This page will be continuously updated throughout the duration of the OZReef course.
(May 7 - June 4, 2001)

Last updated: 06/14/01

DATE: 5/8/01SUBJECT: Arrival in Cairns
There was a slight delay in posting this message, the reasons for which are explained in the "Special Notes" section.  The class all met in Los Angeles, where they took a short trip to see the sights and sounds of fabled Venice Beach.  Our flight path took us first to Auckland, New Zealand (12 hours), on to Brisbane (4.5 hours) and finally on to Cairns (3.5 hours).  Everyone settled in to the Cascade Gardens Hotel, and spent the first night recovering from jet lag.  Monday saw the students exploring the local shops and sampling local cuisine (meat pies, kangaroo and crocodile).  Tuesday the students continued to shop and sightsee in and around Cairns and began to make preparations for the trip to Ingham tomorrow.  The bus trip will take us through some of the most rich and diverse coastal rainforests in the world.  Dr. Thomas has been busy with numerous details and preparations for arrival on the island.  Dr. Criley has been chatting with the students poolside on a variety of topics, and toured  the students around the city.  We are all planning a grill on the "barbie" tonight, complete with such fare as snags, bangers and chips.
DATE:5/9/01SUBJECT:Bus trip to Ingham
We all packed up from Cascade Gardens (and the guys were last to be ready...again).  As we left Cairns, the scenery reminded Ben nothing of "Crocodile Dundee."  We stopped for lunch in Caldwell at the Seaside Cafe, where we discovered that Australian hamburgers include beets as a topping.  "Mr. and Miss Muddy" (a.k.a. Laura and Gaurav) decided to play around in the mud picking up creatures.  Next, we stopped at a lookout point for pictures.  We finally arrived in Ingham, and after we perused the town we had dinner at the hotel.  We manage to stick together as a group, as long as Jim and Gaurav are on a leash.  Good conversations have been had by all, however, they are no budding love interests yet (you will be updated with pictures).  As the days pass, we are all getting anxious for the island.  Boat captains were chosen today: Julie, Jesse, Gaurav and Jeff (as long as they pass the test).
  DATE:5/10/01SUBJECT:Wallaman Falls
Due to the lack of entertainment in Ingham today, Gaurav scheduled a trip for to Wallaman Falls.  The ride there was gorgeous--forty minutes through sugar cane and grazing land, and then another 20 minutes up a steep winding path into the mountains.  Ken, the bus driver, informed us about the various deadly plants and animals to avoid, such as the (velociraptor-like) cassowary birds, the taipans, the stinging nettles and death adders.  After stopping at the picnic area for lunch, we took a short hike down to the river in search of a platypus. Unfortunately, the only animal we found was a dead turtle.  Having warmed up for our big hike, we headed down towards Wallaman Falls.  Three hundred meters high and the highest single drop waterfall in Australia, Wallaman is fitting called "big water" by the Aborigines.  The hike to and from the falls was an exercise in teamwork.  This was the first time we noticed how well everyone was looks out for each other (especially Matt, who gets a gold star for making sure no one fell off the mountain).  Once we were all at the bottom the terrain became a bit more challenging.  Most of us decided to take a swim and found the water was painfully frigid.  Fortunately, we got some good pictures.  Hiking back up was much more tiring.  The ride home was full of unexpected animal sightings including cassowaries, multiple cows, wallabies and various birds.  All the sighting were accompanied by Ken's excellent commentary.  By the time we got back Lee's Hotel we were all worn out, but had grown a lot closer and were happy we'd spent an exciting afternoon together. 
DATE:5/13/01SUBJECT:Orpheus Island and our first reef dive.
Today we landed on Orpheus Island, and our hopes were high for whatever adventures were in store.  The view is magnificent.  The water is clear blue and there are mountains surrounding us. The only word that we can use to describe this land is "paradise".  When we were finally released to test our snorkel skills on the point, it seemed almost impossible to get our fins on fast enough.  As we clumsily wandered into the deep blue, we threw ourselves in head first.  No waves could hold us back.  The sights we saw under the water  were breathtaking.  A few of us were so shocked that we swallowed great amounts of yucky saltwater through our snorkels.  It didn't take long for us to catch on and we were off like fish, so to speak. All that could be heard above the water were squeals of joy as we discovered the many colorful fish and giant clams beneath the surface.  