Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Addicted to Heron

By Marc Steiner

The catamaran we took to Heron Island floated easily over soft waters affording us the opportunity to enjoy the ocean on the front deck at high speeds with the full force of the wind. Birds flew alongside the boat and there was occasionally something visible in the water as we waited in anticipation to hit the beach. When we arrived at the jetty the island awaiting looked like a postcard-perfect destination. The beach had white sands and the ocean water was shallow and clear. Schools that must have contained over a thousand fish were swimming below uniformly and would move as a bulk to avoid the slow swimming sharks that followed and cleared paths between the fish. We were greeted by staff of the island’s resort and a person in a rabbit costume handing out chocolate, reminding me that it was Easter. I never thought I would spend Easter on an island amidst Australia’s Great Barrier Reef with the sun shining so brightly. I’m certain it was a different Easter experience to what my family and friends back home were seeing.
Welcome to Heron Island!
Photos courtesy of Julie Peterson
Immediately after setting down our backpacks and gear into our accommodations and after the regular claiming of bunk beds we made our way to the beach. The white sand felt soft and hot underneath our feet and we swam into the shallow waters. The clarity of the ocean allowed us to be able to witness what interesting creatures rested in the sand and made it easier to not step on any of the poisonous coneshells. Fortunately for all of us we would be spending so much time exploring in the ocean and having fun on the beach. It was interesting to be at the beach and in the ocean water without waves crashing upon the shore. The waves were halted by the coral reef that lay beyond where we swam. It was a peaceful atmosphere being able to float in settled waters as the tide slowly moved past us.

We were all able to go out snorkeling nearly every day at various points along the reef. Suited up in wetsuits, fins, and masks we took little power boats to the edge of the reef and swam along the surface of the water to watch and interact with the life that lived and moved beneath us. We were able to dive down and swim up close to look at the fish in close proximity. The ocean was bright with coral and many glimmering and reflective fish. I swam with my hands out in front of me and their color looked foreign to the landscape below. We saw starfish, parrotfish, damselfish, sea turtles and occasionally manta rays, none of which were swimming too far away from us. It was unsettling to be swimming and to see a shark swim so nearby for the first time, but was also exhilarating to watch such large marine life that are feared by so many. If you submerged your ears into the water you could hear many muted pops and cracks coming from every direction that was actually the fish eating off of the surface of the coral. Looking around underwater it was interesting to keep in mind that all the fish, the coral, and the algae covering the coral were living. The sand that everything grew out of was composed of dead broken down coral. Everything in the water was either alive or was at one point living. At one spot there was a sunken ship that rose out of the water. Despite the fact that it was not originally part of the environment, the years it had spent in the water led to life to inhabit the rusted disintegrating body. I wondered how the boat would look after 100 more years if it were already almost completely covered in algae. It was great to watch the lives of animals I won’t see in any other place on the planet.

Although sunsets on the beach seem like an overused cliché for a beautiful setting, we were able to watch what I could only guess were some of the most gorgeous sights in the world. During one sunset we were able to watch a sea turtle hatchling slowly traverse the beach and fearlessly fight to make it to the ocean. We all watched the young little turtle struggle for a long time with seagulls overhead for a chance at surviving past the first day of life. It was interesting to see a lone turtle reach the ocean for the first time and figure out how to swim. It was a sobering reminder of how few turtles actually survive and make it into the ocean and survive the attack of various ocean predators. A couple of days later while snorkeling and conducting research near the jetty, after taking notes on my waterproof slate, I was shocked to see a sea turtle that was easily over six feet long and was bigger than me swim right by me. I might have screamed into my snorkel, but it was muffled by the water around me. The large turtle reminded me of the young turtle a couple days prior and made me think how every cute little turtle can grow into a large startling beast, and hopefully will.
Said sunset
Baby turtle, affectionately called Kevin
Oh yeah, we learned and conducted research on marine life of the Great Barrier Reef during our stay at Heron Island. It was truly great and was a unique school experience and I am fortunate I was able to learn about these fish while swimming in the ocean as opposed to from a textbook while sitting in the library (as much as I love our school’s library). Research felt like vacation and it made me think that research isn’t too bad and that maybe professors lead interesting lives after all.
Striking a pose on the reef flat



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