I stretch my legs out on the recliner as the music wafts out from the bar, and the sun sparkles across the seemingly endless expanse of pale blue water that surrounds this peaceful island. Hayden is spending ten days with his grand-parents, Adrian is at a conference on the island, and I feel like I have some time to myself for the first time in over two and a half years.
The catamaran trip over here was an unexpected agony. A few minutes into the trip, the boat began to lurch up and down and my stomach started to feel a bit queazy. A few minutes after that, I was circled up on the floor at the back of the boat with a dozen other inflicteds, all of us groaning and clutching motion-sickness bags. The time dragged on, each moment an excruciating mixture of nausea and pain. After an endless expanse of torture, Adrian came to tell me that we would be docking in fifteen minutes. Those fifteen minutes were some of the longest in my life. Even after the boat stopped moving, I couldn’t stop shaking.
However, when I stepped off the boat and lifted my head, I was greeted by the most perfect view of paradise. Circled by a coral reef, and inhabited by over one hundred thousand birds and less than one hundred people, Heron Island soothed my nerves and lifted my spirits.
My days here are delightful. There is the ability to do so much and so little. I have been on a bird walk to discover my avian neighbours and snorkelling to meet the wildlife that surrounds the island. We have gone on midnight strolls around the island to search for mother sea turtles laying eggs, sunset walks to search for turtle hatchlings, and daytime explorations to watch lemon sharks and black-tipped reef sharks hunt schools of hardy head fish in the shallow waters.
I have snuck into a few sessions of the scientific conference, and it is going very well. I am very proud of Adrian, and it is very satisfying to see him in his element, collaborating with other world-class researchers from around the world. Twelve years ago he came to this conference as a PhD student and won the New Investigator’s Prize, now he is here as a professor, watching his own PhD students speaking nervously about their ground-breaking research. I left this field five years ago, and I am astonished by the breakthroughs that have been accomplished, the technical advances, and the immense burden of work that is now expected for a PhD to be granted. Terms like “beta-selection”, “DN3″, and “arrays” still trigger some PTSD, and I am reminded how happy I am to be an an epidemiologist. Though I know that as long as I remain a scientist, all presentations will be followed by applause, and then comments like “a beguiling story, however a note of caution…”, “there are three main problems with your theory…”, and “your model is unable to account for the observations that…”. The scientific community is full of skepticism, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
The conference takes a four hour break around high tide every day, to ensure that everyone has the chance to enjoy some of the astonishing experiences that this tiny island has to offer. I have seen greater crested terns, black napes terns, rascally buff-banded rails (and their fluff-bottomed offspring), ruddy turnstones, bar-shouldered doves, black nod dies, eastern reef egrets, pacific golden plovers, mutton bird chicks, yellow-footed plovers, and seagulls.
We went snorkelling from the boat, drifting with the current above thousands of glittering schooling fish. I haven’t gone scuba diving for five years, and being back in the water reminded me of what it was like to fly under the ocean, soaring over coral reefs and drifting with the sea turtles. On our way back to the boat, we saw five tiny squidlings swimming in formation. As we approached, they simultaneously let out five clouds of ink, and shot away.
Most nights we circumnavigate the island on foot, searching for turtles. On the first night we found one lone hatchling, lost without the moon, abandoned by all his siblings hours ago. Adrian stood in the water with a torch, guiding the little one down towards the water. He finally slipped into the ocean and swam away. In the morning, we find tracks from adult turtles who have spent the night dragging themselves themselves slowly over the sand to lay their precious eggs in the dunes.
One night at sunset we were lucky enough to discover forty little guys making their way down the beach. The children nearby came running, yelling affirmations at the turtles – “you can do it”, “you’re nearly there”, “keep on going” – while chasing away as many seagulls as they could. I followed one little hatchling make her way from the dunes, climbing over each human footprint like it was a mountain, stopping to take a deep breath, and then soldiering on. Finally, she reached the water, her little flippers feeling the cool water for the first time in her life, and instantly she was swimming frantically out towards the safer depths, taking a breath every minute and then single-mindedly paddling out towards the sun. I stayed close to her for as long as I could to scare away the seagulls, but then I had to let her go and watch her swim out on her own, hopefully to grow big and strong, to return and lay her own eggs many decades from now.
Another evening, the hatchlings were not so lucky. Half a dozen black tipped reef sharks were waiting to greet them in the water, their fins breaking the surface with menacing enthusiasm. The hatchlings swam bravely out into the first few meters, but then with a lunch and a flick of their tails, nearly every hatchling was snapped up. I was standing in the water, but I decided to retreat to the shore to ensure that my toes didn’t get caught up in the feast. The children had named all the hatchlings on their way down the beach, and were distraught to see their demise. One three year old boy was in tears, and needed to be carried by his dad all the way home.
One night we turned up to the Info Center for a Turtle Talk, only to find that a bunch of hatchlings had turned up too, attracted by the light. We received permission from the nature guide to pick up the turtles, and we returned them to the beach, watching them swim off into the darkness.
It had been five years since I had last been scuba diving, and I was very nervous about returning. Fortunately, the island runs a great refresher course each morning. I needed to be retaught everything: how to assemble my equipment, how to clear my mask, how to find my regulator, how to purge my BCD. Once the course was completed, Adrian and I were feeling a lot more confident. When we found out that there were two free spots on the 9am dive, we agreed to go out on the boat.
We went to the dive spots Blue Pools and North Bommie, down to 17.5 meters for 50 minutes. At first it was hard for me to achieve neutral buoyancy, until I remembered to use my lungs instead of inflating and deflating my BCT all the time. I was still quite nervous, but when I could see the dive master, and I knew Adrian was okay, then I could enjoy the incredible sensation of flying over coral reefs and amongst schools of fish. It is such a primal sensation. I am so thankful and aware of every lungful of air, and so focussed on the present moment of gliding through the water. We saw hard and soft corals, parrot fish, cow fish, and a sleeping reef shark. A large curious remora came up to our group, looking us over to see if any of us would make a good host. Sadly, I didn’t make the grade. Once my air reached 70, it was time to surface and make a safety stop at 5 meters. Adrian thoughtfully removed my fins for me, and we climbed back to the boat, hungry and accomplished.
As the sun sets, the Milky Way emerges in all its brilliance. I lay down on the beach and let the weight of the galaxy fall down upon me. The constellations of the southern sky were constant companions as I was growing up in Stromlo-friendly Canberra, and I greet them now as long-lost friends. I am reunited with Orion, Sirius, Gemini, Alpha and Beta Centauri and the Southern Cross. I also make the acquaintance of the large and small Magellanic Clouds, irregular dwarf galaxies that orbit our own, and peer through a telescope to see Jupiter and four of its moons. As I lay on the edge of this small planet, I am once again struck by the immensity of these galaxies, and the precious insignificance of my own existence. Staring up at these stars reminds me of the unimportance of my problems, and the privilege I have of experiencing so many aspects of this staggeringly beautiful universe.