Week 10 – Hello, Goodbye

As the whale season draws to an end, so too does my time here in Pender Bay. I’m so grateful to everyone at WAMSI, Two Moons Whale and Marine Research Base and of course all the volunteers for making this year’s project a success. I’ve had the adventure of a lifetime, I’ve met the most inspirational people and most importantly I’ve helped to shed light on the activities of the elusive Group IV humpback whales. As I wave goodbye to the beautiful Kimberley, I say hello to the WAMSI headquarters in Perth where I will be analysing this years data and comparing it with data from previous years of study. Published article coming soon….

The WAMSI uniform. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved.

The WAMSI uniform. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved.

A shared experience like no other forms strong bonds between all the volunteers. I will miss everyone dearly. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved.

A shared experience like no other forms strong bonds between all the volunteers. I will miss everyone dearly. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved.

One last glimpse of the magnificent red Kimberley cliffs before I leave. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved.

One last glimpse of the magnificent red Kimberley cliffs before I leave. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved.

© Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved.

Goodbye Pender Bay. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved.

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Week 9 – In Spite of All the Danger

My time at Pender Bay is nearly coming to an end. People are disappearing one by one, continuing on their travels, mirroring the activity of the humpback whales. Camp is down to Lauren, Mike, Sabine and Andrew and myself. We have drawn up a bucket list of things we want to do before we leave this unique part of the world. One by one we tick them off…

We make an excursion along the coastline to the local caves. Bats burst out as if never  seeing humans before, as terrified of us as we are of them. The rock formations of this area are like nothing I’ve ever seen before. They display a whole array of colours and patterns, from polka dot red and white, to electric yellow and purple stripes on enormous stacks. The rocks are piled in a huge jigsaw of organized chaos; I feel if I were to pick one up the whole cliff would come rolling on top of us, burying us in the Kimberley land. This area is wild and completely natural, and I hope it stays this way forever. We feel grateful to explore land so untouched and unexplored by humankind.

We go snorkelling and discover a beautiful reef at high tide, revealing some stunning corals and shoals of tropical fish.  An enormous stingray of two metre wingspan flies past, slowly and majestically.  We venture to deeper waters together, in spite of all the danger, in the hope that we see a shark…. Unfortunately, we’ve yet to tick that off our bucket list.

The spring tides in Pender Bay are one of the highest in the world, displacing up to a massive 11.7m of water. Twice a month, our enormous beach is engulfed by the sea; every single footprint and tyre track washed away and the beach is once again left untouched. These powerful tides bring tiger sharks and black tip reef sharks inshore, swimming over the spots on which we were sunbathing and playing frisbee earlier in the week. Andrew  suggests that I ought to go snorkelling as the tide is coming in if I want to see a shark, as they instinctively know they won’t get beached with the influx of water. But do I really want to roam in the feeding grounds of a wild animal, whose brain is almost as small as one of its teeth…?

Despite the sheer mass of humpback whales, sharks still pose a problem for their survival, in particular, the calves. Mother humpbacks won’t let their precious newborns out of sight as they are the prime target for a shark or an orca’s ‘supersize’ meal. Pender Bay is a relatively safe haven, or ‘staging ground’, for mother humpback whales to raise their calves and prepare them for their first steps across the Indian and Antarctic Oceans. On survey, we often witness mothers and very young calves (evident from their light grey colour and small size compared to yearlings, or their mothers) drifting passively in shore with the incoming tide, with the mother on the seaward side, shielding their young from the evils lurking in deeper waters. This is a typical trait of humpback whales and has been recorded throughout previous years of study here at the Two Moons.  There is no tidal station; the tide data (height, timing, and state of high tide-low tide periods) is calculated by averaging predictions from record stations at Red Bluff (South) and Karrakatta (North) from the Australian Hydrographic Service.  This allows us to accurately analyse how the changing tides affect whale activity.

The girls get creative with concrete and make humpback whale sculptures to decorate camp.  My time at Pender Bay is nearly coming to an end. People are disappearing one by one, continuing on their travels, mirroring the activity of the humpback whales. Camp is down to myself, Lauren, Mike, Sabine and Andrew. We have drawn up a bucket list of things we want to do before we leave this unique part of the world. One by one we tick them off… We make an excursion along the coastline to the local caves. Bats burst out as if never having seen humans before, terrified of us as we are of them. The rock formations of this area are like nothing I’ve ever seen before. They display a whole array of colours and patterns, from polka dot red and white, to electric yellow and purple stripes on enormous stacks. The rocks are piled in a huge jigsaw of organized chaos; I feel if I were to pick one up the whole cliff would come rolling on top of us, burying us in the Kimberley land. This area is wild and completely natural, and I hope it stays this way forever. We feel grateful to explore land so untouched and unexplored by humanity.  We go snorkeling and discover a beautiful reef at high tide, revealing some stunning corals and shoals of tropical fish.  An enormous stingray of two metre wingspan flies past, slowly and majestically.  We venture to deeper waters together, safety in numbers, in the hope that we of see a shark…. Unfortunately, we’ve yet to tick that off our bucket list. The spring tides in Pender Bay are one of the highest in the world, displacing up to a massive 11.7m of water. Twice a month, our enormous beach is engulfed by the sea; every single footprint and tire track washed away and the beach is once again left seemingly untouched. These powerful tides bring tiger sharks and black tip reef sharks inshore, swimming over the spots on which we were sunbathing and playing frisbee earlier in the week. Andrew informs me that I ought to go snorkeling as the tide is coming in if I want to see a shark, as they instinctively know they won’t get beached with the influx of water. But do I really want to lay myself on a platter in the feeding grounds of a wild animal, whose brain is almost as small as one of its teeth alone…? Despite the sheer mass of humpback whales, sharks still pose a problem for their survival, in particular, the calves. Mother humpbacks won’t let their precious newborn out of sight as they are the prime target for a shark or orca’s supersize meal. Pender Bay is a relatively safe haven, or ‘staging ground’, for mother humpback whales to raise their calves and prepare them for their first steps across the Indian and Antarctic Oceans. On survey, we often witness mothers and very young calves (evident from their light gray colour and small size compared to yearlings, or their mothers) drifting passively in shore with the incoming tide, with the mother on the seaward side, shielding it’s young from the evils lurking in deeper waters. This is a typical trait of humpback whales and has been recorded throughout previous years of study here at the Two Moons.  There is no tidal station; the tide data (height, timing, and state of high tide-low tide periods) is calculated by averaging predictions from record stations at Red Bluff (South) and Karrakatta (North) from the Australian Hydrographic Service.  This allows us to accurately analyse how the changing tides affect whale activity.  © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved.

