Nora Theodore

Nora Theodore

Hey everyone! My name is Nora Theodore. I am an environmental science major at F&M. I am heading to Australia this spring with the School for International Training (SIT) where I will be studying cultural, reef, and rainforest ecology. The program base is in Cairns, Queensland, Australia. I can't wait to head there in January!

 

Our journey up the coast of western Australia began on April 27. Laura and I departed at 5:45AM from our flat at Saint Thomas Moore College at UWA, caught a bus to Perth, and headed north with Western Xposure shortly after that. Our first stop was to Nambung National Park to see the Pinnacles. During our tour, we learned that there are two competing hypotheses for the evolution of the Pinnacles. The first hypothesis is that the structures formed in the ocean by calcium deposition. The second hypothesis stated that the Pinnacles are a fossilized forest of prehistoric trees. We also learned that the sand dunes surrounding the Pinnacles have receded and advanced through time, which has influenced the rate of erosion of the Pinnacles significantly. After seeing these rare WA geologic specimens we got a more in depth feel for the sand dunes while sand boarding a bit further up the coast. After shredding the gnar we headed to Kalbarri National Park, our final destination of the day. We watched the sunset over the Indian Ocean, which lives up to its name as the sunset coast, before sharing a lovely dinner and heading to bed early.

We left the Rock Lobster Lodge at 6:30AM sharp to see the rising sun over the outback from an outlook consisting of stratified layers that resembled the Grand Canyon. Thousands of years of erosion of softer rock layers left a jagged coastline of harder rock in this majestic spot. Kalbarri National Park is a unique location because it is where the Murchison River flows into the Indian Ocean. We followed the Murchison River inland observing the incision of the water body through the landscape. We had the opportunity to get an up close and personal view of the rocks and the surrounding rock scape when we abseiled down the canyon edge. Shortly afterwards, we broadened our perspective of the river when we viewed Z bend. The afternoon consisted of visiting shell beach, a beach made entirely of cockleshells able to tolerate high salinity sea water such as is found in Shark Bay. Afterwards, we drove to Monkey Mia stopping to spot wildlife at Eagle’s Bluff. We were lucky enough to spy a dugong grazing on sea grass in the bay!

Day three was another early start, at 5:30AM to watch the sunrise and observe the plethora of wildlife at Monkey Mia. We saw two types of turtles, one green and one loggerhead, a lion fish, squid, and dolphins! The fisherman in Monkey Mia had fed dolphins in the area just after sunrise for decades. Now, Monkey Mia is a well oiled eco-tourism machine. We were impressed with the way volunteers were allowed to feed only the same 5 dolphins every day. The quantity of fish given was limited in order to prevent complete dependence on humans. In the late morning at Monkey Mia we went for a sea-kayak to try to see a few sharks, but were unsuccessful. Still, it was a great day on the water.

We left Monkey Mia in the early afternoon to see the long-awaited stromatolites at Hamelin Pool in Shark Bay. These living fossils are the reason we are able to breathe today. We saw stromatolites dead and alive forming a crusty coast. Stromatolites dominated the world 3.5 bya but now, due to the threat of competition by algae grazers, they are restricted to only hypersaline waters. Shark Bay is one of the best places in the world to see stromatilites. It was a fantastic experience to be in the presence of these ancient organisms for a time. After Hamelin Pool we headed back south to River Sanctuary, a former sheep farm turned eco-tourism accommodation. In staying there we got a rich taste of what life at a rural Australian farm would be like. Much of the history of the farm has been preserved at River Sanctuary, providing for an authentic experience.

On our last day back to Perth we visited Hutt River Province and Prince Lenard, a famous tree deformed by tradewinds, a wildlife trap, and a war memorial for HMAS Sydney II in Geraldton to commemorate the death of 645 Australians. Our four day academic endeavor was unforgettable, it highlighted our subjects of interest during out ISPs in both micro and macro biology. We are grateful have gotten the change to enhance our knowledge of Western Australia and to see a broader range of Australian ecosystems on this wonderful whirlwind of a trip.

