A Travellerspoint blog

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 Comments (0)

Roughing it

sunny 14 °C

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Sleepy seal pups

Oh, man. I knew from the start of this whole business that I was moving to Australia to do research and that long field seasons on an uninhabited island were part of it, I was looking forward to the challenge. I did a couple week-long stints in summer. I wrestled some seals and fell in some burrows and did what I could to prepare myself for “really roughing it”, but there’s just no way of knowing what it’s like until you’ve been stuck for three weeks on that 1 km-square rock full of seals.

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A juvenile white-bellied sea eagle soars overhead.

Some things honestly weren’t as bad as I expected. For example, your sense of smell adjusts after a few days in a seal colony, so that even when you’ve gone two weeks without a shower, your own odour is a rather refreshing alternative to the seal stench clinging to everything else. I also didn’t end up with dread locks, surprisingly. On the downside, I did wake up one morning to find a spider in my pants, but hey, that’s life. The weather was remarkably kind to us, we had several sunny, seventy-degree days, and only one wind/rainstorm, the rest of the time my three layers of insulated underwear were more than enough to keep me as cosy as a chubby seal.

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That one storm, however, was a doozy. It hit overnight with gusts up to 40 knots, strong but not unusual for Bass Strait, so we’d battened down the hatches and felt prepared. Unfortunately my tent chose that particular evening to volunteer for retirement. Despite being fully pegged and secured, I woke up to rather more sunlight than I was accustomed to. One of the poles at the entryway had snapped clean in half and torn a metre-long gash in the rain fly, luckily on the opposite side from the wind so that I remained warm and dry. We only had a ten-minute break between rain showers to try and cobble it back together with gaffer tape and adhesive, but it did hold for the remainder of the trip.

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Antechinus find an impromptu meal in our tent.

Despite the generally calm weather, I was plagued with research problems. First one of my boat drivers had to go on emergency leave, and then we were notified of a recall on the boat gas tank which grounded it for the remainder of the trip. I had hoped to get 20 runs; after three weeks I had 6. That’s how it goes for field biologists – you’re always at the mercy of a chaotic number of variables, you just have to hope for the best and plan for the worst. For me it means another 3-6 weeks on the island in July and August.

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One of the boats participating in my study, with excited tourists on board.

Something I love about my lab is that several different projects will be going on at once, and when you’re in the field you’re not only doing your own project but you are getting your hands dirty in everyone else’s. This trip I was helping deploy and recover tracking devices and video cameras on females, anaesthetise seals, and take blood samples. Catching adult females is quite a bit more difficult than the run-and-grab pup catching I’m used to. It takes a lot of stealth (belly-crawling through the colony inch-by-inch to approach a seal from the downwind side), coordination (running over uneven ground with a large net), strength (holding the 150+ lb. seal in the net once you catch it), and quick reflexes (not getting bitten).

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The boys begin their stealthy approach.

Being that I’m not particularly gifted in any of those areas, I usually opt for the all-important job of keeping an eye on the target and carrying all the drugs and equipment. I did manage to catch a half-grown female in a net by myself at the end of the trip, I was very proud of myself. Seal nets are quite like glorified butterfly nets, but long enough that when a seal runs forward into it, its whole body will fit inside. The closed end is just narrow enough to trap the head and then the open end can be twisted closed behind the flippers so that the seal can’t back out. After that, someone’s jumping on to pin it down, because net or no, seals are remarkably good at finding ways to bite.

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One of the highlights of the entire trip for me was also this: I got to milk a seal. I’ve never milked a cow, so I didn’t realize what an oddly relaxing and satisfying feeling it gives you, doing the milking. Seals don’t exactly have udders, so it requires some manoeuvring and deep-tissue massage that makes it all the more satisfying an accomplishment when you get a decent sample. That’s a scientific sample, mind you, it’s not like we were just tired of powdered milk and decided to switch it up.

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The boys show me how it's done.

In any case, I had a pretty good trip but was never happier to get home to my shower and warm, clean bed. My housemates, however, were not as happy to see (and smell) me until after I got out of the shower.

Aussie slang of the week: barrack (verb, to support a team or side), ta (informal thanks), ratbag (noun, obnoxious/untrustworthy person)

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Posted by JuliaInOz 23:29 Archived in Australia Comments (0)

Food and feathered friends

sunny 20 °C

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A California condor soars over Pinnacles National Monument

First off, most will have heard about the terrible wildfires currently raging in Central California. A mostly uncontained fire is burning through the Ventana condor sanctuary, endangering the flock we’ve worked so hard to reintroduce along with this year’s three wild nestlings. My thoughts and prayers are with everyone being affected by the fires and with those helping to fight them.
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I’m pushing the six-month mark in Oz these days, which I can hardly believe. I’ve beaten my records for time spent out of Oregon, out of the country, and off the continent, and I’m not even a quarter of the way through my time here yet. Thus far I still haven’t picked up an aussie accent, on the contrary, the slowness of speech and drawn out vowels of the aussies have comically brought out my inclination towards my dad’s southern drawl. Well, that and picking up the (excessive) use of “I reckon” which the aussies and my paternal relatives happen to share.

