Having been in Australia for a month and a half now, I guess its high time to write my first post about it!
Realizing that now it was time to return to the schooling way of life, I had to reset my mind somewhat to prepare myself.
I arrived in Townsville, north Queensland, on February 12th. A JCU bus was waiting to pick up several international students to take us to our various destinations. I was to be living in George Roberts Hall, and I was anxiously awaiting to see where I would be living and studying for the next 5 months. I was shown to my room, part of a three-bedroom apartment-style arrangement, with a shared bathroom and common room. There was a microwave and mini-fridge in the common room, along with a small couch. My room was furnished with a bed, desk, and dresser. Seeing this setup brought back feelings of being a freshman all over again – which is exactly what I was! I was officially a “fresher” – a newbie. My two Australian roommates had not yet arrived, and neither had most Australians, so the entire college was populated with strictly international students, the vast majority of which were Americans. Most of these Americans were also AustraLearn kids – they had spent the week prior travelling to a few places as a group and so they all knew eachother already. I was at a bit of a loss as to how I would go about meeting new people…Luckily, there was one girl from UNCW that was living next door to me, and we had conversed some before our arrivals here, and met up as soon as I got in. Even though after a few days it was evident that we wouldn’t be close friends, thanks to her I met Jon, a wonderful British fellow who came to JCU for his Masters in Conservation Biology.
The first few days I had to spend getting my things sorted out, as well as buying the basic necessities I would need. I was immediately struck by how expensive everything was. I mean everything…far more expensive than back home. I had no idea! I realized that I would have to be living very frugally here…
Another realization was how damn humongous Australia is…it doesn’t really hit you until you come here and you try to plan trips. There is so much to see, but it is all so far apart – and that means not only lots of time but also lots of money to get where you want to go! I started looking at places to go outside of where I am living because Townsville, while being the largest town in tropical northern Queensland, is not in fact very big, and there is not much to do or see in it. The downtown is in need of some serious renovation…and actually is undergoing it right now, making it harder to get around as it is. Sadly, this won’t be finished until the end of the year, long after I am gone! There are some good parts about it, though, namely the location – perfectly situated in the tropics of Australia, near both rainforest and reef. There are a few nice little islands off the coast that attract lots of visitors as well, like Magnetic Island. James Cook University also redeems Townsville since it is one of the best universities in Australia, especially for Marine and Tropical Biology. These are the classes I am taking: Marine Plants and Algae, Australian Vertebrate Fauna, Conservation Biology, Evolution & Ecology of Reef Fishes. The professors, for the most part, are exceptionally good at what they do. My Reef Fishes class is taught by Dr. Bellwood, one of the (if not THE) leading coral reef biologists in the world. Look up any papers related to reef fishes/coral reef ecology and he will be an author in most of them. That one, as well as my AU Vert Fauna class, both have three day long trips to the field over spring break which will be so amazing, from what I have heard.
But I digress, and I still have a lot of time to cover – the week before the first week of classes started was designated Orientation Week (or O’ Week for short) where every day there was some social activity meant to get all the “freshers” (and us international students) out and meeting loads of people. The first night we received bright yellow headbands with our names on them that we had to wear everywhere we went, 24/7 for that whole week. There was a toga party, an “Op Shop” (like the Salvation Army) party, and outings to the local pub, as well as the on-campus one – yes, there is an on-campus bar and club. This idea took some getting used to for me – the fact that all the kids here 18 and up can drink on campus, even go to party on campus in the school club! Its insane, unheard of back in the USA, but I think its a great idea. The week was exhausting, but it was a lot of fun and a great way to get out and meet other people. My Australian roomates (and most other Australians) didn’t arrive until the day before classes started (I guess because they were “fossils”). One is a guy, also majoring in marine bio, and the other is a girl, majoring in education, and both seem nice enough!
The first week of classes, there was also a campus club fair, which was fun to walk around and see what the school had to offer. I signed up for the dive club, which was offering an upcoming Advanced Open Water Course (which I needed to do!). There was also a roller derby team, and and atheist philosophy club that I was interested in. I was brand new to the campus, just like a freshman all over again, and had to go through the rigmarole I went through those long 4 years ago – figuring out where my classes were, who my professors were, who else was in my classes, tweaking my class schedule, buying school supplies (and keeping it as basic as possible to save money – a pack of flash cards is $5!), etc. I was happy with my schedule – they do things a bit differently here. Many science classes have lectures, tutorials, and practicals. Lectures are just that – note-taking sessions. Tutorials are a bit different, where the class is broken up into smaller groups that meet and debate more specialized topics in the subject. Practicals are just labs, meeting once a week, and pretty much exactly the same as at UNCW. Also, they consider it alright if you might be taking two classes whose lecture times clash, as long as you can keep up. I hope I can, because my schedule means I will be missing one Australian Vertebrate Fauna lecture a week!