The girls get creative with concrete and make humpback whale sculptures to decorate camp.  © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved.

Humpback whale sculptures.  © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved.

Humpback whale sculptures. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved.

After 9 weeks of bush life, we quite the experts of living off the land. Collecting fire wood in the snake and spider-ridden bush in 40degree heat is not a problem.  © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved.

After 9 weeks of bush life, we are quite expert at living off the land. Collecting fire wood in the snake and spider-ridden bush in 40 degree heat is not a problem. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved.

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Week 8 – Come Together

It is now mid-October and the wet season is sneakily tiptoeing in. Every day brings another rude fly, invading our personal space as we loyally and unflinchingly observe the whales. The air thickens each morning, as water molecules squeeze themselves into the last few spaces available next to the Nobel Gases, before the air reaches complete saturation. Massive cumulus clouds are conjured over the adjacent land of the Dampier Peninsula, thundering and threatening to migrate towards us, but dissipating into the blue skies above before reaching our camp. I fear the first rain, as I am told that the sand roads turn to rivers and the water gives life to of all kinds of biting insects.  However, I’d love to witness the magnificent Kimberley lightening storms.

There are 12 people living in camp and it’s beginning to feel more and more like I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here. Fingers crossed I win the Bush Tucker Challenge for the last avocado. These last few weeks have been full of beach fun, boat trips and BBQs.  Another month gone, another full moon rise and a ‘Staircase to the Moon’ forms on the Indian Ocean; this is a natural phenomenon in the Kimberley where the moon shine rising over the ocean creates a reflection on the water, which looks like a stairway to the night’s sky. We make a bonfire on the beach to mark the occasion, and Robbie performs a fire dance with fire-balls as her dreadlocks swing to the rhythm of the beating bongo drums. We play around all night taking photos of our silhouettes against the moonlight reflected on the sea. Experiences like these that sets this research project apart from any others, times that I will miss dearly.

The change in climate not only makes Pender Bay less hospitable to me, but also for the whales. The rising temperature is a cue for the whales to evacuate their northern territory and return to the Antarctic. The wind has also been relatively strong recently, which creates white caps on the sea surface. From a distance, a white cap can look a lot like a whale surface activity, be it pectoral slapping or lobtailing, which makes things a little difficult for the survey. This sea state is measured by the Beaufort Scale, and generally the higher the wind speed, the greater the amount of white caps and, therefore, the higher up on the scale the sea state is. In previous years of study trends have shown that the higher the Beaufort scale the fewer whales spotted. I wonder if the results from this year will match up to that of previous years. I look forward to finding out the answer to these kinds of questions and this makes the impending task of extensive statistical analysis of all our results much less daunting and actually quite exciting.

The climate is getting too warm for us and the humpback whales. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

The climate is getting too warm for us and the humpback whales. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

Sunrise boat launch. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

Sunrise boat launch. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

The famous red moon of the Kimberley. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved.

The famous red moon of the Kimberley. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved.

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Week 7 – We Can Work It Out

Introducing new volunteers to the whale survey is very uplifting. Their excitement at the anticipation of seeing a humpback for the first time reminds me of the moment I first arrived on the cliff top and observed an ocean breathing, as whale blows, lobtails and breaches brought the deep blue horizon to life.  However, it is now the beginning of October and most of the whales have already set off on their long migration of up to ten thousand miles to the Antarctic. This is typical behaviour that is repeated annually – spending the winter months here in the tropics to give birth, and then returning en masse to the nutrient-rich, cool waters of the south to feed.

