Richardo Montiel's Diary


Friday, February 1, 2008 Wednesday, April 9, 2008
Monday, July 7, 2008 Tuesday, July 29, 2008
Sunday, August 3, 2008 Monday, August 4, 2008
Tuesday, August 5, 2008 Thursday, August 7, 2008
Friday, August 8, 2008 Saturday, August 9, 2008
Sunday, August 10, 2008 Monday, August 11, 2008
Tuesday, August 12, 2008 Wednesday, August 13, 2008
Thursday, August 14, 2008 Friday, August 15, 2008
Saturday, August 16, 2008 Sunday, August 17, 2008
Monday, August 18, 2008 Tuesday, August 19, 2008
Wednesday, August 20, 2008  

Friday, February 1, 2008 When I saw an email from Alcoa/Earthwatch in my mailbox today while working the night shift, I didn’t even want to open it. I felt a very strange sensation in my stomach, so I went downstairs to get coffee.
 
After I grabbed the cup of coffee and went back to my workspace, I opened some other messages, keeping the Alcoa/Earthwatch email to the end. I couldn’t stop thinking about what could be the possible answer to my application. So…I opened the message, and the first thing I read was congratulations for being awarded the project in this year.
 
I just couldn’t keep in the emotions. I stood up and pushed the chair away, holding my head and talking to myself, saying “Wow, I can’t believe it so.” I read it once again, and then again and again, just trying to understand every word so I could make sure that I was not misunderstanding. When I knew where I was going to (Australia), I realized that my breathing was faster. I was very excited, and the first person that I let know was my girlfriend. She was very happy for me as well.
 
After smiling and celebrating, I just sat down in front of the computer, looking at the message, and thinking one single thing. I have the chance to give a part of me—working the hard jobs that associations, companies, authorities, governments, and scientists do—to minimize the impact and irreversible effects on nature.
 
I feel proud and engaged to be part of these major efforts, because we all want to preserve the colorful coral reefs, blue sky, blue waters, sandy beaches, green mountains, white glaciers, clean rivers, tranquil lakes, leafy forests and jungles, and living species that keep this planet colorful.
 
It is time to work and give back to this planet and protect what belongs to it. That’s my commitment as a 2008 Earthwatch/Alcoa volunteer, an environmental, health, and safety representative with Alcoa, and a dive master in recreational scuba diving.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008 This has been an important day for not only me but Alcoa as well. The last aluminum smelting pot at Alcoa Fjardaál in Reyðarfjörður, Iceland, was started—and the startup process concluded—at Alcoa’s newest smelter built within 20 years.

Some of our teachers from Alcoa’s Canadian operations have left, and a few remain for a short period. We thank them a lot for all the transferred knowledge and their patience during one year of hard work. We are ready to make it safely our own safely.

Alcoa Fjardaál has 336 smelting pots that use 690-megawatts of electricity generated at a hydroelectric power plant at the base of Iceland’s northeastern highlands. No fossil fuels are used.

The smelter is expected to produce 346,000 metric tons of aluminum each year in the form of bar, coil, and sheet. Of the 410 direct Alcoa employees, about 30% are women. There are also more than 200 contractor employees.

Iceland as a country uses electricity generated through geothermal and hydroelectric sources. An Icelandic firm started using hydrogen-powered buses and cars, and there are hydrogen commercial filling stations available for these vehicles. We still drive automobiles powered by fossil fuels, but we all expect to drive a hydrogen-powered vehicle in the near future.

The other reason that this day has been special to me is that I have been granted my Australian tourist visa. This completes an important step in the process to go on my Earthwatch expedition, and I have marked it off my 2008 Earthwatch expedition checklist. There’s still a lot to do and a few months to wait, but the Australian visa has definitely opened wider the vision and excitement that I have for this project and doubled my motivation.

I congratulate the other Alcoa employees who were selected as Earthwatch fellows and wish them safe and exciting adventures.

Monday, July 7, 2008 Last week, I got my last two of the five vaccinations that I need to go on my expedition. I was in some pain, but after awhile I was okay. This was my last requirement before going on my expedition.

There’s one month left, and I feel very exited. It has been several months since I got the acceptance from Earthwatch. Before, I saw my departure date as too far away. Now, it is very soon.

I went to the Mexican Caribbean Sea and rainforest for holidays in May. It was too hot. I also visited the Mayan pyramids that are situated in the middle of the jungle. Everything seemed to be full of life, but very touristy. There were people everywhere, with handicraft sellers on the sidewalks. The site was not as natural as it should be, because the tourism factor has changed the landscape, fauna, and flora.

I was thinking about my expedition while I was looking at that place, and I realized that I have the chance to learn from my expedition. The fact that I’m going to Australia and helping in an effort to minimize effects in the area that are caused by global warming is not just encouraging me to give the best of myself. It is also encouraging me to apply the experience and the knowledge I acquire to help other communities do something about minimizing irreversible impacts that damage the planet’s “lungs.”

