THE TRIP: For the week of September 17 to 23, 40 third year marine science students from UQ headed to Heron Island to gain first-hand experience of what research on the Great Barrier Reef looks like…
THE BLOG: This is a first-hand account from two keen marine science students and For the Love of the Reef participants (Margot Bligh & Melissa Staines) as they do some research on the reef.
DAY ONE (Sunday):
All us students dragged ourselves to uni by 5am on Sunday morning, very sleepy but excited for the coming week. We napped our way through an eight-hour bus trip to Gladstone, aka the “Gateway to the Heart of the Southern Great Barrier Reef”. Next up in our big day of travel was a two-hour boat ride out to the island- an exciting prospect after being cramped up on a bus all day! However the first half of our boat trip was much different than expected… we passed port after port along the coast, and travelled behind large coal ships much of the way out to the open ocean.
We counted SIXTEEN coal ships along the horizon. A pretty sad welcome through the “gateways” of the southern GBR in our opinion…
We eventually arrived at Heron, and got to know our home for the next week- the Heron Island Research Station. What an amazing place, especially in the eyes of two marine scientist students! We finished up the afternoon in the only real way possible- with a long sunset snorkel out into the harbour, along the coral reef walls and out and around the iconic shipwreck. Spotted list: turtles (Hawksbill, Green), lots and lots of fish (our favourite is parrotfish), lots and lots and lots of coral, rays (stingrays, eagle rays, cow-tail rays), and a couple of friendly reef sharks. After dinner, we took in some of the island’s sites from land with a post-dinner night walk along the beach. We were wowed by the stars, the rays scooting about in the shallows, and the sparkling bioluminescence of the waves. (It was so beautiful Margot was a tad distracted and walked straight into a Pandanus branch, and managed to quite dramatically cut her eye, eek!)
Two hawksbill turtles hanging out in the harbour.
DAY TWO (Monday):
Day two kicked off with a sunrise swim in the harbour - for Melissa only however, as Margot couldn’t open her swollen eye yet… Sunrise swims are possibly even more spectacular than sunset, as the sunlight piercing the water makes for extra magical lighting. Highlights: swimming with eagle rays!
The rest of the morning was spent organising our research project for the week. Our group decided to examine the impact that sea cucumbers on the Heron reef flat have on nutrient cycling. Nutrient cycling is key to the health of coral reef ecosystems, as it ensures that nutrients are efficiently cycled through the system, and are available in accessible forms to different organisms. Efficient nutrient cycling is especially important in tropical ecosystems overloaded with nutrients from excess runoff and pollution/ Sea cucumbers contribute to nutrient cycling through digesting sea-floor sediment- however, they are becoming increasingly threatened by overfishing. We specifically measured the effect of Holothuria atra and Stichopus chloronotus feeding on sediment total organic matter and chlorophyll a concentrations.
In the afternoon, we headed further out onto the reef for a boat snorkel!
We saw some beautiful, vibrant corals- however, dead corals could also be seen strewn across the reef.
A highlight of this trip was the MASSIVE grouper we saw hanging out beneath the boats. We headed back in time for an afternoon stroll around the island, before our final sunset snorkel for the day! In case you had somehow missed this- we LOVE snorkelling!
Beautiful corals and a clam.
Cute lil bull tail ray hanging out in the sand.
Another cool dude (hawksbill turtle)
DAY THREE (Tuesday)
Day three brought another sunrise swim, featuring all of our usual suspects (sharks, rays, turtles, corals, and fish!). The bulk of the morning was spent setting up our project methodology (read: testing our methods and our lab equipment), before the tide was low enough for us to go sampling on the reef flat. Then, time for some “serious data collection”- that is, wading across the beautiful reef flats in the sunshine, and collecting sea cucumber “poo”. After lunch we dug into processing the data we had collected so far: lots of weighing, subsampling, pipetting, sonicating, drying, combusting and spectrophotometrically analysing our sea cucumber poo (yeah SCIENCE).
We rewarded our hard efforts of the afternoon with a (you guessed it…) sunset snorkel! This evening’s highlight was so many cool sharks!!! At one point we could see four black-tips at once- very very cool. Another beautiful day on Heron Island, surrounded and inspired by the beauty and complexity of the ecosystems around us.
Love from Margot & Melissa- your girls for the reef from Heron xoxo
If you love the Reef too, then join us and sign up for the For the Love of the Reef challenge, it's going to be extra!!
Pictures taken by Erin Watson (another UQ student) and Melissa Staines