After another data processing day, Karl and Cindy planned a low-tide excursion to the tidepools out by the Bundegi mangroves. On our way through town I looked for other good photo-ops, but Exmouth is not an easy place to photograph.

Because the terrain is relatively flat and unoccupied, the lines of the road are wide and straight, with street lights and telephone poles stretching with impunity through town and out into the bush. Paved and dirt roads divide the spider-webbed shrubs and emus with their chicks cross boldly in front of cars. Kangaroos appear to be less lucky with the crossings, as evidenced by the orphaned joeys we met last week and the roadside remains we pass daily en route to our boat ramps.


Out on the road Australians wave to one another, each driving his or her own white truck trailered to his or her own white boat. It’s very interesting walking the neighborhood in the evenings- the houses are colorful or drab, clean or dingy, landscaped or bare- but nearly everyone has a truck or “ute” (utility vehicle) of some kind, and a boat parked out front or in a shed around the side of the house. You’d be crazy not to, Tim says, in an area as rich in interesting sea life as the North West Cape and Ningaloo Reef. It’s certainly a life that agrees with us, or did when we were out on the water a few days ago:


Anyways, out at the low tide we saw a tiny nudibranch, some hairy crabs and a blue swimming crab, and of course our friends the brain-footed (cephalopod) octopuses. We’re still pretty sure these aren’t blue-ringed, due to the lack of… blue rings… but they look like pretty effective predators even lacking the potent venom as they crawl through tide pools and flush little fish from their hiding places. Few things are as fun to watch as a hunting octopus, and if you stay still and quiet enough they go about their business as if you weren’t there. They swell and stretch, by turns delicate and strong, prodding and sweeping and peering around in shallow puddles. There isn’t a straight line in their bodies, nor do they search in grids like humans draw across maps of the cape, but they master their environment more completely than any creature I’ve seen.




Out on the gulf today, we saw quite a large number of Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops aduncus). They’re a widespread and very versatile species, related both to the common bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) and often held in captivity for “swim-with” programs, exhibitions, and tricks. Smaller and more slender than their common cousins, they also often have spots on their ventral (under) side.

This group was foraging, pausing at the surface (known to marine mammal researchers as “logging”) and then diving deep, possibly surfacing with fish- we saw at least one successful catch, but part of the problem/draw of marine science is that so much can’t easily be known. They could be doing pretty much anything down there, and we have only guesses and glimpses of dolphin behavior. All the more interesting, and all the more challenging for researchers!

We, too, foraged for our dinner tonight. And by “foraged” I mean that I made fried rice. Team Sousa (currently me, Tim, and Kaja on the official roster) trade off cooking responsibilities, and after a long day in the field- another sun-up to sun-down sort of day- throwing some comfort food together in a single pan was exactly what I wanted. Data entry complete, blog complete, stomach full, goodnight moon and goodnight blogosphere.


Boat Days

This post is officially dedicated to my uncle Tom, aunt Kailane, and cousins Liam and Aidan! They have most generously contributed to the Vicky-Has-Internet Fund, in addition to being longtime readers and supporters of Agent Red Squirrel. Their questions were about the lay of the land in Exmouth- I know I’ve skipped a fair bit of background in terms of this project and the area I’m living in.

First of all, I’m living in a town called Exmouth, which is on the North West Cape of Western Australia (state bird: the black swan; state flower: the red and green kangaroo paw). I’m working as part of the North West Cape Dolphin Research Project, NWCDRP for “short.” It’s a small town- about 2,200 people here year-round, and since it’s off-season for school holidays in Australia and the whale sharks have mostly moved on for this year, that’s probably a reasonable estimate for the current population. It borders the Indian ocean and the Exmouth Gulf, clearly a sea-oriented town though it appears surrounded by low striated bluffs, red sandy soil, stunted eucalyptus trees, and myriad other dusty shrubs and grasses that shelter ‘roos, emus, echidnas, and other exotic fauna (cockroaches, spiders, ants… you know, cool stuff).