After walking and thinking deeply about my responsibility and tasks for my expedition, I went swimming in a beautiful cenote, a Mayan term for a rocky, natural chamber full of fresh rainwater. These formations have been there for hundreds of years, and some of them keep ancient archeological secrets and stalagmite and stalactite formations where the ancient Mayans used to perform ceremonies. Nowadays, people just jump into them in an attempt to get refreshed.

I got in the water, and my girlfriend took a picture of me at the precise moment I was swimming and thinking about my expedition in the Australian rainforest.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008 It is amazing to take a look back and see all the months that have passed since I got the acceptance letter from Earthwatch on February 1. It is amazing how the time flies, and now it is almost time to go on my expedition. The emotions can’t be described, and the closer the expedition becomes, the longer the days are before my departure.

Sometimes I just look at my flight itinerary, and I can’t imagine how far I’m going—from the north of the planet all the way down to the south and also across the whole planet. My mind can imagine the trip but still can’t believe it.

Amazingly, I had email contact with one of my expedition mates. The fact that I’ve already met someone from the expedition, plus knowing we are getting our things ready, makes the departure more exciting.

Right now, I feel that besides contributing to a great environmental project and traveling across the planet, we are going to meet great people and apply all of our team members’ skills to achieve what we all are after—a better and greener place for the next generations!

Sunday, August 3, 2008 3:30 p.m. I’m at Keflavík International Airport in Iceland, and I’m waiting to board flight number FI454 from Reykjavík to London. I’m a bit stressed out, because I just have two hours to connect to my next flight once in London. Heathrow Airport is very big, and I have to go from Terminal 1 to Terminal 4.

I’ve been reading my guidebook about Australia, but it’s still like I’m dreaming about going there. I don’t feel like it’s reality yet. What awaits me is unknown, but planned. I’m sure it’s going to be a great experience that only happens once in a lifetime. I’ve always dreamt about going to Australia, but those dreams are as far away as the place itself.

5:30 p.m. The flight has been delayed one hour already. I’m more stressed than before, since now I just have an hour to disembark, go through customs, get my bags (because they didn’t want to check my baggage all the way through to Australia, so they checked them just to London), and go from Terminal 1 to Terminal 4. In some way, I know I won’t make it, but I won’t give up.

10 p.m. London time. I arrived at Heathrow Airport in London. I was still in the cabin, and I don’t know why. It took so long to let us get out. We were waiting several minutes, and time was running out. Over the speaker, a lady announced that we should let a group of 17 Koreans travelers exit first, because they had to catch their connecting flight. I just couldn’t wait. I had 45 minutes left, so although people looked at me strangely, I asked them to let me get through so I could leave the cabin with the Korean group. Some people and flight attendants were looking at me like they wanted to stop me, but I said that was also my flight, so I needed to leave the cabin first.

When I got to customs, there was a long line. I went to the beginning of the line and asked if I could be next because my flight was going to depart in 35 minutes. They let me go through, and the customs officer said “I don’t think you are going to make it, mate, but good luck.”

He was right. After I got my baggage and ran like crazy from Terminal 1 to Terminal 4 with my 18-kilogram (40-pound) backpack, I arrived late. The Qantas desk was already closed. Although the customs officer was right, I wanted to give a last effort thinking that, perhaps, my flight to Australia could have been delayed as well, giving me a few minutes longer to get to it.

It was already 11 p.m. on Sunday night, and all the airline desks were closed. I didn’t have any other better option than to get a hotel nearby and hope that the next morning I could re-book my ticket from London to Cairns.

I got a nice hotel and took a shower. I was starving, so I went to the lobby to get something to eat. At that moment, I saw the 17 Koreans checking into the same hotel. They missed their connecting flight as well.

Monday, August 4, 2008 6:30 a.m. I slept only a few hours, because I went to sleep late last night and had to go to the airport very early this morning to rebook my flight for the same itinerary for today. 
 
11:00 a.m. I went back to the hotel to pack up and check out. I did rebook my flight for today at 3 p.m. That means if my flights are not delayed once again, I could arrive at Cairns right on time for the Earthwatch rendezvous. I really wanted to arrive one day before the rendezvous, because I knew that after a long journey, it would be better to rest and spend time in the city. I had my hotel reservation in Cairns, but after my flight problems, I had to cancel it.
 
London is a nice city that I’ve been to many times, so I was very angry when I had to stay there once again due to the airline’s delay instead of being in Cairns one day early.
 
