A Travellerspoint blog

Chasing seals, tents, and aussie pin-cushions

overcast 22 °C

It's hard to believe that I've been here for nearly two months. I'm growing accustomed to Australia and am becoming much more settled instead of living life like a tourist. That said, it doesn't mean I'm not still constantly surprised, perplexed, and sometimes frustrated by the cultural and language differences. I was prepared for the language barrier in Ecuador, I wasn't expecting to have much trouble in an english-speaking country. My aussie friends like to tell me that I don't speak English, I speak American, and that being in Australia, I've got to learn to speak the language properly. When they're not taking the mickey out of me for being a Yank, or calling me 'Yankee Doodle' (as the housemate's boyfriend has recently nicknamed me) they're remarkably patient about translating things.

My new favorite food is kangaroo. Yes, I know they're cute, but they live a happy life in the wild, being healthy and free-range before coming to the supermarket and then my frying pan. They are much more environmentally sustainable than any of the non-native hooved livestock brought into Australia and pumped full of hormones, antibiotics, and preservatives, and well, 'roos are tasty. When I go back to the States I'm planning on giving up beef for bison as well.

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This last week I was back out on the island starting my research in earnest. I've adjusted very well to roughing it for a week at a time; a very good thing seeing as I may be spending closer to a month there gathering data. Basically I sneak around the edge of the seal colony, set up video cameras on a ledge overlooking the shore, call in the park rangers on their boat, and observe and record the seals' response. It's a bit intimidating that I'm actually doing my graduate research, but I'm enjoying it.

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I got to spend some more time out at night this trip, since we only had to catch 30 pups and I wasn't completely exhausted. This meant getting to see the penguins come out and run around and call to each other (entirely adorable), and bonding with the antechinus, rodent-like marsupials that love to steal food from camp and don't hesitate to run right over anyone sleeping in the main tent.

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I also had two antechinus take up residence beneath the floor of my tent, around three inches away from my sleeping roll. Very comical to watch a little lump scurry about under your tent, squeaking. Being unable to smell me, they had no idea I was there, so I could actually poke and pet them without them running away (and without getting bitten).

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Unfortunately, leaving the island didn't go quite as smoothly as last time. We got off early because a storm was brewing, and it was already pretty windy. I had to take down the tent by myself, and after very carefully unstaking and pulling off the rain fly so it wouldn't fly away, I stepped back only to watch the wind pull up the remaining stakes and blow my whole tent halfway across the island. I managed to catch up to it just before it was literally blown right off the island and into the ocean, thank goodness, and struggled to drag it back to camp against the wind where John, my advisor, chided, "Come on now, you're supposed to be taking the tent down, not taking it out for a walk."

We had a very rough and wet boat ride back in choppy seas, but I had said that I wanted a shower, so it served me right. All in all, the day wasn't going well, but just as we were leaving the park John spotted an echidna by the side of the road, and nothing puts me in a better mood than a new critter. Echidnas, along with platypuses, are the only extant egg-laying mammals in the world. They look quite a bit like giant hedgehogs, and as soon as you come near them they stick their head in the ground and put their spikes up, or roll into a ball for safety (which accounts for the bad picture). They eat insects and in general are very, very cute.

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All in all not a bad trip. I got to take quite a few blood samples, and was proud to have gotten pretty good at it by the end. Seals do have veins the size of garden hoses, but it's still not an easy skill to learn. When I got back to campus I discovered that I get to have lunch with the other Fulbright scholars and the Vice Chancellor (ie, president) of the university in April, and that my mom will be visiting over Easter and my birthday. I'm very excited to have her here and to see a bit more of Australia at the same time.

Aussie slang of the week: capsicum (bell pepper), bog (toilet), scarper (escape/run off)

Posted by JuliaInOz 05:24 Archived in Australia Comments (0)

Settling in to island life

sunny 22 °C

After a week of hostel-hopping and searching, I finally found a place to live. I’m renting a room in a lovely little house about five minutes walk from campus and right next to Melbourne public transit. Right now I only have one other housemate, a very nice aussie girl who is studying at my uni, but two other students are supposed to be moving in soon. It’s wonderful to have a place to call home and not have to live out of suitcases any more.

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That said, two days after I moved in I was packing and off to another island to do seal work again. This time we went to my island (the one I’ll be conducting my study on) to mark/recapture seal pups and to get samples for the zoo’s epidemiology work on seal parasites. We drove out to an absolutely gorgeous park east of Melbourne, hopped on a little boat, and hauled all our gear up some cliffs to the campsite where I’ll be spending so much of my time in the next two years.