Once we became accustomed to using our gear in the ocean we began to take our dive to a scientific level.  We began by analyzing the reef morphology at the North-East Reef.  We were dropped off at the reef crest, the highest point on a reef, and told to snorkel about 100m each direction (toward the shore- the back reef and away from the shore- the fore reef).  We observed changes in both fish and coral throughout the sections of the reef.    In order to facilitate our learning, we were supplied with underwater slates.  Drawing fish and writing underwater is a skill that not many of us previously mastered.  Fortunately Jim takes video footage of each trip so that we may refresh our memories and bring meaning to our scribbles before entering them into our "fish book".  We were overwhelmed by the amount of fish we encountered, but Jimbo told us that we'd be experts at identifying fish by the end of the trip.
DATE:5/14/01SUBJECT:The great manta ray chase.
Today we traveled to the North-East Point reef.  We were greeted by a juvenile manta ray (Manta birostris).  We proceeded to throw our gear on in hopes to see it in its own environment.  Seeing a manta ray (and the hopes of riding piggy-back on it), was one our highest hopes for the trip.  While many students kicked their legs strongly to keep up with the manta ray, it seemed to simply be floating effortlessly in the water.  The slightest flip of its fins and it accelerated out of view.  When one would get scared away, Jim or another student still on the boat would spot another ray.  In all, we saw about 5 or 6 different manta rays.  Most had approximately a 6 to 8 foot wing span.  One of the smaller ones passed Ben from below at a fairly slow speed and he was able to touch the tip of its wing.  He said it was very smooth and a bit slimy.  As soon as he touched it, the ray propelled itself into a deeper region of the reef.  As quickly as the manta rays appeared, they silently disappeared and we were left with only the memory (and hopefully a few good photographs) of one of the most graceful creatures in the sea.  We did capture a picture of one of the rays with the underwater digital camera, which can be viewed on the images page.
DATE:5/15/01SUBJECT:Reef trip to Fantome Island
Our trip today took us to Fantome Island, which was a former leper colony located southeast of Orpheus Island.  On the ride there we saw Yank's Jetty with its beautiful rock formations, and the exclusive resort area.  When we arrived at Fantome Island we stared in awe at another paradise with white sandy beaches and tall coconut trees.  The reef by Fantome Island differed from the previous reefs that we had seen by its zonation and morphology.  By the shore was a large rubble zone, which lead into the reef flat.  The reef then steeply dropped off into a sand flat where we dropped anchor.  The north end of the reef crest was more jagged and had many ledges and crevices for the fish to hide.  In addition, there were huge coral heads that were in front of the reef.  As we moved south, the reef flattened out and became a large mass of bleached staghorn coral.  This area again contained various cavities and ledges for fish to disappear.  The highlight of the dive today was seeing a 5 foot long primitive shark, the Tasselled Wobegong (Eucrossohrinus dasypogon), hidden under a ledge.  A picture of the shark can be viewed on the images page.  Some people were lucky enough to get a glimpse of the beautiful Juvenile Emperor Angelfish (Pomacanthus imperator) before it darted under the ledge.  We noticed that this reef contained more fish in the juvenile form than in the previous reefs, which led us to believe that it was a brooding area.  Another difference that we noticed was that this reef contained many cleaning stations, in which the Striped Cleaner Wrasse (Labroides dimidiatus) removed dead tissues and parasites from the larger fishes gills.  After analyzing the reef it was time for a little beach combing. Some people climbed the rocks on Harrier Point, while others hiked through the remains of the leper colony.  Gaurav and Mike got a sudden rush of survival skills and decided to become natives as they threw rocks at a coconut tree.  They were successful as they knocked off two coconuts.  Although extremely different to open, their efforts were well worth it when everyone got to try some of the delicious coconut milk.  Then it was time to head back home as Mike provided entertainment on the barge opening a coconut "like a monkey."  Tim Tams and hot chocolate provided the sugar rush needed to work our fish lists and journals later that night!
DATE: 5/18/01SUBJECT: Pioneer Bay