I learned that when you are traveling by airplane, you don’t manage your time at all. Many times, cancellations and delays for safety reasons must be done by the airlines. That’s understandable, so it is better to book flights with a big gap between connections. It is better to wait when you know that you’ll arrive on time at your destination as opposed to waiting without any clue of the departure time and if you will arrive on time.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008 Bangkok, Thailand, 6:09 p.m. local time. While I was in Bangkok waiting for my connecting flight to Sydney, I had time to go to the shopping area. I changed some of the British pounds that I had left in my pocket for 900 Thai baths. I didn’t know exactly how much I had, so I went to get some Thai food. I paid 323 bahts for a delicious vegetable soup with beef and noodles, and I left about 40 bahts as a tip, which I thought was good.
 
After that, I went to the shops. With around 540 bahts left, I thought I had enough Thai money to buy something nice. When I saw the prices, I was amazed. The cheapest thing in the shops—a plastic bottle—cost about 1,500 bahts. I thought something was wrong, and I started to do the math. I realized then that I had very little Thai money with me, and that I could just afford one more meal. What I left as a tip in the Thai restaurant was just ridiculous! It was a little more than half a British pound (US$1.16).
 
I’m waiting for my flight to Sydney, which is delayed 45 minutes already. I’m counting every single second, because so far, I guess I’m already 20 minutes late for my rendezvous at the Cairns Airport.
 
Cairns, Queensland, Australia, 11:50 a.m. local time. The rendezvous is at 12:30 p.m., and we’re just landing at Cairns Airport. After all the delays, I’m arriving right on time. However, I don’t know how long it is going to take me to leave the aircraft and go through customs, because I didn’t go through customs in Sydney. I’m positive everything is going to be okay and that I’ll not have more problems.
 
I’m looking out the airplane’s window, and the landscape is just as beautiful as I thought but couldn’t ever imagine. I can see the Great Barrier Reef from here, and the coral spots underwater are completely visible from above. I can see how the ocean color changes. Right below is light blue crystal-clear water with green spots that are the coral reefs. There are spots all over the place in a line that disappears far away due to the green mountains. Looking at the horizon, I see water that turns into a deep, dark blue that contrasts with the light blue sky, which has no clouds. It’s just the perfect day at the perfect place.
 
The mountains are completely green and full of vegetation, with creeks all over the place that disappear into the infinite ocean. All that I can see is as amazing as an oil painting, where the main colors are blue and green. I can say now that what I’ve been through to get here and see this...it was worth it! And, I know that this is just the beginning. 
 
Rendevouz at Cairns Airport, 12:30 p.m. Everything went smoothly and fast, and I made it to the rendezvous point on time. I didn’t have a problem with customs, but the airline lost my baggage somewhere between London and Cairns. At the baggage claim desk, they inputted the information in the system and just told me, “We’ll contact you.” That didn’t get me down. I was tired but not down. I planned to keep all my documents and money with me at all times, so my baggage contained just clothes.
 
I met the Earthwatch team at the coffee shop, where they all were waiting for me. I met all the teammates and Dr. Steve Williams, who is the principal investigator for the Climate Change in the Rainforest project. They all cheered me up, and the principle investigator told me not to worry and that “We’ll be camping in a very remote area where there’s not communications or electricity, but I will be contacting my wife with a satellite phone and will ask her if there’s any airline message about your baggage.”
 
We stopped at the main mall on the way to the campsite, and I bought the most basic toiletries.

Thursday, August 7, 2008 8 a.m. We camped at Cape Tribulation in Daintree National Park. After having a weird night, all volunteers and staff members got together for the principal investigator’s safety speech. The speech covered the most common hazards that we will find in the forest and how to avoid them, as well as emergency procedures and first aid in case of injury.
 
9 a.m. The most common hazards are falls, trips, stingy plants and trees, and snakes, which are everybody’s principal concern. They are silent and highly skilled hunters, and they can grab and kill their prey in the blink of an eye. Australia’s tropical forests are full of snakes. There are more than 40 species, including Australia’s largest, the amethystine python. They all play a vital role in the food chain, as they are one of the top predators.
 
The most dangerous snake in the Australian rainforest is the rough scale snake. While it only grows to a meter (3.3 feet) in length, it has highly neurotoxic venom. The safety recommendation against snakebites was to wear solid hiking boots and long pants and use a flashlight at night. If we confront a snake, it is best to stay back, keep still, admire its beauty, and let it be. The majority of snakebites occur when people attempt to catch or kill snakes.
 
In Australia, the first aid and emergency procedures require that all snakebites be treated as poisonous. The nearest hospital is about a one-hour drive from the project site, and the bite’s poison goes into effect within 24 hours after the bite.
 
Now for a bit of background about the goal of this project. The predicted impacts of global warming on the vertebrates of the Australian tropical rainforests suggest that climate change could bring about catastrophic results in Queensland’s Wet Tropics, a World Heritage area. The situation for the 86 species of vertebrates that are found here and nowhere else in the world is that the 50% are likely to become extinct during the course of this century.
 
We need to determine which species, habitats, and ecosystems will be most vulnerable, exactly what aspects of their ecological and evolutionary biology determines their vulnerability, and what we can do to manage this vulnerability and minimize the impacts.
 