The view from my campsite:
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The island is hardly a mile long with no trees or shade to speak of and covered in tussy grass, rocky shores, penguin and shearwater burrows that make it hard to walk anywhere without spraining an ankle. That said, the weather, the solitude, and the views are incredible. Catching seals and giving them haircuts, once again, was really hard work and a pain, but I seem to have the hang of it, finally. Well… except that I got bitten again (on the arm this time), but one bite is admirable considering how many seals I was handling in a day. I got bitten by a penguin as well (I got to hold a penguin!), but through a glove. She was about the size of a Nerf football, so not quite as much trouble as trying to hang on to a condor.

Seal bite.
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Penguin!
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I also learned how to take blood (awesome!) and spent the evening helping our zoo vet centrifuge and process samples. I hadn’t really expected to be using my lab skills anytime soon, especially not sitting outside my tent on an island, using a headlamp for light while thousands of seabirds filled the night sky.

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I really dig camp life, despite the lack of running water, birds making a racket all night, etc. After a day of seal work I think I could sleep through (and on) anything anyway, I’ve never been so exhausted in my life. We have a gas-powered fridge, so we eat pretty well, and thus far everyone’s been really fun and easy to get along with.

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I’ve discovered I have an odd talent for calling seal pups. The eight of us seal-catchers were taking a break, and I managed to get an aussie pup’s attention from thirty meters off, and by mimicking his calls, get him to shuffle over within arm’s reach before the wind changed and he figured out I wasn’t a seal and ran off. These are shy seals, it’s not easy to get them to just waltz up to eight people. Just before we left, two people in our group found a New Zealand fur seal pup hiding in a rock crevice and were talking to it and taking pictures. I sat down, called to it, and within two minutes it was out from under the rock, nuzzling my leg with whiskery seal kisses and nearly climbing into my lap.

I’d nearly forgotten how much I love seals. I think I picked the right place to be.
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Aussie slang of the week: manky (smelly/disgusting), mozzies (mosquitoes), daggy (dorky/without style)

Posted by JuliaInOz 22:52 Archived in Australia Comments (0)

Exploring Melbourne

sunny 37 °C

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My luggage arrived! Hoorah! Just the concept of being clean and wearing clothes that don’t smell of rotten seal is such a novelty. I’ve been attempting to get settled into the area, unfortunately the combination of it being summer at the university and the Australian Open (tennis) in Melbourne, things are nuts. So… I’m in the only hostel I could get a room in, exploring Melbourne for a bit, and hoping I can find a place to live soon.

My hostel is right down in the city center (CBD), so I wrote down a few things to see, grabbed a map, and started wandering. There’s a ton of neat little shops, lovely restaurants, and huge old buildings hidden away downtown. After grabbing some tasty pork buns in Chinatown, I found my way to the Melbourne Museum. It’s in a beautiful little park downtown, next to the old parliament building (used before they moved the capital to Canberra).

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The museum was terrific! I’d forgotten how enthralled I am with seeing new (albeit, taxidermied) wildlife. Their collection of marsupials was extensive, I can finally put faces to names of these funky critters. They also had an exhibit up on Australian insects, with many live examples (more like a creepy, creepy zoo than a museum), and a “Forest Gallery”, which was another beautifully cultivated living exhibit. There were windows to see fish in the streams, live birds and lizards running free, etc. It was great. I’d also never been to a museum with a dinosaur collection, I was so excited, ‘twas a bit like being a kid again. The Melbourne Museum also has an IMAX theater, and never having had that experience, I finished my evening with a showing of “I Am Legend” on the huge screen.

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Yesterday I crossed the Yarra River and wandered through the Royal Botanic Gardens, another huge park. I happened across the skate park there just in time to watch a kids/young teens skate competition, which was fun and adorable. I also went to the Shrine of Remembrance, a very impressive memorial to all the Australian soldiers lost since WWI, with an eternal flame burning for those in WWII. It was odd to find myself at such a place in another country when I don’t think I’ve ever been to any US national war memorials. I hope they’re as nice as this one was.

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Posted by JuliaInOz 13:21 Archived in Australia Comments (0)

Getting right into the thick of it...

(Seal pups and such)

sunny 34 °C

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My life’s been insanely chaotic yet remarkably organized the past few days. I got one good night’s sleep, packed up the few belongings I had (or bought) outside of my lost luggage, and took off for Port Fairy (a three hour drive west) to meet up with crew and catch our boat to the field site.

I saw my very first kangaroo on the drive out, I was thrilled. There were a few hopping around way out in a pasture, but it’s very hard to mistake a roo for anything else. I also saw my first wallaby from the boat and my first koala on the way back, unfortunately it was roadkill. We stayed in a campground at Port Fairy for the night, and headed out to the pub for dinner. There’s nothing in the US that can hold a candle to real pub culture, be it Irish, British, or Australian. I was quickly introduced to the Australian custom of everyone "shouting" a round, buying a jug (a pitcher, basically) of beer for the table.