Now, we are back in Cairns with only five days left with the group of people who have become a giant family in the past four months. I take morning runs on the esplanade with the waves crashing underneath my feet and the sun rising between the mountains and ocean to have a moment on my own; to soak in all in. Seven days until I step back on to U.S. soil. This of course comes with mixed feelings but I am really looking forward to seeing my family and friends (and a new puppy at home, Chester!). I look forward to going back to F&M with a refreshed mind; ready to observe the ways I have changed this semester.

 

There is something beautiful and crazy about traveling. Living in new surroundings, making do with what you have in your turtle shell of a backpack, noticing the gorgeous small things even when the world feels so big. Finding beauty in the small things is the motto of my trip to Australia; I think it is going to stick for life.

There are also a few ugly parts about traveling. The constant feeling of having to plan what will happen next (I suppose this is only the case when you have not planned every second of a trip) and disagreements and differences between you and your travel partner can feel heavy at times.

Yet, these difficulties are far outweighed by the lessons I am learning everyday here. During my independent study at the University of Western Australia I am in the midst of conducting a totally independent experiment. At F&M, the papers and projects I love the most are the ones that I feel have become my own. That is the case every day here, but times 4. I am given the time to put 100% of my academic time into one project: one project that has real world applications. The work I am doing has significant implications for water quality in Australia and the world. The 1 to 5 mm little guys I have been spending so much time with in the lab for the past two weeks have the ability to reduce the amount of harmful blue-green algae in lakes. Daphnia are extraordinary lawn mowers of the nasty algae developing in lakes thanks to our brilliant chemical habits (pesticides, sewage, and cleaning products particularly).

It has been difficult not being out in the field for my ISP, after all being outside is why I got into environmental science and why I did a field based program. Yet, again, the positives outweigh this negative. I feel as though I have gotten both abroad experiences: both the SIT version and a bit of an ISFA Butler version. I have met a ton of Australian students, as well as other students studying abroad at UWA. I have experienced a large Australian university, and am grateful to have gotten a chance to know what that is like! I also have had the opportunity to work with extremely knowledgeable students and professors on freshwater ecology, a topic that I plan on pursuing in the future. I know this experience will greatly enhance my work with zooplankton this summer in the Rockies with Professor Fischer. I recognize that there is a bit of lab work necessary in addition to the fieldwork, and it is important to have that experience.

Another huge benefit of being here is being able to have the experience of traveling only with one other person to a brand new place and having to make all the decisions that go along with it. It has been really exciting to explore Perth. Our WA explorations will continue at the end of next week when we jump on a Greyhound to Shark Bay!!! It is all booked! I can’t really believe it! We are also going to go to the Pinnacles Desert, Kalbarri National Park, Shell Beach, Monkey Mia, and more! There will definitely be some good pictures on the way! Until then!

 

I arrived in the second most isolated city in the world: Perth, West Australia on April Fools Day to start the independent study portion of my semester abroad with SIT. From northeast to southwest, arriving in Perth felt like arriving in another continent. Mainly, I think, this was due to the chill in the air. Hot, humid, sticky, sweat-the-second-you-step-outside Cairns was definitely in the past. However, in reality, we jumped back in time to land in a time zone exactly 12 hours ahead of the States. With nerves, excitement, anticipation, and a pillow of pine needles smelling like Maine in my pack, we ventured forward.

Since our arrival, I have been in awe of the Indian Ocean. I have seen its reflection in the window on a train from Freemantle to Perth, I have been engulfed in its cool waters, and I have showered in its desalinated waters. I have stood at the western most point of an island in the Indian ocean to face South Africa. I moved a little to the left and with hella strong binocular eyes I may have been able to see Antarctica.