Today's dive took us to Pioneer Bay, right in front of the research station. Little did we know that there was a thriving coral reef right in our own backyard.  Not only was this reef the largest we've explored so far, it was also the most diverse in terms of species of fish. In the past few days our group has increased our knowledge base many times over. The group has become more accustomed to looking under ledges, in caves, and in general, thinking like a fish.  And it's remarkable what we can find when we're actually quiet! The "deep blue" has become much more welcoming once you realize that nothing will eat you.  The backreef, the portion closest to land, is especially large in Pioneer Bay.  This provided a great opportunity to familiarize ourselves with families of smaller species such as Blennidae and Gobiidae.  They were commonly found perched over small burrows dug into the sand.  The backreef is also home to many species of stinrays.  We usually see them everyday while trekking out to the boats for the day trips, which is when we practice the "stingray shuffle" so we don't step on any along the way.  But today we got quite up close and personal to the Kuhl's Stingray (Dasyatis kuhli) and the Blue Spotted Stingray (Taeniura lymma).  Their ability to fly through the water mesmerized everyone.  In deeper water, along the reef crest and into the forereef,  we have seen a variety of families of fish such as Apogonidae (Cardinalfish), Serranidae (Rockcod), Haemulidea (Sweetlips), Pomacentridae (Damselfish), and Chaetodontidae (Butterflyfish).  One of the the highlights of our exploration of Pioneer Bay was a night dive near the southern point.  The feelings among the group ranged from excitement to apprehension (Kristen and Jenny held hands the whole time!) but the experience was definitely unforgettable for all.  The highlights of the dive were two green sea turtles, Chelonia mydas.  One was estimated at three-hundred pounds and in a wrestling match to get it to the surface, the turtle won.  The second was about 50 pounds and we got a close look before releasing it back into the dark sea.  Last, but not least, we spotted an Eppaulette Shark (Hemiscyllium ocellatum) and a large Tawny Shark (Nebrius ferrugineus) resting under a ledge.  We look forward to using the skills learned so far to further enhance our understanding of the ecology of other surrounding coral reefs.

DATE:5/20/01SUBJECT: Fantome Island (part two)
 Today we journeyed out to Fantome Island once again to study the specific behavior and feeding patterns of reef fish.  We focused on Pomacentrids, Scarids, and Chaetodontids (Damselfish, Parrotfish and Butterflyfish).  One of the fish that we observed was the Australian Gregory (Stegastes apicalis), which was on the reef crest, and very territorial, even chasing much larger fish out of its area.  This benthic fish seemed to be pretty passive, just eating the soft coral, until another fish came too close, then it was quick to chase it out.  All the other damselfish seemed to act much the same way with regards to territory defense.  However planktonic damselfish varied more in their aggressiveness.  As an example the Yellowtail Demoiselle(Neopomacentrus azysron) and the Staghorn Damsel (Amblyglyphidodon curacao) didn't chase out intruders, while the Neon Damsel (Pomacentrus coelestis) didn't let anyone get near their area, even much larger parrotfish.  The chaetodontids wandered, sucking soft coral polyps out of the skeletons, but were easily startled by humans and "intimidating" damselfish.  The scarids traveled in schools of 15-20 fish.  They would eat several large mouthfuls in one section of coral and then move on to another section.  They did swim through damselfish territories, but as such a large group, the damsels were only able to target one fish out of the school, the rest were able to travel through unhindered.  These observations help us to better understand the fish that we are looking at by recognizing the relationships and interactions between fish on the reef.  After we finished the exercise we had time to further explore the island and those of us who did not have a chance to see the leper colony before ventured that way.  The boat ride back was enjoyable as always, in the warm Australian sun!
DATE: 5/21/01SUBJECT: Mapping the reef at Pioneer Bay
  Today we were privileged to use a state-of-the-art underwater prototype computer originally designed  for locating underwater mines, but in our case we were using it for the more civilian use of coral reef mapping.  Dr. Thomas, the Research Director at the National Coral Reef Institute has been working with Nautronix Lmtd./SeaPC of Western Australia to develop an underwater computer to map coral reefs. Trevor Ward and Stephen John from Nautronix brought two prototype units for us to use during the course. This is part of an ongoing field testing program of the SeaPC units to develop them for mapping marine environments. 