This doesn’t bode well for my eager new volunteers awaiting their first sighting. As several life-less hours go by on their first morning on survey, I reassure them that the time will come soon enough, just be patient (a skill in which I have become increasingly competent throughout my time here). Motivation drifts away with the changing tide, and a pod of local dolphins and a flock of brown boobies do their best to entertain us. I try to keep everyone afloat with some refreshing fruit and cereal bars as the sun’s suffocating heat takes over, and lunch seems too many nautical miles away. The humpback whales are the stars of the show and their audience won’t be satisfied until they take to the stage. Just before all hope is lost, and the audience demands a refund, a glorious breach takes centre stage 3 kilometres in front of us. The ooohs and aaahs of the spellbound volunteers settle the nerves that had wriggled into my stomach at the threat of our first day sans whales. The whales are a tease, but they never do fail to please.

You might expect that a low whale population might make the training of new volunteers easier: there is less pressure to record a constantly changing activity, commonly seen in July and August, when the highest recorded whale count for just one five-minute period was 54. Now we tend to see 0-5 whales in any given 5-minute period – a much more manageable amount to keep track of and record.

However, this does come with its own set of challenges, one being lack of motivation, of course. As with any new project, be it a new job or a new zoological surveying method, practice is required to perfect the technique and make it ‘unconsciously competent’. Such techniques in this case include, judging whale distances (in kilometres) accurately; identifying their behaviours correctly, which can often just appear like a series of splashes on the horizon to an untrained eye; and being able to track whales so as not to recount them in the survey, to name a few.  Conditions are now a challenge as each whale behavior that we record is only displayed to us a few times a day, if at all, which doesn’t give new volunteers an opportunity to get used to identifying the whole range of behaviours we record. This means that it takes a little longer for them to attain the same observational standard and comfort as a new volunteer in July-August time. However, it’s my job to keep everyone up to the same standard so I spend a significantly longer amount of time describing the behaviours at this point in the season, with aid of plastic toy humpback whales which decorate the observation deck. We can work it out…

The Scottish girls on survey.  © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

The Scottish girls on survey. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

Jill and Louis on survey one misty morning. When visibility is this bad the survey can be called off or postponed to the afternoon.  © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

Jill and Louis on survey one misty morning. When visibility is this bad the survey can be called off or postponed to the afternoon. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

Sunrise through the dewy grass on the cliff-top. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

Sunrise through the dewy grass on the cliff-top. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

The sunrises and sunsets at Pender Bay are a photographer's dream. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

The sunrises and sunsets at Pender Bay are a photographer’s dream. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

© Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

© Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

© Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

© Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

© Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

© Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

© Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

© Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

© Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

© Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

© Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

© Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

© Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

© Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

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Week 6 – Strawberry Fields Forever

I’m in Broome town centre with the heavenly scent of freshly baked croissants and pineapple and mango smoothies wafting through the air, igniting my indulgence-deprived senses. I’m next in line to purchase something terribly unhealthy and delicious, to satisfy a month long craving in the harsh bush. I hand over $5 to the baker (he doesn’t know I would pay him a lot more) and reach out my hands to behold the long awaited luxury. My mouth is awash with anticipation as I take a moment to appreciate the piping croissant in my hands, which tantalisingly drools melted Nutella from its edges. I give in, pulling it towards me, opening my mouth to take a bite and…. I wake up.

I’m in my tent, suffering from a reoccurring dream, which has haunted me for the past few weeks as time in the wilderness labours on. Rations are running low and rice and vegetables are the height of culinary excitement, with cheese on top if you’re lucky.  But, for me, this week not only has cheese on top, but vanilla butter icing and Swiss chocolate vermicelli; I really am lucky!  My petty woes are to be relieved as it is my turn to make the grand voyage to Broome, with the vital task of the fortnightly food shop and picking up new volunteers.

My dream has finally come true and it’s even sweeter in real life.

After consuming as many sugary delights as my teeth can handle, I check into what can only be assumed is Broome’s cheapest hostel, if its name ‘The Last Resort’ is anything to go by.  But for me it’s quite the opposite. I enjoy meeting fellow travellers and relish telling them of my most unusual adventures in the bush, in aid of humpback whale research. My scientific quest certainly beats the typical repertoire of backpacker tales, which echo through the halls of this budget hostel and resonate through the constant stream of dreadlocks.  The travels of fellow 22 year olds here are certainly much easier in comparison to mine, but my encounters with these people put into perspective just how special my experience as Lead Scientist really is. It’s hard work, in a tough environment, but this only brings greater reward through spectacular displays of natural wonder and stories worthy of the National Geographic. It’s not for everyone, but it’s definitely for me.

To add to the sweet glaze of the week, the arrival of Lauren Smith, my good friend from University, was the cherry on top. We met four years ago when we coincidentally sat beside each other on the first day of Uni in our Biology Lab and became lab partners. We imaginatively named ourselves ‘Team Smith’, as we molded chromosomes out of plasticine and dissected worms. Who would have thought that, four years on, Team Smith would be studying one of the most interesting and elusive creatures in the world, in the most remarkable lab of all –  the Indian Ocean?

With a car full of food and new volunteers, including Lauren and a French couple – Mel and Cyril, we embarked on the bumpy journey back to Pender Bay.