The research team I am now a part of at the University of Western Australia is one I will never forget. They have been so kind and welcoming to me: amazing how you can feel so comfortable so quickly in such a far away place when people share their kindness with you. Kindness and generosity seems to be bouncing off the walls in this state. The research going on at UWA is inspiring. Just looking at the posters of students in the School of Environmental Systems Engineering and The Earth and Environment Department makes me want to work on all of these different projects. For my study, I am working with Shihan, a post-graduate student, looking at the ability of Daphnia to persist in the presence of cyanotoxins. Over the next few weeks I will be preforming survival tests on Daphnia from Lake Rush, a WA lake with a history of an intermediate level of algal blooms. A previous student has done research suggesting that zooplankton from lakes with a history of algal blooms are able to tolerate higher levels of cyanotoxins. After my experiment on Lake Rush Daphnia survival rates upon exposure to cyanotoxins, I will compare my results to those of lakes with a history of high cyanotoxin concentration.

After a week of introductions, laboratory inductions, background research, and tasty meals in Freemantle (a city south of Crawley and Perth that we stayed in for the first week in WA, which has the largest number of adorable coffee shops per square meter), we were off to Rottnest Island (Rotto) for the Easter vacation. Laura (my phenomenal travel buddy) and I got an great deal on a ferry ticket and stay package. We also got the last two beds in the island’s hostel!

Rotto used to be an aboriginal prison, so there is an interesting but tragic history there. There are several mass burial sites on the island. One in every ten men who was imprisoned there died. Their cells were tiny and had no windows.  These gravesites were unmarked for many years and the areas were actually turned into campgrounds. Now, as Australia slowly begins to recognize the injustices inflicted on the aboriginals, the plan is to restore the site as a memorial. It is difficult to think about all the men under the ground there who were so poorly treated for the smallest of crimes.

We walked a ton at Rotto. On Easter Sunday we walked around the island: a 26.8 kilometer jaunt! The beaches and geology there is stunning.

Today, we moved into our place at UWA where we will be the next few weeks. The place is far nicer than we imagined: equipped with a full living room, a mini kitchen, even a bathtub and shower!

Pictures from left to right: (1) A freo coffee shop (2) B-shed ferry terminal (3) Sign for aboriginal cemetery on Rotto (4) Feet in the Indian ocean (5) A view on one of our walks on the island (6) Indian ocean connections (7) A quokka! Marsupial found only in WA, mostly on Rotto (8) Easter chocolate mint cake Laura and I made!

 

I am now back in Cairns from Lizard Island. To be honest, Lizard Island now feels like a tropical dream. Though not everyone in my group thinks so, we had perfect weather. Lots of rain for the first 7 days of the trip made for the type of adventure I constantly crave. The winds were out of the south instead of the north which according to our reef ecology professor and academic director, is very rare and only occurs for 10% of the year. We would go out for our morning snorkel with a few ominous rain clouds behind us and within 5 minutes it was an all out downpour. We would jump into the water to wait out the storm in the warmth, bouncing around in the waves while holding on to the bright yellow boats. The weather did make our data collection a bit more challenging, as all of the commonly calm sites were exposed. However, it was really neat to be able to see sites that other SIT groups have never gotten to see. Experiential learning is all about dealing with unpredictable conditions and adapting to change. I’d say our group handled it really well. I absolutely loved it.

Now though we are back and Cairns and things are a bit crazy. We have 2 papers and an exam this week! I fly to Perth to start my independent study this coming Sunday, April fools day. Can not wait!

The main reason for this post is to get some pictures up! SO they can tell a few of my stories from the past 10 days.. from the left: (1) First spotting of Lizard from the plane window (2-3) Boats in the harbor, beautiful in every weather situation (4) Gorgeous granite of the island (5) Group shot on the first morning snorkel with sun everywhere! (6) Can’t get coconut more local than this (7) Photo at the summit of Cooks Look, just after watching the sunrise, estimated time of photo: 6:45AM, 4:00am wake up (8) I shucked this coconut! Hard work but well worth it. (9) Dive shed (10) Leaving Lizard, hey GBR! (11) THEN I FLEW A PLANE. No joke.

