Turtles and tap-dancing birds: welcome to an ANU field trip

A field trip takes student blogger Jesse Zondervan to a classroom in paradise on the Great Barrier Reef.

In a silent group of people, I stand in the dark on a white beach. I listen to sea turtles digging their nests. Torches are not allowed because they may blind the turtles or scare them away to waste their eggs in the sea.

Heron Island is our one-night stopover to One Tree Island, a research island on the Great Barrier Reef, where we’ll be doing a field course for ten days.

We had arrived at Heron Island on a large catamaran ferry. The boat is operated by Heron Island Resort, so we had to wait until their guests had boarded before getting on. Our group consists of fifteen students, plus fieldwork leader Brad, lab assistant Vikashni, and general assistant Lym.

It is a quick boat trip: in two hours we travel a hundred kilometres from the coast to Heron Island.

Our arrival on Heron Island takes us along the wreck of a stranded ship and gives us a first glance of the reef.

The research station on Heron is one of the oldest on the Great Barrier Reef and takes up about a fifth of the island. Half of the island is a luxury resort with the capacity for two hundred guests to spend their holidays.

After a buffet of spaghetti with salad and banana pizza we have time to spot turtles in the dark along the beach, where they arrive to lay their eggs around this time of year. I heard a few digging holes for the eggs, but didn’t actually see any.

The number of turtles arriving on the island has gone down since the nineties, when 200-300 turtles were expected to reach the island every year. The practice of catching turtles for soup has brought this down tenfold, as Brad tells us during our walk around the island.

After a night-time journey in the little research vessel with Russell, the One Tree Island manager and skipper, we cross into the lagoon and see the island appear in the horizon. The research station consists of a few buildings, most of them wooden with window panels with fly nets.

The stunted eucalypts are full with black noddies and birds’ nests, which define the island’s background noise. Despite the smell, I have to say they are funny birds. Often I get outside, surprised it’s not raining, as the terns tap dance on the white water tanks with their little black feet.

The tanks are rain-fed, and as we didn't expect any rain during our stay we had to efficiently use our supply. One-bucket showers and waterless compost toilets don’t bother us: we embrace these as part of our exceptional experience.

As well as being the skipper, Russ is the carpenter and safety officer of the island. Under his guidance, we were able to do some snorkelling in a channel during incoming tides. You’re taken by the current into the lagoon while you flash by coral teaming with fishes, turtles and sharks. We even did a night snorkel with light sticks on our snorkels.

Life on One Tree in these ten days consisted mainly of lectures in the dry lab in the morning (occasionally after a morning snorkel in the gutter), mapping a transect on the reef during low tide and in free time (in between playing cards, reading, eating and games of Monopoly).

Fieldwork on the island was a lot more laid back than what I’m used to, especially because the tides give restrictions to your research hours.

Often we’d sit in one of the little wooden huts with shells under our feet, looking through coral identification books and documents. It’s not easy identifying those, as a single species can have branched, platy and massive shapes.

After our mapping project, we were allowed our own little research project. I spent this time studying and mapping an outcrop of beach rock. It contains ancient coral heads which grew when the sea level was higher relative to today. I took a few samples which are to be dated back at ANU.

This journey was special, as there are no tourists allowed on One Tree. It was one of the best experiences I’ve had in Australia and I hope I’ll be back to meet up with the turtles.

If you’re interested check out the Coral Reef Studies Course or look for field trips in your field of study.