Things to Ponder

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*Photo courtesy of the lovely Kaja Wierucka

Well, it’s actually a tidepool, not a pond (ugh I’m so ashamed of myself but also, haha, puns).

Anyways, I like the symmetry/obvious symbolism of this photograph, plus some of you (hey!) may actually not know what I look like and stuff, so here- that’s me! Agent Red Squirrel, blogger and aspiring scientist. You oughtn’t be surprised that I spend a fair amount of my time crouched down to look at stuff- bugs, plants, scat, octopuses, shiny rocks, trash, alternate dimensions, microuniverses, alien spacecraft- you know, all the interesting things. From way up high where my head is when I stand up, I can see a fair distance, reach tall things, and speak to people in a normal kind of way… but down closer to the ground I can pay a lot more attention to all the tiny things that happen all the time.

Without moving my feet from that spot in that photo, I saw mantis shrimp, hairy crabs, octopuses, tiny fish, pistol shrimp, hermit crabs, three kinds of algae, a sponge, a baby giant clam, and a swimmer crab. Presumably without me moving my feet from that spot in that photo, all of those things also saw me. I like to think about the reflexiveness of observation in moments like that- I’m watching them, they’re watching me, I’m aware of myself watching them and the filter through which I see their interactions with the world. It’s all very meta.

A science project: go somewhere, find something you’d normally overlook- a patch of mushrooms, a trail of ants, a puddle of water, a weirdly shaped icicle- and watch it for ten minutes. Your primary objective is to observe the thing. Your secondary objective is to observe yourself. Can you look at a thing for ten minutes? Can you find different things with which to interest yourself within that thing? Can you resist the urge to reach down and change the thing you’re observing? Is it changed, just through your observation?

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Geography and Geology

I have always loved being able to find myself on a map. It’s not narcissism (or at least not wholly…) but a deep-seated desire for a sense of place. Those of us who travel and those of us who don’t: we all want to know where we are. For some people it’s as simple as knowing the turns and twists of the streets in their neighborhoods. For me, for a long time, I navigated my world based on the ocean and the Bay, I-280 and I-101, the San Andreas fault and the billowing fronts of fog that poured across the San Francisco peninsula. Everything ran north to south, and I could never be lost because to the east or to the west a landmark stretched across the horizon. The sun rose over across the San Mateo Bridge and set behind the hills over by Half Moon Bay, and that was how I found my orientation anywhere I needed to go.

As I’ve grown older, my sphere of travel and my referential compass has grown as well. The sun rises now over Boston, but still sets in the Pacific Ocean. New Hampshire is north, but so is San Juan Island- I have traveled North America from San Diego and the Navajo reservation to Wyoming and Alaska, watching the landscape change from water-carved sandstone canyons to glacial moraines and basalt bays. In the west the mountains are newer, higher, craggier, and in the east they are older and rounder, smoothed and solid under hemlock and maple trees. This is how I find myself in the world…

But here I am in the southern hemisphere. Maps of the world and my own compass have failed me here- they’re all north-centric, biased by colonialism and self-obsession and convenience to the point that Greenland rivals Africa for size while Australia and New Zealand shrink to nothingness below the equator. Google Maps helps some, but nothing on the North West Cape is labeled north of Exmouth. I recommend that you take a second to check it out, if you’ve got the bandwidth- I’m so used to living in the Bay Area, where Google has mapped every last brick in the sidewalk, while the Learmonth airport that I flew into and the entrance to the National Park aren’t even labeled as entities on this continent. But the satellite imagery for this area is stunning.

Where am I? Well, here’s the map that Tim created for our survey effort here on the cape:

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The red and blue and green lines are our transects- we follow them from one side of the cape to the other, hoping to cross paths with groups of dolphins. Each “zig” or segment is between 1-4 kilometers from vertex to vertex, and the red and blue lines are respectively about 93 km from end to end. The scale is hard to grasp- in three long days on-water, scanning and moving along the transect lines from sunup till sundown, with an average number of reasonable-length dolphin encounters, we can complete a blue or red line. That’s about 30 kilometers or maybe 16 nautical miles per day, exhaustively searched for any signs of dolphin activity. So is this where I am? This map doesn’t show the places that I recognize from shore, or the best snorkel spots or the tide pools or the mangroves or the Navy Pier or the VLF towers to the north.

At the tip of the cape, just around the blunt end on the west side, we see dolphins and manta rays and sea snakes and sharks, views of the lighthouse and the Cape Range hills, a shipwreck and the ever-visible radio towers that beam low-frequency signals to nuclear submarines across the southern hemisphere. We also see oil rigs: the North West Shelf Wikipedia page is entirely focused on its oil and gas resources, and the money flowing into Exmouth these days is all about mineral exploration. We see ancient coral fossils and unexplored water-filled caves along the shoreline, and we see the Indian Ocean, stretching to the Pacific and then, in practical terms, into eternity.

