Thursday, August 9, 2012

One Tree Island

For as long as I can remember, I have had a Robinson Crusoe/Swiss Family Robinson fantasy of living on a tropical island. Well, I finally got my wish - with a lot more comforts than in either of those stories!

Matthew Kosnick, a colleague of Darrell's, studies the marine ecosystem of the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). He does both paleoecology (Darrell has analyzed some of Matthew's past shell collections at his laboratory at NAU) and modern ecology and can then make some comparisons between the past and present. Matthew made arrangements for Darrell and I to join his research team at One Tree Island (OTI) in the southern part of the GBR in early May. Yahoo!

We met Matthew, his friend and fellow scientist Erin, his graduate student Julietta, and her roommate and fellow marine graduate student Marcela, at the Heron Island ferry terminal on May 7th. All the people and materials for OTI go to the larger and more accessible Heron Island first. The reef system around OTI makes it impassable for boats except during the highest tides, so shucks, you could easily get stranded on the island for ten days or so...

Julietta and Marcela on the ferry to Heron Island
We left from Gladstone Harbor, one of the busier ports in Australia, where many ships loaded with Australian coal head to China each day.

Aussie coal to be burned in China
Heron Island is 72 km from the mainland. The wreck sitting on the reef crest of Heron Island is the HMCS Protector. This is Australia’s first naval vessel and is the only Aussie-owned vessel to have served in three wars. It was enroute to service in 1943 when it was damaged and abandoned on a Gladstone Beach. The owner of the Heron Island Resort at that time bought it for 10 pounds and transported it to Heron Island to serve as a breakwater for small craft visiting the island.

The HMS Protector - still reporting for duty
Heron Island has a tourist resort on one-fourth of it, the University of Queensland's Heron Island Research Station (since 1951) on one-fourth and the other half is Capricornia Cays National Park. The island is bisected by the Tropic of Capricorn.

This satellite image below is of Heron Island and I will use it to explain the body parts of a Paramecium, I mean - the working structure of a barrier reef!

Satellite image of Heron Island and its reef system
The actual island is the darker red oval on the far left. For all you biologists it reminds me of the macronucleus of a Paramecium. The oral groove (I mean blue water channel) is dug through the reef and goes from the reef edge on the far left of the island. The black surrounding the Paramecium is the deeper ocean, and the red-brown outline (pellicle) is the outer reef. The beautiful blue interior is the inner lagoon. At low tide some of the sandy colors would be exposed, but normally everything except the island would be underwater. You can see why you need a channel to reach the island as the coral is close to the surface in most places, and especially along the outer reef. The isolated coral "bumps" in the inner lagoon are called "bommies".

The Heron Island Research Station has both an educational and a research function. They have classrooms, dormitories, and a cafeteria for large school groups that come through. They also have active research programs, including a large CO2 monitoring program to determine how coral reefs may respond to different levels of atmospheric CO2. The ocean presently absorbs a lot of the additional CO2
we pump into the atmosphere and is already showing signs of acidification because of this. Fortunately, the GBR has a decent buffering system because of all the carbonate sediments, but the effects of increased acidification haven't been well studied yet.

Carbon dioxide experiment at Heron Island Research Station
Darrell and I walked around Heron Island and then we all met for cocktails and to watch the sunset from the resort.

Sunset reflected behind Matthew, Erin, and Peter at Heron Island Resort
Sunset on Heron Island
The next morning we loaded all our gear on the Linckia II, and Peter captained us to One Tree Island. The trickiest part is getting over the outer reef without hitting any of the coral. You can see the edge of the boat, the coral just below it, and One Tree Island in the distance.

Crossing the outer reef can only be done on the highest tides...
You can see the fine green line of the island in the picture above. Then we get a little closer and you can see the station with its solar panels on the roof, and the shop area to the right of it, and then the wet lab with the large white salt water tanks above it.

First view of One Tree Island station
Our first job was to unload the boat.

Pete anchoring the boat so we can unload
One Tree Island's lagoon system has a similar structure to that of Heron Island (and much of the GBR). Darrell took this photo from the helicopter when he left One Tree to return to the mainland. Poor guy had to leave early to attend a meeting in Switzerland while I stayed on the island with the research team. You can see the station facing the calm lagoon, with the outer reef on the back side of the island. Most of the island is a reserve (part of Capricornia Cays National Park) so we could only walk on the station grounds and between high and low tide around the island.

One Tree Island, 10 acres of paradise
Next post - life in paradise!

On Rice

We are home in Flagstaff now, and more than a month has passed since my last post; yet it remains a good segue to today's ramble...

Darrell and I on a bike ride along the rice paddies
On our last day in Bali, Darrell and I took a mostly downhill bicycle tour of the rice fields of Bali. The subak irrigation system of the fields is a manifestation of the Tri Hita Karana philosophy, bringing together the realms of the spirit, the human world and nature. Temples, dating back to the 9th century, are the focus of a cooperative water management system of canals and weirs from that same time. The subak system of democratic and egalitarian farming practices has enabled the Balinese to become the most prolific rice growers in the Indonesian archipelago. Considering there are over 18,000 islands, that is impressive! 

