"Like a ripple spreading through water, every indigenous child realising his or her dream becomes the inspiration for another" – Follow the Dream
Follow the Dream: Partnership for Success is a program for high achieving secondary students, supporting them through their studies, ensuring that they have the chance to follow their dreams and have meaningful post-school destinations.
I've been working closely with the program in Gerladton for the past two years. During this time we have spent a lot of time discussing how science is applicable to everyday life, different scientific disciplines, and the various career paths science can lead to.
As a result of my position as a research fellow with Bush Heritage Australia, classroom discussions often turned towards the biology, ecology, and geology of Hamelin Pool, found within the Shark Bay World Heritage Area. In particular, understanding science in the area including long-term environmental monitoring, which underpins the conservation and management implications for the region.
To demonstrate the science that's currently happening in Shark Bay a camp was organised for the students to travel to Hamelin Station Reserve and attend the science fair held in August. While the students were there, they listened and learnt about the various work that scientists are undertaking in the region, as well as gave presentation on the importance of long-term environmental monitoring.
The next logical step in exposing the students to science was integrating them into fieldwork. This involved a four-day field camp based out of Hamelin Station Reserve, incorporating both marine and terrestrial environments and techniques used for long-term monitoring. The itinerary was as follows:
Day Zero: Arrived at Hamelin Station Reserve, set up camp, and had a quick discussion about what the camp was going to entail. The day was finished by watching the sunset over the Stromatolites of Hamelin Pool.
Day One: Traveled around the margins of Hamelin Pool to observe the different Stromatolites and discuss how the various environmental conditions affect their shapes.
Day Two: Started with an early morning wake-up to make it to Monkey Mia for the first dolphin experience of the day. We then travelled to Red Cliff to explore the local geology, followed by a soak in the Peron Homestead hot tub, which is fed with 40°C water from the 540m deep aquifer. This provided a great opportunity to break from the cold wind, and discuss how water temperature increases with respect to depth in the subsurface. After a nice packed lunch on the Denham foreshore we headed to Ocean Park for a detailed tour through the aquarium where we learnt about local marine animals. Our final stop, on the way back to Hamelin Station Reserve was shell beach to look at the mono-specific shell assemblages and discussed restricted environments. This enormous day was finished off with a walking spotlighting tour.
Day Three: Early to rise to set up pit-fall and funnel traps to be used in the annual Bush Heritage Hamelin Station Reserve fauna survey. It was important to start early in order to avoid digging trenches in the heat of the day. The afternoon was spent decorating our ‘gratitude jars’, which ware to be filled with happy moments and memories to be accessed at a later date. After all jars were completed, Larissa (Hamelin’s Field Officer) gave a full run down on camera traps and showed camera trap highlights from previous monitoring surveys at Hamelin.
Day Four: In the morning, we checked the pit-fall and funnel traps for animals that were set on day three. This exercise was followed by packing up camp and getting ready to head home.
Every day during the field camp we had a debrief session. This important summary was used to review the day, answer any questions (looking up answers we weren’t sure on), and talking about each student's favourite and/or most interesting part of the day. Through our discussions, we described and wrote down some of the highlights from each student. Here are a few:
Early Sunday morning, we drove to Monkey Mia from Hamelin Station to see the dolphins. At about 10 minutes to 8, we made our way down to the shoreline to begin the dolphin experience. The presenter explained the history of the dolphins and their interactions with humans over the previous years. He spoke about how the rules and regulations have changed over time and how it's important that we don’t feed or interact with the dolphins outside the sanctuary. This is because we can infect them with our bacteria and cause them to lose natural instincts and they can become dependent on the food source they receive from tourists.
Due to over-interaction between humans and dolphins in the past, mother dolphins have left their calves alone and avoided nursing, causing high calf death rates. As a result of the rules, dolphin calf mortality rates have declined. I was chosen from the group of tourists on the beach to feed a fish to a Monkey Mia dolphin named Surprise. I waded out into the water, and without touching the dolphin, fed her a slimy fish. I’ve never been so close to a dolphin before, so it was incredible to have such an amazing experience.
My favourite part of the field camp was going to the Ocean Park Aquarium in Denham and experiencing all of the local (apart from one Barramundi) marine wildlife. We had an amazing guide named Mike, who took us through the aquarium and informed us about all of the marine animals.
My favorite part was witnessing the shark feeding and learning all the fun facts about sharks. The best fact was that the sharks actually have small 'teeth' on their skin called dermal denticles. You wouldn’t expect shark skin to be covered in teeth!