So where am I? I’m at my dream job, I’m thousands of miles from my closest friends, I’m on the opposite side of the world from my family, I’m on a couch, I’m in the Outback, I’m sitting above the red dirt and karst cave formations and millions-of-years-old marine fossils encased in limestone that was once the bodies of yet more thriving sealife. I’m in my head and I’m on the earth.

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The Emu Update

The Emu Saga: Part Two

Emus are real. They really are. We had just finished lunch and were settling back in to match some more fins (thrilling as always…) when Tim’s wife Janine called to let us know that there was an emu strolling down our street. Cameras in hand, we tumbled out the door to see this lovely lady in all her feathered finery:

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Check out those feet though! She went right by our front door, and down the road to some scrubby brush that separates us from the supermarket area of town. I found her tracks later on when I went for my evening walk, but she may have traveled a fair distance at this point…

Regardless, emus. They could appear in YOUR LIFE TOO. Watch out. Any moment now, an emu might stroll past. You’ll think it’s a very tiny grass hut, or perhaps a really bad bowl cut on a really big head, and then its neck will stretch up and its broad-beaked face will look at you and you will remember what it felt like to be a tiny rat-mammal facing off with a dinosaur. And then you will remember that you don’t live in Australia and are at the zoo (go buy your kid an ice cream, and teach her or him about science, but don’t encourage that whole cage thing…) OR that you do live in Australia and this is just regular life OR that you are hallucinating, are you dehydrated?

The Angriest Golf Ball You Ever Did See

I went for a wander through some tide pools the other day. The flats were shallow and productive, full of algae and little fish, hermit crabs and snails:

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But besides the cowries and more typical-looking snails, I found this guy:

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He may look distinctive in this photo, but he’s only about an inch long and I nearly stepped on him- he’s all the same colors as the surrounding sand and algae. Camouflage is good most of the time, but I’d have felt really bad if his turned out to be too effective.

My feet were in the water, since there were no dry places to step- I really did have to keep an eye out. Especially when I looked into a slightly deeper pool to see a little brown cephalopod scuttling across the bottom, arms tucked underneath- I leaned in and shuffled very carefully closer, hoping for a cuttlefish or a baby reef octopus. The golf ball below blanched and then flashed blue, and I snapped this photo before backing off rather hastily:

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It’s enough to confirm the presence of a blue-ringed octopus, one of the most venomous marine animals in the world. That angry little golf ball that changed direction and charged at my toes contained enough potent and antidote-less venom to kill me in minutes. “Not aggressive,” it says on Wikipedia. Well, as far as I know I didn’t do anything to make it mad. Perhaps it didn’t sleep well, or perhaps it wasn’t expecting any observers of its afternoon hunting and was embarrassed at the state of its hair.

Anyways, it was really blue and quite agitated, so I decided to get out of its way. It turned and headed deeper into its little pool as I watched from a nearby rocky perch, so it may not have been aimed at me anyways… I really wasn’t terribly interested in finding out for sure.

Fun fact: every photo in this post has, as its subject, a member of the phylum Mollusca. Shelled, invertebrate, mantled- each cephalopod or gastropod (brain-foot or stomach-foot, respectively) here descends from a hypothetical limpet-like ancestor. Evolution is neat! And just because I love evolution so much, here is a bonus sea hare, about the length of my hand:

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Hooray! Go explore something!

-AgentRedSquirrel

In Search of Emu

The Emu Saga: Part 1

Still haven’t gotten any good face-to-face emu time, but the more time I spend wandering the bush the better my odds are, right? My recently-new Vans are getting less cherry-red and more Outback-dust red, but I find no little satisfaction in recognizing my footprints day to day out on the trails near town, especially when they’re overlaid or intermingled with ‘roo and emu tracks.

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Emus are tridactyl- they have three toes, wide and leathery, that press into the red dirt as they walk. I love thinking about emu feet- they have to be pretty intense to hold up that much bird, to handle the prickly grasses and sharp stones of the outback, and to be able, as claimed by the emu Wikipedia article, to tear down chain-link fences.

Those feet are so formidable, in fact, that they pose a significant threat to unwise humans who attempt to make a full-grown emu do… I guess anything that a full-grown emu doesn’t want to do (cue joke about the 500-pound gorilla, except imagine that gorilla with sharp toe claws and a very wide beak. And feathers? Okay, this is just getting confusing now). I don’t think that the emu’s feet were the deciding factor in the frankly embarrassing “Emu War,” waged between machine-gun armed Australian troops and thirsty birds in the 1930s, but hey- I’m sure with those feet, an emu could handily (haha) kick my butt.

