If you live in Brisbane for any more than a few weeks, you’re bound to hear someone mention the popular beach destination known to locals as Straddie. For those of us who are (a) from out of town and (b) don’t necessarily feel the need to abbreviate every word in the English language, this mysterious locale is known as North Stradbroke Island (ok…I get why they abbreviated it now…) and it is quite possibly the most gorgeous piece of Australia I have seen since being on this continent.
I’ve had the blessed experience of visiting Straddie once before — when I first got to Australia — but as anyone who’s been to the island can tell you, once is not enough (and neither is twice, evidently). Thus, you can imagine my excitement when I learn that I literally get university credit to go to Straddie for the weekend. That’s right — gone are the yellow school bus and museum field trips of my youth. This weekend, I’m going to Moreton Bay Research Center on Straddie to do some real life science.
Ok, so maybe “real life science” is a bit of an exaggeration, but all the same, my marine biology class — “Australia’s Marine Environment” — is taking us to UQ’s official island research base to do a weekend of sampling, studying, and data analyzation in one of the most beautiful places on earth.
Moreton Bay Research Station (henceforth known as MBRS) is located on the Brisbane side of Straddie, right next to the ferry stop and right across from a small bay (as one would hope, given its name) that is home to a plethora of sea life. As our safety and preparation lecturer tells us upon our arrival at MBRS, we’ll likely be blessed with the sight stingrays, all sorts of different fish, hermit crabs, sea worms, many a seabird, and a seemingly infinite supply of sea cucumbers. Oh, also the cute but deadly blue-ringed octopus (whose venomous bite will leave you paralyzed as your respiratory rate and heart rate drop so much that you’ll get to hear emergency authorities declare you dead before the venom finally finishes you off), the infamous cone snail (an unassuming mollusk whose “bite” will kill you in four hours or less), various types of sharks and sea snakes, fire coral, and last but not least, our friends the Portuguese Man O’ Wars (called “blue-bottles” by Aussies to make them seem less scary — after all, their sting is just uncomfortable…it’s not like it’ll kill you). All of this hides amongst the idyllic, swaying fields of soft green seagrass under the perfect, bright blue waves, we’re told, so get excited.
Despite the vast array of potentially dangerous creatures, I am super excited. As a hopeful environmental scientist and wildlife conservationist, I already know way too much about the deadly creatures Australia has to offer (including how rare it is for them to decide to take a bite out of you…or to do so unprovoked, that is), so I’m ready to get out into the water and start exploring.
Our first day at MBRS is mostly about settling in and learning the ropes. We get a quick tour of the facility, a small snack, and a briefing / practical lesson on how to use the data collection methods available for researchers here. Much to our excitement, after being reminded once again to not touch the blue-ringed octopi and the pretty orange cone snails, we’re told that in order to provide us with an authentic Australian experience (plus all the energy we’ll need to conduct some pretty dope science) we’ll get to have five meals a day here: brekky (aka “breakfast,” for the uninitiated), morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea, and dinner.
I love this country so much.
After all of our settling in is done, we meet up in pre-assigned groups and discuss what we want to do for a research project during our time here. Each group gets to choose any (realistic, one-day) project they want relating to marine biology on the bay and go out on the water to collect the data themselves before heading back to the lab (ah, it sounds so official!) to analyze it all and prepare a presentation for the group. On our third and final day, we’ll all present our findings group by group, load back up on the bus, and head to the beach on the other side of the island for a day of swimming and sightseeing.
Everyone in our marine science class is an international student and we all mix and mingle in our alphabetically named groups and get to know each other a little before getting down to business. After much confusion and uncertainty, my group decides on a project about species richness in areas with sea grass at low tide vs in areas without seagrass at low tide.
Basically, this means we get to play in the sand like little kids again: digging and sifting and shouting excitedly when we find a new species to mark down. The project itself is strangely reminiscent of those science projects you had to do in middle school to learn the Scientific Method, but regardless…nothing’s better than the prospect of a day spent “doing science” out in the water.
The next morning, we get an early start and kick things off with a walk to go find some koalas. It turns out to be a beautiful — and highly successful — morning: not only do we see quite a few koalas, but we’re also blessed with the sight (and smell) of Queensland’s famous flying foxes.
Once back from our walk, we have tea…and then lunch…before low tide arrives at long last and we can finally head out to do conduct our very serious, not at all fun research.
We have an absolute blast searching for little critters all over the intertidal zone and, before too terribly long, have collected all of our data and decide to go for a quick dip in the deeper water, where we see many more exciting animals, including stingrays and puffer fish and spikey orange sea cucumbers (all of which make our hermit crabs and green paddle worms pale by comparison).