These teeth are packed closely together and face towards the tail, which can feel smooth or very rough depending on which way you run your fingers. The main purpose of these teeth is to act as an armour against predators and also to help reduce drag while swimming. Swimsuit companies are trying to copy this texture in swimsuits to help swimmers move faster through the water.
I would recommend this experience to everyone because seeing the sharks feeding up close was an unusual and exciting thing to witness.
One of the most interesting experiences of this trip was going to the camel track near Booldah Well, on the west side of Hamelin Pool. In the early 1900s, a path was made through the Stromatolites for camels to take wool from local stations out to deeper waters to be loaded on boats and shipped off. Due to this disturbance from the camels, the Stromatolites have never recovered in this track. In this region, the dominant Stromatolite type is seif stromatolites, which form in long lines, caused by strong southerly winds and Langmuir circulation.
Another thing I liked about this area was examining the different types of shells. In restricted marine environments, you'll find decreased species diversity in increased abundances, as seen in Hamelin Pool by the Hamelin cockle that dominates the sediments. Hamelin Pool hasn’t always been a restricted marine environment, which can be seen in the much older rock formation lying underneath the Stromatolites. Here, the diversity of shells is much higher, suggesting around 100,00 years ago, when this rock formation was deposited, the marine environment was much less restrict then today's environment.
During this trip, I learned a lot about how to read and interpret the environment around us and also about what this can tell us about the past.
On Monday morning we had a really early start in order to help out Ben (the ecologist) set up pit-fall and funnel traps. The buckets for the pit-fall traps were already installed in the ground from previous monitoring surveys and had been marked by GPS.
Ben used the GPS to locate the buried pit-fall traps. Once located, we dug 10cm deep trenches on either side of the traps. In the trenches we erected black plastic fences as guides to direct small animals towards the traps.
Inside the traps we put a toilet-paper roll in order to provide shelter for animals that may fall in. For funnel traps we dug a trench and installed a plastic fence, then positioned two funnel traps, one on each side of the fence. Due to the design of the funnel traps, animals are guided down the fence and into the trap, where they're unable to escape.
In order to prevent overheating of animals caught in the trap, a silver sun reflector was installed over the funnels. The work was difficult and dirty, but I'm looking forward to discovering the small animals on Hamelin Station Reserve and having the chance to get up close to, and handle them.
After field work and packing up camp we took some time to reflect on the day's experiences:
Tuesday morning: Our final morning and an eventful one. We woke up to the sun rising and the clouds were overcast. We headed out at 6am to the first set of traps. The first trap we checked had only a few ants, a scorpion and an earwig, but Ben used this trap as an example to show us how to thoroughly check the traps for fauna.
First, we were to look inside the toilet paper roll to see if any animal had taken shelter there, then we were to take a stick and stir around in the trap to see if any animal were buried in the sand. If the trap had a lot of ants, we needed to sprinkle a bit of insecticide around the trap so that the ants didn’t attack any of the trapped animals. The rest of the traps at this location were mostly empty, so we loaded back into the troopy and headed to the next location.
On arrival, Ben came around to surprise us with a Jan’s Banded Snake from the previous location. While we were examining the snake, Larissa and the others were off checking the traps and came back with a Thorny Devil. He was still cold from the morning air temperature, which made him very slow moving, but after some time in Mickala’s hands, he began to warm-up and started to become more energetic.
Then we discovered a Knob-tailed Gecko in a pit-fall trap, with huge eyes, skin pinkish in colour, a white belly, and a large knob as its tail. After observing the animals, we had to measure them, weigh them, record their sex (if possible) and mark them in order to prevent duplicates in data if the animal was caught again later in the week. Then we released the animals under cover to protect them from other predators.
We checked a total of six locations but because we had to go back to Geraldton, we couldn’t check them all. In the traps we did check we found a total of two Thorny Devils, one Jan’s Banded Snake, two scorpions, a few spiders, and a number of other geckos, skinks and dragons including the endemic Hamelin Skink and a few legless lizards. We had an amazing trip to Hamelin Station and we look forward to coming back to the next field camps.
This field camp highlights just how paramount it is to get students out of the classroom and into the field, actively applying the science they've learnt. The students were so engaged, soaking up the environment, writing in their field notebooks and making their own observations and conclusions, truly showing their potential as the next generation of scientists.
It was an incredible experience for me, the students and everybody else involved. I can’t wait do this again next year.
Funding for this trip was provided by NACC and Bush Heritage Australia.