Not too long ago my best friend and former roommate in the US discovered a company in Melbourne that imports and delivers US foods. I received a fantastic care package in the mail containing long-missed things like canned sloppy joe sauce, Rice-a-Roni, Sobe, and country gravy mix, among other things. I know, I know, these may not be things of spectacular taste or quality that you personally might miss if you were away from home, but there’s something about not being able to get something that makes you crave the idea of it. For example, I searched Galapagos desperately for onion rings for three months, only to remember once I found them that, well, I don’t even like onion rings. That said, I do love biscuits and gravy, which Australia is sorely lacking, and so I set about making biscuits from scratch to go with that gravy mix.

Now I’ve gotten pretty good about my aussie slang. It did occur to me that our “biscuits” are their “scones” and their “biscuits” are our “cookies” or “crackers”. If I had gone to the store, I would have bought some “scones”. However, being that instead I hurriedly pulled up a recipe on the internet, I didn’t really think to check what country the web site belonged to. Who thinks of these things? It wasn’t until I had pulled my peculiarly flat “biscuits” out of the oven, scratched my head, and tasted them with a bit of gravy that I discovered I had made myself a meal of sugar cookies and gravy. Not exactly my idea of a tasty treat – but the cookies turned out excellent, if I do say so myself.

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Flock of yellow-tailed black cockatoos

Aside from experimenting with my cooking, I spend a lot of time trying to get as much research experience as possible. Another grad student invited me to go bird-banding recently with the local wading-bird study group which bands and tracks many species annually. Most of the members are retired researchers or experienced bird-lovers that we fondly refer to as “twitchers”.

The day started out well with a rare day-time sighting of a common nocturnal marsupial, a brushtail possum, baby in tow. We were also lucky enough to see huge flocks of yellow-tailed black cockatoos in the wild.

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To catch shore birds, we set up a cannon-net just above the high tide mark. The net is rolled up beneath seaweed and beach debris and attached at regular lengths to small projectiles. These are inserted into small cannons buried beneath the sand which can be detonated from a small blind some distance away, shooting the net out just as a flock of unwary target birds settles down in range.

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Stint

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Beautiful red-capped plover

The captured birds are disentangled from the net, weighed, measured, and aged, and bands are put on their legs identifying individual, species, and the location where they were banded. That day we caught a number of small plovers and tiny stints, another day my housemate Angus came along and we caught sooty oystercatchers.

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Red-capped plover with band and flag

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Nicole bands a sooty oystercatcher

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A sooty's bright orange eye

I think I had the best job by far that first day. After the birds had been measured and banded I got to attach one final coloured flag and then toss them back into the air. They’re considerably easier to handle than a twenty-pound California condor keen on taking your hand off, but small or large, I don’t know that there’s a better feeling in the world than releasing a wild bird and watching it fly off into the sunset.

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Aussie slang of the week: fangin’ it (driving at high speed), she’ll be right (it’s all good), Sparky (electrician)

Posted by JuliaInOz 23:09 Archived in Australia Comments (0)

Wombats, Devils, Roadkill and more

overcast 18 °C

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My apologies for the long dry spell, a lot of my time lately has been taken up with being a graduate student. Scary stuff, that, the fact that I now have approximately twenty months to do my research, analyse data, and write a massive thesis kinda snuck up on me. Relatively speaking, anyway, akin to the way a rather large, uncoordinated elephant could sneak up on me if I covered my eyes, plugged my ears, and hummed loudly.

My mother spent two weeks visiting me over Easter and my birthday, and we had a fantabulous time. We decided to rent a car, cross our fingers, and hope for the best – since Australians drive on the left side of the road. For someone who is naturally a nervous rider (My mother), it was a bit hair-raising at times, but I think I did a marvellous job adjusting. Due to my fascination with Australian wildlife, we visited quite a few zoos and wildlife parks (like Melbourne Zoo and Healesville Sanctuary), which were fantastic. I also made sure to show her all the sights Melbourne had to offer.

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Mooned by a gorilla at the Melbourne Zoo.

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A wedgetail eagle in flight at Healesville Sanctuary.

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An echidna wanders by while we hike at Briars State Park on the Mornington Peninsula.

We spent three days in Tasmania, which has become one of my favourite parts of Oz thus far. We stayed at a lovely B&B called Hillview House overlooking Launceston, in northern Tassie in the Tamar River Valley. The island state is made up of vineyards and sheep grazing land in the north and east, with scattered state and national parks of protected forestland and gorgeous coastline. The southern and western portions of Tassie remain, for the greater part, undeveloped and densely forested, though logging is slowly eating away at these pristine environments. The best way to get around is by car, though we mostly stuck to the main thoroughfares, since many smaller roads are unpaved. Our main goal being to see as much of the countryside as possible in our limited time, we’d pick a general direction in the morning, hit the road, and stop by various places that looked promising (such as the Chudleigh Honey Farm and the House of Anvers Chocolate Factory).