With our data collected and the tide coming in fast, we wade back to dry land and drag all our gear back to the station. After our usual fourth meal of the day, we get together and work on our presentation for tomorrow morning. To be frank , it’s all a bit too reminiscent of middle school biology class, but we’re not ones to squander the opportunity to create a science slide show that has as many Finding Nemo references as it has data, so we persevere after dinner (our fifth meal of the day #blessed) and get the presentation done before bedtime.
Morning comes and we’re all up — bleary-eyed and anxious — for breakfast and our little mini scientific conference. After eating far too many hashbrowns, we all pile into the presentation room / lab and sit down in our groups. In an unexpected plot twist, our professor — Dr. Janet Lanyon decides to order the presentations reverse-alphabetically which — you guessed it! — means we’re up first. Despite the very high level seriousness with which we conduct our mini conference — with our fancy presentation room filled with “fellow scientists” ready to judge our methods, results, and public speaking abilities — we can, at least, rest assured that we aren’t actually getting graded for any of this.
The presentation goes about as well as these things can. Once again very reminiscent of middle school biology class, our class sits there staring blankly as we present. Half the class is asleep (it is only 8 a.m.) and a decent fraction are on their phones, but I can tell that the last fraction still paying attention is really, super duper impressed with the Finding Nemo themed slides (success!). When we finish our presentation, we’re blessed with feedback from from the only four people taking any of this seriously — our professors and the three TAs — and then get to sit back down.
It’s was a relief to get our presentation out of the way first and it’s an even bigger relief when the rest of the class finishes their presentations, too. It’s not that the presentations are boring or bad — quite the contrary, in fact — but once the presentations are done, we get to move on to the fun stuff: a bus ride to the other side of the island for the Straddie Gorge Walk, hours at a nearby beach, and some delicious gelato (the expectations for which, we all joke, have been set awfully high given they’ve marketed the entire course solely off the trip’s delicious, local Straddie ice cream).
Straddie’s Gorge Walk runs along the cliffs of a grass- and eucalypt-covered peninsula into which an enormous gorge cuts a deep, surf-filled gash. It’s absolutely spectacular and about as close to being a tourist attraction as you can get when you’re a mostly unknown island off the course of Brisbane. Even though I’ve been on this walk several times now, it still takes my breath away.
As we make our way along the elevated, wooden pathway, a friend and I somehow get lost and find ourselves over the fence, past the Do Not Enter sign, and down onto the beach of the gorge……which is super weird.
Down on the narrow beach, with the cliffs soaring up on either side of us, the crystal blue water crashing it’s way into the gorge ahead, and the rest of our class stuck out of sight up above on the path, it’s hard not to feel both stunned and amazed by the beauty of this place and also incredibly smug at having it all to ourselves, thanks to our formidable adventuring skills (I mean…*cough*…thanks to us getting lost).
We sneak our way back up to the Walk and get our feet back on the solid wood pathway just in time to hear our TA chew out the students behind us who — inspired by our successful venture into the gorge — have one leg over the path’s fence.
We speed away sheepishly, making our way down the path and oohing and ahing as we pass kangaroos munching on grass on either side of the path. Off in the distance, we can see dolphins breaking through the softly rolling waves and an enormous manta (seriously, it must be the size of a Mini Cooper) floating gracefully along the rocky shore.
It’s official: this place is pure paradise.
After the Gorge Walk there’s a bit of confusion about what we’re supposed to be doing, so I join my new Marine Science friends for an impromptu early gelato. Despite the excess of hype (and all our subsequent jokes about it), I’ve gotta say…it’s really good. In the time it takes for us — plus half the rest of our class — to grab ice cream, the TAs learn from Dr. Lanyon and the bus driver that we’re to head to the beach before gelato and we’re all rushed back to the bus. We finish our ice cream cones onboard, frantically licking the melting ice cream before it has a chance to splatter onto the floor of the bus and get us in trouble. No more than 15 minutes later, the bus pulls up to the beach and we all hop out.
Like I said, I’ve been to this part of Straddie before, but nonetheless, Cylinder Beach blows me away. Huge waves crash onto a sandbar and wash into an enormous, glittering tidal pool on the other side. Overhead, seabirds wheel and soar and, in the distance, we can see ant-sized people standing on the cliffside and taking in the view.
We drop our stuff in the half-shade of the mangroves that line the beach and make for the water. The ocean is a perfect, crystal-clear blue and the waves are big, powerful, and just cold enough to be refreshing in the heat of the afternoon. I’ve decided to use staying in the water for as long as possible as my sunburn-prevention strategy and thus spend the full two hours we’re at the beach with most of the rest of our class fighting the current and body surfing (read: getting bowled over by waves) in the perfect blue surf.
The time flies and before long, our TAs are calling us back to shore: it’s time to leave our paradise behind and head home.
Before we do, though…more gelato!