Way back in February, when I was preparing to study abroad, I spent a ton of time searching the JCU website for all of the details that I could find about course offerings and descriptions. Since I am all about maximizing my time spent exploring while here in AU, I wanted to try to select classes that had field trip components. In the end, three of my four classes all ended up including field trips, and the one trip that I have been looking forward to the most was visiting Orpheus Island for my Coral Reef Ecology course.
Orpheus Island is part of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Site and is only 11km long and 1km wide. Around the waters of Orpheus, there is an extensive network of coral reefs in varying levels of condition, but most are quite pristine. There is a clam garden that is home to over 3,000 giant clams as well as over 1,000 species of fish and 350 of the 360 known species of coral. (Orpheus facts from the JCU Research Station Webpage).
There are only two places to stay on Orpheus Island. If you are a JCU staff member or student conducting research or a seriously lucky volunteer, you can stay at the JCU Research Station. However, if you do not happen to be affiliated with JCU, you also could stay at the Luxury Resort located on the opposite side of the island. You’ll have to book a helicopter to fly you in though. And the cheapest room at this resort costs $1,500 for a one-night-stay for a couple, but this includes a wonderful beach-front view. However, if you would prefer your own villa for four, you can stay for $3,000 per night.
Being that I am headed into a profession that does not often lead to becoming a millionaire, I truly felt that this was my once-in-a-life-time opportunity to come to Orpheus Island to spend a couple of nights. My field trip to Orpheus ended up being my second mini spring break trip.
It all began at 4am on the Tuesday of study break. When I awoke, I double checked that I had my mask, fins, snorkel, booties, and brand new wetsuit packed along with two sets of clothes and over-night necessities. As I walked across campus, stars sparkled in the black Australian sky as wallabies hopped away as I passed by.
Myself and the twenty or so peers who were in my field trip group all met the big tour bus that was driving us about an hour north to where we were catching the ferry to Orpheus. Yes, I most certainty slept on the bus. I even brought a blanket to keep me warm because the air conditioning on buses in AU is always freezing. Once we arrived in Lucinda, we had to wait about an hour for our ferry that was running quite a bit late. Once it arrived, the first field trip group off loaded and then we boarded.
The ferry ride was about an hour long. As we exited Lucinda Bay, we had beautiful views all around. We sailed parallel to the longest pier in the southern hemisphere! The pier is 5.7 km long which is 3.5 miles. The pier transports sugar from the main land all the way out to where giant ships dock to load up before setting sail around the world with this precious commodity. On the other side of the ferry, we had front boat views of Hinchinbrook Island, which is another island that would be so amazing to explore someday.
The sun was shining bright and warm as the ferry landed on the shore of Orpheus. We were greeted by our awesome professor, Mia Hoogenboom, who seriously is an inspiration. Once we all claimed on of the sixty bunk beds spread between ten rooms, we all went to get some breakfast before our first morning lecture.
Our task while at Orpheus for the next two days was to conduct fish and coral surveys while snorkeling around specific reefs. We had to identify 48 reef fish species and 33 coral species. Despite making color coded flash cards and trying to learn these, I honestly did not known them nearly as well as I would of liked. However, I knew them well enough to complete the surveys.
After our briefing on the specific methods for our data collection, we all donned our wetsuits and snorkel gear and headed out to the boats. I felt super lucky when I realized that I had found my way to Mia’s boat (all of the professors go by their first names here, which is very different than at home and something that I am still getting used to). Being able to boat around with my professor all day meant that I could ask all sorts of questions ranging from what inspired her to pursue marine biology, where here favorite scuba dives have been, and pretty much anything else that came to mind. There were a total of only six students in our boat. It was incredible getting to causally spend the day exploring a secluded research island with a world-class marine biology researcher.
Once everyone was boarded into one of the four boats, Mia smiled as she told us that it is always a race between the four boats to see who can get to the site first, even though the other boat captains wouldn’t admit it. Mia said that she always won and instructed us to all hang on and scoot forward in the boat so that we would glide along the water faster. As we sped along the water for about 10 minutes, I soaked in the views around me as much as I could. “Once in a life time, a dream come true,” I kept thinking to myself. I snapped back to the present moment as we arrived at our first dive site with the other three boats pulling in behind us.
Our first snorkel was a bit challenging. My buddy and I had to acquaint ourselves with juggling the two clip boards, transect tape, stop watches, and shuffling between multiple data sheets while trying to keep from swallowing all of the water in the see or smashing any corals below our fins. Once we got going, it was a bit of a slow process for us, but we managed to collect the data that we needed.