Every reasonably-sized house in this town of reasonably-sized single-family houses and rentals has a boat parked out front, along with some palm trees and plumerias. The more landscaped ones have sunflowers, and maybe a little bit of lawn. But the rainy season is over here, and despite the 30-year flood that washed out levees and kangaroo corpses in town this winter (northern hemisphere’s summer) the ground is dry again. Green grass may not last long as we edge our way into spring and summer.

I’m cooking dinner tomorrow night, so hopefully I’ll have a few more photos of “normal life” here at the house. But for now, here’s what we’ve done in the past few days on the boat:

Since the weather has turned, we have been out from basically sunrise (or slightly thereafter) until sunset (or slightly thereafter). Smooth seas, light breezes, turquoise water with more than 11m of visibility straight to the bottom… life ain’t bad on the North West Cape right now. We load up the boat in the morning, rubbing sleep out of our eyes and sunscreen on our faces, and truck over to one of three boat ramps with the trailer rattling along behind us. Tantabiddi, Bundegi, and Exmouth Marina are our three points of entry, and we motor along from there to wherever our transects for the morning begin.


We science away for a few hours- scanning quadrants of the water and horizon for vessels, whales, obviously dolphins (Tursiops aduncus or Sousa sahulensis, our study species), and anything else that catches our eye. Here’s Kaja science-ing:


Kaja Wierucka

And then we break for a very civilized morning tea.


Sometimes we also break for some penalty push-ups. They’re extra fun when there are swells.


Meanwhile, marine life continues around us. We spot dolphins every few hours, which prompt rapid-fire photography and driving a boat in circles amid much cursing and sometimes ooh-ing and aah-ing (especially if there are calves present); sea snakes aren’t uncommon, nor are breaching humpbacks and calves. We saw a dugong yesterday, and a young hammerhead shark! Tim and I saw Pseudorcas, or False Killer Whales, for the first time today as they came flying by our boat on some unknown mission, spooking two 5-foot sailfish into their wake. I’ve been assured there will be no lack of photographic opportunity, and I’m excited to post more photos for you soon.

Amidst all this ocean nonsense, we make time for lunch and water breaks, but for the most part we spend our time with binoculars and clipboards, searching for the elusive fins and short blows of our dolphin buddies/nemeses. Today as the sun was setting and a mother humpback was breaching in front of the rising moon, we cruised back in to the Bundegi boat ramp. Exhausted dinner, spreadsheet entry, hosing down equipment, blogging, and now sleeping. Lots of stored up good stories for the coming days, plus a special guest appearance by an early-morning dingo and THIS ON THE DASHBOARD OF THE TRUCK:


Yup. This is Australia. Ain’t nobody gonna forget it. Exhausted Agent Red Squirrel signing off- stay happy, readers.

Jumping for Joy

Yesterday, Tim told us that we needed to be ready (with cameras) at 10 am for a “surprise trip.” I got behind the wheel of the truck (yes, on the left side of the road) and followed his directions out of Exmouth and out into an industrial area near the shore. We only caught pieces of the directions he was reading off of his phone, but we knew we were looking for a high fence, an unfinished house, a shed out back… Kaja and I were pretty sure we were about to be murdered. On arrival we were greeted by a sheepdog, a gander, and a kind-looking woman who revealed the surprise: she was fostering two joeys.

Only a few months old, the joeys (baby kangaroos, or baby wallaroos to be more specific) were curled up in makeshift “pouches” sewn out of old jeans and tshirts. Heads poking out, they sniffed the air and one watched us enter with bright eyes. The other had recently been quite sick, possibly from a fungal infection or E. coli, and was still a bit slow, though on the mend.


Jimmy, the more active of the pair, was soon out and about inspecting our cameras, pockets, and backpacks in search of his mid-morning bottle. Holding the bottle above his head, we were told that joeys like having something to hold on to while eating- cue the most adorable hand-holding the world has ever seen.


Their mothers, unfortunately, had been victims of the many road collisions in the area. CARE, an Australian organization that handles many of the fostering organizations and wildlife protection, networks across adoptive joey moms and organizes releases into the outback when the young ones are old enough to support themselves. The success rate is remarkably high, and we could tell that the woman caring for these two little guys knew her macropods. 

