Monday, the marine research station at Lizard Island offered a tour of their facility and a sort of educational show-and-tell to visitors from the yachts. It begins at 11:00, but is an hour's walk from Watson's Bay. Wow, this walk is good training for building up ankles and calves because about ¾ of it is loose sugary sand. I suppose this island is similar to Fraser Island in that regard. There was just one steep part over a rocky hill and then we were back to the sand that buried our feet and twisted our ankles if we weren't careful. Arriving at the research station hot and soaked in sweat, we were all asked to take off our shoes and rinse our feet in the tub of water at the entrance. When we removed our shoes and socks sand poured out! We could fully appreciate their request otherwise they would have a sand dune to scoop up after we all left.
We were ushered into a small lounge area and offered seats, where we were shown a short but very impressive video of the workings of the research station. Students, marine biologists, scientists from all over the world study and conduct research in the station and at the underwater lab, in a strict rotation. We are after all right in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef. There are only 3 fulltime personnel stationed here. We came away from the presentation much, much more respectful of the reefs, flora and fauna below us and learned of some creatures we've never seen nor heard of before. One of those is a "manta (or mantis) shrimp".
Leaving the little room we were all led to an outdoor working lab with dozens of small glass tanks containing various creatures. One of the scientists (an American) directed our attention to a chunk of coral in a small aquarium asking if any of us could find the octopus. We peered in but could see only the coral rock, yet sure enough a tiny octopus was attached and utterly disguised exactly conforming to the colors and surface structure of the coral. The only way we could spot it was by it's breathing. Wow! We've probably passed right on by these little guys when diving or snorkeling and had never known. The scientist is studying the tiny octopus's behaviors under varying conditions and stimuli.
Next we met another (American) marine biologist who had one of the manta shrimp about 2.5 inches long displayed in another aquarium. This is a bizarre little creature. It has a tail more resembling a lobster than a shrimp, and "arms" that it keeps folded up under the head sort of like a praying mantis but these arms are weapons of alien strength. It strikes with such velocity that a larger specimen would be able to break the glass in the tank! One appendage punches; the other "arm" is a spike. Anyone reading this should go to YouTube and watch some of the videos of Mantis Shrimp; they are very aggressive. The arms move lightening fast, and to demonstrate, he placed a metallic looking pen into the tank and immediately the shrimp attacked by striking it, yet no one saw the arm move we just heard at loud "thwack!" and saw the pen jerk. The young scientist studying this creature gave us some amazing information on this little fellow and of course urged us never to try to approach or pick one up that we may see swimming around. He then gave each of us a go with the pen - it was frightening to feel the strength of that punch. Later toward the end of our tour, another biologist (a female American) who had just brought in a massive manta shrimp in a bucket showed us her find. Unbelievable - it was as large as a lobster, and we are told very tasty as well but we may never find out for ourselves. The rest of the hour was filled with more exhibits and larger tanks filled with purple starfish, live coral and beautifully colored fish. The final exhibit was a very large crown-of-thorns starfish in a large tank. We've seen several of these while snorkeling in Fiji. We took a lot of information away with us and were seriously awed. At the end we were escorted back to the lounge area to peruse the collection of books, videos, etc. We each decided to buy a t-shirt to commemorate the visit and then on the way out our hostess pointed to a bench full of dive skins and wetsuits telling us to help ourselves if we would like one, as these are being cycled out. That was nice. They are well used but with plenty of life left in them there was one left as we passed by and so we picked it up.
Somehow the trek back seemed longer but I'm sure that is because it was much hotter now. We rested a bit onboard and then jumped into the water in for a snorkel over to the Clam Garden, which was just a short swim away. I must say we have done a fair bit of diving and rarely have we seen such a colorful, healthy and lively reef. We couldn't believe we forgot the camera. It was a fantastic large reef brimming with literally hundreds of corals, assorted creatures and clams, some up to 5 feet in diameter, their "lips" a variety of colors, mostly deep rich purples and bright greens, blues and yellows. They look like velvet but are mighty strong, and if we were to get too close could lose an appendage in a heartbeat. There were also large rocklike structures absolutely covered with the zig-zaggy mouths of clams. It was an eerie sight - as though the actual clams were trapped inside this huge rock and all we could see were the lips pulsing. It reminded me of a horror movie where all these souls were trapped in a wall crying out for help. Then at one particular section about 12 giant clams were sitting into the sand facing upward as they do their lips the colors of the rainbow (once again I regretted not having brought the darn camera). My gosh, what a sight! We then came to an area of beautiful blossoms of coral whereupon some of the prettiest neon bright fish were feeding: blues, yellows, greens, pinks oranges, reds their colors so bright it was as if they were lit from the inside. There were also several patches of coral that first appeared white but then would sort of glow fluorescent green like a light stick. Amazing. Just when Frank motioned for me to start moving back toward the boat a sea turtle swam within arm's reach of me. I was so stunned I popped up to get Frank's attention and surprisingly when I looked back down the turtle was still with me. We swam along together for several minutes, the turtle and me. I was so very tempted to reach out to touch it and could have easily done so because it was utterly unperturbed by my proximity. Frank and I swam along with our new friend until he surfaced, looked right at me and then in a breath was gone. This was a magical experience. Although Frank and I have been divers for years we came away with a renewed sense of personal responsibility and propriety toward the world below us.
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