Our guide, Kadek, explaining the Subak system
As most of you know, rice is the most important grain for human nutrition, providing more than one-fifth of the calories consumed worldwide. While more corn is grown than rice, much of that corn goes to non-food items. And I will count the ubiquitous high-fructose corn sweetener in that category!

Rice cultivation is common in countries with low labor costs (as it is so labor intensive) and high rainfall. The traditional method involves flooding the fields when the young seedlings are set. This reduces the growth of competing weeds and keeps out vermin.

Young rice planted in a wet field
Because Bali has a warm climate, there may be three rice crops in each year. In Bali, the men plant the seeds and work the fields.

Hard work in the rice fields
The pattern of the rice fields is one of the more beautiful of man's efforts.

Tiered rice fields
The rice is then harvested by the women.

Harvesting rice
The rice fields may then be burned to clear for the next planting.

Burning rice fields after the harvest
The fields provide food for geese as well.

Geese in the fields
The harvested rice is dried in the sun. Sometimes it is dried along the sides of the streets if there isn't room in a safer location. We biked by lots of drying rice.

Drying rice
We also got a tour of a family compound. Several families often live together in a cooperative group. That way they can share valuable livestock and work together as a small community in this rural environment. Though we were only an hour from the city of Ubud by car, few of the family members had ever been there. There were four families in this compound. Each of the women had their own kitchen, and each family had their own sleeping area, but there were also communal areas including a temple for their daily prayers and offerings.

Weaving a bamboo wall
Kids playing hopscotch
While emotionally difficult to witness poverty, it is valuable to see how these families live and work and play together. I won't muse on about this - but just leave you with one more image of a girl on the brink of womanhood. May she find, like we wish for ourselves, a life of love and meaning.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Tri Hita Karana

In Balinese Hinduism, the Tri Hita Karana (derived from Sanskrit) translates to three, welfare and cause - the three aspects that bring about well being.

These harmonious relationships are:
(1) Spiritual environment (Parahyangan) = the relationship between humans and God; (2) Social environment (Pawongan) = the relationship of humans with other humans; and (3) Natural environment (Palemahan) = the relationship between humans with the environment and all creatures.  

The harmony among these three aspects benefits human spiritual, mental and physical well being.

Darrell and I are daily witnesses to the amount of time and energy devoted to the rituals of their faith.

Alter outside our room in Ubud
We watched as Kadek said her prayers and placed her offering on the alter. She also placed another offering on the floor to appease the demons.

A lovely offering including a Ritz cracker!
From our place in the outskirts of Ubud, we walked to the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary. Balinese Macaques, (Macaca fascicularis, also known as long-tail macaques), are important in Balinese culture and you can see many monkey statues in Bali. This small sanctuary had over 600 monkeys clustered in three groups using different areas of the forest at different times of the day. Conflicts arise if they are in the same area at the same time.

The macaque behavior was fascinating to watch;
here they are rolling stones over and over on the sidewalk!
According to the literature we received at the Sanctuary: The adult males weigh 8-10 kg, have large canine teeth, broad shoulders and facial hair that resembles a mustache. The females are smaller (4-8 kg) and have long facial hair resembling beards. Macaque society is matrilineal with male macaques usually migrating in from other areas and attempt to associate themselves with the female matrilines. Mating occurs year round but most infants are born between May and August. Macaque mothers range from very protective to very permissive with their infants. Many females who are not the mother spend time holding and caring for infants and sometimes males will as well.

Macaque posing on one of the many monkey statues
The Balinese we have met have been honest and hard-working. After our visit to the Sanctuary, we took a walk through the rice fields in Ubud and were offered a $1 (10,000 rupiah) coconut to drink from and then eat. Darrell accidentally paid her $10 or 100,000 rupiah. (You can see it is hard to keep track of all the zero's especially as the bill color is not consistent!) The woman returned the bill to us, which she probably didn't have enough money to give change for, and which she could have just kept. Darrell replaced it with a 20,000 rupiah note so at least she was rewarded for her honesty!

Preparing a coconut
Balinese try to harmonize any conflicts with their faith, and there are obviously conflicts due to the pressures of tourism. While tourism has increased the overall economy for the Balinese it has also threatened some of the traditional ways. I will have more on rice farming later, but there is a large problem now with rampant development of homes right in the middle of rice fields (including the home we are staying in). You can see this home, labeled "For Rent", is completely surrounded. Also, as new roads are put in, the water channels to the fields can get clogged with debris making it impossible for enough water to flow.

Home in rice field, sign says "For Rent"
Darrell and I have our own less holy trinity for Bali. This picture shows the ever present motor scooter, the mangy sleeping dog, and an offering. I guess they do represent, in some weird way, the relationships to God, to other humans, and to other creatures... Bali in a nutshell!

Three huge aspects of Balinese society

Friday, June 15, 2012


Since I am already hopelessly behind anyway, I am deviating from my normal chronologic order of events and sending you straight to Bali. That means I am (for now) bypassing our amazing experience helping with research on a small island in the Great Barrier Reef, plus the exceptional experience of cutting vegetables and serving meals for over 400 mountain bikers and support personnel on a fundraising bike race across the Kimberley in the far NW of Australia. More on those later...

