Monday, February 28, 2011

Croc Spotting

Wednesday after breakfast we drove to where the ferry crosses the Daintree River to go on a crocodile cruise.  We had a little time before the boat left so we drove into Daintree Village to look around and saw a big barramundi.
The crocodile cruise was fifty minutes along the Daintree River.  This time of year isn't a good time to see crocodiles because the water is so warm that they prefer to just stay in the water and do not have to be out basking in the sun.  Crocodiles can go quite a long time without food, but not without heat.  We did see one baby crocodile and one that was about six feet long.

Next we drove to Mossman Gorge to hike.  We stopped at Newell Beach on the way there and say another funny Australian sign.
Hiking in Mossman Gorge was fun, but very rainy.  There were some boardwalks, a suspension bridge, and a 2 km circuit trail through the rainforest.  We saw several trees with buttresses.

These buttresses are roots that help trees adapt in nutrient poor soils.  They provide stability and nutrients to the tree.

We ate at Mojo's again Wednesday night and left early Thursday morning to fly back to Launceston.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Daintree Drive

After breakfast at the B and B we headed out in the car to drive up to Cape Tribulation.  The owners of the B and B gave us a map and some notes they had typed up of good places to stop along the way.  First we had to cross the Daintree River on the ferry.  This was a cable ferry that used two cables to drag the ferry the short distance across the river.
Our first stop after the ferry was the Alexandra Range Lookout Point.

We stopped at the Jindalba Boardwalk and did a short walk through the rainforest.  Next we drove the rest of the way up to Cape Tribulation and had lunch.  Beyond this point the roads were unsealed and this is about as far as you can go without a four wheel drive vehicle.  We started making our way back towards Mossman with several more stops along the way.  We did a walk to the Cape Tribulation Lookout, the Dubuji Boardwalk, and the Marrdja Boardwalk.  These were all relatively short walks which was a good thing because it was incredibly hot and humid.

We walked onto a couple of beaches but could not swim because it is stinger season.

We continued on our way and Ben spotted a cassowary and chick along the side of the road!  I had just gotten done saying that I thought cassowaries didn't really exist because we hadn't seen one despite all the signs indicating they were around.  The cassowary and chick were eating fruit off the trees and we were able to get some pictures.  After we stopped several other cars also stopped to have a look.

It was such an exciting wildlife sighting!  We made one last stop at the Daintree Ice Cream company.  It was in a beautiful setting amongst various fruit trees.  We had a small bowl of ice cream with four different flavors-coconut, raspberry, jackfruit, and wattleseed.  We went back to the B and B and took a swim in the pool.  The B and B is surrounded by gorgeous gardens and we saw several blue Ulysses butterflies flying around.  We had dinner at Sugar Flames, another good recommendation from the B and B owners.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Cleaner Fish - Underwater Capitalism

Another great aspect of diving is watching the many different behaviors of reef species in their natural environment.  There is foraging by vegetarian fish, hunting, schooling, camouflage, and many others.  One of the most fascinating fish behaviors is cleaning behavior.

Here are pictures from a cleaning station on Osprey Reef with a Malabar Grouper being cleaned by a Bluestreak Cleaner Wrasse.

The client fish stays very calm with his fins, gills, and even his mouth open.  The cleaner fish then inspects the client, especially the gills and mouth for parasites.  The client fish almost seems to go into a trance, it must be like a massage!  For divers, cleaner stations are excellent because the fish often allow divers to get closer than normal.

Dr. Alexandra Grutter with the Coral Reef Ecology Laboratory at the University of Queensland has discovered some fascinating aspects of cleaner fish behavior.

Cleaner fish, or shrimp, pick parasites and dead cells off other fish.  These fish have a distinctive ultraviolet blue color and use specific swimming behavior to advertise their cleaning stations.  These cleaning stations are very busy.  One cleaner fish inspected 2300 "clients" from 130 species, eating 1200 parasites, all in one day.

