If I wouldn’t have participated in a study abroad semester at the University of Queensland and if I wouldn’t have joined the course “Australia’s Marine Environment”, most probably I wouldn’t have had the chance to see Heron Island in the Great Barrier Reef during my studies.
What would have happend if…
… a question I ask myself sometimes in different situations. Although I also know that sometimes it is better just to accept the things how they are.
Why thinking about things so much?
When I was on Heron Island everything just seemed to me too good to be true.
Is there anything more beautiful on earth than Heron Island in the Great Barrier Reef?
Difficult to imagine.
Before I left for Heron Island I was looking forward to see the Great Barrier Reef. Of course. But I did not expect to be so overwhelmed by its beauty.
Heron Island is about 20 hectares in size and located at the South of the Great Barrier Reef.
As I joined a field trip organized by the University of Queensland, I did not have to look for my own transport. That was very convenient. The organizers even prepared the perfect accommodation and food for us students.
On a self-organized tour you can visit Heron Island by ferry from Gladstone (or by seaplane or helicopter). The journey from Gladstone to the jetty on Heron Island takes about two hours by ferry.
All people from the course took the ferry from Gladstone.
Close to the jetty we saw already some fishes swimming around.
There were also some seagulls roosting on wooden stilts at the jetty.
The Heron Island Resort is the only possible accommodation for tourists, and correspondingly, expensive.
I would not have been able to finance a 5-day holiday on Heron Island with my student loan.
Therefore, it was very special for me to visit this place with the university.
However, our tents were also quite comfortable.
After arriving on Heron Island I checked the surroundings. Especially some beautiful birds I spotted got my first attention.
This is a white-capped noddy (Anous minutus). This bird and two more birds – the wedge-tailed shearwater (Puffinus pacificus) and the Pacific reef heron (Egretta sacra) – are the most common birds on Heron Island.
There are two morphs of the Pacific reef heron. One morph has a white plumage and the other morph charcoal-grey feathers.
I also saw the Pacific reef herons during our 5-day field trip, of course. Some were roosting on trees…
… and others fishing in the sea.
Before I met the other students after check-in I spotted a Buff-banded rail (Gallirallus philippensis) hiding under a tree.
Together with other students I explored the surrounding waters of the island. For our explorations we moved a little bit further away from the islands. However, the researchers on the island told us to watch our step and not destroy the corals. Of course it is prohibited to touch the corals.
We saw a huge diversity of creatures I had never seen before.
It was very helpful for us to explore the underwater world with a “magnifier-tool” (I don’t know the name of it).
Everything around us was so impressing.
In the evening after a beach walk…
… where I saw more beautiful trees, we went to sleep quite early.
Our journey was long and somewhat exhausting. Furthermore, on the next they we would go for snorkeling.
I was very excited to go snorkeling as for me it was the first time.
However, this was not a problem.
On the first day we went for snorkeling from the beach. But in the afternoon we moved further away from the island by boat to snorkel at a different place.
I was so stunned by the fish and coral biodiversity. I did not know where to look first.
During our snorkeling tours we also saw sometimes some rays, turtles and reef sharks.
I have to admit. I felt somewhat weird when I heard the word „shark“. But at the same time I knew that I was visiting the Great Barrier Reef with experienced guides. They know where we can go for snorkeling and where it is safe.
When I was on Fraser Island on another field trip we were even not allowed to put our toes into the water because of the tiger sharks.
However, I was not equipped with an underwater camera. So unfortunately I cannot show you here any photograph.
But believe me. If you have never been to the Great Barrier Reef, and especially to Heron Island, it was just unique. I still remember quite vividly many images from these days. On one day we went snorkeling during the night. This was also very special and memorable.
I could not take any photograph while snorkeling, but at the jetty from land. I saw rays…
… marine turtles…
… and even a shark.
As it was a research field trip, of course, we went not only to Heron Island for snorkeling. We were divided into groups to work on a small research project.
I was in a group were we had to compare the anti-predatory behavior of the black sea cucumber (Holothuria leucospilota) to the Christmas tree worms (Spirobranchus giganteus). As our tutor had already collected some data of the Christmas tree worms, we had to search only for the black sea cucumbers. When we saw a black sea cucumber we had to touch them with a stick and measure the time how long it takes for the black sea cucumber to retract.
Measures about the retraction time or the anti-predator behavior, respectively, indicates if a species is exposed to many predators and if a species is disturbed by the presence of humans. If sea cucumbers in an area retract very quickly then these sea cucumbers are probably exposed to stress (like predators and/or humans).
We expected sea cucumbers to retract more quickly than the Christmas tree worms as sea cucumbers are solitary and do not live close to other conspecifics in groups like the Christmas tree worms. Thus, we thought the solitary sea cucumbers are exposed to more threats. As Christmas tree worms live in bigger groups, threats distribute to more individuals…
When we were not snorkeling nor working on our research projects, we relaxed on the beach where I was looking out for more birds. On one day a ruddy turnstone (Arenaria interpres) crossed our way.
I very enjoyed the walks in the morning on Heron Island.
The colors of the sky changed from minute to minute.
The colors became warmer and warmer…
… until the sun finally appeared at the horizon.
During the day I enjoyed the colors of the blue-green water.
There was one thing I missed on Heron Island. And that is the humpback whales. Every year in the Australian winter humpback whales migrate to their breeding grounds around Heron Island in the Great Barrier Reef.
I was on Heron Island in the Australian autumn. Thus, I saw no humpback whales.
But this is ok. I saw definitely many, many beautiful (and not less remarkable!) creatures on and around Heron Island.