 We split into two groups to map the outer and back reef perimeters. Then we added icons and images to the computer for the giant clams and huge coral heads (bommies).  The computer is set up like steering wheel with the buttons on the handles (see following pictures of the reef mapping project) on the side like the trigger buttons on a joystick.  We snorkeled our respective parts and came back in to combine the mappings of the two groups.  We then went back out and marked the corals and clams.  The most profound part of the day didn't hit us until we returned from mapping and Dr. T has told us that our 5 hour work day using this technology would have been a three-week project  for four to five trained diver-scientists.  In addition, it was a cool feeling picking up something so high tech and being able to work it.  During the day there were sightings of sea turtles, sharks, rays, and of course numerous other fish.  At night our final project topic presentations began and Jen, Cheryl, Dave, Michael, Tracy, and Gaurav all had excellent presentations that will be hard for the rest of the group to follow.  

DATE:5/24/01  SUBJECT: Little Trunk  Reef
 Today we found out why they call this amazing place one of the great natural wonders of the world. As a group, we have never experienced the type of beauty in our lives that we saw today. We traveled to the outer shelf reef, Little Trunk  Reef, which is in open water about 50 minutes away from Orpheus. Because of the capacity of the Challenger III in open water we broke up in to two groups, a morning group and an afternoon group. Both groups were in complete anticipation of this new reef during the entire journey. In the morning, as soon as we jumped in Tracy spotted a White-tipped Reef Shark(Triaenodon obesus), came up briefly to yell, "Shark," and then quickly followed with the rest of the group following close behind. We also saw the Black-tipped Reef Shark (Charcharhinus melanopterus).  Our shark sightings were a magnificent start to this trip. The fish and coral were equally glorious and their colors were spectacular both in the afternoon and morning. At one dive site there were large trenches and steep dropoffs that we explored. Both groups found pufferfish (Tetraodontidae), Bird Nose Wrasses (Gomphosus varius), a Porcupinefish (Diodon hystrix), many colonies of anemone fish of several species (Pomacentridae), a Giant Moray Eel (Gymnothorax javanicus), Pennant Bannerfish (Heniochus chrysostomus), many other new species of butterflyfish (Chaetodontidae) including the Chevroned Butterflyfish (Chaetondon trifascialis). One of the most colorful fish we saw was the Regal Angelfish (Pygoplities diacanthus).  We also saw the infamous Crown of Thorns (COT) starfish (Acanthaster plancii). These seastars, members of the phylum Echinodermata, eat corals by digesting  the living tissue of the coral. Corals that have been eaten by COT usually do not recover and rapidly become overgrown by algae.   Each group spent about four hours at this reef, but it wasn't half as much time as we would have loved to spend there. The perfect end to the trip for the afternoon group was the incredible sunset on the way home. Nothing but the sun, mountains, and open water. Because of all the previous dives we performed earlier in these two weeks, we were completely prepared to fully appreciate this unbelievable place. It will forever be in our memories.
DATE:5/25/01SUBJECT:A note from the Instructor, Dr. James Darwin Thomas
Today, Saturday, was the last full day on the Orpheus Island. Tomorrow we leave for Townsville on the mainland, where the students will work on their class notebooks and we will take several land trips before finishing in Carins later in next week. I would like to take this opportunity to tell you some of what the students have accomplished during their two weeks here at Orpheus Island Research Station.