The older folks headed back to camp, but jet-lagged or not, I wasn’t going to miss out on staying out at the pub with the boys (“This is real Aussie culture,” they encouraged). What’s the fun in moving to a new country if you can’t find people to make fun of you (or, “take the mickey out of you”, in Oz) for being American? It was great fun. Incredibly, I hadn’t been in Australia for 48 hours, and I was out at the pub with one of the zoo’s seal keepers! After a few days in the field together we’re great friends, and he’s promised to let me come visit and learn about training at the zoo.

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We went out to an island to mark and recapture Australian (and a couple New Zealand) fur seal pups for a population census. I had no idea what I was in for. For some reason, I had imagined cuddling tiny, adorable bundles of fur and fun like young Galapagos sea lion pups, maybe spray painting a dot on them or something. Ha. No. Not so much. I was given knee pads, a pair of scissors, and a quick demonstration. Then I was turned loose to chase after three-month-old seal pups that looked cute but ended up being 15-20 lb bundles of muscle and ferocity.

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How to Mark Pups:
Step 1. Tramp around rocky beaches and outcrops reeking of seal feces and decaying seal carcasses to find pups.
Step 2. Reach into a smelly crevice filled with big eyes and toothsome mouths and grab a hind flipper. Drag a growling, squalling pup out (as it relieves itself on your hand).
Step 3. Get a hand on its neck and sit on it before it can wriggle around and bite you.
Step 4. Give the seal a nice haircut (left-handed, while it continues to struggle mightily).
Step 5. Let go and back off without getting bitten.
Step 6. Repeat 500 times.

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Fortunately we had a team of six, so I didn’t actually have to mark 500 pups myself, but between the two teams we did over 2000 pups in two days. With the jet lag, the heat (90 degrees or so), and the bruises, it was a pretty rough two days. I only got bitten twice, fortunately, both times through my pants so there wasn’t much bloodshed, although I have puncture-marks in my thigh. The second time was entirely Bruce’s fault, he swung his pup around while I was busy pinning down a pup, and his bit me right on the bum.

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Seal wound on my thigh

All in all it was a great adventure, but catching seal pups is no longer my dream job. It’s neat to get to do once in a while, don’t get me wrong, but it’s rough, smelly, chaotic, and exhausting work, and the pups are terrified and hate every minute of it which just makes me feel bad.

The people here are terrific, I haven’t met one I haven’t liked so far. They’re just generally courteous, friendly, and good-humored, making it really easy for me to fit in and feel comfortable. For the next few days I'll be chilling in a hostel, exploring Melbourne, and trying to find a place to live.

Aussie slang of the week: Snags (sausages), Budgie smugglers (men’s speedo swimwear)

Posted by JuliaInOz 22:24 Archived in Australia Comments (0)

In the Land of Oz...

sunny 29 °C

You wouldn't believe the trip I've had thus far... After the chaos of packing, saying goodbye to my family (and teaching my nephew how to say "Can we go visit Aunt Julia and see kangaroos?"), and getting out of the house, I got to the airport to find my flight to San Francisco on United had been delayed by an hour. Not a problem, except that I would MISS MY CONNECTING FLIGHT TO AUSTRALIA.

So... they rebooked me to fly through Sydney and get into Melbourne only two hours later than originally planned (but all the way on United instead of Air New Zealand - booooooo). I made the check-in rep promise me she would get my luggage there with me.

The 14-hour trans-Pacific flight and connection from Sydney went as smoothly as could be expected. Carried my guitar on no problem, which was excellent. Unfortunately, when I went to collect my baggage, it was not in Australia, despite the promises made to me. Thankfully after the same thing happened in Ireland, I always pack a day's necessities in my carry-on. Hopefully it will get in within the next couple of days. I got kidnapped by the Deakin pick-up person and taken to a hostel I had no intention of staying at, then had an adventure catching the Met (Melbourne trams) all the way out to the university, where I finally met my advisor and found out that I'm going out into the field tomorrow.

This is only a problem because I don't have any of my luggage. Except for my boots, thank god I chose to wear those. Another grad student was kind enough to take me home for a shower, then take me shopping for all the crap I'd need (fortunately it was mostly stuff I'd need to buy for future fieldwork anyway). Unfortunately, clothing sizes (even undergarments) are entirely different, so I had a crash-course in Australian shopping (after being up and in airports/plans for 36 hours).

Said grad student was kind enough to put me up at his house for the night. We head out to an island to catch baby seals this afternoon, and will return Tuesday or so. Man, I hope I can handle this.

Posted by JuliaInOz 10:51 Archived in Australia Comments (0)

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