Cleaning stations are also very competitive.  Dr. Grutter's research has shown that better service with less harmful biting of the client fish had greater repeat visits from clients.  The free market at work underwater!

Papillon B and B

After our flight from Lizard Island on Monday we picked up our rental car and drove one hour and fifteen minutes to Mossman.  We stayed at a great bed and breakfast called Papillon.  There are only two rooms and we were the only ones there so had the place to ourselves.  The price was very reasonable and the owners were so nice and helpful.  There was even a small pool right outside the rooms.  We were pretty tired from the dive trip so we just hung around the b and b for the afternoon and went to a restaurant called Mojo's for dinner.  It was such a good dinner.  We started with prawn tacos.  Ben had surf and turf with steak and salt and pepper squid and beer battered fries.  I had the special which was sweetlips fish fillets with a macadamia nut crust, risotto, and a chive citrus butter.  The fish was delicious but I felt a little funny ordering and eating it because I had seen sweetlips fish on the reef while diving!  We went to bed early and got ready to explore the Daintree rainforest the next day.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Back to Dry Land

Monday morning we had our final meal on board Spoilsport and those of us leaving were taken in a small boat to Lizard Island.  Of the 18 divers on the trip about half of us left on Monday while the other half were staying until Thursday.  We waited on Lizard Island for an hour or so and got into a small airplane that held maybe 15 people to take a low level flight over the reef back to Cairns.  We flew at an altitude of 700-1000 feet.

What a great trip!  We weren't sure what to expect out of a live aboard dive experience but we loved it.  If we would have done the full week trip we would have had to start skipping some dives though because we were so tired.  In the end, we totaled 13 dives and surpassed 50 dives in our log.  We landed in Cairns and picked up our rental car to start the rainforest part of our trip.

Feeding Frenzy!

Sunday was our last day of diving.  Our first dive was at a site called Fast Eddie's.  This was our deepest dive of the trip.  I went to 112 feet and Ben went to 125.  We had dive computers we used that were worn as a watch on our wrist and told us our depth, number of minutes we had been diving, and how many minutes we could dive at a certain depth while staying below decompression limits.  It also timed our safety stop at fifteen feet.  At the end of a dive you typically stop at fifteen feet for 3 minutes before going to the surface.

We saw an eel on this dive and I also saw a bird wrasse and striped surgeonfish.  It is hard to commnunicate while diving since you can't talk or hear anything underwater so we rely on hand signals to communicate.  There are common scuba hand signals for all sorts of fish and to indicate how much air you have left and when to go up.

Dive two was Ben's favorite dive of the trip and was called False Entrance.  We saw a huge marbled stingray on this dive that was the size of a dining room table.
We had fun on this dive observing the small fish and other creatures.  We saw shrimpgobies and shrimp on the sandy bottom and later read in our fish identification book that they share a sandy hole to hide in.  We also saw a goatfish furiously digging in the sand and a rockmover wrasse juvenile fish that looked like a brown and white leaf or piece of seaweed jerkily drifting in the water.

After lunch was the shark feed dive at North Horn.  We all went to the bottom and sat as a group to watch one of the crew members drag down a bucket with a lid on it that had tuna heads in it.  The fish and sharks got very excited as this was dragged down.  She released the lid of the bucket and a feeding frenzy took place with a couple of the sharks really going crazy to get the tuna heads off of the rope.

 Our final dive of the trip was also at North Horn but without the shark feeding this time.  They left the bucket down there with the scraps in it and the sharks were still very interested in it.  We saw 13 around the shark feed area.  We also saw a large school of lined butterflyfish and a school of 50 bumphead parrotfish.  These parrotfish eat coral and can grow to over 4 feet long.

There were also several fish at cleaner stations-a barracuda, potato cod, and grouper.  We had a farewell bbq that night and there was a photo contest and viewing of the trip video.  We steamed through the night to Lizard Island.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Coral Reefs

Leigh and I love diving, partly for the travel, partly for the adventure, but also because of our mutual interest in biology.

