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Life at Phillip Island

sunny 17 °C

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I had presumed it would be a relatively quiet winter aside from occasional field trips, and so it might have been, if not for one minor, insignificant detail – I only get to spend about two weeks total in Melbourne over three months. I think my housemates have forgotten that I live here at all, though maybe they’ve noticed no one telling them to do the dishes.

After spending the end of May and most of June living in a tent, I had just a few days to wash all my smelly seal clothes and make the journey to my second field site at Phillip Island Nature Park. I also made sure to spend the week cooking myself a feast of meats and other tasty treats I’d been missing all month. Compared to smelly seal island, however, Phillip Island is the lap of luxury.

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Phillip Island is a world-famous for their parade of Little penguins. Each night these little guys return from foraging at sea and waddle up the beach to their burrows, to the delight of hundreds of thousands of tourists annually. About half of the island is a protected Nature Park, and just off the coast is another colony of Australian fur seals, my second site and the largest breeding colony in the world. The Park is extremely kind to visiting student researchers, we get office space and accommodation at a cosy volunteer house – with heaters, hot showers, real beds, and a kitchen, oh my. A winter paradise. Plus there are remote cameras already at this colony – I can do my research from the comfort of the office! A perfect balance for spending so much time in the field already.

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Clare and Julia at the vollie house with a group of American/Canadian volunteers.

It’s a civilised island, but a pretty quiet place to stay. A lot of the time it was just me and one other student, Clare, who is studying penguins, although we had occasional visits from International Student Volunteer groups from the US and Canada. Some of the other researchers and rangers were kind enough to welcome us into their small town community, inviting us to staff parties, dinners, local pubs, and, of course, weekly poker nights. I had a busier social calendar in a town of 4000 people than in Melbourne, population 2 million. Having grown up a small town girl, it was that perfect intermediary between the city life and island life. I could have a hot shower in the morning, a pub dinner at night, and still find a wallaby hopping through my backyard in between.

When things got a bit too quiet for our tastes, Clare and I were more than capable of finding ways to entertain ourselves. For the 4th of July, we celebrated American Independence by making a very impressive America Cake, a piece of culinary genius if I ever did see one. Continuing on in my efforts to encourage cultural awareness (one of the founding principles of the Fulbright scholarship program), I taught Clare how to make a more traditional American dish – pumpkin pie! That said, being that I haven’t made one since I was about twelve, and never from scratch, it was a learning process for both of us. The Aussies don’t do sweet dishes with pumpkins, so it was new to all of our co-workers and our poker buddies, and was an overwhelming success.

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4th of July cake!

Clare and I also worked as each other’s research assistants, giving us both the help we needed and new research experience. In my spare time I got to help her catch penguins and stick satellite trackers on them, which involves a lot of sticking your hands down dark burrows that may contain poisonous snakes and hoping you get bitten by a penguin instead. The penguins (if they’re home) will let out a loud, offended squawk at your invasion, which never fails to make me jump. I haven’t found a snake yet, but so far it’s been a hell of a lot easier than catching seals.

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Penguin with a satellite tracker

The day I needed a research assistant, Clare and I went out on the Kasey Lee, one of the tour boats cooperating with my study. They run daily tours around Phillip Island and to the seal colony for most of the year. Lucky for us, we happened to go out on just about the nicest, calmest day of the entire winter, when we needed t-shirts and sunglasses. Man, life as a seal researcher is just terrible, lemme tell ya. Especially since two humpback whales showed up about halfway through the cruise and surfaced repeatedly within 30m of our boat.

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Southern humpback whales.

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I can’t really complain about life at Phillip Island, it's pretty fantastic. Stay tuned for more details about seal adventures!

Aussie slang of the week: “a few kangaroos loose in the top paddock” (adj., not right in the head, crazy), mad as a cut snake (adj., really angry), ambo (n., ambulance)

Posted by JuliaInOz 16:41 Archived in Australia

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