Looking back over the past 15 days on the island I can say that the class has accomplished and seen much. From the first tentative days in the water when an inadvertent bump of a fellow snorkeler would lead to panic and thoughts of hungry sharks; to this morning when the they stood in knee deep water as they watched 10-12 black tipped reef sharks feed around them, their confidence and expertise in the marine realm has made quantum leaps.

The usual concern that something hostile and hungry is looking for them in the water has given way to a deep appreciation and understanding of the complexities of coral reef ecosystems. Actually, they donít really comprehend at this stage what they have done. To dive on a pristine reef system, being virtually the only people on the reef and to see nature in its most splendid complexity is something that most career marine biologists will never get to do. Generally, students will begin to realize the unique nature of their experience when they are describing their exploits and demonstrating newfound understanding of the rich aquatic realm they have been immersed in.

In the past weeks they have:

-Become familiar with over 300 species of fish in a variety of families, and can recite most of them by scientific name, where they are found in the reef and particulars of behavior and ecology;

-Been on (and survived) a night dive when the reef takes on a different look as daytime residents rest or move off the reef to feed and the cryptic species not seen during the day come out in view;

-Used sophisticated underwater mapping computers as part of an ongoing development of new and innovative technologies that are being designed to better map and inventory reef resources;

-Summarized a series of scientific papers and given oral presentations that further elucidate the ecology and biology of reef organisms;

-Shed the unrealistic fears and anxieties of diving in tropical reefs and began to really delve into the complexities of the most diverse and rich ecosystems on earth, coral reefs;

-Become seasoned boat operators, cooks, and marine biologists while living in a communal setting and working long hours into the night on projects, reports, and personal journals;

-Have become comfortable and at ease in the water, observing, taking notes, and realizing that their fears were unfounded.


In the day to day workings of the research station they have met a number of university students and scientists working on a variety of projects including pearl oyster culture, fish behavior and feeding morphology, and invertebrate distribution and chemistry. It is in this intense and constant presence of scientific activity that accelerated learning takes place in a way impossible in the classroom. As I see the transformation of confidence and understanding, it reminds me of the importance of field biology courses in filling a unique niche in biological education. I am honored to be their guide in this process of discovery and my spirit is renewed each time I take a new group of students into the field to explore and learn about coral reefs. My major concerns are not marine critters, but sunburn and cut feet. To me, the ocean is a familiar and peaceful home Ė a concept the class absorbs by osmosis and the day to day activities in which they engage.

Your sons and daughters will return with many stories and events to tell. They will also return changed in subtle ways that may not evident to them or you. They have traveled half way around the world to study and work as a group in a pristine marine setting and a different culture. As natural ecosystems on land and sea are continually impacted and modified by the activities of mankind, the Australian Coral Reef class of 2001 has experienced first hand pinnacle of coral reef ecosystems. They will hold this unique experience with them always.

Tomorrow will be a day of packing, cleaning, and travelling to a new setting on the mainland where the final part of the course unfolds. Watching the sun set this evening I know how far they have come and how much they have learned. They will be glad to get to burgers and pizzas, washing machines, and showers. They will miss the island, the diving, the sunsets, and the camaraderie of their fellow students and will have memories that will last a lifetime.

Next week will be koalas, kangaroos, rainforests and mountains. The journey continues.

DATE: 5/29/01SUBJECT: Billibong Sanctuary
 Today was filled with new experiences.  By the end of the day, our hands were slobbery, our shoulders were scratched, we smelled, and loved every minute of our visit to a Billabong south of Townsville.  For those that aren't up on the Australian lingo, a billabong is an interactive zoo filled with animals native to Australia.  We started out getting acquainted with a mischievous cockatoo who seemed only to have an interest in the males of our group, but our next encounter with him was more peaceful.  There were a group of free ranging red kangaroos who would eat feed from our open hands (this is where the slobbery hands came from).  Next we each had the opportunity to hold a koala named "Flash" (hence the scratched shoulders).  Another furry friend we were introduced to was a wombat, "Angela."  We learned that they, like all land animals in Australia, are marsupials, like the kangaroo and koala except their pouch is backwards. Because wombats are excellent burrowers, the rearward facing pouch prevents from dirt collecting in the pouch.  As we roamed around the billabong, we saw other animals up close and personal that we would normally have been wary of in the wild.  These included crocodiles, cassowaries (a prehistoric, highly aggressive flightless bird looking  made us feel like we were in Jurassic Park!), dingoes, pythons, and a variety of venomous snakes, including the Inland Black Tiapan, the most venomous terrestrial snake in the world.  Of the top most venomous snakes in the world, Australia has the top 8!! We were even lucky enough to hold a crocodile and some pythons, and pet one of the more tame dingoes like he was a puppy from back home.  The Billabong trip was a wonderful way to learn about Australia's land creatures, adding to our newly acquired knowledge of its sea creatures.  