After we finished at this site, we returned to the research station for lunch before going out again. We also conducted surveys off of Pelorus Island, next to near Orpheus. Under the water there was so much to look at. On one hand, my mind was intensely focusing on the data collection and trying to figure out which kinds of fish just swam by me by the dozens and what kind of coral I was staring at, and on the other hand excitedly realizing that I was snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef for the first time off the shores of a remote research island! Although the data collection was quite tasking, mentally and physically, it was an incredible experience.
However, it was not all as pristine and colorful as you might imagine. Unfortunately, there were areas that we surveyed that were hit hard by the 2016-2017 coral bleaching. In fact, the purpose of our data collection was to compare the current conditions of the reefs to past years of survey data to quantify the damage on reefs. But, this is not to say that we didn’t see any gorgeous corals and fish, because we most certainty did.
My friend Julie got to test out her new GoPro on the reefs and agreed to let me share some photos that she took. I have edited the photos a bit to remove the blue tint from the water so that they look a more true to how I saw them through my own eyes.
In addition to surveying at two locations our first day, we also got to go for a fun dive at Iris Point. This site had a lot of table corals with many nooks and cranies to search for interesting organisms. While I didn’t see one myself, I know that some of my peers found an octopus. However, I did see a giant clam that would be about the size of me if I curled up into a ball. I loved getting to swim along with large butterfly fish that made dinner plates look small and super bright and colorful parrot fish. Duck diving down to get a closer look at the corals was my favorite thing to do, but my 3mm wetsuit made it super challenging and I couldn’t stay down and hang around at all. I found out after the trip that weights were compensate for the buoyancy of the wet suit.
While racing back to the island after finishing our fun dive, a call to Mia came over the radio. “We’ve got whales,” another of the boat captains said. Mia hightailed it back to where the other boats had stopped. We got to watch the dorsal fins of a mother and young calf hump-back whale rise and fall into the sea.
After our day of snorkeling, we rinsed off our gear and ourselves before having a super great dinner. It was so much better than the food from the dining hall on campus. We got to top it off with some fancy AU ice cream as well. Then, it was time for data entry. This is when we did out best to decipher all of our doodles and descriptions of things we did not remember the identification for while out snorkeling. We input all of our data into excel spread sheets. At times it was super hard to read our under water hand writing and our state of complete exhaustion from waking up at 4am and spending several hours in the water added to the struggle. Once I was laying in my bunk, it was still before 10pm, but I sure was pooped. I felt as though my bunk was bobbing like a boat on the water. It was fast asleep as soon as I shut my eyes.
Six-am came way to fast, but there was no time to waste since we had three more sites to dive today! After snagging some cereal for breakfast, we got dressed for diving and waddled out across the tidal flat to where the boats were anchored in the distance. This time, all six of us girls riding in Mia’s boat shifted our weight automatically forward. We had been well trained the win the race the day before. But, as all of the boats were preparing to speed away, it seemed to me a bit as though the other three captains waited for Mia to head off first. Regardless of whether or not they were trying to give us a head start, we still made it to the sites first every time, and that’s a win in Mia’s book.
After two more data collection surveys, we returned to the island once again to take a bit of a break and get some food and water in our bellies. We let our food settle while we had a quick lecture about the objective of our last dive: A rare species hunt. We were looking for two specific fish species and two specific coral species, some that Mia has only seen a couple of times herself. Essentially, what this really meant is that our last dive was a fun dive where we got to go exploring without a transect tape or data sheets in hand.
At the end of our second day, we repeated our evening routine of eating a super tasty dinner (tonight was Thai Curry night and it was super spicy and delicious, followed by amazing carrot cake) and then entering all of our data from the day. Getting to watch the sunset from the shore of Orpheus Island was another “pinch-me-I-must-be-dreaming” moment.
There was no sleeping in at Orpheus. Our last morning on the island we had to get up at 5am to begin packing our bags and cleaning our rooms. Then we had to hurry to our last mini-lecture, snap a group photo, and of course buy some Orpheus Island t-shirts! In the end, the ferry was an hour late again. Although we were all exhausted, you can’t complain when you are watching the sunrise above an island that few people get to step foot on in their lives. Once we boarded, we had a relaxing ferry ride back to the mainland where, just like the first field trip group, we off loaded our gear assembly-line style as the third and final field trip group eagerly awaited to board the ferry.
With the end of this trip, I was half way through my Aussie Spring Break and was having a blast making once in a life time memories. My break had started with an overnight bush trek to Cape Cleveland and would be ending in a few days with an overnight trip to Tully George (coming soon) with the JCU Zoology Club. I think it is safe to say that it was shaping up to be a mid-semester break well spent.