And they were unbearably cute. Like a cross between the fluffiest of rabbits and the tiniest deer, big ears and big eyes and soft tummies, little clawed hands and giant feet, bouncing across the lawn and nibbling bits of leaves and flowers… A+ for surprise trip planning, Tim.


Because the wind seemed to be pretty calm while we were visiting our new friends, we took the boat out to Bundegi Bay in hopes of completing a few transects. On arrival, the whitecaps didn’t seem to be dying down, so instead we wandered across some nearby mud flats and tidepools, encountering a few very irate master burglars:


As I stepped over the first one, flattened against the bottom of a shallow tidal pool, it turned red and squirted water all over my leg; if it hadn’t done so I’d have had no idea it was there. We don’t think it was a blue-ringed species (mighty poisonous) due to the lack of blue rings, but if it had been I’m sure glad it chose to warn me before launching any sort of attack. Shifting colors, it watched us warily until we headed back to the truck and trailered boat, returning to the house for more dolphin photo ID and, after dinner, a lot of personal photo editing. More joey photos to come, probably on bad-weather days over the next few weeks. They’re more than good compensation for having to skip today’s boat trip, but this weekend looks like smooth sailing (or motoring, or whatever) so hopefully we’ll be out on the water quite a bit!  

Fluffy baby animals AND cephalopods in one day, plus the promise of boats and dolphins this weekend- this is a happy Agent Red Squirrel signing off for tonight.

Jump Good

Okay, I’ll fully admit that the title of this blog post is a blatant call-out to my family’s obsession with the old Cartoon Network show “Samurai Jack,” a story about a “foolish samurai warrior, wielding a magic sword,” who fights back against a “shapeshifting master of darkness” and is flung into a future of robot beetles and talking dogs, space travel and somehow completely unchanged Scottish castles. One episode (a family favorite) sees our hero, Samurai Jack (real name unknown), meeting a group of spherical blue monkeys who talk in sentence fragments and fight for survival against big purple gorillas… and have the power to soar into the air at will. They’re not flying, they inform the bewildered samurai. They have simply learned to “jump good.” 

This is relevant for two reasons. Number one: Jack learns to “jump good” as well, training for days (weeks? Months? Cartoon time…) with giant boulders strapped to his body, so that when they are finally removed he can simply disregard gravity. I’ve done about a hundred pushups in the past few days, as the consequence of a house game in which the word spelled M-I-N-E is outlawed and its use results in ten pushups, and fully expect soon to be able to rise into the air on the tips of my fingers. Number two: I have finally, after a week of evening walkabouts through the nearby bush, seen my first kangaroos.

I went out on the red dirt roads with Cindy, as the sun drooped lower and lower toward the hills and the sea beyond. We spoke in soft voices and picked our way carefully around the loose rocks, two girls with cameras and a drive to get outside. The bush is still lovely, sprouting brown grasses that remind me of California and eucalyptus shrubs that release the scent of their oils into the dusk. With the angle of the sun, the little flowers low to the ground look like fairy mushrooms or gilded jellyfish.



And as twilight finally rose out of the shadows and swept across the sky, Cindy saw a twitch underneath a far-away shrub. We scrambled up a low hill and cut our legs on the sharp grasses, cursing in whispers and splitting up to minimize our profiles against the sky, and there they were.


They move fast, those roos, and much faster than we could go through the grasses and broken branches. I was so glad to have my 70-300mm lens (thanks Alicia!) but even then it was dark and they were wary. They do, as I wondered, totally make thumping noises as they bounce across the bush, and watching the group of three gray roos (two big and a smaller one) with my camera at my side I was happy even without photographic evidence. Little kangaroos in the little purple flowers, wide ears swiveling and noses twitching- I’d call that a successful walkabout experience. And boy, do they ever jump good. 


Although Tim laughs at my blogging efforts, I’m sure he’d appreciate this bit of Australiana (that may be a real thing or I may have just made it up… unclear): this evening before we ate dinner, Cindy, Karl, Kaja, and I “went walkabout.”

