A Travellerspoint blog

The perils of penguins

overcast 21 °C

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At four in the morning, the moon still hidden beneath the horizon, it was difficult to tell where the sand ended and the water began - not ideal conditions for running full-tilt down the beach trying to rid myself of an irate penguin. Instead of stopping a few metres shy of the lapping waves, there was a wet splosh! as my feet hit the water, some mild cursing, the sound of a penguin paddling happily to freedom, and the dispirited squelching of my boots as I trudged up the beach to collect another surly bird. I've never been much of a morning person.

Our corral was situated on the trail between the penguins’ burrows and the beach, blocking their morning trek to the sea, where they spend a few days catching fish for themselves and their hungry chicks before making the journey back home. For the moment, our netting barrier was creating a penguin traffic jam, as the football-sized birds bumped into their puzzled neighbours, hucking, trilling, and clamouring like disgruntled commuters.

We crept up in the dark, herding the last stragglers in and closing off the corral behind them. ‘Herding’ being the relative term, mostly it consists of standing behind them and encouraging them to waddle in the right direction. Little penguins aren’t particularly speedy on land, if they waddle too fast they’ll trip over their own feet and biff it.

Once in the corral, the birds were scanned for identifying microchips, weighed, measured, and released. Now, I know a lot of people find penguins exceptionally adorable. I’m sure many secretly dream of patting their cute, fluffy little heads or cuddling their plump little bodies. At this point, I could lie about exactly how cute and cuddly penguins are, save some face, and allow everyone to keep their warm-fuzzy penguin fantasies. However, for the good of penguins and penguin-loving people worldwide, I will forge on.

Penguins don’t like being patted. They don’t like being picked up. They find cuddling the most offensive. In fact, holding them anywhere near your body is an exceedingly bad idea if they aren’t properly restrained. I made this mistake once – and only once – as I was carrying a penguin in each arm, hurriedly, down the beach. I was halfway to the water when I felt Penguin #2 struggling loose. I readjusted and kept moving. A few steps more, and one flipper was free and flapping against me. Just a few meters, I thought, she’ll be right.

And that was when the penguin decided to bite me on the boob.

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Ironically, I had once described a penguin bite as “something like a purple nurple”, more of a pinch and twist, causing impressive bruises on hands and arms. I can now say, certifiably, that a penguin bite is exactly like a purple nurple.

Between this and the seal-pup-biting-me-on-the-arse incident (http://julia-in-oz.travellerspoint.com/3/), I’m beginning to think that small, fluffy, deceptively adorable creatures are in fact the most perilous, and that perhaps I need to start armour-plating my undergarments.

Oh, Australia. Everyone hears about the deadly cone shells, the blue-ringed octopus and box jellyfish, the saltwater crocs and great white sharks, but who would think to guard their most tender regions against ferocious seal pups and tiny, vengeful penguins?

Aussie slang of the week: ‘have a squiz’ (take a look), narky (annoyed/moody), sanger (sandwich), vejjo (vegetarian)

Posted by JuliaInOz 16:14 Archived in Australia Comments (0)

Penguins and the Prime Minister

sunny 21 °C

2007-2008 Fulbright scholars with the Hon. Kevin Rudd, Prime Minister.080646_-_0.._Email_.jpg

September, for me, was a flurry of complete and utter chaos. I’m not sure how many people are chasing down penguins with night-vision goggles one week and meeting the Prime Minister of Australia the next, but I highly recommend it, it's great fun.

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The month began at Phillip Island, a wonderful place to be during a sunny spring. When we weren't trying to recapture Clare's tracking devices by sneaking up on penguins in our night-vision goggles, we took to the beach to go snorkelling, spent warm nights playing guitar, poker, or shooting pool at the local pub, and had a hilarious sport-themed party celebrating the end of the Olympics. I dressed up as a member of the Canadian National Curling Team (you know, the whole shuffleboard-on-ice-with-brooms business), but other favourites were an Extreme Ironer (officially defined as "the latest danger sport that combines the thrills of an extreme outdoor activity with the satisfaction of a well-pressed shirt”) as well as our (male) Irish mate, who made a convincing, if hairy, female netballer, skirt and all.

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Aside from the usual Phillip Island hijinx, I also got to take a week-long trip to Canberra, the nation’s capitol, for our Fulbright enrichment seminar. I finally met the rest of this year’s scholars, who are absolutely lovely, and I now have several eager volunteers for seal work in January and February, as well as friends living all over Australia to visit and travel with.