On the road. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

On the road. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

'Team Smith' reunited at Broome airport. On the road. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

‘Team Smith’ reunited at Broome airport. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

Lola welcoming the new arrivals with a game of frisbee on the beach. On the road. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

Lola welcomes the new arrivals with a game of frisbee on the beach.  © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

Paradise. The tide changes here are so high (around 11m, some of the largest in the world) that the beach can be completely immersed, like in this photo. On the road. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

Paradise. The tide changes here are so high (around 11m, one of the highest in the world) that the beach can be completely immersed, all the way up to the red pindan cliffs. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

...but at low spring tide, the walk to the water seems to last forever. On the road. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

…but at low spring tide, the walk to the water seems to last forever. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

Pender Bay looks like a tropical paradise for swimming, but looks can be deceiving. We warn our new volunteers of all the deadly things you can't see... tiger sharks, crocs, irukandji and cone shells, to name a few. On the road. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

Pender Bay looks like a tropical paradise for swimming, but looks can be deceiving. We warn our new volunteers of all the deadly creatures they can’t see… tiger sharks, crocs, irukandji and cone shells, to name a few. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

These Oystercatchers are in for a nasty surprise. On the road. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

These Oystercatchers are in for a nasty surprise. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

Another friendly surprise for the new volunteers - this Huntsman spider frequents the camp toilet.On the road. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

Another friendly surprise for the new volunteers – this Huntsman spider frequents the camp toilet. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

Eight eyes watching won't do a bashful bladder any good. On the road. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

Eight eyes watching won’t do a bashful bladder any good. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

...nor will another two. Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

…nor will another two. Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

The frogs like to hide in every crevice in the bathroom, from under the toilet seat, to the shower drain. Good fun to play hide and seek with. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

The frogs like to hide in every crevice in the bathroom, from under the toilet seat, to the shower drain. Good fun to play hide and seek with. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

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Week 5 – Day Tripper

We set off for another day trip on the boat; a beautiful dawn just like any other, with a thick, wet mist rolling into the sea from the dew-ridden land. I set my newly trained hands to work on the knots, lines and anchors, before taking my seat in the prime photographer’s location (and most exhilarating) on the bow of the boat.  Birds feed on large shoals of baitfish, rallied up by haddock and tuna, which Andrew has his eye on for lunch. We are part of the ecosystem. The crew drops the line and continues their fishing activity behind me, while I set my eyes on the sea for something photo-worthy.

Suddenly, an all too familiar bellowing blow sounds through the mist 200 metres away. A whale is near. Reassuring words from Andrew attempt to keep our nerves calm in case it comes close – a 16-metre body breaching next to the boat would feel like a building collapsing right next to us. Despite their docile nature, these animals can be deadly. But I was just thrilled to be close to one. Adrenaline pumping through my veins, hands firmly clenching my camera ready to get an amazing photo. Suddenly, flying through the mist as if out of nowhere, an enormous calf breached 20 metres in front of us. Its mighty mass propelled into the air with such ease and the sun glistened off of its exposed skin, so pure. Again, and again, its mother watched attentively by her calf’s side. It was magical. It was an incredible experience to have interacted with this curious newborn, a huge monster from an alien world, with an enormous journey to Antarctica ahead. I managed to get a few good snaps, although it was difficult to exchange the natural perspective through my own eyes, for my SLR viewfinder. To view the spectacle in all its wonder for myself in that moment, or to view it marginally through a lens but be able to keep the moment forever. A tough choice.

Once the whales decide to put an end to their performance, we set off for shore. We prepare to lower the anchor, when all of a sudden a manta ray pops up right next to the boat. Its 3 metre wing-span drives it round in somersaults, ‘barrel-rolling’ to feed on the plankton, and to show off to its awed spectators. It moves majestically, almost as if flying through the water, in a world where everything is slowed down. It disappears into the darkness all too soon. I had to hold myself back from jumping into the water to follow it (my childhood dream was to swim with manta rays). What was expected to be a typical morning boat ride to show the new volunteers the local caves, turned out to be one of the best days I’ve experienced at Pender Bay.

I try to make the most of all my spare time to work on my photography as from next week onwards I intend to start to press ‘record’, and make a short film of my surroundings.

It was a sad week for two reasons – we lost our palm tree and Juliana. The white ants have been eating away at the tree for years and it has eventually given up the battle and died. It is quite hard to grasp that an army of such small creatures can bring down the largest and sturdiest of plants. We waved off a tearful Juliana today, as she begins her next adventure up north in her four- wheel drive. She’s a mighty girl to be braving Darwin’s hostile wet season. All the girls have made a pact to reunite in Sydney for New Year’s Eve, so the lack of finality of this Auf Wiedersehen doesn’t seem as sad otherwise.

The survey whale activity is ever decreasing as we enter the end of their tropical vacation in the Indian Ocean. Motivation is dwindling for us cliff-top people. Staring at a seemingly empty ocean for 5 hours every morning is more a practice in mind control than anything else. We still see a handful of whales a day so for that it feels worthwhile. We need to stay on the cliff top observing all activity. Even no whale sightings for a week is a significant finding, as much as seeing a group of whales, because we want to know how long into the season they stay around, although I do dread a week of staring out at sea with no whales to entertain us.

Launching the boat is no mean feat. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

The best seat in the house. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

The best seat in the house. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

West Coast whales are considered much more wild than the comparable domestic whales of the East Coast, which are known to come very close to tourist boats as a result of being lured in with fishy treats. It makes this off chance encounter much more special. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

Humpback whale tail flukes are unique to each individual, like a human finger print. This is extremely useful for scientific research requiring the identification and tracking of individuals. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

This 6m calf breached continually for around 5minutes, showing off to its awed spectators. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

Manta Rays perform a feeding technique called 'barrel rolling' to extract as much food from the water as possible. This ray has been snapped upside-down mid barrel roll. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

Manta Rays perform a feeding technique called ‘barrel rolling’ to extract as much food from the water as possible. This ray has been snapped upside-down mid barrel roll. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

Bluebone Groper – catch of the day. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved.

