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:


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.


4 comments on “Geography and Geology

  1. John Marlow says:

    I didn’t realize you were staying within 4 km of shore all the time. Is that because the best food sources for the dolphins are in that area or because the whole bay is too big to cover or is it a limitation of you boat or something?

  2. Well, the dolphins we’re studying are coastal, and don’t go much deeper than 20 meters of water- we wouldn’t expect to find them much farther offshore than we are going. The whole gulf is huge- it would take us the better part of a day to cross I think (you can see it on our littlest globe at home) so it wouldn’t be very effective to try to survey the whole thing by boat, and we probably wouldn’t want to take Sousa (the boat) terribly far offshore anyways… it’s a good little boat, but not meant for seafaring really. Anyways, most of the interesting stuff is closer to shore as well- manta rays are more visible, humpback whales stay in close, reef sharks and turtles and sea snakes… the only things we miss out on are the offshore dolphins (Risso’s, spinners, false killer whales, etc) and the very occasional bigger fish (like a sailfish or a great white :D). Fun fact: Natalie found a book on wilderness survival at the local thrift shop and it recommends staying on your boat if stranded at sea, taking short dips to cool off if needed, but making sure to watch out for “dangerous fish.” Is that a euphemism for shark, or are there other very dangerous people-eating fish to watch out for?

    • Tommy says:

      I think barracudas can be dangerous and nip people from time to time. I had a big ‘ol barracuda eyeball me in the Bahamas once, and it was clear that it could have taken a chunk out of me at its whim. I imagine jellies and the like could also be dangerous and might keep you out of the water, if they can be called “fish.”

      BTW, the boys and I just looked up what to do if bitten by a blue ringed octopus. Apparently its toxin paralyzes your muscles so that you are perfectly aware of what is going on, but you can neither breathe nor alert anyone that you are in distress and starting to be quite concerned about it. As you mentioned, there is no anti-venom. However, if you can survive the experience for about 24 hours by getting hooked up to some sort of artificial respirator to help you breathe, you are very likely to recover completely. So if any of you are unlucky enough to get bitten, start rescue breathing immediately and keep it up until you get the victim to a hospital or someplace where they have a bag respirator or something to help them breathe for quite a while. And reassure the victim because they are probably aware of what’s going on, even if they are non responsive due to paralysis. I guess the venom does not stop your heart for some reason, just the breathing and motor muscles. The more you know!

      • Sure, maybe a barracuda could give you a good nip.

        I actually did know that about blue-ringed octopuses! But I had forgotten to inform the rest of the team before this tidepool trip, so of course it all flashed through my mind as I was backing away from the little angry golf ball… The more you know, indeed, and the more you share that knowledge… Happily, they all know now!

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