As a volunteer, my role essentially is to collect vital data that will be used to build better models to predict the effects of climate change on this fragile habitat and to give scientists the knowledge they need to help minimize these impacts. The results of this research could have great influence on policies at all levels of management and government. 
 
We will concentrate on intensive sampling over the Wet Tropics, ranging from coastal lowlands to the highest part of the region.
 
11:30 a.m. Driving to the Uploads, which is an area in the mountains 600 meters (1,968 feet) in altitude, we stopped at an amazing site that was full of vegetation and had a freshwater creek. We had lunch right there, and afterwards, we kept driving to the site where we will perform a reptile survey.
 
The task consists of looking for small reptiles, skinks (lizards), and frogs by removing rotten logs, stones, or fallen epiphytes (organisms attached to plants) in an area among the bush that is 50 meters (164 feet) long and five meters (16 feet) wide.  
 
The goal of these surveys is to assess the vulnerability of species to climate change in different altitudes of Daintree’s rainforest region, and the data that we collect will permit examination of ecological hypotheses.
 
Our surveys of reptiles, frogs, vegetation, and birds will provide vital data about each species and their habitat diversity and stability over seasons and years. For example, we will get information about what animals have adapted to an environment that is cool, wet, and stable. In the long term, that information will allow the scientists to design models to predict the future impacts of increasing temperatures.
 
12:50 p.m. We performed three reptile surveys. We measured the length and width of each epiphyte, log, or stone that we removed. Using a red-light digital thermometer, we also measured the temperature outside the item and under it where the humidity was and logged the information. This was performed to follow heat and humidity patterns in the environment where the species either were or were not found.
 
We did find a microhylid frog, which is a threatened endemic species (found nowhere else in the world) smaller than a human nail, about 5 millimeters (0.2 inches) long. We also found a prickly forest skink that usually lives under rotting logs. We took some pictures of them and wrote down the species information in our logbook. After that, we put them back at the place where we found them. It was amazing to see and know that such living species are so small yet play a very important role in the big Australian rainforest.
 
7 p.m. We arrived back at the campsite. Right beside us is a nice creek, where this evening some of my teammates went for a swim after a long day and after playing with the footy ball (Australian rugby), which was quite interesting and difficult.
 
According to the chart, the staff members cooked the dinner and some volunteers washed the dishes. Tomorrow the duties will rotate.

Friday, August 8, 2008 10:30 a.m. At the site where we were going to perform our reptile survey, Andres, one of the staff members, measured the humidity. He took a device with a sensitive pad and put a small amount of water on it. He spun the device for about two minutes, and on the scale he could see the mark that showed the absolute humidity (19%), dry humidity (16%), and relative humidity (65%) for this site.
 
Our task was to walk in a radius of 200 meters (656 feet) for about 30 minutes inside the bush and look for reptiles in the sunny spots.
 
11:40 a.m. We again found a microhylid frog and a prickly skink—the same species as yesterday. We took down the same information and left the species in their habitat.
 
I was told today that the correct name for the kangaroo is wallaby. It came up because Aadil, a volunteer from Sydney, told us that when the English got established in Australia, they pointed at the kangaroo and asked the Aborigines the name of the animal. The Aborigines said “Kanga-roo, kanga-roo,” which means “I don’t know” in the aboriginal language. The Aborigines call the marsupial animal a wallaby.
 
8:10 p.m. After a nice dinner, I went spotlighting, which means looking for any kind of living thing at night in the middle of the bush within one kilometer (0.6 miles). We measured the humidity, which was 78% with an air temperature of 20° Celsius (68° Fahrenheit).
 
10:30 p.m. We came back to the camp, and we couldn’t see anything. We walked one kilometer within one hour, and although we heard some noises of creatures in the bush running away from us, we couldn’t see anything. But it was very nice to walk in the darkness, viewing the stars when we could, looking around on a tranquil night, and listening to all the crickets and insects that make the rainforest come alive.

Saturday, August 9, 2008 4:30 a.m. I had to wake up earlier this morning since, according to the schedule, I was assigned to the dawn bird survey. I didn’t have a problem waking up, since I haven’t been able to sleep lately because of my frustration with the airline not being able to find my bag. Dr. Steve Williams, the principle investigator, and Dr. Martin Cohen have been helping me a lot, calling the airline with a satellite phone and trying to track my bag. But still, there has not been any news about it. My teammates loaned me some clothes, but still I don’t feel comfortable. I’m going to just try to not think about it and enjoy the expedition.
 
6:38 a.m. It was an amazing experience to see Steve conduct this dawn bird survey. I could hear hundreds of birds singing everywhere, and I didn’t even know where they were situated. Steve just looked at the canopy and listened.
 
