Friday, February 18, 2011

Airports, Aussies & Alcohol

As the arid landscape slips past, the girl next to me is carefully applying fake eyelashes from her collection of at least a dozen. She slips out of flip-flops and into stilettos before disembarking the bus at a road stop for our lunch break. Our chariot is a Greyhound with 2 elder Aussies blokes taking turns at the wheel and as storytellers on the microphone. I am on my way to Monkey Mia and it is day 4 of my expedition. (It was a trip, but quickly developed into something far more challenging)
My journey began Tuesday morning at 4:30 am while I frantically packed for my 6:00 am departure. Reading 17 on the thermometer forced me to slip on sneakers and stow my flip-flops. It would just until I got inside the airport I convinced myself. Mom took me to Portsmouth where I grabbed the bus to Logan. The bus ride was peaceful, no cell phones please. I feel like in American society today this is worst than burning the flag. We were detoured due to heavy traffic, but a back road sent us past 6 deer on a frozen lake. I do believe an appropriate way to bid New England farewell.
Once in Boston the adventure truly began. I composed myself, although I knew I was going to be a sweaty mess, disheveled and looking as though I had run up several flights of stairs wearing a heavy winter jacket and carrying a large sack of potatoes. I rolled my entourage of 4 bags up to the self-check and the computer beeped at me with each failed attempt to get my boarding pass. Oh shit. I will be honest, leaving this time felt a little off. We had just put Maggie, our beloved yellow lab down on Friday and as a family we were all struggling a bit. Duncan called from the Bob Barker and was able to say goodbye over speakerphone. Not the week I had planned on having at home. I really felt bad for leaving and wondered if it was the right thing to do.
A Delta assistant informed me I would need to go to the counter. Mind you, I had attempted to do this in the first place and was told I needed to self-check in. Once there I slung my bags onto the scale, wincing. The first was one was clear, but the Pelican case was giving me the stink eye, knowing full well it would tip the scale. 67 lbs and that will be $150.00. YOWZA. I asked her why the charge. I was flying Virgin across the Pacific and their limit was 2 bags up to 70 lbs each. Does not matter she insisted. I asked kindly if she could check for me because in the past it had been the baggage limits for the carrier you were going international with. “ I have been working here 27 years and I think I know how it works.” Anxious to prove me wrong she called the manager over. He informed her that I, in fact, was correct and this was confirmed by another coworker. I could literally see the steam coming out of her ears. 27 years, but maybe time for a refresher course? I thanked her and my smile was reciprocated with a glare. Glad to see I was flying the friendly skies.
Now 3 hours to kill. No worries, due to heavy complaint, Logan now has free wireless Internet. I am terribly behind on work, as I spent most of the prior week lying on the floor with a cancer-ridden dog that still continued to wag her tail. I kept thinking of that as my adventure continued and each step became more challenging than the last. No matter what if you can keep wagging your tail, things will be better. Easier said than done.
My flight from Boston to Minneapolis was over quickly, as I slept the entire way. Another quick hop to LAX and then things started to get interesting. The flight was delayed and I fell asleep waiting next to the gate. A nice lady woke me up, so that I could board the plane. I really wasn’t paying attention to the time or the delay; just wondering how much of the 15 hour flight I would be able to sleep. My vegetarian in flight meals weren’t bad and I watched parts of several movies as I moved in and out of sleep. As we were being told to put our seats in the upright position I decided to pull out my itinerary and see how much of a layover I had. It was then that I discovered my connecting flight had already left. I asked the stewardess and she said ground crew would be able to help. I disembarked and all Hell broke lose. The baggage claim at Sydney airport might be one of the most manic places on earth. With no logical flow of traffic, it is complete chaos.
I waited patiently as both my cases came flying off the shoot and onto the belt I managed to score a cart with a great white shark on it. I felt that maybe the situation was improving; I was wrong. I turned around and saw one of my travel companions and said I would be late getting into Perth. No worries there flight was delayed as well. See you on the other side. Now that I had my bags I was at the back of a line of what seemed like millions of people. I found an official looking bloke and asked if there was a possibility if moving ahead as I needed to catch a flight because I had already missed my first one. He pointed to a line and I quickly moved through. No questions asked by the customs agent just a stamp and on my way. This is when I entered the gauntlet. When you clear customs you are dumped into a whirlpool of families, drivers and worn out travelers. I wove my way through trying to be polite as I saw the light at the end of the tunnel. I am sure I hit at least one small child, but it was such a blur. I just needed to get to the Virgin Domestic travel counter on the opposite end of approximately 150 people crammed in a small space like cattle. No problem.
At the counter I was informed the fastest way to Perth was via Melbourne, not a direct flight? Sure, just get me there. I was handed my bus ticket and whisked off across town (probably not across town, but it seemed like it) to the domestic airport. The flight was a blur and I am not even sure how long I was in Melbourne or that we even landed there.
I arrived in Perth 4 hours later than planned a sweaty mess. It is summer in Australia and about 90 degrees by 8:00 am, of you were wondering. As I moved to the baggage carousel I heard the words of doom over the intercom. Jillian Morris please come to the baggage claim area. Oh boy. So my one suitcase has decided to spend some extra time in Sydney. Why not? I tried to explain to the woman where I was staying at Monkey Mia, in a research trailer with no real address. Monkey Mia, although a tourist resort, remains under the radar for many Aussies. She made some calls and it was arranged to have my case flown up and delivered the next day. No worries the camera housing was with me and that was my main concern.
Now to head to Avis to meet my road trip buddies. I checked in at the desk and was told they had already picked up the car. Hmm… well maybe they were out getting supplies and would be back? I had seen them in Sydney, so they knew I was going to be delayed. I went to buy a phone card. No luck, so had to get a refund. Collect calls were also not working. As I stood there a little overwhelmed, the clerk from Avis handed me a note.
Sorry Jillian we had to leave. Here is Derek’s number.
The tears of exhaustion poured. I called Derek. They had left an hour ago. Time to get a hotel and book a bus trip north. I found a cab and made my way to the only hotel I know in Perth. I approached the desk worn and weathered. The desk agent informed me that they were fully booked, but suggested the hotel across the street. He called for me and confirmed they had a room, but I would have to get online to book it. Okay done. Now time to lug my 70 lb pelican case across the street to my home for the night. The concierge was lovely and gave me a coupon for a complimentary drink. I am sure I looked as though I would need several. I called the airline and told them I would be in Perth and they said my bag would be delivered that evening.