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Week 4 – Lend Me Your Comb

My uprooting from Glasgow to Pender Bay was an exhilarating move; but is now taking its toll. I’m starting to feel a little run down and tired. At this point, in Glasgow, I would call on my friends and we would congregate in our regular café in the trendy west-end, for a spicy burrito and a big hot chocolate, floating with cream and marshmallows. Pure comfort! But this luxury isn’t available in the wilderness of the Kimberly. I do miss the freedom of city life and the availability of anything your heart desires (or stomach, I should say) at any time, day or night. However, this is an inevitable progression in the process of settling into a new environment and I know that this feeling will pass. Maybe another trip to Broome is in order to get it out my system…

As we become more comfortable and familiar in this setting, it’s easy to forget the novelty of such a special and exotic landscape. The heat of the day outside can feel unwelcoming, leaving the draw of the cool air under the fans in the kitchen a more desirable place to relax in the afternoon – after a full morning on the whale survey. But before you know it, days have passed and you’ve not even gone down to the beach, which is only a two minute walk from camp.

And so I decide to take action and protest (to myself and anyone else who will listen) against this lull in activity and go for an adventure along the coast. I leave my camera, ipod, book, trainers, laptop and anything that might distract me, back at camp, so I can focus on my mission, to drink in my surroundings. I am able to completely lose myself in Pender Bay, and I feel the grey cloud that had settled in my mind over the past few days, lift, leaving my mind as clear as the blue sky above me. The beach is littered with thousands of beautiful shells, and when I look closely, most of them are actually moving, with tiny hermit crabs inside, each with their own stylish, unique home. I sit on a rock and let the tide come in around me, allowing nature to engulf me. The ocean is brimming with activity, which is so easy to miss at first glance or when staring blindly at the ocean in search of humpback whales during the survey. I am in the middle of a real life David Attenborough documentary, with shoals of fish leaping out the water and into the mouths of swooping birds, against the back drop of a pink sunset and mother and calf humpbacks playing around 500metres away. It is enchanting. I wish I could swim out to join them but the fear of sharks and crocodiles is too real.

We have two new arrivals this week – Jo, another 26 year old artist (same as Jill!) from Cornwall, England; and Mike who used to be in the Royal Navy.  It’s great to have some newbies in camp, breathing new life into the group. It is at this point we all realised how wild we must look to our new arrivals: our hair as untamed as the bush that surrounds us, and our apparent tan is actually the pindan red sand that had permeated our skin.

Jo and I get talking about surfing and now I’m craving the waves! Unfortunately, Pender Bay doesn’t bring in enough swell to surf, but instead we go body surfing on the little waves and ride rough across the beach and the country roads, standing in the open boot of Andrew’s Toyota Hilux. It is exhilarating stuff, and we are nearly beheaded a few times by passing branches. Mike suggests we make a land yacht out of scrap wood lying around camp…I hope we get round to it!

It’s great to have new volunteers for the whale survey, but it does add an extra pressure to data collection. It falls on me to maintain the validity of the experiment, by repeating the exact daily procedures that were executed throughout the past three years of study. This means I have to make sure everybody is doing the right thing (as well as myself), by, practicing the same observational technique; identifying different whale behaviours correctly; differentiating between adults and calves; estimating distances properly; ensuring not to re-count the same whales; and, starting at the same time every day. On top of this we also have to remember to note other observations, including shipping, dolphins, flocks of birds feeding, changes in visibility etc, in order to see if this affects whale numbers.

Volunteers are generally very respectful and compliant with these rigid ‘rules’, despite not having a scientific background , thus perhaps not appreciating why things must be done in such a pedantic way. However, I am often asked why we don’t just sit on the edge of the cliff for a few hours each day, when we have some spare time, and tally how many whales we see and note their behaviour, rather than our rather pernickety methods. The reason is because we can only see the surface activity of whales from the cliff edge, and there is a whole population of whales that is not evident to us under the surface. Therefore, numbers of whales that are counted in this survey cannot be used as an exact figure for local population, but as a representation of local population, which can only be of use in comparing results from different years of study. Each year, observations have to be executed in the exact same way and for the same duration, for this comparison to be valid. From these data sets, statistical models can be drawn to analyse and present important findings, such as, changes in population depending on different variables, for example, time of year and changes in meteorology. Our observational methods must be so exact as this is the only constant variable in the changing environment that we observe. So not only is it important to make sure new volunteers get to grips with the survey method properly, but also to fully appreciate the reason we do things the way we do.

Thankfully, things are a much more laid back at camp, to recover from the intense 5 hours of research in the morning. It seems to have turned into a kind of girls’ camp now. We’ve been baking chocolate cakes, working on our tan (not pindan) and making jewelry out of shells we collect on the beach. We have two new additions to our morning yoga routines – Jo and Louis. We’re planning a mini-party tonight around the campfire, so we will finally make the effort to brush our long mains of hair and clean the dirt from under our fingernails. The endless supply of watermelons and coconuts growing on camp will be perfect for making some exotic drinks. A French couple has come for the night too, as well as Andrew’s neighbour Johnny from ‘around the corner’ (15km away). I can’t wait for our bush Saturday night! Fingers crossed I’ll still be able to get up at the crack of dawn for our sunrise boat trip tomorrow morning – our day off’s activity.