Whispering, he told us the species and how many of that species were communicating to each other. It was just amazing how well-educated his hearing was for bird surveys. I just could not believe it! He was telling us, “One wompoo fruit dove, two riflebirds, two wipbirds, one satin bowerbird, etc.”, and we had to write the information down. He was very fast in recognizing those birds.
 
We conducted three surveys. The first was at 500 meters (1,640 feet) in altitude at 15° Celsius (59° Fahrenheit) and 95% humidity. It was a 30-minute survey, and he found 21 species. The second survey was at the same altitude but at 16° Celsius (61° Fahrenheit) and 88% humidity. He found 19 species, and we saw seven wild pigs. The third survey was at 530 meters (1,739 feet), 16° Celsius, and 88% humidity. He found 16 species. In total, he found 56 species in 90 minutes just with his hearing and confirming with the binoculars.
 
10:50 a.m. We performed a vegetable and fruit survey, the goal of which was to learn about the animals’ food patterns and in what quantity the food can be found.
 
The task was to measure the canopy’s trees in a radius of five meters (16 feet). We wrote down the environmental information—humidity, connectivity between trees within five meters, and all the rainforest fruits and fungi found in the area. Many rainforest trees are cauliflorous (flower and fruit on their trunks), which allows greater access for the animals.
 
3:22 p.m. We went hiking to search for skinks on Black Mountain, which is a very high mountain that was formed millions of years ago. The Earth started to push the ground and soil out from beneath the rainforest floor. The main items that were pushed to the surface were rocks, so naturally mountains were formed. Wind and rain removed the dust, grass, and roots from the rocks, so now the mountain is a pile of black big stones on top of each other. All of them came up from very deep inside the Earth, and there are some spaces among the rocks where you can’t see the bottom.
 
We climbed the rocks up to 150 meters (492 feet), jumping from one stone up to the next one and sometimes watching the big spaces with no end underneath us. We didn’t even reach the mountain’s halfway point, but the view was fantastic. Black Mountain is a habitat for snakes and skinks, but we didn’t find any today.
 
6 p.m. We went to Cooktown, which is not far away from Black Mountain. At Cape York Peninsula in 1770, Captain James Cook and his ship the Endeavour sailed above the Great Barrier Reef, where they ran aground. To avoid sinking, all the crew had to be offloaded to free the Endeavour from the reef. Cook needed to find safe waters and sailed his damaged vessel into the closest river he could find. It was here where the captain and his 87 men camped while they undertook the massive task of repairing the ship.

Sunday, August 10, 2008 10:25 a.m. I got the news that my bag was found and the airline will deliver it at Cooktown’s airport this afternoon.
 
10:30 a.m. We drove with Martin Cohen, who is a staff member, to perform a reptile survey. The humidity was 75%, and the air temperature was 25° Celsius (77° Fahrenheit) at 40 meters (131 feet) in altitude.
 
5 p.m. After the information that the airline gave us, we went to the airport to wait for the airplane that would bring my bag. I was as excited as if I were going to meet a very good friend after long time.
 
The airports in Iceland were the smallest that I had ever seen before Cooktown’s airport. It’s just a normal house that is no bigger than 250 square meters (2,690 square feet), with a soda machine out on the balcony and an Australian flag moving with the wind. It’s located in the middle of the forest, and it is surrounded by green. It is very nice.
 
There were a few people waiting for their relatives or friends. The airplane that landed was very small, and it was a charter from Cairns to Cooktown and Townsville, which are the major towns in North Queensland. The woman pilot was also the flight attendant and baggage person—all jobs at once. I saw her put on the baggage tray my old traveling friend—my bag that traveled with me all the way from home but got lost somewhere on the way. Finally, we met once again.
 
I really appreciate Steve’s and Martin’s help in getting my bag back. They phoned the airline several times and pushed the office to track and find my bag. Martin also hustled to get us to the airport on time.  
 
10:41 p.m. We just finished the best research so far. We went back to Black Mountain to conduct a reptile survey. It was very dark, and we wore our head flashlights. We climbed the rocks as we did yesterday, and the adrenaline came rushing back when we sometimes lit up the big spaces between rocks that have no bottom.
 
In the sky, the moon was almost full and lit the night landscape beautifully. We saw all the southern stars, and Martin pointed out to us the Southern Cross stars, which are the five stars found on the Australian flag.
 
We caught two prickly skinks tonight to get samples of their DNA, and tomorrow we will put them back in their habitat. The DNA test will show all the possible changes the species could have due to climate change and weather patterns.

Monday, August 11, 2008 9 a.m. We went back to Black Mountain to free the skinks we caught last night and look for more skinks. It was a sunny and warm day, so we thought we might see lots of those skinks.
 
11:30 a.m. We were among the rocks looking in the sunny spots for a different kind of skink. This one is dark olive green in color, and it shines with the sunlight. It usually is found in hot spots lit by the sun.
 
We found 15 skinks from the same species in two hours. We didn’t catch them; we just wrote down the information, the spot’s temperature, the air temperature (32° Celsius, or 90° Fahrenheit), and the humidity (80%).
 