Time for some food. I wandered downstairs and enjoyed my free glass of wine and hit the IGA. Tim Tams, Jatz and party mix. For those of you who are not aware of these items then you have not truly lived. Tim Tams are the world’s most amazing chocolate cookie. Jatz are the world’s most delicious crackers with nothing even close to comparable in the states. Party mix is an array of delicious gummy candies retreated to my room to feast of my Aussie dinner. Yes, that’s right! Cookies, crackers and candy for dinner! I woke up at 11 pm and went downstairs to retrieve my case! Change of clothes and my toothbrush! YAY!
A long shower and a comfy bed were exactly what I needed. I set the alarm and was asleep before my head hit the pillow. Unfortunately the clock was off an hour so my leisurely pre alarm wake up turned into a panicked swirl of packing and trying to get massive cases out the door. I had ordered a taxi, but I was advised not to wait outside by the new concierge, a far less agreeable bloke. Another guest walked out and took my cab. I waited another 15 minutes and asked if I should go try and grab one. He suggested that was best. I flagged down a taxi dropping guests off. We headed to the bus terminal. When we arrived it was empty. I raced upstairs, but everything was closed. Here we go again. A nice young guy called greyhound for me, but they were not open. I found a security guard who said I was in the wrong place. Need to catch my bus at the train terminal. Here come the tears again. I jumped back in the cab and we raced to the correct location. Sam, my taxi driver, let me use his cell to call Derek and tell him I might not make my bus. We got to the station and I sprinted to the bus, sweaty, makeup smeared and exasperated. “ She be right,” said the old gent with his socks pulled to his knees. “Take a breath you are all set.” I ran back to the cab and grabbed my bags. Paid Sam and got his information. Thank you Sam. You made sure I made my bus and WOW what a ride! I think we put that van on 2 wheels.

And so began the 11 hour bus trek north. A cyclone was dropping buckets of rain and many of the roads were closing due to flash floods. The driver said we would drive north as far as we can and see what happened. This we did. Met a Canadian girl headed for Ningaloo to look for work as an instructor. Had a nice chat and got some reading down. Made a few stops along the way. More Jatz and party mix for lunch! Arrived at the renowned Overlander Roadhouse at 5:30pm and watched as my crew pulled in and stepped out of the car! I went inside and then came out to find my bags gone. The drive said no worries I sent them with the driver to Monkey Mia. WHAT??? I thought they were messing with me! No worries….we can grab them there. Luckily enough the guy had not left and we managed to squeeze my gear into the rental car and the 4 of us headed out for the last 155k of the journey. I arrived to a big hug from Derek and an ice-cold Aussie beer. 4 days, 6 airports, 2 buses, a cab, a rental car and I made it. Monkey Mia is a piece of Heaven on Earth and definitely worth the journey. If it had been an easy trip I would have nothing to write about.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Tiger Beach: Paradise Worth Protecting