Shenanigans on a platypus hunt.
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(Photos courtesy of Ben Fohner)

Anyone who knows me will attest that the last of my motivations in applying for a Fulbright grant was to become a Person of Distinction. Mostly I just love seal work, and I want to contribute something to conservation on the international level. I grew up in a working class family in a town too small to need a single stop light, and I tend to associate Distinction with having to wear a dress and having to know which of seventeen forks to eat your salad with. Hence, I treat it with the same trepidation I would afford a stampede of disgruntled porcupines. Even if you spend most of your time crawling around a smelly, oozing seal colony, however, Fulbright involves a certain amount of said Distinction. This didn’t really hit home until I found out we would be meeting the Prime Minister. Yes, that’s the Head Honcho of Australia, the Honourable Kevin Rudd.

The roof of Parliament House, Canberra.
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We spent the afternoon touring Parliament House and got to sit in on Question Time, which basically consists of an open forum for the opposing party to grill the current government on its policies and for the PM and his Ministers to defend themselves. It’s fantastically entertaining even for those of us who don’t generally enjoy politics, mostly because of the unruly jeering and thinly-veiled (or rather, not-at-all-veiled) insults. For example, during a discussion of new policies enacted to reduce binge-drinking, the opposition was accused of “just trying to get more teenage girls drunk”.

Old Parliament House and the Australian War Memorial, on the banks of Lake Burley-Griffin.tn_DSC00612.jpg

After that was our official meeting with the Prime Minister, who shook each of our hands and introduced himself as “Kevin” (that’s right, I’m on a first-name basis with the PM). He also sat down with us to talk about the current state of US-Australia relations (excellent, naturally) and the upcoming US elections. He’s a lovely guy, Kevin.

We have a chat with the Prime Minister.
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We also had tea at the US Embassy, where we were presented to the US Ambassador and his wife. He kindly shook each of our hands and presented us with our Fulbright pins. Now, just the week before I had been helping Marcus catch around thirty penguins, and as we were in a bit of a hurry, corralling them and chasing them down the beach, I got bitten at least twenty times. Mind you, nothing to complain about in comparison to seal bites, but penguins are experts at the “pinch and twist” (much like a purple nurple), so I had a number of healing cuts, scratches, and bruises on my hands. I swear I only told one person about this on the flight to Canberra, next thing I know I’m shaking hands with the US Ambassador and he’s saying, “Oh, I'd better be extra careful, I hear you’re the one who’s been savagely attacked by penguins!”

Julia with the US Ambassador
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Although it was thrilling to meet the Ambassador and the PM, and I enjoyed chatting and networking with many Fulbright Alums and other Persons of Distinction, it was a bit of a relief to finally take off my business attire and get into a weekend of unofficial Fulbright scholar social activities and shenanigans. Canberra has the reputation of being Australia's most boring city, but though the night life wasn't quite up to Melbourne standards, we still found plenty to entertain us - Floriade, Canberra's annual floral festival; the Australian National War Memorial; and Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, where we went on the hunt to see the elusive platypus in the wild. I am pleased to report that platypuses were indeed to be had, despite the loch-ness-monster-esque quality of my photos.

Wild platypus!
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Floriade festival:
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Australian National War Memorial:
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All in all, Canberra was a lovely and much-needed break from working hard on grad school stuff. I can't wait to see more of Australia and more of my fantastic Fulbright brothers and sisters.

Aussie Slang of the Week: avo (n., afternoon), suss out (v., figure out), possum (term of endearment, dear, love)

Posted by JuliaInOz 18:37 Archived in Australia Comments (0)

Life on the Island: Episode 37...

...in which Julia becomes a Professional Seal Wrestler

sunny -13 °C

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Over the last few trips to the field I’ve grown accustomed to being the new kid on the block, and, surrounded by a lot of strapping outdoorsy young men, I also haven’t generally been the quickest or the strongest one around. Because of that, I was leaving most of the seal-catching and wrestling to them and pitching in with procedures and things where my wits and dexterity were more useful. This last trip, however, went a little bit differently.

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New Zealand fur seal pups, a few of which also hang out on our island with the Aussie fur seals.

I went out with just one other PhD student, whose project requires a lot of catching, and his two volunteers, who happened to be a couple of pint-sized eighteen-year-old girls with very little field experience. Lovely girls, mind you, but the sort a big seal could swallow up in one bite. The PhD student was still doing most of the catching (with two years of experience, he’s turned it into an art form), but once he got his seals into a net, I was the only person left to restrain them while he worked on them.

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Restraining a juvenile Australian fur seal in a net.

