Lyndon Davidson's Diary


Saturday, February 25, 2006 Sunday, May 28, 2006
Monday, May 29, 2006 Tuesday, May 30, 2006
Wednesday, May 31, 2006 Thursday, June 1, 2006
Friday, June 2, 2006 Saturday, June 3, 2006
Sunday, June 4, 2006 Monday, June 5, 2006
Tuesday, June 6, 2006 Wednesday, June 7, 2006
Thursday, June 8, 2006 Friday, June 9, 2006

Saturday, February 25, 2006 I returned from annual leave on February 7, not very excited about returning to work as I had just had four lovely weeks off with my family. As I filtered through my 400-plus emails, I saw the Earthwatch email. I excitedly opened it to find I had not been successful, but my name was on the alternate expeditioners list. I felt quite disheartened and moped around for the rest of the shift with a colleague who had also not been successful.
 
When I turned up for my next rostered shift on Saturday, February 11, I noticed another email from Earthwatch. I was not quite so eager to open it this time. When I did, I could not believe my eyes:  “I am writing to advise you that we have had a cancellation from one of the Earthwatch Fellows. Since you are an alternate for the program, I would like to offer you the opportunity to go on the New Zealand Dolphins expedition on May 28-June 9, 2006.” 
 
I was like a dog with two tails and could not wait to tell someone. Sadly, the first person I ran into was my colleague who had also been unsuccessful. When I told him, he was so happy for me.
 
The accompanying email stated I had two days to fill in the acceptance letter, sign it, and have it back in the U.S. I think I thought about it for about 30 seconds and then printed off the forms, signed them, and emailed them back. I thought I would work out the logistics later—I was not going to miss out on this opportunity of a lifetime.
 
I had to wait a few hours before I could ring my boss and ask for the leave, which he so kindly approved. Next thing was to let my family know. They were so happy for me and found it hard to believe. Needless to say, during the first hour or so of that shift, I was looking at all the information on the Earthwatch website.
 
The next thing is to organize a passport, etc., as I have not been anywhere since my honeymoon 15 years ago. The expedition briefing has turned up in the mail, so I’m hard at reading up on the project and wishing the days away until I leave.

Sunday, May 28, 2006 Heather, the other Alcoa employee on the expedition, and I arrived at the Nelson Airport at about 11 a.m. to meet Jennifer, who we were hoping had not been delayed by the fog and low clouds at Nelson Airport. Shortly after arriving at the airport, the taxi driver that had dropped us off introduced Cesar, another Earthwatch volunteer we were not aware of. It was quite strange, as we had noticed Cesar at the same hotel as us when we checked out but did not know he was also an Earthwatch volunteer.
 
Jennifer, delayed due to fog and diverted to Blenheim Airport, had been bussed across to Nelson. The four of us got to know each other for an hour or so as the research team had not shown up. We were all wearing our bright blue Earthwatch shirts and sitting in a very obvious place, or at least we thought it was obvious. About an hour later, Heidi P., Robin, and Silvia arrived with a sign looking for us. Apparently they had been there earlier but did not notice us and had left thinking we had all been delayed.
 
We went and had lunch and did the shopping before heading to French Pass. The drive was about three hours. We arrived to Heidi A. having cooked a lovely pasta dish for dinner. We unpacked the shopping and had a quick briefing. Some lighthearted chat finished the night, and then we went to bed to prepare for the first real day of Earthwatch.

Monday, May 29, 2006 Today started with the ladies giving us a full overview of their research objectives and what we should expect as a volunteer with them. We were told what our responsibilities would be. Then we were introduced to Panua Aihe, the research boat. We went through all the safety and operational features of the boat.
 
The sea did not look favorable for dolphin watching, so it was decided to head up to the theodolite (an instrument for measuring both horizontal and vertical angles) point on the hill to get an idea of what to expect. Heidi A., Silvia, and Mridula accompanied us to the site and explained what we would be looking for.
 
The track was a little worrying with slides and cracks along the way. There was quite a bit of evidence that sheep frequented the track often, and Heather found quite a bit of that evidence stuck to her shoe when we returned to the house. Jennifer’s shoe had a little blowout with the sole separating from her boot. She will look a little funny hiking with her slippers on.
 
