Australia journal - June 1999

In the water

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The weather seemed promising Wednesday morning.  From our bedroom window we saw blue sky and a few white clouds.  There was a brief rain before we left for breakfast, but Rita hopefully pronounced it a typical tropical shower.  It was partly cloudy, warm, with distinct shadows on the ground as we walked over to the restaurant for breakfast.

I've been curious about the length of time employees spend at Heron Island.  It seems to me that a posting this remote can take a toll on people even as it provides some memorable experiences both scientific and social. Genevieve, our waitress at Table 56, told me she's been here about three months and hopes to stay another three.  "I'm putting some money back so I can travel," she said.  "I'm here with my boyfriend, who is a porter, and that makes it much easier.  Otherwise I might spend all my money on cigarettes and alcohol and leave here with nothing.  When it rains here, there's absolutely nothing to do."

It was still sunny when we walked over to the dive shop to rent full wet suits and flippers.

You know where this is going, don't you?

The sun was shining when I took the snorkeling lesson at the restaurant pool.  While we waited for the rest of the students, I chatted with the young dive shop employee who was there to teach the class.  "Tomorrow I will have been here nine months," she said.  When I asked her how long she planned to stay, she replied, "I'd like to stay at least another nine months.  I love it here!"

What do you do to pass the time?  "I'm an avid reader," she said.  "I have a wall full of books at my home in Cairns.  I brought some favorites with me, but my collection has grown.  I bring books back from the mainland every time."  You have to get away from here now and then, she added.  But it's a great place to read, and write, and paint.

By the time we finished with the snorkeling lesson, the sky was full of heavy gray clouds again.  We were due to meet Matt at the helipad at 11:30 for some snorkeling, so from 10:30 until 11:15 I sat in the room writing in my journal and listening to the wind whooshing through the palms.  The clouds came and went; the light on the water outside changed from moment to moment.

At 11:15 we began to struggle into our wet suits.  This was my first time, and that sucker was tight.  But I made all my limbs go all the way in and fastened everything that needed fastening, and off we went down the sandy path, moving like those subterranean geeks in Invaders from Mars.

And guess what?  We got out in it!

We met Matt at the helipad promptly at 11:30, spat in our masks and lurched into the water.  It was a bit cloudy down there, and the current was a bit daunting, but we mucked around on the bommies for a good 45 minutes.  I spent a good amount of time hovering above a school of tiny, iridescent purple fish, inspected some ugly sea cucumbers, handled an orange sea star (I somehow expected them to be mushy and flexible, but they're pretty hard and stiff), and marveled at the variety of coral growing on this reef.  Didn't see any stingrays, moray eels, sharks, etc. - those guys are much more populous over at the edge of the shelf, and we still haven't been able to  get on a boat out there.  Today's afternoon snorkel boat was restricted to experienced snorkelers due to current conditions.  But our excursion from the shore was a lot of fun, and we started to feel like we were getting our money's worth on the aquatic front.

The sun remained out for much of the early afternoon, but by 3:00 or so there was a layer of clouds filtering the light and the wind was kicking up again. Rita went for a reef walk, using this yellow plastic device that looks like a megaphone but with a wider opening at the mouth end (to look through) and with clear plastic at the wide end (to put in the water).  There were a couple dozen people walking around out there, bent over with these cones in their hands, when I went out to take a look.  There were two women using the giant chess board on the deck outside the bar, too: two-foot-tall pawns and the rest to scale.

With the weather reasonably calm and the wind gusting only occasionally, I grabbed my tape recorder and went out to collect some sounds.

Heron Island is a surprisingly noisy place, with a good deal of construction going on at the resort and some sort of machinery operating constantly at the University of Queensland research station.  And there are fairly regular helicopter takeoffs and landings.  But the birds were voluble, and the sound of the surf at the edge of the reef was soothing, and the rustle of the wind in the trees kicked into high gear now and then.

The bird sounds I collected were almost all noddy.  There were three distinct sounds coming from these birds: a keening cry, like the sound made by the orphan at the research station the other day; a quiet sort of clicking crackling conversation between pairs at rest on tree limbs; and an oscillating call that sounded more like what you'd expect from a bird, issued at higher volume by birds at perch or in flight.

As I was wandering around in the compound with my recording rig, Rita came in from another circumambulation of the island and we took a walk on the forest track, where the noddy population was even more dense.  I collected many more fine sounds, including some up-close recordings of birds taking off from branches, flying past my microphone, and so on.

We went to the bar to hear Matt's cocktail set, which was due to start at around 6:00.  "I'm gonna give it a pass," he said.  I asked him if he's be willing to sing his parody song "The Yobbos' Barbie" for me; he said he be glad to, and after admiring my DAT recorder for a few minutes he decided we should go ahead and play some stuff together and fired up the sound and lights.

Dang, it was fun!  A lot of songs I haven't played in 25 years: "Father and Son" by Cat Stevens; "I've Got a Name" by Jim Croce.  And we made some special magic on "Mr. Bojangles," with some really nice guitar interactions between verses.  We attracted a crowd and made 'em happy.

After half an hour or so, I lef the stage so Matt could perform some original material and his cover of "Only 19," his arrangement of a song by the Australian band Red Gum.  Then we headed off to have dinner.

People have been coming up to us in the restaurant, on the paths around the resort, in the shop, etc., to say how much they like the music we've been making.  Many people have expressed surprise that two people who just met two days ago could sound so good, but we know that's not such a big deal: Two good musicians with a common repertoire and a willingness to listen and leave room for each other can make great music right away.  But it's nice that people appreciate it, and I must say, the chemistry between us is pretty special.

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