I’m sure that doesn’t sound too bad, after all, what could a seal do once you have it in a net, right? In reality, they’re remarkably strong, flexible, and stubborn creatures who are more than happy to roll around and bite you through the net, try to back out of it, or even make a pretty impressive blind run for it if they can get their flippers under them within the mesh. All of this struggling is dangerous and stressful for the seal and for us, so restraining them properly is an important job. Pups and juveniles you can straddle and pin to the ground, but a fully-grown seal is a little tougher. You kneel next to her, facing the same direction, with your leg pressing one of her fore-flippers against her body and one arm restraining the second fore-flipper (almost in a bear hug), while using your other arm to pin the back of her head/neck in place so she can’t bite you. Until she’s sedated, it generally requires about all the muscle power I have. When finished, they get pulled back out of the net by their hind flippers, ideally the toothsome end is then positioned toward their route of escape.

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Releasing a small juvenile seal.

It’s not unusual for a big mama seal to outweigh me by 30 to 50 lbs or more, and one of the largest girls we caught, though restrained, was able to lift me off the ground with just her head/neck and repeatedly bash me against the ground until we got her sedated. Needless to say, I had some impressive bruises. But, as I learned with restraining condors, despite scrapes, bruises, or nips, you better damn well hang on until you can get assistance or until everyone is clear of the area – their safety is in your hands, and a loose animal can do a lot more damage than scrapes and bruises. Restraining tends to be an uncomfortable, somewhat scary, and exhausting job, but highly satisfying. Spending half an hour with only a thin net and my own strength separating my sweet, tender flesh from a mouthful of vicious seal-teeth gives me a powerful sense of self-reliance.

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With the end of our first week, the volunteers departed and a zoo vet/PhD student studying epidemiology joined us to collect some blood samples. I caught my first fully grown seal that week, in a massively "I-am-going-to-chase-you-over-hills-and-rocks-with-this-huge- net-and-you-are-going-to-roar-and-try-to-bite-me-until-I-throw-the-net-over-your-head-and-catch-you,-you-giant-vicious-seal-brute!" kind of way. Did I mention that she was large? We couldn’t fit her all the way in the net, so someone else restrained her while I took blood; all in all it was a solid accomplishment. After our zoo veterinarian and PhD student departed, I was even able to take a few blood samples unsupervised for the first time (while my volunteer helped catch and restrain). It’s a fairly specialized skill and can be tough in seals, so I take pride in having picked it up so quickly.

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Our zoo vet takes blood from a seal’s rear flipper.

Although this was all very good animal-handling experience for me, I don't really like the way I begin to think about seals when they become my adversaries/toothsome beasts instead of just fascinating animal neighbours (as they were in Galapagos). It can be quite difficult to maintain the appropriate sympathy and respect for them when they are so obviously trying to gnaw off your leg or are repeatedly crushing your poor, abused hand against a rock in an effort to throw you off. As researchers, however, we need to cling to those exact sentiments to ensure that our work remains ethical and humane. The seals, after all, are only trying to protect themselves, they can’t understand that we don’t mean them any real harm. If I end up with a few scrapes, bruises, or (hopefully minor) bites, fair enough, I signed up for this, they didn’t.

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A New Zealand fur seal pup hiding in a rock crevice.

Aussie slang of the week: get dakked (verb: to be pantsed), stuff it up (verb: make a mess of things), “hungry enough to bite the arse off a low-flying duck” (adjective: very hungry)

Posted by JuliaInOz 22:38 Archived in Australia Comments (1)

A few hard-earned lessons.

overcast 17 °C

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Last Sunday I completed my winter field season and returned to civilization after twenty-seven days living on an uninhabited island and twenty-six nights spent listening to seal and penguin serenades. After all of this time in the bush I've come to the rather firm conclusion that every person should have to spend at least a week or two of their life in a tent, roughing it without their accustomed comforts. It isn’t just an experience for over-zealous outdoorsmen (and seal researchers), but an exercise in self-exploration and survival skills from which everyone would benefit.

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Here are a few lessons that one may learn from such an experience:

a) Pack and prepare well, for anything forgotten you must verily do without, to your own discomfort, illness, or injury. In the same token, never pack more than you can carry, for few will be willing to shoulder your burdens.

b) 'Boredom' is not a function of the world around you, but reflects only the dullness of your own mind. Lengthen your attention-span, time alone is a gift that will allow you to discover a multitude of overlooked entertainments, to channel creativity you never knew you had, and to learn remarkable secrets from the tiniest insect or blade of grass. Otherwise your 'boredom' can be easily cured by hauling gallons of water up the cliffs.

c) Nature is a force to be reckoned with. Always be prepared for the worst-case weather scenario, your regret at carrying a few extra items will be much less than your regret at not having those items if they're needed.

d) Negativity does little good, no matter how long you whinge to your companions, your sodden clothing will not dry any faster, your basic fare will not taste any better, and the wind and rain will most certainly not let up on your account. Likely everyone is suffering the same ills, and they don't want to hear how miserable you are. A joke, story, or a cup of tea will go much further in distracting everyone from their troubles. If you have to vent, keep it to a minimum, and a solid yell or some hard physical labour might do you just as well.

