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Swimming with a green turtle at Heron Island. 

My time on Heron Island was so structured, more structured than any other place I’ve been abroad, because I was there doing research for one of my marine science classes. That being said, I never knew what day it was or what time it was, it all sort of blended together.

I had just got in from Fiji, and then we took an 8-hour bus ride from Brisbane to Gladstone to get to the ferry, which was then another 2 hours (of the roughest boat ride BY FAR of my life, probably 25% of the class was vomiting) or so to the island. Then everyday we had our 5 meals (breakfast, morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea, and dinner) at the same time everyday and everyday consisted of several hours of life-changing snorkeling and free diving experiences. So the moral of the story is, the days really ran into each other so the organization of this post may not be very sequential.

We left campus on the bus pretty late at night, so I pretty much slept until we stopped for our first bathroom break, where there was a giant kangaroo lit up. Along the Queensland coast there are big statue type things like the big pineapple, the big kangaroo, etc, so it was cool to see that landmark. We got to Gladstone and hopped on the ferry, which as I mentioned was really really rough. This was a really nice, big catamaran with stabilizers (which they didn’t turn on till late), but the boat was just getting tossed around and the captain had to bring it to a complete stop a few times getting over the swells. Apparently it was a calmer day out, and when it’s really rough 90% of the people on board spew…yikes…

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Shores of Heron Island. 

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A huge awesome hermit crab at the research station touch tank. He was about the size of my fist.

Anyway, our first glimpse of the outer reef islands was amazing, these tiny sand islands with reef everywhere straight off the beach. As we got closer to Heron Island we saw the shipwreck that was brought for the breakwater and then the island quickly appeared. Right before getting off the boat, I saw an Eagle ray fly out of the water a good 4 or 5 feet and plunge back in, it was such an amazing way to start the trip and something I’ll never forget. The weather could have been better (it was pouring and super windy) but I was so stoked to be at Heron Island, I just ran off the boat practically skipping on the dock. We got settled in that night into our rooms and had a wonderful warm soup for dinner. I didn’t bring any warm clothes, just board shorts a 2 t-shirts and 2 tank tops, so that soup was a transcendent experience. In fact the food for the whole trip was super good, an older couple whose names were Maggie and Roger made all the food from scratch. Maggie was a pistol, if you were on her good side, life was good, but if not…may god have mercy on your soul.

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First glimpse of the water at Heron Island. The shipwreck is in the upper right corner. The reef flat is on the left and the underwater wall is a failed attempt by the research station to keep water in the reef flat at low tide to study corals and other organisms. 

That night we were warned by our teacher about the Mutton birds, which she said make a funny sound. We were also warned not to step on their burrows, which are impossible to see at night. As I was getting to my bed, I heard a loud noise that sounded like a ghost baby. There’s no better way to describe it, it sounded exactly like a ghost baby. Indeed, it was the call of the mutton birds, which they only do at night (take a listen here!). Heron has hundreds of them, if not thousands, so it was LOUD. Eventually I got to sleep to get ready for a morning snorkel.

In the morning we had a sunrise snorkel. It was so beautiful, the sun rose right over the island, we got to get a good look at the shipwreck, and I saw my first turtle. It was pretty surreal looking an animal in the eye that may be older than you are and just swimming with it, without either of you feeling threatened. It’s a special moment when you can just float with an animal like a turtle in such a harmonious way. The same could be said for the stingrays I saw throughout the Heron trip, even though they have the potential to harm, under the water things change, things are peaceful.

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Sunrise over Heron Island. 

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A full rainbow over the shipwreck that greeted me on my first snorkel at Heron. A full rainbow! How often do you see one of those! There’s a little double rainbow as well!

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My first turtle!

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Swimming with a cowtail sting ray, not a bad life this guy has!

Later on in the snorkel, we saw Ben the loggerhead turtle. Ben is extremely old for a loggerhead and my teachers believe he is over the age of 60. Every interaction I had with Ben was extraordinary, but the first time seeing him was rather sad. I didn’t realize that he could still swim, because he was just covered in algae on the ocean floor and one of his fins is severely damaged. Later on he would show me that he’s still got plenty of life in that shell and Ben proved to be one of my best underwater friends of the trip.

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My first encounter with Ben. His left front fin (shown) is the damaged one. 

The next morning, I went on the best free dive of my life. I said that after every single free dive on Heron, so it’s hard to pick the best one, but this one may have taken the cake. We took the boats out to a reef area a bit further out. This gave us the opportunity to see a huge diversity of corals that formed what looked like an underwater Avatar. The abundance and diversity of fish was incredible, I’d never seen so many colorful fish in my life. I also saw an eagle ray, which was incredible.

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An eagle ray down deep. 

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More fish than I even thought was possible. 

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Fish coming out of the reef.

However, what made this dive great was the Manta ray. I heard my friend Sara yell “MANTA!!!!!!!! MANTA!!!!!!” So I swam as fast as I could over to her and saw the most incredible animal I’ve ever seen underwater. It was majestic. It was transcendent. It cannot be described in words. It was so beautiful, so graceful; it was so peaceful even with me swimming along. It felt like a religious experience. I was swimming as fast as I could to keep up, trying to film it all with my go pro, while it was casually flapping it’s wings swimming very slowly. This was a very young and small manta, maybe about 8 feet across, which hails in comparison to the 25-26 feet they can grow to. Still, it was hands down the best experience of my time in Australia.