We arrived in Bali four days ago and our heads are still spinning. The sheer number of people is staggering. Especially after driving across one of the more barren and unpopulated areas on the planet... Thankfully, the people are kind and often smiling, and we are warming up to a culture far different from our own.

Once again we booked some of our places through airbnb, and we promise to buy stock if they go public. Our first place was a room off a surfer's house, with our own entrance. Here is the view of the pool.

Our garden pool in Sanur, Bali
We entered through a small double door that is around a corner so the bad spirits couldn't follow us. I guess the baddies have a hard time turning. They also have a hard time getting over the tall walls that enclose most homes. Our entrance was near an alter so that may have protected us as well. It was a quiet haven in a busy neighborhood!

Fishing boats on the beach at Sanur
We purposefully chose to avoid Kuta, the busiest tourist area of Bali frequented by partying Aussie surfers, and went to Sanur where the smaller beach attracts a quieter crowd. There is a strip of hotels along the beach where you could pretend you were in Bali, but if you didn't leave the hotel grounds you would miss the wandering chickens, skinny dogs, playing children, and colorful offerings in front of all the small shops.

An offering to appease the demons
A significant portion of many people's days (especially the women's) goes to creating these offerings. Some go on the ground to appease the demons and some go on the alters of gods and goddesses in the pantheon of the Balinese Hindu religion.

All dressed up, fed and smoking a cigarette!
Alters and temples are everywhere. A tree can be a temple, decorated with the black and white checked cloth like you see above. The black and white crosses to make grey which represents a fundamental part of this religion - the balancing of good and evil, black and white, yin and yang. Within all good there is some bad and within the bad there is some good. That is my understanding, though take everything I say with the caveat that I am a poorly informed tourist in a wonderful place...

Both Darrell and I are more comfortable in the wilds of nature than in the throes of humans, and there are people almost everywhere here! The streets are especially insane with lane lines being a mere suggestion of where traffic should flow. Motor scooters are ever present and weave between cars and trucks on every road. We've had two "drivers" and they have both been very adept at avoiding accidents while actually moving down the road. I wouldn't have escaped the airport from the sheer fear of driving in this madness.

Transporting rice and coconuts on a quiet stretch of road
We spent three days in Sanur and then paid one of the ubiquitous drivers to take us to Ubud, the artistic center of Bali up in the hills away from the sea. Our new airbnb host is a Norwegian that calls himself "Dr. PhiloArt" and has his own self-realization gig going on here. His home has two extra rooms he rents out with views over the rice paddies, so - unless you count the cacophony of constantly crowing roosters, and madly croaking frogs - it is another peaceful haven on the edges of a crowded town.

Dr. PhiloArt's home, surrounded by rice fields
I haven't mentioned the delicious local food, the overall affordable prices despite my complete inability to barter, or other aspects of Bali we are learning to appreciate. But I will leave you with two more images showcasing the juxtaposition of modern and old, and the sweetness of rice fields in the late afternoon sun!

The old and the new - balance in Bali

Late afternoon in the rice fields

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Life in Paradise

Life on One Tree Island is my idea of paradise...

Most days began with a trip out into the lagoon system to collect samples.

Matthew, Marcela, and Darrell heading out on the Seabreeze
Since Darrell and I couldn't dive, we were in charge of monitoring and changing the onboard SCUBA tanks used to run the suction sampler, basically an underwater vacuum cleaner the divers used to suction up the samples they needed.

The samples were then taken straight to the wet lab so the living critters could be kept wet.

Samples placed in small tubs in the wet lab
Julietta then processed the samples to separate the living organisms from the coral and shell fragments.

Some pretty snails from the sample. The largest is less than 1 inch long.
The six of us on Matthew's team shared a dormitory style space that could have slept 16 people, so we each had plenty of room and privacy. The stairs led up to a porch and into the kitchen. There are two rooms (each with four bunks) on each side of the kitchen.

Entrance to our cabin
The path to the dorm was under mangrove trees loaded with black noddy nests, and dozens of pooping black noddies between dusk and dawn.

Black Noddy keeping an eye on the station
The kitchen had everything you needed for cooking amazing meals, plus an espresso maker! As if just living on a tropical island wasn't luxury enough!

Julietta, Erin, and Darrell talking science in the kitchen
The kitchen was the common area so was used for communal work as well as meals. The station had limited wireless internet access, but it was enough to keep us all connected.

The kitchen table doubled as a large desk
While Pete kept up on all things mechanical - including solar panels, the fresh water storage and filtration system, the ocean pump and tanks for the wet lab, the boats and motors, filling and hauling SCUBA tanks, and a myriad other things; Sarah work
Sarah working in the office on a cold morning

Sarah working in the office on a cold morning
Friday Afternoon Club at OTI
Marcela, Julietta, and Matthew on the porch of our cabin

Sea Eagles over the salt water tanks for the wet lab
Matthew and his entire "crew" at OTI

Sun setting on another perfect day at One Tree Island