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.