Anyways, I’ve been trying to find myself an emu friend. Apparently they’re curious about people, and will sometimes follow a lone human on foot; thus far, no such emu magic has happened to me, but I’m working on it. I’ve encountered fresher and fresher emu poops (see http://animals.io9.com/everything-you-ever-wanted-to-know-about-emu-poo-1570013557 for… everything you ever wanted to know about emu poop) as I’ve wandered the hills near Exmouth:

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The stuff’s like tar filled with seeds, and over time (days?) the whole mixture dries into a black solid mess, seeds browning and eventually sprouting as the black stuff greys out and (weeks later?) blows away. There is a remarkable amount of this around all of the bushy areas near our house, considering the also remarkable lack of emus on my walks. But I live in hope!

Another thing I have lived in hope for, however, has finally come true.

“Emus on the beach!” I cried on one of my first days on the boat, out by the Bundegi boat ramp. “I want to see emus on the beach.”

So quintessentially Australian, I thought. How funny would it be, gangly-legged birds with stringy feathers draped across their humped backs, trotting across the soft sand? Combine the gentle waves and romantic dunes with nobbled knees and perpetually surprised faces: what could be better?

Beachmus. Dreams really do come true:DSC_0011

The Commute

We drive out anywhere between 6 am and 3 pm, depending on the winds and the tides- we load the boat and the ute (Aussie for truck or SUV, a “utility vehicle”), hitch up, and take off for one of our three boat ramps.

Exmouth marina is the closest, and the least exciting. We have seen young barracuda and minnows, and once a pair of foraging Tursiops, but for the most part it’s just calm and sheltered from winds (but not from Paul Simon blaring from yacht speakers). If we launch from Exmouth, we’re spending the day in Exmouth Gulf, deep and turbid waters and horizons littered with oil rigs and barges.IMG_1402

Bundegi boat ramp is nearest the tip of the North West Cape. Still in the Gulf, Bundegi has the advantage of a shallow reef and proximity to the Navy Pier, whence live the nurse sharks and the BFG. If we launch Bundegi, we’re likely going around the tip, with exciting swells and significant changes in scenery. Plus, the boat ramp harbors several juvenile batfish (sorry, hard to photograph while unhitching/hitching a boat) and lots of stingrays, among other little fishies.IMG_1113

Tantabiddi is the farthest ramp. It takes us near 45 minutes to drive there, through emu country (scrubby bushes and spinifex grasses) and kangaroo-spotted hills. Nearly all the way to the Cape Range National Park, a Tantabiddi launch means that we’re spending time in the lagoon (my favorite part of our transect lines- only a meter or three deep, turquoise water and white sand punctuated by coral bommies and easily-spotted dolphins) or on the outer reef, wherein lies our best chance of spotting a whale shark.IMG_2254

But regardless of where we launch, our daily commute can’t be considered boring, or at least not to excitable Americans. At the side of the road in town, I snapped this photo out the driver’s side window:IMG_2314

I went looking for her later that evening, and found lots of emu evidence (more on this later). But some of the best emu-time, best sunsets, best kangaroo encounters, most lovely hills and termite mounds have all been on our commute to “the office.” Just as full of interesting characters as the New York subway and just as scenic as I-280 along the Crystal Springs Reservoir in California, this commute sure doesn’t suck.

About a Wallaby

I think the profession of dentistry must be one of the most-maligned and most-feared in popular media- think of the gleeful sadism of The Dentist from Little Shop of Horrors or the revulsion with which Hermey the Elf is met in Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Jennifer Aniston in Horrible Bosses, several horror movies from the 90’s, that uncomfortably pathetic guy from The Hangover… but any list of my favorite horrible dentists must include Mr. P. Sherman, of 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney.

All of this was a tangential way to reference Finding Nemo’s Dr. Sherman’s mid-operation declaration that he needs to “go see a man about a wallaby” as he adjusts his pants and heads for the loo. It’s been a recurring internal joke for me during my time Down Under, anytime anyone needs a bathroom or mentions wallabies- maybe I watch too many kids’ movies? Anyways, as a northern hemisphere-girl I’m fascinated both by the native marsupials and the turns of phrase here in Oz. So we went down to Yardie Creek to see a man named “Boxy” about a wallaby, not in a bathroom kind of way but in a photographic opportunity kind of way.

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The Black-Footed Rock-Wallaby lives in the caves and crannies along the side of Yardie Creek. Though it’s not actually apparently called that (the black-sided wallaby, perhaps?) and doesn’t apparently live in this area, according to Wikipedia… I can attest that they do exist. Scooting out of caves and grooming themselves in the morning sun, squinting into the light and down at the boat passing underneath, these fuzzy little marsupials seemed perfectly at home along the steep rock walls high above the water.

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Yep, perfectly at home. Just letting it all hang out. Right on out there.

I don’t know a lot about marsupial anatomy but I’m pretty sure that is not a lady wallaby. No pouch, no joey (DID YOU KNOW THAT AUSTRALIAN CUB SCOUTS ARE CALLED JOEYS?) and no little pink bow…

Must be a dentist.