 

I’ve felt pelting rain on my back as I swim horizontally above the Great Barrier Reef, the soft sea water turn into a layer of crusty salt in my hair, my feet compacting the cushiest sand I have ever touched in my life, and the roughness of this islands granite in my hands.

I’ve seen a floating rock, pumice bumping around in the ocean, goanas left and right, a perfectly organized waste management system, a well-oiled machine of a research station, PhD students hard at work, a moorish idol fish living in the wild instead of behind glass, jellies, sharks, soft corals and hard ones. I’ve seen tridacnid clams (my favorite). I’ve seen things big and small, massive and microscopic.

I’ve seen many one foot hoppers trying to release the water from their ears, strong winds, rain, and smiles. I’ve seen people do more than their share to help the group and varying responses to adversity and uncertainty. I’ve seen hand reach for flippers, clear blue water, my pillow.

I’ve smelled the salt logged air, veggies on the barbi, wet suits on the third day out, petrol from the motor, sunscreen, and the smell of my skin after it has been touched by the sun.

I’ve touched pencils above water and under it, experienced the smooth movement of the pencil writing on paper underwater, pens, keyboards, seastarts, corals, the metal ladder leading back into the boat. I’ve felt disconnected from reality, I’ve felt connected to this island. I’ve felt tired and anxious, excited and at ease.

I’ve commonly heard the noise of my breathing in a snorkel, the sound of a great lecturer, the curiosity of the mozzies. I’ve heard the exclamation of my love for this kind of learning.

I’ve tasted salt. Sweet too.

 

 

Today a package from across the world arrived carrying contacts, chocolate, Easter egg malt balls, and TOM’S OF MAINE TOOTHPASTE (to erase any damage the candy may do to my teeth). Thank you, Mum! I also got my lycra suit fitted for jelly fish protection at Lizard Island. I am lucky enough to be able to borrow a brand new suit, free of charge. We also met Darren this morning, the Reef ecology module academic director; he is a PhD student in Townsville studying Marine Biology. He seems really knowledgeable and enthusiastic about his work and is a total Lizard Island pro.

We will be conducting a Marine Field Project during our week and a half on Lizard Island. In the mornings we will be doing data collection in pairs. We will be examining niche overlap and competition between sympatric species of fishes located on the fringing reef in Watson’s Bay. In the afternoons we will have lecture and then be back in the water to explore the other diverse reefs on Lizard.

The semester seems to be speeding by too quickly. On this rainy afternoon I am in a café in Cairns trying to make some progress on up and coming work so that time doesn’t slip away from me. Lizard Island is our last ecology module before our Independent Study Projects begin and I plan on soaking up every minute of it. Below are a few long-over due photos of the past weeks!

From left to right: Picture 1: Me and Kate having lunch on “The Bluff Hike” near the Herberton Range in the Atherton Tablelands; Picture 2: Kevin x 2, Nadine, and I IN the cathedral fig tree near Yungaburra; Picture 3: JOEY IN THE POUCH (this is a real picture); Picture 4: Cassowary Spotted in the Wild at Mission Beach; Picture 5: Rebecca and I exploring Mission Beach in the afternoon before group dinner; Picture 6: Academic director of the Rainforest Ecology Module showing us how to tag birds. This is a gray headed robin which is a wet tropic endemic speices. We caught this one in a mist net that morning; Picture 7: Orienteering to the Bluff!

 

 

 

I’ve seen figs strangling, kangaroos in the trees, and an amethystine python basking in the sun with the silhouette of a turkey slowly moving through it’s 3.5 meter body.

I’ve felt the energy of the rainforest pulling me as I ran around Lake Eacham in Crater Lakes National Park right before the sun decided to descend.