Walkabout consists of basically wandering with no destination in mind. Of course, I was on my everlasting quest-for-kangaroos (or just ‘roos, if I’m really going Aussie and ignoring my everlasting love of alliteration), but for the most part we just went for a twilight wander. Equipped with cameras and accumulating much red dust on our feet, we examined kangaroo poop, flipped over rocks in search of that poisonous stuff you all keep telling me not to touch, and ambled across the bush in no particular hurry. We felt very authentic, though as a group of people from, respectively, the Netherlands, Poland, and the United States we considered pretending not to understand English should we be stopped by anyone official-looking.  

It’s still so pretty out there. I think these are my favorite flowers so far:


But I can’t forget my new acquaintance, the Sturt Desert Pea (Swainsona formosa). If memory serves, Tim said these are the representative flower of Southern Australia and aren’t too common:


I like to give the impression that all of my days are spent in glorious exploration and comfort and a state of unhurried excitement, but to be honest most of today was very tedious. We’ve got one hell of a procedure in terms of cataloguing and sorting and eventually matching dolphin fins in pursuit of tiny data points that hopefully will end up being relevant again someday, and in the process it feels like interminable button-pushing and repetitive typing and generally squinting at a computer screen wishing you could just blow up computers in general and go back to film and physical folders. When we’re “grounded,” like today, as the boat was in for service and the wind was high (seas ranked at Beaufort 4 or higher… on the same scale, 0-3 encompass glass-smooth to scattered whitecaps), we spend eight hours, 9-5, on renaming and copying and cropping and describing and drawing photos. It’s just a necessary part of the work we’re doing, and while it’s significantly less fun than being on the boat, it has to be done in the pursuit of knowledge and understanding.

Anyways, it ought to be clear why I might want to spend less time talking about that stuff than about the neat spiders I saw or the sand dunes we ran around on, which take up far less of my time than this blog might otherwise imply. This isn’t a fairytale, and it isn’t a vacation, but it is an adventure that brings with it both tedium and excitement. The purpose of this blog, much like the eventual purpose of the scientific papers that will be produced from this study, is not to catalogue every moment of the in-between. It’s to find some nuggets of truth and beauty in the world we inhabit and share those with a wider world than just ourselves.

That’s what makes going walkabout special- the magic comes so easy as the sun goes down and the red dirt settles in the cooling air. We can forget any stiff necks and tired eyes in the dimming light and wander without direction, in the company of new friends and the cradle of an unfamiliar place.



Australia Points


We’ve instituted a system under which Kaja and I (the two current Team Sousa research assistants) can earn “Australia Points.” My current total stands at 16:


  • 5 for trying Vegemite (I ate the whole piece of toast. It was whatever. Just salty.) 2014-07-30 09.55.09_resized
  • 3 for eating a meat pie for lunch (mmm… the Great Australian Taste; it’s like the Great Barrier Reef except that fish are friends, not food)


  • 3 for spotting and photographing an emuIMG_0759 

  • 5 for successfully driving on the left side of the road

     Apparently hitting a kangaroo will gain me Australia Points, not lose them. They’re ubiquitous and nearly every driver hereabouts has stories of them bounding into the road around sunset. I still haven’t seen one, though I drove like a little old lady for a while in fear of what I’ve come to regard as the mule deer of the Southern Hemisphere.


    Okay, two plugs now:

    1. CEBEL (pronounced “seh-bel,” stands for Cetacean Ecology, Behaviour, and Evolution Lab) has a cool Facebook page and a website, on which you might find descriptions of the North West Cape Dolphin Research Project and a biography of yours truly! Definitely check it out for some great photos and excellent science!


    2. Blogging from here has, unfortunately, become quite expensive. Beloved readers, I could really use some help, especially if I want to continue posting photos over the limited and costly bandwidth that I have access to. Therefore, I will dedicate a blog post to any reader who donates $5 US or more to the Vicky-Has-Internet Fund, which you can do either by giving my parents money if you know them OR using SquareCash to send money to Along with your blog dedication, I’d be happy to answer one question you might have about dolphins, Australia, marine biology, ukulele, my life, or anything else you think I can tell you about.