It was my turn to assist with cooking tonight, and we decided we would have a barbeque, which sounded great. We all went for a walk along the beach to find driftwood for the fire. Heather confessed she is quite the fire bug, and a very good fire bug at that. She proceeded to get a great fire going and kept it going even if we did keep interfering and nearly putting it out for her.
 
Jennifer, Cesar, and I helped Robin make burgers with chickpeas, tofu, etc., and a salad. After the arduous task of preparing the burgers, we actually started cooking. Laughs around the fire were great, and we eventually had dinner. The burgers were really yummy, and then Robin made bananas with chocolate and cinnamon. They were also delicious.
 
We laughed for an hour or so, and then Heather and Jennifer decided it was time to attack those dishes. Dishes done, it was time for journals to be filled in and me to catch up on my dairy. That was about it for today. We just sat around and chatted for the rest of the night.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006 Jennifer and I drew the long straw, being the first team to go out on the boat. Cesar and Heather were on the theodolite team.
 
We all woke and tried to prepared for what the day had in store for us. After getting the boat ready and packing our backpacks, etc., we were given “mustang suits” to wear. Both being short, Jennifer and I looked like oompaloompas (from the recent movie “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”). The crutch of the suits was at our knees.
 
We launched the boat and climbed aboard. Once on the water, we began traveling along transect lines in the bay. It was not very long before we came across a pod of dolphins. Jennifer was like a kid in a lollie (candy) shop. She jumped from side to side and shouted “Oh there’s one, and another” and giggled quite a bit. It was so great to see how excited she was.
 
Taking data is quite “full on,” with waypoints and descriptions being fired off every two minutes as we are also trying to watch the dolphins. What an amazing sight. There were up to 15 dolphins at a time feeding in this group, and they certainly got around in the bay.
 
We followed these dolphins for about one hour and forty minutes. We had a quick snack and then began looking for another group. Again, it was not long before we found some. We followed these for only one hour. It was about 1 p.m. at this stage, and we had lunch.
 
Once again looking for another pod, we decided to head to another location to try and find some different groups. Robin is also studying the habits of seabirds and their relation to the feeding dolphins, so we stopped and took some data on gannets and other birds. As we headed to a small bay, Jennifer spotted some dolphins playing in the distance. Heidi P. told us they were bottlenose dolphins, and we could go watch them and take some photos (yeeeharr).
 
There were about 100 dolphins in the bay, and they were very acrobatic and playful compared to the duskies we had seen. We watched them for quite some time—how cool was that.
 
When we returned to the base, we were speaking so fast trying to tell the others how great it was. We must have sounded like we were speaking Chinese. The others had not had a very exciting day, as they had been trying to find a new path up to the theodolite station. They did go for a nice hike to French Pass, though.
 
It was red lentil soup for dinner (yum)—nothing a little pepper could not fix. Then we watched a movie and chatted for a while before bed.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006 Weather was not in our favor today. It was too choppy to go out in the boat. Heather and Cesar went to the hill, though. Robin and Heidi A. asked if Jennifer and I would like to help with some underwater movie data extraction. We were keen.
 
After a briefing on what was required, we began. The task was to watch Robin’s underwater videos and try and save still photos of dolphins close to the front of the prey balls as they herded their fish. (When duskies find a school of fish large enough, they herd the fish into a “ball” by swimming around them. While most of the duskies will work to keep the fish contained in the prey ball, they will also take turns to feed from the ball as well.)
 
It was important to have the dolphins as close to the balls as possible and on a level plane to the camera to try and determine the size of the prey ball using the average size of the dolphins as a gauge.
 
Jennifer was feeling a little under the weather, so after lunch she had a little nap. I, too, felt my throat getting a little scratchy.
 
In the afternoon, we went for a walk with Heidi A. to the lookout over French Pass to see the whirlpools and tidal turbulence caused by the tides and water flow. In the evening, Heidi P. showed a presentation on sea otters from a field study she had been involved with in Alaska. They, too, are amazing little creatures and quite clever.
 