The world's total surface area of coral reefs amounts to about half the size of France.  However, about 25% of the ocean's biodiversity is found on coral reefs.

This diversity comes despite nutrient-poor tropical waters.  Charles Darwin called coral reefs "oases in the desert of the ocean."  The same crystal-clear water we love on vacation also means there are few nutrients in the water column.

Coral polyps form the building blocks of reefs by creating a calcium carbonate (limestone) shell.  They overcome the nutrient poor tropical waters by relying on zooxanthellae, a photosynthetic algae that lives within the polyp.  The zooxanthellae produce up to 90% of the energy required by the coral polyp.

Coral polyps are demanding of certain environmental conditions.  They must have constant temperatures, pH, salinity, and sunlight to support them.

Different types of zooxanthellae give corals their different colors.  When coral polyps are stressed, they may digest or expel the zooxanthellae which results in coral bleaching and may quickly lead to coral polyp death.  The entire ecosystem of coral reefs relies upon this unique relationship.

Eat, Dive, Sleep, Repeat

The title of this post pretty accurately describes our time on the dive boat.  It was really fun, but we were exhausted by the end of the trip.  Diving is more tiring than you would think.  We got up Saturday, ate first breakfast which was typically cereal, fruit, and yogurt and did our first dive at a site called Shark Reef.  We did this dive with a guide and saw unicorn fish, gray reef sharks, a large silvertip shark, and a dogtooth tuna.  I really enjoyed this dive and felt like I was swimming in an aquarium with all of the coral and the large number and variety of fish.  Our second dive (after second breakfast which was a large cooked breakfast) was also at Shark Reef and we saw three types of butterflyfish-big longnose, threadfin, and pyramid.  We also saw large plate coral.

Big Longnose Butterflyfish

"Sleeping" on the plate coral-look how big it is!

We would often have an hour or so between dives-just enough time to read a little, listen to a lecture on fish identification, or take a short nap.  A couple of times we thought of skipping a dive, but with only having three days of diving we wanted to get the most out of it.  Dive three was at Osprey Reef and called Southern Wall.  This was a beautiful wall dive.

Pyramid Butterflyfish
We had lunch and did our last two dives at Admirality Anchor.  This was a unique dive site with great mounds of coral and sandy channels.  We saw sharks again, a stingray, and a clown triggerfish on dive four. 

White Tip Reef Shark


Clown Triggerfish

Schooling Fish under the boat
 Our fifth and final dive for the day was a night dive again.  We saw some flashlight fish which have an organ below their eyes that glows in the dark.  We also saw huge sea stars and a school of bumphead parrotfish.  We had dinner-carvery night with carved pork, lamb, roasted veggies, and apple crisp for dessert followed by bedtime.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Diving In

We had an early wake up call on Friday at 7am.  We had breakfast and got ready for our first dive at a site called Challenger Bay.  We would have a briefing before each dive where the trip director would draw the dive site on a dry erase board, explain the different features of the site and what kinds of sea life we may see.  We got geared up and jumped in. Here's some of what we saw:
Giant Clam

Anemonefish (Nemo's cousin)

Beautiful blue coral

I loved seeing the Anemonefish peeking out from their anemones.  Some even had babies with them.

Many-spotted Sweetlips fish at a cleaner station.
Dives two and three for the day were at Cod Hole.  These dive were special because we got to see huge potato cod that were four feet long.  We also saw blue sea stars, a barracuda, moray eel, and our first sharks of the trip!

Potato Cod

Potato Cod


We had lunch between dives two and three and rested until dive four which was a night dive.  The dive site was called Archway.  We had underwater flashlights and glow sticks attached to our tanks.  We saw an epaullette shark, large turtle, and a giant clam opening and closing.

It was a great first day of diving.  We also had the opportunity to learn about underwater photography from the photography crew member and a professional underwater photographer who was on the trip.  They each gave short lectures in the lounge area and were available to answer any photography questions people had.  We had dinner after the night dive-it was pasta night and went to bed early.  We were exhausted and needed to get ready for five dives the next day.