Check out my article on DeeperBlue

Tiger Beach is a shark diving Mecca that draws scientists, film crews & divers from across the globe. If you have never slipped beneath the surface at this underwater paradise, it should definitely be on your, “Bucket List.” Thankfully, the white sand here is free of beach chairs or umbrella-adorned drinks, and instead offers massive apex predators. The potential for encounters that are up-close and personal will far exceed anything you could have imagined. I have spent a great deal of time at this adveturous location and it remains one of my favorite places on the planet. Afterall, it was while diving at Tiger Beach that I made a dead fish talk and subsequently my fiancĂ© and I were hooked! We have been together ever since.

Many of the female tiger sharks at, “The Beach,” have become celebrities because they are seen year after year. Emma, a big beauty, even has her own Face Book page. They have become regulars on Discovery’s Shark Week and countless other television programs and documentaries. The shallow depth and aquarium-like visibility make this an ideal location for filming and photographing these charismatic mega-fauna. Scientists and researchers are also to trying to better understand these animals as a means of protecting their future survival.

There is also a reliable troop of lemon sharks that inhabit these waters; numbering anywhere from 15 to 30, when you visit you will find them gathering around the boat. The lemons are more interested in the food than the tigers and seem oblivious to divers at most times. I have also seen Caribbean reef sharks and nurse sharks onsite, with the occasional appearance by a great hammerhead!! Those are my favourite trips. The cast of characters is dynamic, making each trip a unique experience.

Despite the global popularity and love for this site, it remains an unprotected region. It is an open target for sport fisherman seeking out world records, commercial fishing boats weekend warriors heading across from Florida. Sadly, some people have no respect for sharks, only a skewed perception of their purpose or a lack of the fundamental understanding that we are all interconnected. On my last trip, we encountered a well-known female shark that looked like she had been hooked sometime in the last year. She had clearly suffered damage to the right side of her jaw and was extremely skittish. This is an unfortunate manifestation of the often-misguided battle we humans wage against these vital animals. However, resilience can only take you so far. This shark also appeared much skinnier than most of the other regular females. She never even came close to the cage until all the divers were out of the water. Tiger sharks are known to be cautious, but curious, eventually getting close enough that pictures or footage are just a grey/brown blur. So, it is truly devastating to see such a magnificent creature reduced to a fearful shadow of itself. With one single heartless act, humans have the capacity to remove the power and beauty of an animal that has otherwise survived millions of years unaffected.

On my most recent trip to Tiger Beach, I was acting as a private dive guide for "The Undertaker" (a professional wrestler) and his son. It was fascinating to see a man who has lived in an arena with larger-than-life qualities get as excited as a kid on Christmas morning, smiling so much he can hardly keep his regulator in place. At 6’8, even a humongous wrestler felt small next to some of the 8-foot long lemon sharks that spent the day with us. I am pretty confident not many other things have ever made him feel so much smaller. "The Undertaker” asked great questions and spoke with terrific enthusiasm about his very first shark encounter, which he experienced while diving in Fiji. He ardently listened to me speak about the plight of sharks and about safe seafood choices, recycling and marine protected areas. I would like to believe that he is now acting as an advocate for these animals. I am also encouraged that due to their positive experience at Tiger Beach his son is also likely spreading the message to his friends and inspiring them to go see sharks up close.

As a dive guide, videographer and shark naturalist, I have been blessed to share these incredible animals with people first-hand and to capture images that inspire compassion the world over. It is extremely rewarding and I hope that I am able to do so for many years to come. Connecting people with sharks is necessary for the future of their survival, and ultimately ours too. The Bahamas and Tiger Beach are now facing the threat of a shark-finning corporation moving into their waters. Bahamians, the Bahamas National Trust, dive operators, scientists and conservation groups are uniting to prevent would be a complete atrocity and degradation of the oceans in this region. It is incredible to see so many diverse groups collaborating and working towards a common goal. I hope that our voices and actions will be strong enough to save these sharks!
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Monday, February 7, 2011