I think the sea air caught up with everyone, as we all felt a little sleepy. Tomorrow, Jennifer and I are on the hill. I hope the wind and weather are kind to us.

Thursday, June 1, 2006 The weather looked great this morning, so the guys got the boat in the water and we loaded up the van with the equipment to head for the hill. We got to the station gate and loaded ourselves up.
 
The new track to the station was nice and level compared to the first one we walked up. It would have been very pleasant had we not been carrying so much equipment. I really have to rationalize my backpack. I dropped my clip-on sun glasses along the way and didn’t even know I had. I think I am losing the plot.
 
When we arrived, Mridula felt it was probably a little windy to get accurate data. We watched the other team travel across the water to the inner bay area. We decided to set the equipment up in a more protected area only a couple of meters from its original location. This will probably mean re-establishing a base reading and taking other global positioning system (GPS) points for the benchmark readings.
 
We saw a high-jumping dolphin down where the boat was in the bay. It was great knowing that Cesar would be so happy to finally see the dolphins. We persisted with the wind for about four hours and called the boat. They also had enough of the wind and choppy weather. At least Jennifer got some nice pictures of sheep.
 
We headed back along the track to the house. Woohoo! I found my sunnies on the way back next to some sheep droppings.
 
After a bite to eat, we cleaned the mustang suits and hung them up to dry. Robin asked if we could analyze a few more videos for her, which we did. About 4 p.m., Cesar, Jennifer, and I went for a walk to a trail up on the hill. It was quite good walking down the trail, which led to the beach, but the walk out was quite steep, and I realized just how unfit I am. I was puffing and panting at the top of the climb only to realize that I had dropped my beanie (hat) halfway up and had to walk back down again to get it.
 
We had a chickpea curry for dinner followed by a lovely slice made by Heidi A. She also gave two presentations tonight—one on the bearded seal and one on the sperm whale. The one on the seal was full of scientific lingo and left me feeling a little illiterate, as I didn’t know half the words used in the presentation let alone being able to say them. The sperm whale presentation was more mainstream, and I felt a little more intelligent.

Friday, June 2, 2006 The morning looked great, and the sunrise was glorious as usual. The guys prepared the boat as Jennifer and I were getting psyched up to tackle the hill again. Mridula came down and said she was going to wait one hour to see what the weather was going to be like as she felt it may be a little windy still.
 
Jennifer and I decided to go for a walk to the lookout down at French Pass. When we returned and checked with Mridula, she still felt it was a little windy. Jennifer was pretty keen to try fishing off the jetty, so we went and spoke to the store owner to see if we could hire some equipment.
 
We purchased a small hand line and some bait and set out to catch lunch. Jennifer giggled as she pulled the first catch up onto the jetty. It did not set any world records, but it was a fish and looked quite edible. We checked with a man who was waiting for the barge to the island to see if it was okay to eat. We were told it was a good eating fish and not a bad size either. We continued fishing until we had enough fish to make lunch—five in total.
 
We cooked some chips (French fries) to accompany our catch and sat down to quite a pleasant lunch. To accompany lunch, Mridula gave us a couple of DVDs to watch on breeding habits of nurse sharks, etc. Hmmm. Interesting lunchtime viewing.
 
After lunch, I felt like a nice relaxing nap, but Jennifer had other ideas. We were off again, hiking up the hills. We walked along the trail to the theo station to see what the wind was like. Halfway there, the fence line runs across the ridge of the hills all the way to the peak, which has a navigation thing on top. So much for my relaxing afternoon. We climbed all the way to the top, spotting the boat returning and giving them a wave. Jennifer’s shoes began to fall apart again, and she needed to do some innovative repairs. We trekked all the way over the back of the hills, down the other side, around the road, and back to the house.
 
The guys on the boat had a good day, with the water staying quite flat for them.
 
It was my turn to cook dinner with Heidi A. The meal she had planned was a little hard, as we did not have the right ingredients. Cesar came to the rescue with some Mexican know-how. The meal ended up being Mexican rice with layers of salad and corn chips. The best dinner yet.
 
