Lending a hand on Moreton Bay
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