If you want to access the supralittoral zone, you must first master the pooter. Come on a search with senseis Jim and Rosemary...

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Timor-Leste Marine Expedition #98 Photographer: Michael Hugill © Australian Museum Image: Michael Hugill
© Australian Museum

At 7:30am we were in our hired Toyota Landcruiser heading west out of Dili, sunglasses on, maps out, buckets in the boot. I wanted to get us berets and paint ’UN’ in black on the side of our car, but that would've been completely and utterly inappropriate.

What I thought was appropriate was to ask Rosemary where we were going and why, but I was wrong. ''It is not for you to ask, young one, but for us to tell," she said, even though I'm older than her.

Sitting in the back seat, I turned to Jim, the oldest of us all, to see if he might be of some help. "Softly softly catchy beach-hopper," he whispered. It was at this point I noticed he was driving with his eyes closed.

It was day 8 of the expedition and I had seen it all now. I decided to keep my mouth shut and as time passed and Jim somehow sensed his way through glittering green trucks, cars adorned with teen heartthrob posters and family-sized motorbikes, I realised two things.

One, we were entering farmland with a lot more cows, chickens and pigs staring at us than people. Two, Jim and Rosemary were talking but not with their voices.

I heard Jim say, It's low tide and we're going to Tibar beach to try and find some talitrids, also known as beach hoppers, which are an important food source for shore birds. Hopefully there’ll be a new species there, but I didn’t see his mouth move.

There are mangroves close by too, where I'll be hoping to find micro gastropods or sea snails to you. I've not seen the ones I'm looking for yet, said Rosemary - if ‘said’ is the right word.

I hope they get the pooters out again, I thought to myself.

Yes, we will be, they answered as one.

Excellent. Also, can you stop the car if I see a good photo op?

Look to your right, Michael.

Something strange happened to my sense of time after that and I found myself getting out of the car and following Jim and Rosemary down to a grey and gravelly beach. Jim and Rosemary set to work lifting rocks and wrack to see if tiny talitrids (I’m on an alliterative roll here) would jump out. 

We were in the supralittoral zone now, that magic place above the high tide line where seaweed and detritus is stranded and the nocturnal tilatrids hide during the day. When the beach-hoppers hopped, Jim and Rosemary would scoop up handfuls of seaweed and sand and drop them into a bucket. Soon it was full, and after sifting out the large pieces of detritus, Jim took a seat and unsheathed his pooter.

Jim placed the end of one tube in the bucket and the end of another in his mouth. Both tubes were connected to a sealed specimen jar so that when Jim sucked expertly on the tube, tiny beach hoppers were vacuumed out of the bucket and into the jar.

Up close he looked like the Indiana Jones of biology, from a distance he looked like a beach bum drinking out of a bucket. It was hypnotic.

He spat something out of his mouth and I remembered a comment someone had left on an earlier blog. "Hey Jim," I said, "aren’t you supposed to use gauze on the tube you suck on?" But he just looked at me like I was a species he hadn’t identified yet.

By this stage we'd been joined by some men from the Monteveado asphalt mine across from the beach. They were similarly in awe and with their enthusiastic help, Jim had a jar full of beach hoppers within an hour and we knew it was time to move on.

Driving back the way we came, Rosemary pointed to a patch of mangroves and Jim found a tight space in amongst some thick shrub to park. Stay close, Rosemary said, and don't make any sudden movements. These snails can be very aggressive. She gave Jim a knowing look.

They were toying with me I knew, but they didn't seem to realise I had the camera and the keys to the blog and could write about this day any way I wanted.

The three of us made our way into the cool shade of the mangrove swamp, being careful not to impale ouselves on the very tall pneumataphores. Rosemary began her sea snail search. Ankle deep, she scooped up mud with an ice cream container and filtered it through a sieve, but alas, no snails of the type she was looking for were to be found.

We decided to go out onto the mud flat and try there. The mud got firmer and our sloshing gave way to a kind of skating. Rosemary searched again, checking also the small sea grass ponds, but still no luck. I'm starting to think it must be seasonal, she said.

There were local people in the water and we skated to the edge to watch them slowly fish the sea grass with nets. Jim was still in the mangroves chatting with a local who was curious about what we were doing. When we got back in the car, overheated and dirty, but not defeated, Jim told us the young man was a student at Dili University studying languages. Nineteen dollars per semester he’s paying, said Jim.

As we drove back, Jim and Rosemary somehow induced some kind of seated coma in me because I do not remember anything between leaving the mangroves and arriving back at our hotel. We were parked facing the beach and the tide was out. Tens, maybe hundreds of kids were out crab collecting.

A few hours later, I found Jim at his laptop, typing up his description of the collecting site and its GPS coordinates. Back at the Museum, he’ll dissect the specimens he’s collected and have them photographed with an SEM microscope. All this information will then be entered into a database called DELTA and Jim will then be able to positively identify what he’s caught, or know if he has a new species on his hands. Breaking news: Jim has found a second beach-hopper species here in Timor.

Rosemary was a couple of rooms away, checking the samples she’d collected at the mangroves, but wasn't hopeful about. Under the microscope she discovered that she had in fact found some sea snails, one of which was exactly the kind she was looking for. She too will have a lot of work to do when she returns to the Museum.

As I went to sleep that night, I couldn't help but think of that scene in The Breakfast Club, when the kids are finally released from Saturday detention and Anthony Michael Hall wants to know if they'll acknowledge each other back at school on Monday. What will happen back at the Museum? Will Jim and Rosemary acknowledge the bonds we forged over talitrids, pooters and sea snails or will they walk on by?