The evening took off with Heidi A. needing some dance music while preparing dinner. We had a line dancing lesson, a tai kwon do exhibition, and then the first French Pass night club. We had the projector on the wall, the music cranked up, and the place going off. Cesar and Jennifer are quite the dance team. Heather does an awesome air guitar that would put Angus Young to shame. We rocked on to the wee small hours—8:30 p.m., that is. Then we began winding down.

Saturday, June 3, 2006 The water is like glass. What a great day for the boat and, woohoo, it’s our turn today.
 
We headed for inner Admiralty Bay to start, and it was not long before we spotted a group. The water is so calm, and it is an absolutely beautiful day.
 
Robin is not diving today, so she offered to write her own data so I could take photos and video. I saw my first aerial somersault by a dolphin today and actually caught it on video. My kids will love to see that.
 
We followed this group for an hour, leading us to the eastern side of the bay. We headed back onto a transect line to try and find another group, and again it was not long. This group was very close to a mussel farm and, at times, ventured into the farm for foraging.
 
It’s amazing watching them team up to chase and heard prey. It is like someone calls for help, and the dolphins come from everywhere to assist. We saw some great burst swims for up to 500 meters to get to a feeding site. Then the action would begin, with birds and dolphins feeding. We also saw some blue penguins, but they soon disappeared when we came closer. We followed four dolphin groups today before the swell became a little too high and we headed in.
 
Dinner was a curry with mixed beans and tofu—quite yummy. It was followed by a presentation on predators that feed with dolphins, like seabirds and seals. Robin also showed some underwater footage of feeding bouts with the different predators. It looks awesome from the other side of the surface.

Sunday, June 4, 2006 Today was our day off, and it was absolutely pouring with rain. I had a little bit of a cold, so I stayed inside. We had planned to go to d’Urville Island for a hike, but the weather was too bad and the price was a little extreme, also.
 
The day was spent reading, talking, and playing games, but mostly we ate. In the afternoon, Robin came down with some decorations as it was Heidi P’s 30th birthday, and we were having a little party for her. After jazzing the place up a little, we had a yummy dinner courtesy of Cesar and Robin and a dessert made by Silvia. After dinner, there was quite a bit of discussion about what Heidi’s birthday present, a mandarin tree, should be called. I think she decided on Charlie. I personally liked Jennifer’s idea—Whinny the Poo—because of reasons that you had to be there to understand. Once again, Jennifer, Cesar, and I chatted until the late hours.

Monday, June 5, 2006 The weather once again was not been kind to us. It was too windy to go on the boat or the hill.
 
We could not handle another day in the house analyzing prey ball videos, so it was suggested that we see if we could go on a hike at Elaine Bay. Heidi P. said we could go and Mridula would drive us. Robin and Heidi were going to stay at the house and catch up on some work. We managed to talk Heidi P. into coming with us, but Robin needed to catch up a little.
 
We all headed off to Elaine Bay. We had a rather interesting drive at a maximum speed of 40 kilometers-per-hour (25 miles-per-hour) but mostly 20 kilometers-per-hour (12.5 miles-per-hour) all the way there by a nervous Mridula.
 
The walk was very nice, passing through pine forests and natural bush with huge tree ferns and lush undergrowth. The group split quite quickly into the frontrunners, the mid-ways and the tail-enders dragging up the rear. We walked about six kilometers (3.7 miles), I think, but Heather was sure it was much farther. Either way, it was a lovely walk.
 
We headed back to the house and found to Heather’s disgust that she had lost her new hat somewhere along the way. We all unpacked and started wondering what was for dinner. Tonight was Heidi A’s and Cesar’s turn to cook, and we all knew it would be great.
 
After dinner, most people headed off to bed but, of course, the volunteer’s house only just started with a game of balloon soccer and a little tai kwon do thrown in. Again, Jennifer and I sat talking to midnight. I really wish I could sleep here. I’m still in work mode, waking at 5:30 a.m. every day.

Tuesday, June 6, 2006 Today was our turn on the hill. We managed to get all the gear to the top and set up.
 
Mridula logged all the appropriate data to begin following dolphins, and the battery in the laptop died. Silvia and Mridula changed batteries, and Jennifer and I watched dolphins come in and out of sight. We were ready to go again and started “a follow” when the next battery died. Mridula’s frustrations were rising, as she had made sure all of the batteries were fully charged the night before.
 