We are also working hard to complete our personal fish journals, as well as a master class list of fish by family.  With each fish added to the list we are finally  realizing the great tremendous amount of information and knowledge we have amassed in the past two weeks.   

DATE: 6/3/01SUBJECT: Mossman Gorge and the Daintree River
 The final chapter of the course has been written today. I am here in the motel packing for a 3:00 AM departure and the long flight home. This will be the last message from Australia for this yearís course.

We left today around 10 in the morning, heading up the coast to explore some of the rainforest ecosystems, take a boat trip on the Daintree River and have a final group dinner in a tea house nestled amongst the rainforest. We headed north along Captain Cook Highway, arguably the most scenic coastal drive in the world. The road winds along the shoreline with breathtaking views of virtually uninhabited coastal beaches backed by densely forested mountains. We stopped at a particular nice overlook that is popular with hang gliders and took lots of pictures and generally enjoyed the scenery. We then drove into Mossman and had lunch. After lunch we went swimming in Mossman Gorge, a lovely mountain river that cascades down from the rainforest over large granite boulders. While very cold, the students waded in and had fun running the rapids and taking pictures.

The Mossman area is an important historical site in Australia as it just offshore that Captain James Cook ran the Endeavor aground on a reef, barely salvaging ship and crew. He was in the area for several months cutting local timber to repair the extensive damages to the ship, HMS Endeavor.

After leaving Mossman we drove north to the Daintree River, a large riverine system with dense vegetation, striking birds, and of course "crocs". Lee Lafferty, the naturalist for our cruise and old friend of these courses, piloted the boat around close to shore pointing out various types of birds, fish, snakes, etc. After the cruise we went to the Daintree Tea House, a quaint restaurant where we dined al fresco with a view of the setting sun in the forest. Most of us had fresh Barrimundi (a local fish, very tasty!) with a few chicken and steak eaters thrown in for balance. The drive back along the coast with the moon reflecting off the ocean made a perfect endpoint for our extraordinary experience here in Australia. Your sons and daughters will be home soon with tales of their adventure. I will miss them one and all, and hope they have let the reef and the country seep into their bones. I send my best to you one and all,

Dr. James Darwin Thomas, Instructor, 2001.

DATE: 6/14/01SUBJECT:Final Comments From the Instructor
 We have all been back from Australia for a little over a week now so the jet lag should be wearing off and your biological clocks returning to normal.  I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who made the trip so special. 

Dr. Bruce Criley, a longtime friend and colleague, provided support and help, especially in preparing our meals at the island. Yummy spaghetti sauce, scrumptious roast leg of lamb, and of course the "Chinese cooks in the kitchen" routine with yours truly, all bear his special culinary touch. Eryn Thomas was in charge of keeping the website running and did a great job despite numerous technical challenges. I will miss all of the students, and feel honored to have been amongst them for a month. To see their excitement  and be their guide as they explore the reefs and natural areas of Australia is truly an honor for me. I will miss you one and all. To all of you in the Australia Coral Reef Class of 2001, thank you for participating in this adventure. While you will all go in different directions in your lives you will remember this special time and perhaps return again, as other course alumni have done, to study and visit in the land down under. 

Cheers mates, 

Dr. T.

OzReef Images Page
OzReef Course Home Page