A Sharky Pirate in Neptune’s Army

I am at the Fort Lauderdale airport enjoying the free wireless, thankful for the fact that I am not at MIA. Miami International Airport is like a vortex of delayed flights, lost luggage and the world’s largest gathering of rude people. Sorry- just venting a bit and karma will probably send my bags to Peru. I am flying home to spend a week with the family before heading to the land of Vegemite, koalas and Men At Work. I will have plenty to write about that impending adventure in the next blog, but for now I am writing about Sea Shepherd.
Many of you may know where Duncan has been since Nov 27 and others may not. On November 27 I said goodbye to my pirate as he boarded a plane for Tasmania. He was on his way to join the Sea Shepherds as part of the film team for Animal Planet’s Whale Wars. Each Winter Japanese whaling vessels travel to the sanctuary in the southern ocean to collect whales for “research.” Please note I said WHALE SANCTUARY. For most people this would mean a protected area. Down in the raw wildness, however, this means war. The whale meat from animals taken is sold on the Japanese market for very high prices. I dare to boldly say, that there is nothing that even closely resembles research being done. Whales are harpooned, drowning in their own blood before being dragged aboard the factory ship to be processed.

Operation No Compromise marks the 7th campaign that the Sea Shepherd organization has launched against Japanese whalers in the southern ocean. The fleet; Steve Irwin, Bob Barker & Gojira departed Hobart on 2 December to make the long journey to this inhospitable environment. On a mission to defend whales, this daunting task puts lives in danger and stirs a lot of strong opinions in people. I myself am more of a local and grassroots conservationist, but Sea Shepherd is drawing attention to a major global issue. They are criticized for their extreme tactics, but at the same time they are making a strong impact. This radical activism is not for everyone but it holds an important place in the conservation movement.

I will admit that Dunk’s involvement has triggered my curiosity beyond general knowledge of the organization. I finally read the copy of Whale Warriors that has been sitting on the shelf for a few years. Author Pete Heller joined the crew of the Steve Irwin in 2005 and became immersed in the battle at the bottom of the world. I finished it in 2 days. It gave me a great insight into the world that Duncan will be calling home until mid March. I check the website each day, as his emails and intermittent satellite phone calls do not allow for many details. Duncan is a meat & potatoes loving Scotsman, but is actually enjoying the vegan menu. He said the people are some of the most passionate he has ever met and each one has a unique story. They celebrate life and become a family during their 3.5 month boat campaign.

If you have never spent more than a day on a boat, or even a week, then you cannot really comprehend what LIVING on a boat is like. Not just any boat, but a boat that is facing 20 ft seas, freezing water and massive ice bergs. There is never a solid moment and you body must adjust to being in perpetual motion. Meals become an adventure as you are forced to hold onto your plate while trying to eat. Privacy is no longer a word you know, except for a few moments in the head (bathroom on a boat). Whether you agree with the cause or not, at least respect the challenges this crew is facing and their determination.

Duncan is sharing a room with 4 other vegan men and they only get a 3 minute shower every 3 days. Imagine sleeping in your locker room for days and not showering after games. Not appealing? Maybe this is part of the reason that there are no women on the camera teams. No, probably most woman would not rank this at the top of their desired vacation experiences, but I would. There are numerous female crew members on the vessels and to be honest; I would be there in a second. Obviously it would be amazing to share the experience with Duncan, but beyond that the devotion of people, the animals and the time in a place on Earth that very few people visit. Duncan has seen massive ice bergs, pods of orcas cruising by, leopard seals, dolphins and lots of whales. The daylight seems endless in this place that is 18 hours ahead of us. When we spoke today it was midnight there and he was watching the sunset.

The Japanese got a late start this year and they are way below their quota. 2 of the harpoon boats have been on the constant trail of the Steve Irwin and Bob Barker, meaning they are moving too fast to hunt for whales. On January 25 (AEST) Steve Irwin caught up with Nisshin Maru factory ship; where the captured whales are dragged aboard and “studied.” This cat and mouse game has high stakes on the high seas and is not just dramatized for television ratings. It is very real. The danger is real. The whales are real. The people are real. For full details you can check out the website, as their first hand accounts are better than anything I can try to express.

It is not certain when the Japanese will call off the hunt, but as of January 23 there were 54 days left in the “whaling season.” The world is watching and wondering if this will be the last battle. Negative attention is weighing heavy on Japan and pressure is increasing for them to end the unnecessary killing. Whether you agree with Paul Watson and his aquatic army, they are making the world aware of a horrific crime that was slipping below the radar for many years. I am a big believer that EVERY ONE of us can do SOMETHING!! Get canvas grocery bags, stop eating tuna, ride your bike to work 1 day a week, recycle your bottles and cans, reduce the amount of plastic you use, plant a tree or a tomato plant. You do not have to travel to the ends of the Earth to have a voice or make a change. Your own back yard needs it just as much.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011


This past week was SHARKTASTIC and I didn’t even go in the water. On Saturday January 29, I was able to join the RJ Marine Conservation Program and students from South Broward High School for a day of shark tagging. This program creates an opportunity for high school students from South Florida to get in the field and experience the work of a marine biologist. Living in South Florida, we are blessed with the Atlantic Ocean in our backyard. It is an amazing natural resource that needs to be protected.