Another battery, and we were off again. This time, the battery lasted an hour and forty minutes, but we could only find one group of dolphins in the bay. At least we had some data. A few more batteries, and Mridula decided we would handwrite the data, and she could enter it later back at the house. Someone must have told the dolphins, as we did not see any for the next few hours. We eventually found a group and managed a little more data, but they would keep disappearing for quite lengthy periods. We finished up with about two hours of data for the entire day and dragged all the gear back to the car to try again the next day.
 
The boat crew had a more successful day, finding a playful group of bottlenose dolphins in outer Admiralty Bay and plenty of duskies to get data on. They even witnessed a fur seal catching and devouring a rather large octopus.
 
After dinner, we had a quiet night watching a movie. At least it was meant to be quiet, but of course I could not get the DVD to play on my laptop through the data projector. When all else failed, the four of us huddled on the couch around my laptop and watched the movie, popcorn and all.

Wednesday, June 7, 2006 Today was to be group two’s day on the boat, but Heather and Cesar were kind enough to let Jennifer and me go to even up the boating days in case the weather went bad on the last day. A very grateful group one leapt at the opportunity.
 
What a day. The water was like glass, and there were plenty of dolphin groups to follow. It seemed to be social day for dolphins, as every group interacted with each other and the boat more than we had seen before. We had some magnificent acrobatic leaps and plenty of noisy leaps to keep us “oooooing” and “aaaahhhhhing” all day.
 
Robin and Silvia were kind enough to take over writing data to allow me to get some photos. Thank goodness for that. I was going to burst trying not to grab my camera when they were leaping. We had a few firsts today, with Heidi P. and Robin saying they had never before seen some of the dolphins’ antics, like two dolphins “rafting” for a while. This is when they just float motionless on top of the water. We also had one dolphin pop up and start making squeaking noises from its blowhole.
 
It was a perfect day to finish our last day on the boat. The guys on the hill had a great day, also, with three groups coming very close to the cliffs and performing some acrobats and leaps for them.
 
It is official. Cesar is the dolphin man. He can spot dolphins anywhere.

Thursday, June 8, 2006 Well, this is it the last day of research. We are on the hill today with Mridula and Silvia. It has been decided that we will not take the laptop anymore until we can get some new batteries, so the load is somewhat lighter.
 
While Mridula set up the theodolite, Jennifer and I followed a great group of duskies that mysteriously disappeared the second that we were set up for a follow. It was only a short time before we spotted another group that was feeding with about six seals and a million seabirds. We followed a small group that split off from the main group for a while. It was far better recording on paper, as the batteries could not let us down. It was a successful day as far as data collection went.
 
At a quiet time in the day, Jennifer went for a climb down the cliff to take a picture of the seal colony. It was quite a climb. The look on Jenn’s face when she climbed back up and I said she should have taken the telephoto lens to get some close-ups was classic. I must say I was surprised when she swapped my lenses and climbed back down again—“action woman.” I ended up going down, too. Those seals have a great life, just laying around and sleeping.
 
It was great to hear the guys in the boat also had a successful day, especially after being so kind to us the day before and letting us swap boat days. They even got to see a pair mating as they glided under the boat. Heidi P. seemed very excited, as she had never experienced this act in a non-captive situation. Her narration in the background was quite comical when we reviewed the video footage.
 
The night was full of summaries and photo exchanging, not to mention sadness and long faces as this was it. It was all over.

Friday, June 9, 2006 Not good—we leave today. Everyone is packed. We load the cars and give Robin hugs, as she will be staying at the house. Silvia and Heidi A are leaving today, also.
 
We arrived at Nelson and said our goodbyes to the fantastic people we have just spent two very memorable weeks with. I am so sad to be saying goodbye to my newfound friends. I truly hope we all stay in contact.
 
Heather, Jenn, Cesar, and I spent the afternoon together and finished off with a beautiful dinner. I could not have asked for a better two weeks.
 
I feel so privileged to have experienced this expedition and to have met some very, very special people. Thank you Earthwatch and Alcoa World Alumina for an experience of a lifetime.

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