Join faculty and students on Heron Island.

by Andrea Ward, Aaren Freeman, Matthias Foellmer and Beth Christensen

As usual, the gray light of dawn penetrates your sleep, but today something seems different; you wake without recent memory of the neighbor’s dog barking, the sounds of traffic on the street outside or the muffled sounds of waking suburbia. However, you do hear the distant sound of waves, the wind evading casuarina needles and an occasional seabird’s “caw.” You slip on flip-flops, capriciously remembering that locals refer to them as “thongs,” grab a cup of coffee and head out to see the sunrise over the Great Barrier Reef. Reassured that the day has started, you return to the dining hall to greet your groggy students, apparently still in another time zone. You don’t have many days on Heron Island, but those that have passed have left an indelible impression.

The students have made it to breakfast. So too have the birds. Breakfast is served inside but eaten outdoors. You are joined by the local wildlife: Nothing wakes you quite as efficiently as having a bird from below the table somewhere in the vicinity of your lap grab at your Vegemite toast.

After a 7:00 a.m. breakfast, you check the weather and tides, finalize plans with the field station staff, then brief the students on the day’s schedule. Usually it’s a snorkel off the beach or, if the tides and winds are good, from the boat Zodiac, to explore life in deep water. Everyone scrambles through the dive locker, looking for their snorkel gear (wet suit, booties, mask, fins and dork vest), a bit rushed because the boat leaves in 10 minutes. After lots of grunts, groans and squeals (because the suits are still wet and cold), you rush down the road to meet the boat.

As always, the snorkel is amazing—a real-life demonstration of Finding Nemo. Fish everywhere—including clown fish, Moorish Idols, chromis and butterfly fish. Peeking around a large coral head, you spot a green sea turtle with its neck stretched out as if to say, “Take a picture; I know I am beautiful.” A few students notice a large eagle ray swimming gracefully away. The boat captain signals that it is time to go back. You throw your fins in the boat and climb up the ladder. A few students linger with their heads in the water, trying to see something new.

The trip back is all about who saw what. Upon reaching shore you jump out of the boat into the deep water and rush back to the station where tea awaits. (The Aussies are serious about their tea!) After a quick change out of the wet suits, you dig in and appreciate the hot tea and fresh cookies, even the gluten-free forms! Taking advantage of the sugar rush, you head to the classroom for a lecture on the plant, insect and bird residents of Heron Island.

Although you’re still sated from tea, you anticipate a delicious lunch after the lecture. While defending your lunch from mischievous, hungry birds, you recount the morning’s experiences. By early afternoon students are working on their research projects, literally all over the island. As you slog out to the group working on the outer reef, you wonder why you didn’t encourage them to work on tidal pools instead. A second group of students has the research equipment that must get to the third group before the tide changes. After troubleshooting research projects, it is time for tea (again); then you help students finish up their work and get started on the day’s species IDs.

A few students are into a twilight snorkel, so you suit up and swim out into the setting sun. Everyone makes it to the shipwreck, where you spot a splendid pair of lionfish and several reef sharks swimming around the harbor. You climb the stairs up the jetty and join the rest of the group to watch the sunset. As the students chat about the day’s events, do yoga or stare out across the reef, the nightfall progresses until you finally head back to the lab for a wonderful dinner. Following dessert, you anticipate an entertaining evening in the computer lab, helping students analyze data from their projects. The days are packed, but before you know it the students will be making final presentations and it will be time to leave Heron Island.


Andrea Ward
Assistant Professor
Department of Biology



Aaren Freeman
Assistant Professor
Department of Biology



Matthias Foellmer
Assistant Professor
Department of Biology



Beth Christensen
Associate Professor and Director of Environmental Studies Program 

This piece is from the Fall 2011 Issue No. 16 of the FCPE Newsletter.

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