Two weeks after classes started was the dive club AOWD trip! I signed up with a friend from my hall, Kim. We were leaving on that Friday night, the 5th of March, for two nights. We had to leave that night because the ride out to the outer reef area was about 8 hours. We would also be diving the SS Yongala, a passenger and freight steamer that disappeared/sank in a cyclone in 1911, killing all aboard (including one horse), and whose location wasn’t found until 1958. It was a bit of a surprise for people to find that it had been completely overtaken by corals and thriving with reef life in the midst of a relatively barren area. It is rated as one of the top wreck dives in the world! At 110 metres (361 ft) long it is one of the largest, most intact historic shipwrecks. Supposedly divers have seen femur bones! We got to dive the Yongala twice – once for our deep dive certification, and the second time for wreck dive cert. I was a little frightened about the deep dive portion – the deepest I had been before was only around 18 meters and that was in the crystal clear, warm waters of the Red Sea. Swimming out to the Yongala was an experience in itself – there is no reef in site, and the water is a murky dark blue-green (at least at the surface), and there was a strong current. Thinking about what lay beneath us in the depths also played on my mind. But we made out way down the lead lines slowly, and I made myself concentrate on my breathing to calm down a bit. Slowly, the water cleared a little and turned more blue, and then I could just start to make out to top of the wreck (at 18 meters) just starting to emerge from the blue – what a sight! That first deep dive, we went straight to the bottom (slowly, of course) at 30 meters, unable to spend time appreciating the wreck just yet. I was really nervous, thinking of the depth and the amount of water above me! We were then to perform a really simple task of arranging numbers on a table to determine the effects of nitrogen narcosis (it was supposed to take a long time and be really confusing), but I don’t think any of us got narced because we all performed normally on it. We ascended slowly alongside the wreck, and saw some of its glory – the toppled smokestacks and the freight space giving it away as a man made object, now completely covered in corals and algae. There were loads of reef fishes on it, and all of a sudden I noticed a sea snake slowly swimming up and away from us! That was awesome. Sea snakes are highly, highly venomous, but the chances of getting bitten (they are supposedly non-aggressive) by one are close to zero.
Back on the surface, we saw a large green sea turtle! Evidently he is a Yongala resident, and while we didn’t see him underwater around the wreck itself, we did get to see him surface several times in the boats vicinity. My first wild sea turtle! Yay! We waited about an hour and then geared up again to go back down to the Yongala. This time, we could spend as much time as our air allowed us, to cruise up and down its length. We saw much more – many more fishes – some large groupers, colorful giant clams, coral trout, huge Napoleon fish – I love watching their eyes move around watching things – a couple more sea snakes, and all of a sudden – a large guitarfish came and swam right under me!!! And it wasn’t the only time – he was patrolling and was swimming back and forth along the top of the wreck and we got to see him swim by a few times. What an interesting animal – the head of a ray with the body of a shark. He was so close I could see the sensory pits on his head. The Yongala was definitely the highlight of the trip. Its an amazing dive that I will definitely do again before I leave.
We also did a night dive, which was a first for me. It was a thrill – somewhat creepy with complete darkness and only the narrow beams of our torches to light our way. We came upon a sleeping sea turtle, unfortunately rudely awakening him in the process. We saw an epaulette shark – a beautiful, shy shark species.
Another awesome night dive treat is all the larvae come out from hiding – shining my torch on my hand for a second attracted a swarm of different larva that squirmed all over my hand – mostly shrimpy and wormy little things. There were also lots of squid in the water around our boat – several people tried to catch them, only to get inked on.
The trip was amazing overall, and didn’t feel so much like a course as a variety of special dives. And in the end I finally have my Advanced Open Water Certification! I am so happy!!! Sometime in May is the Rescue Diver course, which I plan on doing through the JCU dive club. There are some very interesting characters on our trip from the dive club, one from Italy, one from Austria (who was the most entertaining, playing the guitar for us and singing “Puff the Magic Dragon” quite beautifully), one from France, and one from England. It was a greatgroup of people who were there to dive, as well. I made some new friends and got to dive on the Great Barrier Reef!
It was my first true exploration of Australia beyond Townsville, and it was a good trip to start with. The captain of the liveaboard boat was nice too – the boat is the Kalinda, and he told us about a 10-day outer reef trip up to the Torres Strait that sounds amazing….but I am sure that it would be out of my budget, unfortunately….
PS I wrote this in kind of a hurry, so if anyone is actually reading this, I will be editing it for quality once I have more time on my hands – soon to come is the past two weeks I got to spend with Ethan exploring Fraser Island and east coast Queensland!