I’ve felt the velvety underside of a “sexy ginger” plant. I’ve felt the water of a waterfall beating down on my back. I’ve felt stressed about finding an independent study project, then relief about finding one. I’ve felt my feet ache after a 6:45AM to 7:15PM day in the field without a platypus spotting.

I’ve heard the laughs of the kookaburras, the whip of a whip bird, and the clucks of chucks outside my window in the morning.

I’ve tasted lychees, beets, chillis, spicy capsicum spreads, tim tams, rock melon, and avocado.

I’ve seen mist nets, bird banding, embedded leeches, bunya pine trees, goannas, complex forests on nutrient rich basaltic soils, a prickly forest skink, old drunken Australian men, a grey headed Robin, bowerbirds, the cathedral fig, and the shining eyes of brush tailed possums illuminated by a red spotlight in the night.

This is the middle to end of our rainforest section portion of the semester. For my independent study I am going to be headed to Western Australia to work at UWA on the interactions between cyanobacteria and zooplankton. In the meantime, I love the rainforest. I am uncontrollably excited for the Reef and our time on Lizard Island that will come afterwards. More about the rainforest (complete with photos) when I get back to the big city early next week!

 

On Saturday we got back from our week in the ‘accessible Australian outback.’ On Friday, we spent a wonderful last night with our homestay families. I forgot to mention in my last post that I had quite an eclectic family experience. I mentioned that I had a 16 year old sister, but failed to mention that I also had a 17 year old German host brother and a 21 year old host sister from Japan. Quite the worldly family we were. That is one amazing thing about Australia—you can meet a person from anywhere in the world here. I have heard from others that you can also meet Australians wherever you travel too. People like traveling to Australia and Australians like traveling elsewhere. Funny how that works.

The last night in my homestay was a bit emotional. It is amazing how close you can become with people in only two short weeks. One thing I really liked about this homestay was the way I could so clearly communicate with my homestay family. When I did the experiment for international living with SIT to France after my freshman year of high school I really struggled with the language barrier. I fully recognize the value in being in a homestay to learn another language, but because we shared the same language I was able to pick up on the subtle differences between Australian and American culture and was able to connect with my host mom and siblings quickly and in a way that I felt I was totally myself. I liked that I could tell more easily if I was being misperceived.

Before heading southwest to Undara Volcanic National Park to camp all the homestay families got together for a delicious brekkie at a spot in Cairns. Leaving our watches and cameras and all electronics behind we jumped into what I can only describe as outback cartrucks. I suppose it is kind of like an elongated jeep but there are benches in the back. Unlike Jeeps they are purely functional (nothing on them for show) and they run on diesel. At Undara we met Russell Butler, an aboriginal elder and his son, Darren. At 65 Russell is a great grandfather. His family lived in the area that we traveled around for the next few days. At Undara we visited ancient lava tubes, hiked on craters, and did our best to convert to “murri time” (days without watches and an attempt to live in the moment as aborigines did). We went on walks with Russell and Darren in the bush and they taught us about the plants and trees used in traditional aboriginal culture for medicine, cleaning, art, and weapon making. One night we went on a night tour of the lava tubes and saw upwards of 500,000 bats (I actually don’t think this is an overestimation). We also saw a childrens python in a tree eating one of the bats. We were all hoping that it would rain because the rain impairs bat’s sonar and so there are tons of snakes out on a rainy night trying to catch some dinner. We have been seeing so much amazing wildlife and so many gorgeous and varied environments I don’t even know what to do with myself.

Now we are back at the hostel in Cairns, which now seems somewhat like home. We are attending lectures in the morning, working on an aboriginal culture interview and survey project, finding/securing independent studies, and preparing our flora and fauna presentations for the rainforest section. The rainy season has begun and it is going to come harder. We were quite lucky on the camping trip but I can smell the mercury every afternoon signaling rain. Tropical rain it a totally different ball game… Let it rain!