We went back to the campsite, where we played some footy. Martin, an ex-footy (rugby) player, was teaching us how to play with the ball.
 
Today was very hot and too humid, so we went for a 45-minute hike to the closest waterfall. The hike was kind of difficult, because there were too many logs and stingy trees. We had to be careful.
 
We swam when we arrived at the waterfall, but the water was very cold. We just made it to the other side and found another walkway that allowed us to return without getting back into the water.
 
On our hike back to the campsite, we saw a bunch of wallabies. I tried to get closer, but they were too shy and ran into the bush. I did have the chance to take a picture of a wallaby family from far away.
 
5 p.m. We played a Frisbee game that was pretty much like playing football but with a Frisbee. It was quite fast and exhausting, but we had good fun and team integration while playing the game.
 
After dinner, we had recreational time. We chatted while drinking wine and beer.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008 9:30 a.m. We packed our tents, because we will leave this campsite to get to Crocodile’s Beach this afternoon, where we’ll stay in a hostel. We will relax for one and a half days, giving us the chance to make phone calls, do laundry, and go on recreational tours. Crocodile’s Beach is about a two-and-a-half-hour drive.
 
2 p.m. We arrived at our hostel, where we are staying in four-person rooms. Tonight we have a meeting with the team and a special dinner. Some booked a snorkeling trip for tomorrow, and Peter and I booked a scuba diving trip to the Great Barrier Reef. I’ve been waiting all my life to scuba dive in this part of the world and in the biggest coral barrier reef. I just can’t wait.
 
9 p.m. We all got together and had a delicious meal cooked by the hostel. I finally had a big steak, with boiled vegetables, mashed potatoes, and a glass of red wine. We played pool and had the chance to make phone calls or check our emails. I couldn’t wait until tomorrow, when my dream to dive in the blue waters of the Great Barrier Reef in Cape Tribulation, Australia, would come true.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008 7:30 a.m. I was on my way to the most anticipated diving trip. I was so excited to go diving at the Great Barrier Reef. It was just something that I didn’t want to miss while in Australia. After this amazing scuba diving trip, I’d be able to say that I’ve been diving at the two greatest coral barrier reefs in the world—the Australian Great Barrier Reef and the Mexican Barrier Reef in Cozumel, the second largest in the world.
 
On our way to Cape Tribulation, we saw a cassowary, an endemic bird measuring 1.5 meters (five feet), crossing the road. With black feathers and a blue neck, it was just amazing.
 
4 p.m. After the scuba diving trip, I just could say that it was great. What I didn’t like was that they mixed snorklers with the divers. Our snorkeling friends swimming on the surface scared away all the nice life that we divers should be able to see under the water. As a result, there was not much to see, but it was beautiful how the coral reef was just full of colors. At the surface, there were lots of people snorkeling everywhere, so that was not too much fun.
 
What I liked the most was that when we were approaching land while returning from the barrier reef, we saw a beach with just vegetation all around, the big, green mountains full of palm trees, and nothing else. It was just like we were landing on a very remote, undiscovered island.

Thursday, August 14, 2008 8 a.m. This morning we left the hostel and went to the second camping site to set up the tents and plan our activities.
 
11 a.m. We arrived at Noah Beach, which is a camping area very close to the beach that has no facilities except for a small barrack housing the toilets. The area was full of vegetation, and we could listen to the waves since the beach was about 40 meters (131 feet) away. The area was just great—no buildings and no infrastructure around. Just the blue sea, the sandy beach, the green vegetation all around, and the big, green mountains right behind us. It’s a place that makes you feel like civilization doesn’t exist or is far away. It’s a very well-protected area where you really feel part of nature.
 
We were told that there were two creeks flowing down to the ocean—one to the right side and the other to the left side of a beach about two kilometers (1.2 miles) long. We were told that crocodiles could be on the beach or swimming in the saltwater, so they told us just to look around and be careful.
 
3 p.m. We all played cricket, which is very popular in Australia and is pretty much like baseball. After that, I started to run along the beach and enjoy the view of the marvelous place I was in.
 
6 p.m. I had to cook along with two teammates. I’m not good at cooking, but I helped them cut some vegetables. There were no showers, but the staff improvised a good one. I did take a shower with cold water, which was good for me.
 
8 p.m. After dinner, we had a lecture about global warming and its effects on the present and in the future, as well as what could be the problems that will affect the earth and the rainforest in Queensland. The presenters also talked about what our project was about.

Friday, August 15, 2008 6:35 a.m. I woke up to run on the beach. It was not hard to do so, because I once again enjoyed the amazing landscape.
 
11 a.m. Neither the staff nor the Ph.D students knew the area where we were going to work, so we went on an exploratory trip to plan our survey sites.
 
