Closing one chapter and opening another

It is time to share some very big news. My time in Australia has officially come to an end and I am starting a new and exciting chapter on the other side of the world. From April onward I will officially become a “Research Fellow in Quantitative Tropical Marine Ecology” at the University of Leeds in the UK. In other words, for the next two years I will work as a postdoctoral researcher on a very exciting new project.

I will write about the new project in more detail soon, but right now I am feeling a bit nostalgic about the past 6 years of living and becoming a scientist in Australia .

End of traps celebrations

Celebrating the end of an experiment on the Great Barrier Reef

I arrived in Australia as a dive instructor, thinking I’d be there for a few months to help out a good friend with a research project on cleaner wrasses in the Great Barrier Reef. Working and living on Lizard Island Research Station gave me the chance to meet some amazing marine scientists passionate about their research. More than anything else, the people I met there are what pushed me in the direction of becoming a marine scientist.

A series of fortunate events lead me to Perth and I somehow managed to convince Professor Euan Harvey that taking on a semi-nomadic beach bum for a student would be a great idea. To this day I still do not know if  Euan was being very wise or very stupid, but once I got my foot in the door of the Fish Ecology Lab it took them about 6 years to get me out again.

Fish ecology_groupphoto.jpg

The amazing team of the Fish Ecology Lab, all of you will be missed!

IMG_1537

Happy sunset drinks by the beach

While I never planned on spending a long time in Australia, it didn’t take me long to appreciate the beauty of the place. Western Australia in particular is basically a Europe-sized playground for people who love the outdoors. I can’t count how many camping trips, dives, surf sessions, ocean swims, hikes, … I’ve done in recent years and I still haven’t seen half of what I’d want to see. Some of the highlights that come to mind include camping on remote beaches, diving with seadragons, snorkeling with sea lions, and sunrise surf sessions with friends. I won’t even begin to write about the many wine tasting sessions down south 🙂

I was lucky enough to meet some amazing people along my journey. Almost without noticing it, I built up a group of colleagues and friends. I love the typical Australian easy-going, honest (sometimes in-your-face) style of communication. Even if it could not be more different from what I was used to in Indonesia (or even Belgium). The people more than anything is what make or break a place, and I will miss the ones I left behind in Perth dearly.

IMG_6886

Exploring the coastline in southern Western Australia

When I arrived in Australia I never expected that it would become a second home, but that is exactly what happened. The people, the wildlife, the landscapes, all of it have found a spot in my heart, and I am grateful for my time there. I am very much looking forward to starting a new chapter, if it’s even half as good as the last one it is going to be fantastic.

lucky bay

See you next time Australia!

Advertisements

Training Marine Biologists: Coral Bay fieldtrip

Last week I’ve had the pleasure of exploring a new, beautiful area of Western Australia: Coral Bay in the Ningaloo Marine Park. I wasn’t visiting just for fun, but went over to tutor during a marine field project for the third year marine science students of Curtin University.  The goal of the course is to get marine science students hands-on experience with working in the field. To achieve this, the students worked in groups of 4 on a research project of their choice, with a bit of help from their lecturers (and tutors). As I have written earlier, there are a few very good and a few very bad reasons to want to become a marine biologist. This link is another great write-up for people considering to become a marine biologist. So besides being very keen to help with training a new generation of marine scientists, I was also rather curious to find out more about these people keen to trade civilised comfort for sunburns, sandy beds and soaking in salt water for hours on end.

Panorama

Coral Bay

The 23 students taking the course were a diverse bunch, but they all share a passion for the ocean. To my great relief, most of them actually seemed interested in science and real marine ecosystems, and not just in hugging dolphins (=the WORST reason for anyone to consider becoming a marine biologist). Or maybe they just didn’t dare to admit it in front of me? Regardless of what motivated them, before I even got on the bus with them for the long drive (15 hours) to Coral Bay, they had already spent a few weeks preparing their research projects. The projects were diverse, with groups looking at topics like coral cover, parrotfish abundance, sediments, fish diversity, etc. None of the groups was looking at my kind of critters, but that only meant I would get to learn a few new things myself as well.

DUV

Student ready to survey fish

After arriving late at night in Coral Bay, the daily schedule was for students to go out to do fieldwork by day, and to come back to the research station in the afternoon to enter their data and analyse videos where possible. The tutors (Ash and me) were mostly expected to chill out on the beach to make sure nobody drowned, join students in the water to help where possible and answer any practical questions the students might have. As is usually the case with fieldwork, especially when you are new to it, getting started isn’t always easy. Regardless of what you are surveying in the ocean, you will need a fair bit of equipment, ranging from slates, to GPS’s, measuring tapes, plastic bags, cameras, quadrats, etc. Understandably, one of the main issues in the first days was forgetting to bring crucial pieces of equipment to the site, or loosing equally  crucial equipment in the water (sometimes never to be found again). Identifying fish and corals is also more challenging once you are in the water than what you’d imagine it to be while preparing your project. But as the week went on, the groups started to find their rhythm, got more confident and grew enthusiastic about getting results. That feeling of collecting real data is always a great one. The next step for the students now they’re back in Perth is to analyse their data and write their results up into a research paper. Which makes this project a great practice for other, more serious research projects they might do in the future.

Nikki_coral

Nikki staining corals

While the students were working away on their projects, I was also helping out my colleague tutor and PhD-candidate Ash. Her work looks at the effects of climate change, and as part of her research she will be collecting environmental data from all around Western Australia. This week she was testing her brand new, high-tech in-situ CO2 sensor. I imagined it would be as easy as chucking out an anchor in the ocean, but turns out it involves a fair bit more thinking and crafty tinkering to deploy the unit successfully. I also gave Nikki (the unit coordinator) a hand staining corals, a technique that is used to measure growth rates of coral. I had hardly done any work with corals before, so it was great to learn something new and see how coral scientists spend their days in the field.

Fluo Lizardfish

Biofluorescing Lizardfish

I even had time to go for a cheeky night-snorkel for myself to check out biofluorescence in the bay. Turns out there is quite a lot going on! Mostly coral showing green fluorescence, which seemed brighter than many locations I’d checked fluorescence previously. In the shallow, sandy areas there were loads of lizardfish and goatfish, and even a few bright green nudibranchs. It was interesting that during the snorkel I didn’t see any other fluo colours than green, compared to the mix of green, yellow, orange and red I got used to seeing in Southeast Asia. The question of why this is the case remains a mystery to me…

Looking back at this week, I am very happy I got the chance to join the field trip. From a personal point of view I got some great experience teaching and guiding students,  I learned a few new research methods in the water, all of that while staying in a gorgeous location. Most of all though, I enjoyed helping out with the education of new marine scientists. It is great to see motivated students find their way in the field and grow confident and enthusiastic about the work they are doing, and I am honoured to be able to help out with it. I don’t know which direction they will go after graduating, but it would be good to see at least a few of them as colleagues in the future. I wish them all the best, and hope they enjoyed the trip as much as I did.

Group