 

We are reaching the end of the first week in our homestays. Most of us have been placed in suburbs of Cairns, anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes outside of the city. I am living with a single mom and her daughter in Trinity Park, which is about a half hour commute by bus into Cairns. The bus system surely fits the stereotype of laid back Australia—every time I have taken the bus it has been around 10 minutes late. But it doesn’t matter at all because no one cares and no one gets frustrated about it! Somehow people get where they need to be on time.

The area I am in is a classic Australian suburb. All of the houses are one story, many have pools, and several boast solar panels. I am a 20 minute run from a gorgeous beach. Being summer here, it is the height of JELLY season, so getting in the water is not an option (some beaches have jelly nets but not this one). The box and irukandji jellies are rampant and can land you in the hospital with one quick sting (and the irukandji are so small they often make it through the nets).

During our homestay we are conducting a suburban bird project. In the early mornings (6:00AM) I go out and bird watch for an hour. Our first paper is going to be written on our findings of this project. We are comparing the abundance and diversity of birds in a 15m x 100m x 2m (3,000m2) suburban transect of land to a natural transect of the same size. I have a SIT group member as a neighbor and we are planning to compile our data so we will be analyzing data from two 6,000m2 plots. One of the aims of the project is to examine ecological determinants of bird community composition, so we will also sample the vegetation in our transects. I am enjoying bolstering my bird watching skills—and it is amazing how quickly I have learned about the birds in my area. When I went in to Cairns yesterday I could identify almost all of the birds that I saw. Everybody has a small bird watcher inside of them I am beginning to believe.

Next on board for the semester is the Aboriginal camping trip, which I am looking forward to a lot. The rain has not yet started pelting down relentlessly here so we are hoping that it isn’t all being saved for when we are sleeping outside but either way it will be a blast. Hearing my homestay mum talk about their preparations for cyclone Yassy last year was crazy, quite similar to what I remember of the ice storm of 1997 in Maine. So for now, I’m birding, swimming, suncreening, eating veggie aussie burgers (a veggie burger with beet root, pineapple, and an egg on top), running, walking, and woking to absorb every second of every day.

Until next time!

 

I left the States just about two weeks ago now. I left a snowy Maine, flew to snowy Colorado to stay with a friend in Boulder for a couple of days, to a slightly warmer San Francisco. Fourteen hours later I was across the world in Sydney and four hours after that I was in my home for the next four months, Cairns, Queensland, Australia.  I took a PADI open water dive course at Deep Sea Divers Den before the SIT course started, which included two days in the pool and two days diving on the Great Barrier Reef. I saw fish of every color, sharks, turtles, sponges, sea cucumbers, and giant clams. The coral and the wildlife it supports is awe-inspiring. Although, when on the reef, I couldn’t help but think of the danger the corals are in. The salinity of the ocean is greatly increasing and diseases are spreading at a rapid rate. I’ve decided next time I return to the reef I want it to be as a scientist working to find ways to preserve it.

The SIT group is wonderful. There are 16 girls and 3 boys, which is a common ratio for SIT trips. All the people seem engaged, interested, interesting, and intelligent. Being around like-minded people about the environment is going to greatly enhance my learning here, I can already tell. I have much to learn from my peers here. The hostel we are staying in is SO NICE. It has a pool, a great common space, and really nice rooms.  The academic director is so knowledgeable. Yesterday, the first full day of the program, we took a hike at the Cairns botanical gardens, met with our homestay coordinator for a snack of delicious tropical fruit (including lychee which is my favorite) and then met with the two of the SIT teachers to check in and start talking about our independent study projects. Today we head downtown to Reef Teach for some more introductory material and maybe our first official lecture!

I have learned a couple new aussie vocab words. Togs = bathing suit, fanny pack = bum pack, university = unni, diaper = nappy. More to come!