We had a busy day on the boat with 5 nurse sharks, 1 tiger shark, 1 scalloped hammerhead and 5 great hammerheads! The project uses drum lines to fish for the sharks, as this allows the animal to move once it is hooked. The standard work up of a shark includes 3 length measurements ( 2 on a nurse shark), determining sex, taking a DNA sample, a biopsy, taking blood, tagging the animal, removing the hook and releasing the animal.

The DNA sample is taken by clipping a very tiny piece of the dorsal fin. ( Think clipping your nail)

A male shark has 2 external sex organs called claspers, which are extensions of the pelvic fins. A blood sample is taken from soft tissue near the caudal end of the animal. A biopsy sample is taken beside and below the dorsal fin. The animals are given different tags depending on the species being studied and what data is being collected. The great hammerheads were each equipped with a satellite tag that will allow researchers to track there movements as well as allowing students to check in on the sharks via the internet. Spaghetti tags provide a basic ID for the animal and can be used if the animal is captured again.

Our tiger shark was also given a satellite tag to track her movement. Sharks heal incredibly fast, so their new equipment does not hinder their ability to function.

The entire work up is done as efficiently as possible in order to reduce the stress on the animal. Although many people see sharks as monsters, they are in fact highly sensitive creatures and can die simply from the stress caused by being hooked. Dr Hammerschlag and his team move like a well oiled machine and can complete the entire process in less than 7 minutes. It is beautiful to watch science in action and know that each animal is increasing our knowledge about sharks as a whole. It is a long day on the water and despite sea sickness and sunburns, the kids walk away with smiles. They are eagerly snapping photos as they wait their turn to assist in the workup process. I still remember the first time I touched a shark and I am guessing that most of these students will as well.

2 days later I found myself at the Palmer Trinity School in Palmetto, Florida as a guest speaker on sharks. I presented to 6 classes of 6th graders and a single oceanography class. The 6th graders could hardly contain their excitement and soon rumors of, “ the best class ever,” were spreading around the school. Their energy is inspiring and I always try to focus upon these experiences if I get frustrated with unfavorable conditions for these animals or the politics that can arise within the shark world.

For this age group I start off with the image below and ask the kids if they think it is real. Most say no, but there are always one or 2 that say yes. I imagine in a room full of adults, the opposite scenario of responses might be true. I then segue into what really counts as a shark attack. We talk about mistaken identity and how often times we don’t get the real story. 5 people were killed by sharks in 2009. A disparaging contrast to the 100 millions sharks that we killed. Finning, by-catch, commercial fishing and use in “ health” products are the biggest enemies of sharks. I also like to point out that there were 43,00o toilet related injuries in the US in 1996. Yes kids, your toilet at home is more dangerous than any encounter you will ever have with a shark. This gets a laugh and gets them thinking. The danger in our everyday lives is far more prevalent than any experience with a shark is or would be.

I move on to understanding sharks as apex predators and why they are crucial to the survival of our oceans. It is not just that I am obsessed with sharks, but the fact is that the oceans WILL die without them. This effects every single one of us. I talk about tagging and pass around some tags and a circle hook that is used for catching sharks to minimize injury. I use lots of images as a way of getting the kids excited. The video of a lemon shark giving birth elicits a lot of “ewwwws” and, “ gross,” but it keeps them wanting more. I talk about my experience photographing and filming and then finish up by offering suggestions to things that they can do. It is important to remind them that even though they are young, they have a voice and they can make a difference. They can go home and talk to their family about why sharks are so important. They can encourage older family members to recycle and make smarter sea food choices. They can go for a snorkel or visit an aquarium. When they start to think about these things you can see the level of enthusiasm build and you know the future of shark conservation is developing.

Just prior to my trip on the boat, a well known shark diving operator was air lifted to a hospital in Florida after suffering a shark bite in the Bahamas. Immediately my inbox began filling and I received several phone calls. I commend Jim Abernathy on how he handled the media frenzy. He is a true advocate for these animals and will be back out on the water as soon as he can. When you spend enough time around any wild animal it is like being a chef; eventually you might get burned. Things happen, but we cannot destroy a creature of let the media run rampant with glorified hysteria. We must remain true to what we believe about these animals and continue to push for their protection.

It has been a sharky week and I am preparing for my next adventure.....Australia here I come.