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My first glimpse of the manta!!! So stoked!!

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Swimming along with the manta!

In the afternoon, we went for walk around in the reef flat during low tide. I got to see a lot of corals really close up and some of the beautiful and extremely colorful giant clams. We also caught a carpet shark, which was pretty cool to see a small reef shark. I also found some sea stars, sea hares, and a load of cucumbers.

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A carpet shark on the reef flat.

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Walking on the reef flat. 

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Giant clam (photo credit to my dive and research partner Edgar Wong)

Around sunset, I went out to the pier and saw a shark feeding on schooling fish. The fish went VERY close to shore, as in they were in about 6 inches of water, in order to get away from the shark. I was absolutely shocked to see the shark follow them, with its tail totally out of the water. It nearly beached itself to get those fish, so they must have been pretty tasty. I decided to jump in and get a better look. I could also see at least 10 stingrays and guitarfish every time I walked to the pier.

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A school of fish swimming for their lives from the lemon shark.

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Up close with the lemon shark. 

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Guitarfish. 

That night a few friends and I walked around the island (a 15 minute walk) to look for baby turtles. We didn’t find any, but we went out to the pier with a few good headlamps and shined them on the water. We were surprise at what we saw; turtles were coming up every few seconds. We stayed out there for quite some time looking at the turtles, including Ben who always wanted to say hello to us.

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It was super hard to take a photo of the turtles at night, but if you see the dark spot where the two lights cross, that is Ben. I couldn’t use flash because I didn’t want to harm the animals.

 The next day I got to go on a scuba dive. A scuba dive on the Great Barrier Reef. This is the stuff bucket lists are made of. My dive buddy Edgar (from Hong Kong) and I went out on the boat and did a drift dive, so we didn’t have to kick much underwater. We saw 5-7 sharks just lazing around on the bottom of the ocean together, a turtle, and more fish than I’ve ever seen. It was one of what now seemed like an endless number of special experiences at Heron Island.

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3 black tip reef sharks hanging out on the bottom. 

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The underwater world of a coral reef is like a real life Avatar. 

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A turtle from 20 meters down. 

The next day, I was back snorkeling. I did research snorkeling in the morning and then my class did a harlem shake on the pier in the afternoon. A bunch of us jumped off the pier doing backflips or spins or whatever you could do and went snorkeling. The main attraction of the snorkel was swimming with the giant Queensland Grouper named Gus. Gus has been at Heron Island for 20+ years and weighs in at about 400lbs, which is much smaller than other Queensland Groupers which can get up to 800-1,200 lbs. Gus was pretty shy and kept his distance for the most part. I got the chance to swim with him for about 10 seconds. It was a humbling experience swimming with a fish that big and that old.

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Gus from afar, he was MASSIVE!

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Gus up close, this really doesn’t do him justice. He was about 170kg/375lbs.

I then went out to the shipwreck where I saw several turtles and sharks. I had two really memorable moments. One where I “grabbed shell” (Finding Nemo reference, in other words touched a turtle shell) and the other where I touched the cauldal fin (tail) of a Black Tip Reef Shark. These two points on the trip really summed up just how in touch I felt with the ocean and all the animals at Heron. I also got to see Ben the Loggerhead swimming around, which was a huge relief for me to see that he was ok in person. He swam surprisingly well for having a bad fin and seemed to be doing quite well for his age. On the swim back in, I saw a Wobbegong, which is a strange shark that is common around Australia. It was maybe the strangest thing I saw all trip and I was super stoked to have found it (they are pretty camouflaged). I have never felt more at home in the ocean, and I easily could have spent my entire day diving and lost track of time until the sun went down.

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Grabbin shell!

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Hanging out with some turtle friends.

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Posing for the camera.

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Ben swimming quite well! (photo credit to my dive and research partner Edgar Wong)

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A turtle at the shipwreck with a monitoring device on it’s shell. 

That night most of my classmates went to the bar at the resort but I decided to go out to the pier. I went out there and saw Ben a few more times. Every time I looked into his eyes, I couldn’t help but imagine all the things he’d probably seen and done in his life underwater. It was the most fascinating thing to me. The stars were out and the clouds receded for the first time during the trip that night, which was perfect since I didn’t have a great light. After saying goodbye to Ben and wishing him well, I went to bed to prepare for the boat ride the next day.

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One last walk around the island. 

The next day we went back to Brisbane and concluded what was an absolutely unforgettable trip. The entire experience on Heron Island was one of the most incredible of my life. I came out of the water every time saying “THAT WAS THE BEST SNORKEL/DIVE IVER EVER HAD IN MY LIFE,” as each one felt like it outdid the last. It is truly one of the most special places I’ve ever been, and I hope to go back one day. Until then, I hope Ben and his friends keep it safe.

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Ben waving his fin right as I left. I took it as a goodbye from my underwater friend. 

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