The new extreme sport of car surfing, with Jo, Juliana, moi and our trusted driver Andrew. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

The new extreme sport of car surfing, with Jo, Juliana, moi and our trusted driver Andrew. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

Party time! Fajitas on the menu...mmmmm my favourite. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

Party time! Fajitas on the menu…mmmmm my favourite. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

The chook and his missus on a romantic boat trip. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

The chook and his missus on a romantic boat trip. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

‘Hermy’ the hermit crab…one of hundreds scuttling around camp. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

Just a small selection of the amazing array of shells found on Pender Bay. The hermit crabs have a lot to choose from. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

Just a small selection of the amazing array of shells found on Pender Bay. The hermit crabs have a lot to choose from. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

Juliana and Andrew making jewellery from pearl shell, a beautiful material that has given North-Western Australia a name in the Jewellery industry. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

Juliana and Andrew making jewellery from pearl shell, a beautiful material that has given North-Western Australia a name in the Jewellery industry. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

Louis set me a photography challenge to see how close I could get to these beautiful red-tailed black cockatoos... © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

Louis set me a photography challenge to see how close I could get to these beautiful red-tailed black cockatoos… © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

...but they flew away... © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

…but they flew away… © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

...so I ran up the water tower to grab a few snaps before they disappeared. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

…so I ran up the water tower to grab a few snaps before they disappeared. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

The camera took place over morning yoga today to capture this stunning moon-set at camp. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

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Week 3 – A Shot of Rhythm and Blues

It’s now the start of September and whale numbers are starting to decline as they begin their southern migration.  I cherish every spectacular breach and lobtail I witness; I definitely took the flourish of August activity for granted, although we’ll still see on average around 10 whales per 5min interval during survey. I have to pinch myself every morning on the cliff top, realising my first project as a Zoology graduate is monitoring humpback whale activity in the Indian Ocean. It doesn’t get much better than this! I’m really enjoying learning all about the whales and their local environment, first hand. It’s a real privilege to actually be involved in a study and community project like ones I’ve spent years reading about in case studies at University.

The Australian Navey Cadets come to visit this week to take part in the survey and learn about what we do here. It is my job to train them up and oversee as they survey. This is my first real challenge so far as I have only ever had to train up one new person at a time, but now I have a whole new team; however, it all happens far too quickly for the nerves to kick in. I relish the challenge and have fun giving the cadets an opportunity to do something new and different, and they do a great job!

We have our first trip to Broome this week, to remind ourselves of city-life and get a few supplies (two shopping trollies-full!). I don’t miss the city as much as I thought I would, but it was nice to order a pizza and walk on concrete, not sand, for a change. We stay with Donny, an old friend of Andrew’s, who treats us to a guitar performance to rival that of B.B. King. He pulls out another guitar for Andrew and myself to jam along. I experience music’s ability to bring people of different cultures and nationalities, together. Creativity plays an important role in people’s lives here – everyone shares a great deal of respect for bush art, poetry and music. We went to an art exhibition by Jeanné Browne, who has lived with an Aboriginal family for the past 25 years, documenting her experience of the Lurujarri Heritage Trail through sketches, painting and poetry. I found this really inspiring as I had set out to do photography and filming whilst on my trip. I have felt a great deal of creative encouragement and support from the people I’ve met so far. Louis is a talented and experienced wildlife photographer and has been offering me tips, whilst Andrew has been encouraging me to write my own music and improvise like him.

I feel slightly responsible for turning the Two Moons into a health and fitness retreat. Jill and Juliana have joined in my 5am yoga sessions, which we do in the kitchen/living area with a highly embarrassing yoga DVD I bought in Broome. We give Andrew and Louis a fright when they find us strewn across the floor at breakfast time. We also discover a good 10km run through the bush to do in the cooler air of the evening, as the sun sets. The sand underfoot makes things a lot more challenging though! It’s easy to become lazy and lethargic during the midday heat, but I’m determined not to let it beat me.

I definitely feel at home here now and am actually relieved to return to the serenity of Pender Bay after the relative hustle and bustle of Broome. I’m walking around bare foot now, driving four wheel drives, changing tires and making fires, as my skin darkens under the Australian sun. Time has passed so quickly. I can’t believe I’m nearing the end of my third week already, although my life back home seems a long way away now.

