decimated the island’s native species.

Now the island is a thriving National Park and shining example of effective conservation management. It is home so several endemic species found nowhere else and a significant breeding ground for the Shark Bay Loggerhead Turtle, the focus of our volunteer efforts.

Cape Inscription Lighthouse (Tyler Roberts)

We found this little Stimsons Python trying to get in my tent. (Adriana Weil)

(Adriana Weil)

Cape Inscription. (Tyler Roberts)

A cosy little place. (Tyler Roberts)
The Homestead. (Tyler Roberts)

(Tyler Roberts)

A river of salt and Algae. (Tyler Roberts)

While out exploring the island one day we came to a rocky outcropping with waves crashing up against it.  The constant batter of the waves had clearly done their work grinding down the rock bit by bit over time.  There was a small stream that ran a few hundred meters from one side of the rock to the other.  It was orange in color and quite warm to the touch.  All around it were evaporated pools holding gallons and gallons of salt.  I noticed the smell of salt and algae right away.  It reminded me of my time in Yellowstone National Park taking cyanobacteria (Algae) samples.  It turns out the orange color was a algae mat with a nice green photosynthetic layer residing underneath.  It was a nostalgic moment for me bringing back memories of working in an algae lab back at the University of Oregon.

(Tyler Roberts)

(Tyler Roberts)

Although not quite the right shape, this cutout reminds me of Australia. (Adriana Weil)

The only goat I saw. (Adriana Weil)

(Tyler Roberts)

I am imagining the surface of Mars. (Tyler Roberts)

A delicious Pink Snapper courtesy of DEC ranger Chris. (Adriana Weil)

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Third Times a Charm

Around the resort of Monkey Mia my research team is known as the “Sharkys” and until recently that title has been a bit misleading.  The main goal of the Shark Bay Ecosystem Research Project is aimed at determining the specific effects of the Tiger Shark, the top of the food chain, on all the other trophic levels that feed into it.  However I had not yet had the chance to work directly with a shark and felt as though I had not earned the right to be called one of the sharkys.

That nagging feeling of undeserved distinction has been a small but constant grain of sand in my mind until recently, when it was washed away as we caught 11 sharks in a single day.  We woke at 6am prepared for a long day.  All the gear was ready and we were raring to go.  Out on the water we set the lines one at a time ensuring that each had a good chunk of smelly fish on the hook.  We use big fish for bait because we hope to catch the big sharks though any size will be processed, tagged and released nonetheless but the big ones are where all the fun is.

Spinner Shark  (Adriana Weil)

The first couple days we spent sharking were complete busts.  Each day the wind picked up and forced us to abort the mission early.  Each day we caught a single Tiger Shark, and each time it was tangled in the ropes and potentially stressed out so we simply cut them free instead of putting them through the added stress of processing.  The last thing we want to do is harm or kill a shark.  We are only here to observe and record by putting as little influence as possible on them.  We are required to catch them to in order to obtain blood and tissue samples but these are minimal and efficiently carried out so that we can release the animals as quickly as possible.  Most sharks are unable to push water through their gills while sitting still and must continue moving in order to maintain oxygen levels.  While taking their measurements we idle the boat forward to keep them breathing which helps to keep them calm.  Nobody likes holding onto an unpredictable panicky shark.

Great Hammerhead on the line.  (Tyler Roberts)
On this day, our third attempt, we hit the jackpot.  First there were a couple average Tiger Sharks, about 2 meters give-or-take.  Then we found a Spinner Shark on the end of one line which was a bit exciting.  It was calm but at least we were getting some variety now.  After that it started to pour sharks.  We had to scramble to get from one buoy to the next with shark after shark. We came to one spot where it appeared that the buoy holding the line must have floated off because it was nowhere in site.  All of us were looking around with eyes fixed on the horizon for a white spot that might indicate where our line had gone.  Then right next to the boat the line floated up into view through the milky green water and just underneath the buoy was very large and very dark silhouette.

The Great Hammerhead (Adriana Weil)
We pulled up the line to see the massive head of a Great Hammerhead jut up through the surface of the water.  My heart jumped to realize how large of an animal we had dangling from a chain not more than 4 feet from my hands.  I've watched plenty of nature shows to know how big these animals get but first hand knowledge is not the same.  They are awe inspiringly large with power that goes far beyond what I can imagine.  You may hold the line of the shark in your hands but that faint illusion of control is quickly lost when it decides to dive or even just swish its tail a bit.  You are wrenched in whatever direction it takes you. Sometimes you can hold onto it though by doing so it drags you and the boat with it and sometimes you drop it because nobody wants to spend even a few seconds alone in the water with a 4 meter shark as round as a refrigerator and mouth as large as your torso is long.
4.08 meter (13 foot) Tiger Shark   (Adriana Weil)

This particular shark was not just large but she was quite feisty as well.  Safety being number one, we decided against going through the full procedure and took some quick measurements, a small fin clipping and released it.  That one took a lot out of us and we were only about halfway through the day.  With the weather cooperating for once we kept vigilant and moved on down along the lines to see what else we had hooked.  A few more average Tiger Sharks, one more Spinner Shark and then we hit upon half sunken buoy.  We had a pretty good guess at the size of this one from our previous encounter.  It was sure to be a beast and upon later measurement was over 4 meters long, just a hair longer than the Hammerhead.  This one was a massive Tiger Shark but much more docile than the Hammerhead.  I got to control the head during our processing.  It was a hell of a workout just holding it up alongside the boat.  By the end my hands were cramped into a claw shape from gripping the chain so hard for so long.

By the end of the day we had broken Kirk's previous record of 9 sharks in a day with a whopping 11 including 2 full on beasts, 3 different species and one little baby Tiger Shark on the last hook of the day.  I feel good about the data we collected and am now quite proud to be called a Sharky.