20 September: A Tour To Atauro (Timor-Leste Expedition)
In which our intrepid marine scientists spend the day due north, diving at Atauro Island, while our blogger takes photos and makes notes.
It's about a twenty-five kilometre trip to Atauro, cruising over some very deep water. This was far from a P&O trip, however, but with a clear sky and bright sun overhead, fresh salty air in our noses and plenty of cans of Coke on board, the mood was definitely bouyant. Bouyant? Oh man, I think I've been overexposed to science puns.
The captain of the boat, Ryan, a very experienced skipper originally from South Africa, told me at one point on the journey over that we were above one of the deepest channels in the world. Doing a little internet research later, I discovered that the strait drops to 3500m at its lowest point.
As a result, whales and large pods of dolphins can be seen in the area, but unfortunately we didn't spot any today. We did see fish, however, lots of fish and other animals too. But let's start at the beginning...
We arrive at the Dili Harbour foreshore where a dinghy meets us to take us to the boat. With thirteen of us heading out there, along with all our nets, eskies, bags and computers, the dinghy has to make two trips. Once aboard, all the gear is placed where it can best be utilised later, a roll is called, and we take our seats as the captain gives the engine full throttle - as do the scientists to strange jokes and animal puns.
A little less than two hours later, we're quite close to the island and start to make our way around the western side to our two dive locations for the day, imaginatively titled Inner Reef and Outer Reef. The landscape appears dry and rugged, with steep climbs. One road in particular looks like it is at an angle of 65 degrees. The water is that classic turquoise above the reefs with barely any transition to a dark blue as the sea floor drops away suddenly.
At our first location, we're dropped off in groups, as Ryan is keen to not let the boat drift too close to the reef. In the picture above, Mandy is putting on her gloves as her dive buddy Jeff waits for her in the water. I'm the last to enter the water, snorkelling with a video camera stuck to my head. With any luck there'll be enough time and some good, stable internet speed to post that video soon.
Mark holds up a bag of specimens from the first dive. They're about to be transferred to an esky of ice to help preserve them until we return to base. Species in the bag include a Yellowfin Damsel (whose colour pattern changes remarkably from juvenile to adult), a Scarlet Soldierfish (who live under crevices and caves during the day and feed at night) and a Pterosis volitans (also known as Red Firefish, Turkey Fish and Lion Fish - I'm guessing because of its tendency to face its attackers with its bristling array of poisonous spines rather than flee).
We're now at our second dive location and Mark aka The Energizer Bunny has borrowed my digital camera. The first thing I think when I see this is, Why would he take pictures of white coral? It's not until he zooms in on the little Clark's Anemone Fish hiding there in the centre that I realise what a great photo it is (the image above has been cropped). Clark's Anemone Fish lives in a symbiotic relationship with, you guessed it, an anemone (another marine animal) which shoots poisonous microscopic darts into its prey. It's yet to be discovered exactly how the fish is able to remain sting-free.
Still on her second dive, Sally, net in hand, has set her sights on a certain fish. "I've got my eye on a small Sixstripe Wrasse that has just swum under a rock ledge," she tells me later. Wrasses come in many colours, but this particular one has orange and blue stripes.
3pm - 5pm
We make our way back to Dili, with some scientists making notes, others taking their first well-earned rest and your dutiful blogger regretting letting Mark use up all his camera battery - only joking. Besides, typing, napping and sorting scientists have all been photographed before.
Approximately 90 minutes after our return to the hotel, Greg is photographing one of the specimens. "It's Nembrotha purpurealineata," says Nerida, "which is a nudibranch (a type of sea slug) that is as brightly coloured as the ascidians (sea squirts) it eats."
It's getting late and Lauren (left) and Penny (right) are still processing pieces from the trip. "We're picking through habitat samples for amphipods, worms and crabs," says Penny. It'll be a while yet before they finish and pack everything up for the night.
And that, dear reader, is something like a day in the life of a marine scientist.