    Tomorrow the winds will be high again, so it looks like another day of data processing. But that’s okay- I’m learning a lot about what it takes to manage a photo library this large and specific, how to organize and clarify data, and how to match fins by sight. It’s pretty satisfying to really recognize an individual by its fin cutting through the water either in person or on a computer screen, and I’ve got a fun playlist to listen to while renaming files and GPS waypoints. Lovely readers, even we field biologists in sunny climes and turquoise waters must turn to a little Beyoncé now and then to raise our spirits. But doesn’t everyone?


By Any Other Name

Scientific names are very important- not only are they identifiers for different species that simultaneously differentiate groups and unify them under larger categories, but they also tend to provide some information about that species, even if the information is the name of a researcher who did seminal work in the area, or that Stephen Colbert is awesome (see Aptostichus stephencolberti and Agaporomorphus colberti, a spider and a beetle respectively named for the comedian).

For instance, upon seeing and naming this new friend:IMG_0662

I can be sure that she’s a relative to someone that long-time Agent Red Squirrel readers might recognize. Nephila clavipes was my research subject in Corcovado, Costa Rica, which is why her legs, which look like the graceful result of some dreadful hair-growing (or hair-shaving) experiments, are so familiar. This lady here is a large female Nephila edulis, which translates roughly to “edible spider who is fond of spinning,” which is illuminating if not entirely explanatory or comforting to the Western palate.

The dolphins I’ll be studying here have been, until I think today, actually, been officially known as Sousa chinensis, but have acquired independence from their northerly cousins and become recognized as Sousa sahulensis. Though not named after me, as they should have been, S. sahulensis do gain potential protection due to their smaller numbers, which brings me to my point: S. chinensis, S. chinensis, wherefore are you S. chinensis? For a research project by any other name would be as wicked sweet.Screen Shot 2014-08-03 at 12.25.46 AM



The Myth, the Mystery, the Marsupial

Having seen, since I got here, several road-killed kangaroos and several packages of kangaroo steaks, I decided it was about time I saw a live kangaroo. Armed with the knowledge that they come out around sundown, I slipped on my shoes, grabbed my camera, and headed for the nearest scrubby area.


As the sun went down I walked out between the low eucalyptus and yellow grasses. It’s winter here, edging perhaps into spring, and many of the plants are in bloom before the heat comes back (as I’m here it will only get warmer, from temperate weather now up into the 90s probably).IMG_0598

I spotted a few birds the other day and finally got a photo today- they’re crested pigeons (Ocyphaps lophotes), commonly seen across mainland Australia except for the very tropical regions. Are they actually more colorful than their northern hemisphere cousins, or am I just used to the other ones?

Crested pigeon

Crested pigeon

I don’t think bougainvillea is native here, but along with plumeria and palm trees it makes up the majority of landscaping in the area. At one edge of the scrub I was wandering through, the pink leaves and tiny flowers were visited by what I thought might be a hummingbird, but turned out in fact to be a hummingbird-shaped moth with a plump little body, dark eyes, stubby antennae, and a blur of wings.

Hawk moth at a bougainvillea

Hawk moth at a bougainvillea

By then, the sun had set and I had still seen no ‘roos. The myth, the mystery, the marsupial: they remain elusive to me though I’m not worried. I’ve got three months to find myself some live ones and try not to hit them with cars. Perhaps tomorrow will be my lucky day, as we’ll be headed out across the cape to Tantabiddi and will have to drive back with the boat around sunset.

I snagged a eucalyptus leaf on my way back in. They’re actually native here, but have engrained themselves into the California landscape so ubiquitously that I associate giant striped-bark trunks and the spicy smell of their oil with home. If you’re at home, gentle readers, take a deep breath. Non-native trees may be ecologically questionable in California, but I’m grateful for the familiarity now.

Eucalypts are endemic to Australia... except that they appear to grow very well in California

Eucalypts are endemic to Australia… except that they appear to grow very well in California