Me being Lead Scientist and training up the Australian Navey Cadets to do the humpback whale survey. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

Me being Lead Scientist and training up the Australian Navey Cadets to do the humpback whale survey. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

Our two week supply! © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

Our two week supply! © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

Donny and myself performing to our Broome audience. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

Donny and myself performing to our Broome audience. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

The Two Moon gals and Donny. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

The Two Moon gals and Donny. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

Jill, myself, Jeanné and Juliana at the art gallery based on the Lurujarri Heritage Trail.  © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

Jill, myself, Jeanné and Juliana at the art gallery based on the Lurujarri Heritage Trail. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

We had to drive through a few bush fires on our 190km drive back from Broome. They can start from something as small as a piece of littered glass magnifying the sun’s rays onto dried shrub, or from people throwing lit cigarettes out their car windows.  © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

We had to drive through a few bush fires on our 190km drive back from Broome. They can start from something as small as a piece of littered glass magnifying the sun’s rays onto dried shrub, or from people throwing lit cigarettes out their car windows. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

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Week 2 – A Day in the Life

I’m settling in very quickly to camp life. The early morning starts (6am!) are made easier by the glorious sunrise, a hazy palette of deep reds and oranges, like a mirage through heat from the camp fire. I can’t believe I don’t need an alarm clock to get me up – an absolute first for my usually nocturnal self.  Or is it that crowing cockerel (or chook, to get into the Ozzie lingo) that has something to do with it… My day begins with breakfast at 6am then a brisk 15 minute walk up to the cliff top to begin the survey at 7am. The survey consists of myself and three volunteers who analyse whale numbers and behaviours, two with binoculars and two with the naked eye. We do this for a period of 5 minutes with a 10 minute break, continuously until 12 noon. My role is to train up new volunteers, to organise and run the daily survey and to input the data collected into the computer. It was a lot to take in at the start, but the more experienced volunteers, like Louis – a wildlife enthusiast who has been doing this survey for years – were very supportive and helped me settle into my role.

By 12 noon everyone is starving and ready for lunch, prepared by a volunteer or by Andrew in time for our return to camp. We get the rest of the afternoon off to relax, and that can often mean a much-needed bush siesta. The weather is hot (around 35°C) and humid, a far cry from the dull, wet summer Scotland is experiencing right now – where sunny days peak at around 20°C. This is the perfect opportunity for a refreshing swim in the sea, that’s if you’re brave enough! Being a keen amateur surfer and a retired competitive open water swimmer, I was looking forward to checking out the beach scene.  But when I did my research into the safety of the local waters, I found I could be sharing the bay with a few less than cuddly animals like tiger sharks, great whites, box jellyfish, crocodiles and irukandji. Terrifying! But this doesn’t stop Lola, the camp dog and everyone’s best friend. So, I have braved the waters a few times alongside her and I’m still alive to tell the tale! Australia has the image abroad of being full of deadly animals, especially in the bush, and this was one of my biggest worries before coming here. In reality, however, it’s pretty safe, especially in the dry season when everything from the weather to the insects is mild and unthreatening, unless you go looking for trouble.

By 6pm the sun is setting and the campfire lights the sky. We all take turns cooking dinner, which usually consists of Andrew’s fresh catch of the day, or a nice vegetarian dish for people like myself. Apparently the oceanic life style out here has turned many a veggie to pescetarian ways, with an endless array of fish on our doorstep, but I’m more than content with the exotic home-grown fruit and veggies on-site.

After dinner, the moon has risen and stars fill the dark sky with a spectacular galactic display that is never seen in the lit city streets of Glasgow. We all sit around the campfire sharing stories of our travels and our lives back home. This is also an opportunity for people to display their talents. Dan and Tirza arrived, armed with their guitar and accordion, and they have us dancing around the campfire in no time. I brought my guitar from Glasgow and share a few Spanish tunes while Andrew modestly improvises some blues, which sets the atmosphere. Louis shares wonderful stories form his 78 years of life experience and encyclopedia of world knowledge. Nowhere else in the world would you come across such mix of people, from all walks of the earth; it’s an experience like no other.

All the volunteers on camp quickly become like family. I travelled all the way from the other side of the world, to the middle of nowhere in Australia only to come across a fellow Scot – Jill, a 26 year old artist from Edinburgh.  It’s been a real comfort to have her here, a piece of home to cushion the inevitable culture shock that I occasionally experience, and an infinite source of laughter and shared cultural references. Sandra and Nigel were here for my first week, an English couple who relocated to Australia and have now given up corporate life to dedicate their time to travel and charity. The Two Moons really is a magnet for inspirational people from all around the world. Next to arrive was a 23-year-old German girl, Juliana, here to get her hands dirty and WWOOF (Willing Workers On Organic Farms). She’s so driven and full of energy and has been teaching Jill and myself, German…our exam is tomorrow! The community here is more westernised than I expected, but has still given me insight into Aboriginal culture. Andrew has indigenous roots (but with a Scottish great grandfather – small world!) and is friends with everyone for miles around and he opens the door to the local way of life.

Louis showing me how to change a tyre for the first time! © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

Louis showing me how to change a tyre for the first time! © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

The survey crew, from left to right, Jill, moi, Louis, Sandra and Nigel. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

The survey crew, from left to right, Jill, moi, Louis, Sandra and Nigel. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

1Nessy-Sunset

A rock formation which can be seen from the cliff top. We call her Nessy…a taste of home from Loch Ness to the Indian Ocean. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

Visibility was so bad some mornings this week, we couldn’t even see the sea from the survey base. In this case, humidity was 98% so we had to wait for the mist to lift before we could start the survey. Everything was soaking wet… © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

Visibility was so bad some mornings this week, we couldn’t even see the sea from the survey base. In this case, humidity was 98% so we had to wait for the mist to lift before we could start the survey. Everything was soaking wet… © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