9 p.m. After dinner, I had to go to spotlighting (searching for things in the dark) to identify what kinds of fauna and flora were at the survey area. We identified two bush rats and saw two frogs. It was exciting when we went to a creek searching for crocodiles, and there was one in the middle of the creek. Pointing with our flashlights, we saw two red eyes looking at us. The crocodile wasn’t moving…just waiting. We had to cross the creek to continue our survey on the other side. As we crossed it, we always kept looking at the crocodile. Well, it didn’t move.
 
We kept doing our survey and, after a while, returned to the creek. Our teammates who were waiting for us at the jeep told us that they saw the same crocodile. It had gotten out of the water, went over the rocks, and slid back down into the water. It ignored them, but our teammates had the great chance to take a picture of a crocodile in its natural environment. Lucky them.

Saturday, August 16, 2008 5:30 a.m. I woke up to go dawn bird watching, which I was assigned to do according to the activities chart. Along with two staff members and other volunteers, I started to get ready for departure.
 
6:30 a.m. We arrived at the place for the survey, which will be a systematic species sampling at different altitudes, from 200 meters up to 600 meters, to gather information about altitudinal abundance patterns and susceptibility to a negative impact. Each survey will last for about 30 minutes and cover 150 meters.
 
7:01 a.m. The temperature is 20° Celsius (68° Fahrenheit), and the humidity is 75%. We finished the first survey and found 20 bird species. Among the most common were the catbird and the fernwern.
 
7:50 a.m. During the second survey, we found 21 bird species. The temperature and humidity were the same as the first survey.
 
8:30 a.m. We finished our third survey and found 15 species. The humidity was 85%, and the temperature was 21° Celsius (70° Fahrenheit).
 
With the information that we got from these surveys, the scientists can predict changes in bird distribution with increasing temperatures and vulnerability. The changes depend on the birds’ exposure and sensitivity to the potential climate change impact and their adaptive capacity.
 
8 p.m. The night was just incredible. After dinner, we went to the beach to admire the full moon over the sea and the waves breaking on the shore. It was not dark at all. The moonlight created enough light, making it easy to see the landscape all around Noah Beach. I felt very lucky right then, being there right at that moment with a full moon.
 
Once again, we watched with amazement the Southern Cross—the group of stars that are represented on the Australian flag.

Sunday, August 17, 2008 12 p.m. This morning, we went to perform a frog survey, but we didn’t see any frogs. It was a nice, sunny day—hot and dry—so it wasn’t a good day to look for frogs in wet areas. It was a nice day to hike in the rain forest, though.
 
I asked the Ph.D. student, Andrés, why we couldn’t see any species since I was anxious to see a frog. He said that not seeing frogs also gives us information about their abundance patterns in the dry season. He said that during the rainy season, it’s more likely to see frogs everywhere. I then asked why the volunteer project is not scheduled during summer in the rainy season. He said that surveying turns difficult in the heavy rain, with volunteers who are not used to being in such an environment being at increased risk for falling and tripping. I agreed with that.
 
7:30 p.m. We enjoyed another beautiful moonlit night with stars in the sky and their reflection on the sea. It was just amazing. There was a breeze blowing, and it was rather cold.

Monday, August 18, 2008 4:30 a.m. I woke up to go dawn bird watching on Mount Sorrow, which is a mountain with a trail leading all the way to the top (an altitude of 600 meters). I’ve heard that at the top, there’s a platform with a handrail just to observe the amazing colors of the Great Barrier Reef and the surrounding green mountains. That’s also something I don’t want to miss.
 
5:45 a.m. We started to hike Mount Sorrow. Although the mountain is 600 meters high, the trail to reach the top is three kilometers (1.9 miles) long.
 
7:50 a.m. We reached the top of Mount Sorrow, and it was cloudy and the wind chilled us. We didn’t have a nice view, as the sea and the Great Barrier Reef looked as gray as the sky. We were not lucky with the weather.
 
The hike was very difficult. Although it is a marked trail, it is full of giant logs, vegetation, and rocks. The last kilometer was very steep, so we almost had to climb up. I was very tired and sore, but it was good exercise.
 
On the way to the top, we conducted surveys at various altitudes. We measured some altitudinal abundance patterns, and we found about 50 species during the hike.
 
10:15 a.m. We came down from Mount Sorrow, and the weather was sunny and clear. I wasn’t able to climb back up, and we didn’t have time to hike again anyway. So, I just kept it as a good experience, although it was a cloudy day.
 
2:45 p.m. Steve Williams, the principal investigator, had to leave the campsite and the expedition, as he’s going to Panama tomorrow to assist at an international environmental meeting. We all said goodbye to Steve, who is a good leader and very committed to this project and the environment. He has a love and passion for the rainforest.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008 3:45 p.m. We woke up very early this morning for a dawn bird survey in a private park. The owner let us into the park to observe the birds right at the top of the canopies. We didn’t have to climb a tree. The park has walkways and a tower about 40 meters (131 feet) high that puts you right at the canopy level—exactly where the birds are.
 
