Lend­ing a hand on More­ton Bay

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence -

Dugongs are such en­dear­ing crea­tures. Also called sea cows due to their herd­ing and graz­ing in­stincts, they seem docile and are tubby, al­most car­toon­ish in ap­pear­ance, the sort of an­i­mal a kid would want to cud­dle.

I hope to see these fas­ci­nat­ing marine mam­mals while snorkelling Queens­land’s More­ton Bay. But that’s a rather fan­ci­ful wish, as sci­en­tist James Udy tells me aboard his cata­ma­ran Velella.

Dugongs are ex­tremely shy and sen­si­tive, he ex­plains. On hear­ing or sens­ing a boat ap­proach they slip away fast. And my chances of see­ing one on this par­tic­u­lar day are fur­ther re­duced as capri­cious weather whips up squalls and ag­i­tates the sea.

I’m on the wa­ter to get a taste of a nascent vol­un­teer sci­en­tific ex­pe­di­tion dubbed “Snorkel for Queens­land’s marine mam­mals”. Op­er­ated by Earth­watch, it’s one of a range of sus­tain­able tourism hol­i­day pack­ages now of­fered to Qan­tas fre­quent fly­ers. They are an ad­di­tion to the air­line’s sus­tain­able tourism strat­egy ini­ti­ated in 2007 and can be pur­chased us­ing points or points-plus-pay through the Qan­tas Store.

These make-a-dif­fer­ence hol­i­days in­clude var­i­ous “citizen science” ex­pe­di­tions with Earth­watch. Apart from More­ton Bay, you could as­sist rain­for­est stud­ies in trop­i­cal North Queens­land or take part in Great Bar­rier Reef re­search based on Or­pheus Is­land. Al­ter­na­tively, there’s a choice of guided walks with the Tas­ma­nian Walk­ing Com­pany or cul­tural ex­pe­ri­ences in Arn­hem Land with Lir­wwi Yol­ngu Tourism.

James Udy is chief sci­en­tist of not-for-profit NGO Healthy Wa­ter­ways and is the prin­ci­pal in­ves­ti­ga­tor on the Earth­watch More­ton Bay re­search pro­ject. His wife, Ni­cola, also a sci­en­tist, is marine re­sources man­ager with Queens­land’s Parks and Wildlife ser­vice.

Both are sea­soned “salts” and have cir­cum­nav­i­gated Aus­tralia aboard Velella. The Udys now lease their spa­cious cata­ma­ran for sci­en­tific en­deav­ours. Also with us on board this morn­ing is Earth­watch CEO Pro­fes­sor David McInnes.

While out sail­ing I’m privy to a bliz­zard of salient en­vi­ron­men­tal in­for­ma­tion that will take me weeks to di­gest. Learn­ing while work­ing along­side ex­perts forms the crux of this hands-on ex­pe­ri­ence. As McInnes tells me, “Vol­un­teers not only en­rich their knowl­edge but thus in­formed they re­main pow­er­ful ad­vo­cates for the en­vi­ron­ment.”

Those join­ing the marine mam­mals ex­pe­di­tion will spend a week in mid-Au­gust help­ing the sci­en­tists mea­sure and de­ter­mine the im­pact of floods in 2011 and 2013 on dugongs, dol­phins and sea tur­tles liv­ing in the bay. It’s the first in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the state of lo­cal sea­grass com­mu­ni­ties since those dis­as­ters. The pro­ject is also as­sess­ing the over­all pol­lu­tion im­pact from Bris­bane’s rapid growth and in­creased traf­fic from one of the coun­try’s fastest grow­ing con­tainer ports.

Dugongs de­pend for nutri­tion on healthy sea­grass that needs clear wa­ter and sun­light to grow. Tur­bid­ity spells doom for both plants and an­i­mals.

Vol­un­teers will learn meth­ods of sam­pling sed­i­ment com­po­si­tion at about 20 sites in the bay, as­sist in map­ping the ex­tent and con­di­tion of sea­grass and help with seine net­ting to cap­ture small fish and other marine an­i­mals in or­der to es­tab­lish a data base of the in­hab­i­tants of the sea­grass mead­ows. The snorkelling and other work in the wa­ter will be fol­lowed by anal­y­sis in the science lab on More­ton Is­land.

While on the pro­ject, par­tic­i­pants will stay at the com­fort­able fam­ily-owned Tan­ga­looma Is­land Re­sort where they may join in the sunset feed­ing of a pod of wild bot­tlenose dol­phins and take a whale-watch cruise.

Our fo­cus this morn­ing is seek­ing signs of new sea­grass growth. Wrig­gling into our wet­suits we clam­ber into the dinghy and set off to be­gin our sci­en­tific study. We snorkel around seek­ing signs of growth and try and iden­tify which of the seven sea­grass species grow­ing in the bay we find. We also set an un­der­wa­ter video cam­era to film what­ever marine life might be feed­ing.

By the time we fin­ish and swim through a choppy sea to a stretch of shore omi­nously called Shark Spit, I’m done with ex­treme snorkelling for one day and ea­gerly an­tic­i­pat­ing the sublime joy of soak­ing my­self un­der the Velella’s hot shower.

Ex­po­sure to na­ture in the raw is all in a day’s work for the sci­en­tists. Par­tic­i­pants in any out­door ad­ven­ture should ex­pect their com­fort zone to be oc­ca­sion­ally chal­lenged, although be­cause it’s in Queens­land they can rea­son­ably ex­pect More­ton Bay to be “beau­ti­ful one day, per­fect the next”.

“There’s more field work to be done than there are sci­en­tists to do it, says McInnes in em­pha­sis­ing the im­por­tance of peo­ple power. “Earth­watch is not re­ally set up as a tourist or­gan­i­sa­tion so our part­ner­ship with Qan­tas has given us a chan­nel to mar­ket we didn’t have.”

For the air­line these part­ner­ships with lead­ing sus­tain­able tourism op­er­a­tors is part of an over­all strat­egy “to re­main on the front foot and an in­dus­try leader in this field”, says Alan Milne, head of the Qan­tas en­vi­ron­ment man­age­ment team.

“Def­i­nitely no other air­line in the re­gion is pro­vid­ing sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ences. And as we grow the sus­tain­able tourism pro­gram there will be more and more op­por­tu­ni­ties for our cus­tomers.”

Rob Wood­burn was a guest of Qan­tas.

Clock­wise from left: the cata­ma­ran Velella; feed­ing dol­phins at sunset; pel­i­cans gath­er­ing on a beach; a dugong graz­ing on sea­grass

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