Heron Island excursion

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On Monday 2 October, when most Abbotsleigh students and staff would have still been fast asleep in bed, 21 girls from Years 10 and 11 along with four Science Teachers were meeting at Sydney airport. We were off to Heron Island. This excursion has taken place every two years since the mid 1990s. Heron Island is a coral cay located near the Tropic of Capricorn in the southern Great Barrier Reef, 80 km north-east of Gladstone. The island is a world heritage listed Marine National Park, meaning that all flora and fauna is protected, so the island is a nature lover's paradise with the emphasis on enjoying natural beauty. It is a truly amazing location to spend six days carrying out scientific field work

While we were on the island, we stayed at the University of Queensland Heron Island Research Station. The girls were divided into four groups to carry out field work, lab work and kitchen duties. Each group had an Abbotsleigh teacher as well as a scientific researcher to help them complete the activities. The field work was amazing. During the week we were out on the reef every day. The girls examined 5 by 5 m quadrats of the reef and then in the lab drew up detailed colour maps of their section. 

 

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We walked from the shore to the edge of the rampart counting Tridacna and holothurians (sea cucumbers) along a 4 m wide transect. Each 20 m we stopped to examine a 1 x 1 m quadrat. The girls became experts at identifying the coral and algae species and noticed the changes in both as we moved further from the shore. Back in the lab following on from completing the transect, the girls calculated population estimates of the Tridacna (around 600 000) and holothurians (more than 6 million) on the 10 km2 that make up the reef at Heron Island. A favourite activity was the coral-fish association exercise where we simply floated in the water over a patch of branching coral to watch the fish and observe their behaviours; were they playing, being territorial, looking after young or feeding. 

Heron Island is home to several species of birds such as the Eastern Reef Egret and White-Bellied Sea Eagle  as well as being a breeding place for other species such as the Black Noddy and Wedge-Tailed Shearwater. One of our activities was to count burrows in 5 x 5 m quadrats to estimate the population of shearwaters. Our answer - about 30,000. 

 

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We snorkelled in the harbour most days and saw huge rays lying on the sand, turtles and a truly phenomenal variety of tropical fish. There were two snorkels from a boat. These deep water snorkels are exceptional opportunities to view huge plate corals, coral bommies and simply drift snorkel watching the fish dart in and around. We were lucky to encounter turtles swimming up to us to see what we were up to! 

There were opportunities to paddle in the warm water, photograph the sunrise and sunset, simply walk on the sand, go out at high tide in the evening to watch for turtles coming up to lay eggs and what I suspect was a highlight the opportunity to see 240 six-month-old turtles in a giant tank prior to their release to the ocean. 

 

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Each day there was a presentation from one of the researchers accompanying us. James, Luke, Sarah and Marissa work in universities in Australia and the USA. We appreciate that they give up their time to accompany us and for the help they provide. The talks were on topics including reef formation, types and inhabitants, reefs through time, human impacts on reefs and dusty roads, snowy hilltops, dingy basements and ... camels, and these were an informative and entertaining part of each day. The groups, under the guidance of general supervisor Brett, took responsibility for preparing the fantastic food that we ate.

 

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Thank you to Dr Fuchs for all her work organising the trip, to Mrs Filan, Dr Oppenheim and Mrs Taylor for coming with me and spending the week on Heron Island. 

Finally, thank you to the 21 girls who travelled in the holiday to see the wonders of the Barrier Reef up close. We hope you enjoyed yourself and have many wonderful memories.

 

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