It is very different when you can see the birds’ activity from the canopy. They fly everywhere and sing all the time. But to go bird watching, you must know some specific bird calls to recognize the species. It’s also important to have very good binoculars to see the birds closely.
 
After the bird watching, we went to collect different fruits. We measured off a distance of about 100 meters and searched within five meters along that line. Scientists will use the results of these samplings to compare the fruit we collected against the bird species’ diet charts to know which species are located in the area and if they have changes in their diet.
 
5 p.m. I went to the beach, where it was cloudy, windy, and cold. I had a quiet moment to think about what I learned and experienced on this expedition.
 
The place is just amazing, even with the weather conditions. The most important thing is that this area is protected and nothing will change. I wish there would be places like this everywhere, but in some places the money is more important than the landscape. Resorts are built, destroying the view that I can have right here at Noah Beach.
 
The only noise I could hear was the wind blowing and the waves breaking on the shore. I hope to come back sometime in the future.
 
We started to pack up our camp.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008 7:20 a.m. I packed my things and the tent. The weather was better today—sunny and no clouds around. However, the expedition has ended.
 
This expedition gave me immense satisfaction, a great experience, and a new and unexplored place to discover. I realize the great importance of the environment and the animals and plants that are here. They are so fragile and can disappear at any time, increasing the risk of extinction in other species because they all are linked to each other.
 
The project scientist summarized the impacts to the rainforest the research has uncovered since it began:
  • Range size declines;
  • Population fragmentation;
  • Declines in density/population size;
  • Loss of genetic diversity;
  • Breakdown of biotic/abiotic interactions;
  • Increased cyclone damage; and
  • Invasion of pests and weeds (including native species).
 
Reducing the risks of climate change requires collective action. It requires a partnership between the public and private sector, working with civil society and individuals. It is still possible to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, but it requires strong and urgent collective action. Delay would be costly and dangerous.
 
What we need to do is:
  • Reduce emissions by all means possible (reduction, improving efficiency, etc.);
  • Improve our understanding of the links between climate and both natural ecosystems and human society to improve predictions and therefore maximize the “bang-for-our-buck” in adaptation actions;
  • Include a consideration of future climate change in ALL management actions (social, economic, conservation) if we are to achieve true sustainable development and maintain both the environment and human welfare.
 
9:20 a.m. We left the campsite to drive to Cairns. Some of the Ph.D. students had left already, and we all wished them good luck with a strong handshake. We were happy to meet each other. To say goodbye is not that easy when you share part of your life for two weeks and know that the chance of seeing the teammates and staff again is very poor.
 
10:20 a.m. We drove by the beach going south to Cairns. It was sunny, and the fields and mountains were so green. The sea was so blue, with the coral’s shadow underwater. It was a place that I didn’t feel like leaving right then, but it was time. I can only say that good things don’t last long enough.
 
1 p.m. The staff dropped us off at the hotel in Cairns. We said goodbye, and a few of us stayed the following two nights in Cairns. I went to my room, and I felt like I was back in civilization. It was a strange but funny and unique feeling.
 
I had a comfortable king-size bed and a television. Finally, I could see some of the Olympic Games and the news. I saw the news about the airplane that crashed in Spain, and I started to feel unsafe once again. At that moment, I missed the life in the rainforest, which was wild but free of accidents.
 
4 p.m. I met Peter, Denise, Jennifer, and Kelly, who were other volunteers staying in the same hotel in Cairns. We went to the downtown area to have dinner together, and then I booked another diving trip to the Great Barrier Reef, but in the Cairns area. I also wanted to experience the aboriginal culture, so I booked another trip for later that night to an Australian aboriginal park. I know it will be another great adventure.
 
Unfortunately, there was just one day left before the end of my trip, which is one that I will never forget for the rest of my life. I went all the way to Australia as a volunteer to help asses the impact of climate change on endemic species of the region. That should be of concern to everybody, and not just local people.
 
Global warming is an issue that must matter to every country, every company, and every individual. I’m happy that I contributed to helping scientists design prediction models to reverse the loss of biodiversity in order to implement results and significantly advance conservation priorities in the world’s most endangered environments.
 
Thanks to Alcoa and Earthwatch for letting me help in some small way with this big project. Thanks to the principal investigator and the project staff, who trained me and explained to me the critical situation the Earth’s different environments are in. I also thank them for all the knowledge they transferred to us. Thanks to the volunteers—my teammates—for what they taught me about different cultures, as well as the great moments that we spent together. Finally, thanks to Kelly O’Toole, who helped edit this diary.

Photo Gallery


View the images from Richardo Montiel's diary.
go

Earthwatch Institute


Learn more about this international nonprofit, which supports scientific field research worldwide.
go

Climate Change in the Rainforest


Learn more about the expedition and its scientists.
go