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I know a lot of these things may seem inconsequential in every day life – who doesn't enjoy a good long whinge on occasion? – but when you're trapped on an off-shore island for weeks, all of this becomes indispensable wisdom. We take many simple things for granted, I know I have for most of my life. But when I’m weathering a cold winter storm in a flimsy tent, there is very little I wouldn't trade to have solid walls around me, to hear the rain pounding on impenetrable windows, and to curl up in front of a crackling fire with a good book and a furry friend. Please take a moment to stop and savour your creature comforts, you may find unexpected joy in them.

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Aussie slang of the week: bugger (exclamation: darn), stubby (noun: small bottle of beer), when everything goes pear-shaped (when everything goes wrong)

Posted by JuliaInOz 15:34 Archived in Australia Comments (2)

Seal Rocks

sunny -9 °C

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While staying at Phillip Island I also had the opportunity to visit the seals at my other research site for a day, and, although it was my shortest seal adventure so far, it was also my most rewarding.

Tour boats visit the island frequently, but landings are rare and only research-related, mostly because Seal Rocks is exactly what it sounds like – some rocks, covered in not much but seals. This makes it difficult to land, camp, and move about without causing massive disturbance amongst the seals.

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Seal Rocks and remote video camera tower

Because Seal Rocks is located so close to a fishing community, seal entanglement is a common problem. Seals can be caught in stray nets, fishing hooks, lines, and trash, often resulting in severe injury and death. Researchers from Phillip Island Nature Park try to catch and free as many of these guys as possible while they’re out there, so we were asked to keep our eyes peeled on the trip.

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Within five minutes of landing I’d spotted a seal pup wrapped in a huge chunk of bright green netting. We had to make the usual hands-and-knees/belly-crawling trip to avoid startling him before he was successfully captured and freed.

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Most of the seals had cleared from the surrounding area, and, seeing no further entanglements, we proceeded to haul all the gear up from the shoreline that the other researchers would need for the rest of the week. A few sleepy seals were slow in moving off, and just as a nearby pup was getting uneasy and walking away I noticed something strange hanging from his jaw.

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It was a tough catch, but once he was netted we were horrified to discover a squid jig imbedded in his lower jaw, with the line encircling his neck and slowly strangling him to death. Fortunately we were able to cut him free before the line became imbedded, so his injuries weren’t too serious and he will (hopefully) go on to live a long, happy seal life.

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We were able to free three seal pups in the first hour we were there, pups that otherwise probably wouldn’t have survived. Although research, especially the work I’m doing in conservation, is rewarding, it happens on a much slower timescale and on the ‘big picture’ level. Life as a seal is tough and dangerous. I see injured, dead, and dying seals in the colonies on a daily basis, it is simply a part of life there, and there isn’t anything we can do about it. It’s not an easy thing to live with, as an animal-lover I’ve had to harden my heart considerably, but I think it’s been a crucial lesson.

It is not appropriate for me to interfere with the natural processes of death and dying. That injured animal I want to help might be an important meal for another predator or scavenger, there might be a strong natural reason (disease, disadvantageous genes) that it will not survive to reproduce. If it could have the choice, a wild animal might prefer a death in the wild to my stressful and painful attempts to capture and treat it in captivity, especially if it never recovers enough to return to the wild. There are just too many questions that I can’t answer, too many good reasons why wild animals should be left to live and die in the wild.

All that aside, I believe as humans we have a moral responsibility to avoid causing senseless injury and death to wild animals, and to repair what damage we have caused to the best of our abilities. It was a huge relief to come across animals that I could do something to help, to have a purpose and to accomplish so much in such a short period of time. There is nothing like the feeling of coming home, exhausted and covered in seal goo, and being able to say, “We saved three seal pups today.”

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Aussie slang of the week: shonky (adj., not quite right/rotten/dodgy), little tacker (n., kid, little one), dry as a dead dingo’s donger (adj., very dry)

Posted by JuliaInOz 18:19 Archived in Australia Comments (0)

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