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Hillview House, Launceston, Tasmania

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Cataract Gorge, near Launceston, Tasmania

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The Tamar River Valley

My favourite by far (with some bias) was the Trowunna Wildlife Park in Mole Creek, a wildlife rehabilitation centre with a Tasmanian devil captive breeding program. Kangaroos, wallabies, and wombats range freely in and out of the park’s borders. A wombat is a small, stocky herbivorous marsupial, not “an implement used in the game of Wom”, as a cheeky aussie recently said. The keeper gave a great educational tour of the park and allowed us to pet tame resident koalas, wallabies, and devils (whose bristly tail I patted with much decorum whilst the toothsome end was restrained). Tassie devils, despite their small stature, are the largest living marsupial predator and have teeth quite capable of crushing human bone. Our tour was not complete until we had met an adorable baby wombat the keeper had raised from the pouch. It was orphaned, like many of the park’s residents, when its mother was struck by a car.

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Very old koala

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Keeper with a very pissed-off Tassie Devil.

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Aforementioned bone-crushing teeth

Marsupials have not adapted well to the development of roads through their habitat. On many roads you will find the evidence of this every hundred meters or so. To this day many native fauna are seen as pests, so many drivers don’t stop when they hit an animal to make sure it doesn’t have a living joey in the pouch. Young wombats have been found to survive up to a week in the pouch of their dead mother before dying from starvation. With this on my mind, along with the image of that adorable rescued wombat joey, my conscience was not assuaged until I stopped at all fresh-looking carcasses to check for joeys. With the sheer volume of roadkill, this was both a time-consuming and gruesome task, thankfully I was well-prepared by my nights spent hauling around condor food. Mom wasn’t quite as excited to participate. I did not, however, find any orphaned marsupials.

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Mom with the adorable baby wombat.

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It was wonderful to spend the holiday with my mother and share my new life with her. It's hard to believe that I've been here for four months now, it's flown by.

Aussie slang of the week: footy (Australian Rules Football), good on ya (well done/congrats), servo (gas station), petrol (gasoline)

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Tasmanian road sign

Posted by JuliaInOz 15:44 Archived in Australia Comments (0)

"It's like a hamburger, but with mince and tomato paste."

(Please note that the following photos of rainbow lorikeets are not related to any food-oriented statements. They are pretty, but not edible, that I know of.)

semi-overcast -25 °C

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Welcome to a land where sloppy joes and banana cream pies do not exist. It’s always fun to go to the supermarket and try to ask the employees where something is, because I can never be sure whether I just don’t know the right word for it, they can’t understand my accent, or it really doesn’t exist at all. That said, I managed to cobble up some tasty sloppy joes from scratch to the merriment of my Aussie housemates. Also, a very important note, Mountain Dew does not contain caffeine here. Strange.

We finally have a full house! Two weeks ago Veronica and I were joined by three first-year uni students, two girls and a guy, all Aussies from smaller country towns. I couldn’t have hoped for a better group. Being the oldest by a few years I feel a bit like a mother hen, but Aussies seem to be somewhat more mature at 18-20 years old than the average American kid (their parents tend to allow them a little more independence, and a lot of them go to boarding school before uni). That said, getting them to do their dishes is still a bit of a trial, but they’ll catch on eventually (I hope).

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A couple of the new crazy housemates.

We spent last weekend in the city, and upon wandering around, discovered the Moomba festival. It was originally based on an annual Yarra River water-skiing competition, but by now a whole carnival goes up in the Botanic Gardens. While we were there I was lucky enough to catch a live performance of some traditional Koori dancing (Koori is the name the indigenous people of Victoria have given themselves, ‘aborigine’ is about as politically correct as ‘eskimo’ is, and can be construed as derogatory). They were accompanied by live digeridoo playing. The dancing is fascinating to watch but difficult to describe, some of my favourite parts were the movements and positions they had to represent various native animals, like the kangaroo and emu.

Speaking of new cultural experiences, Veronica also took me to one of her netball games. Netball is a bit like a cross between the practicality of basketball (sans dribbling) and the theory of soccer (sans using your feet), but not quite as exciting to watch because you’re not allowed within three feet of anyone else on the court. Also, girls are required to wear skirts – naturally, this does not increase my respect of the sport.

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Netball!

As it was our housemate Angus’ birthday, we also spent Saturday night at a pub called the Elephant and the Wheelbarrow in the city. They had a lovely live band, and wonder of all wonders, Bulmer’s cider on tap, which is something Trish (my former roommate) and I have been seeking ever since we left Ireland.

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Veronica trying to burn the house down by putting sparklers on the cake...

I’m very excited to meet my mother at the airport on Wednesday. We have a number of adventures planned, including a trip to Tasmania!

Aussie slang of the week: drongo (idiot), bloke (guy), jackaroo (cowboy)

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Posted by JuliaInOz 16:46 Archived in Australia Comments (0)

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