Louis found this Northern Bluetongue lizard which posed nicely for us. An opportunity for me to work on some wildlife photography. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

Louis found this Northern Bluetongue lizard which posed nicely for us. An opportunity for me to work on some wildlife photography. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

© Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

© Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

© Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

© Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

© Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

© Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

A cormorant bird dodging the surf. The cliff top is a great spot for bird watching when the whales take a siesta. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

A cormorant bird dodging the surf. The cliff top is a great spot for bird watching when the whales take a siesta. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved

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Week 1 – The Long and Winding Road

Today I embark on the biggest move of my life: from a comfortable city life-style in Glasgow, all the way to the hot red sands of the Kimberley. The 24 hour plane journey gives me plenty of time to reflect on the adventure that awaits, as I cross from the Northern to the Southern Hemisphere, a journey I’ve never made alone before now. It’s a big step, but my nerves are dampened by the anticipation of what the next few months will hold and all the stories I’ll have for my friends and family back home.

I spend my 22nd birthday in Perth, surfing the Indian Ocean for the first time, catching up with old friends and savouring every last moment of city life for the weekend before setting off on my Northern venture.

I’m greeted at the tropical airport of Broome by Steve and Sue from WAMSI and the hot weather and their warm welcome curb any reservations I have. We go to Coles supermarket to buy everything I may possibly need during the next few months in the wilderness.  This is quite an alien prospect to me, as I, like most of the population, am used to nipping down to the local shop 5 minutes away from my home in Glasgow for anything, from a stash of sweets to a Swiss army knife. However, the Two Moons Whale and Research Base in Pender Bay, my crib for the next few months, is 190km away from the local shop – so I have to think ahead and be prepared for anything. Chocolate and Mexican spices for fajitas (my favourite food) are top of my list.

There are four-wheel drives everywhere in the town centre of Broome and as we begin our journey to Pender Bay I realise why. The further we drive from civilisation, the more rough the roads become. With every kilometre we travel, the smooth concrete gives way to undulating, corrugated sand.  My adventure has now begun.  The surfer inside me has a great time, riding the deep red waves of the Kimberley pindan roads. After a few bumpy hours on the long and winding road, we arrive.

Andrew, manager and founder of the Two Moons, welcome us to the research base, which began whale research in 2006 with Deakin University and is now in its fourth year running with WAMSI. Camp is more luxurious than I expected, with a flat screen TV and, more importantly, a flushing toilet.  Much taken for granted, I had realised how luxurious this was after many weeks using an insect-infested long drop at my research base in the Amazon several years ago. I am left to unpack in my trailer-tent, a surprisingly comfortable and spacious canvas invention with a double-bed, windows and a huge desk which I drape my Scotland flag over.

Next comes the grand tour. We take a two-minute stroll to the private beach, accompanied by Lola, the most vivacious and friendly dog I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. The beach is huge, like something you would see on the front cover of a holiday brochure, and best of all, we have it all to ourselves. Next, Steve drives me up to the cliff-top where I will be spending most of my time for the next few months running the humpback whale survey. He makes me close my eyes and as we reach the peak of the cliff and I open them as he welcomes me to my ‘office’! I am greeted with a wide expanse of blue ocean, with humpback whales leaping out of the water in the horizon, followed closely by their mimicking young calves. It is at this moment I realise just how lucky I am to be here.

I am eased in gently to the role of Lead Scientist as I shadow Aurelie, my predecessor.  The prospect of my leadership role, and the responsibility it implies in the continuation of such an important survey, is daunting yet truly exciting, as this is what I’ve spent years of my life preparing for throughout school and university.

After several days of field training in observational techniques and data input, and relaxing nights around the campfire, it is time to say goodbye to my WAMSI support network and assume the role of Lead Scientist. It is sad to see them go but I have a feeling this is something I will have to get used to in a community of travellers passing through the Two Moons. As I wave them off, I am filled with a feeling of curiosity and excitement at the thought of what personalities will be joining us to volunteer at the Two Moons over my next two and a half month stay.

http://yourlisten.com/alexismith1/alexis-smith-interview-wamsi-20082012 Raw recording of my first interview with Sue Lyn Lim from WAMSI. Conducted on day one of survey on the cliff-top observation point, Pender Bay, Dampier Peninsula, WA 20.08.2012.

Camp where we live. There’s an endless supply of renewable energy thanks to the huge solar panels. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved.

This is the kitchen and general living area. The ducks are a constant source of amusement to watch, as they waddle around camp in their little gang. © Copyright Alexis Smith 2012 All Rights Reserved.

This is my home! And, yes, I did take my teddy rabbit to Australia with me… © Copyright Alexis Smith All Rights Reserved.

Lola the dog. © Copyright Alexis Smith All Rights Reserved.

This is Steve training me up to be Lead Scientist at the cliff top Base, our little camper van and high-tech weather station. It used to be a hotdog vender! © Copyright Alexis Smith All Rights Reserved.

These enormous bones are humpback whale vertebrae along with their two jaw bones and a few ribs, lying outside Andrew’s office as if they were as ordinary as garden gnomes. They were donated to the Two Moons after the whale died of natural causes and washed ashore a local beach. © Copyright Alexis Smith All Rights Reserved.

Pender Bay – Just me and the hermit crabs. © Copyright Alexis Smith All Rights Reserved.

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