School Excursion to the Great Barrier Reef.

As a high school teacher, my workday revolves around the trials and tribulations of teenagers and as I have said before it’s never dull!  Some days are better than others, and in early December, I went on a  Marine Studies excursion to Cairns – the Gateway to the Great Barrier Reef –  with forty-two 15-16-year-olds and 3 other teachers besides myself.

Sounds like fun, heh? Well, it was!

The bulk of the trip was managed by Small World Journeys, an Australian based educational adventure provider. They looked after the itinerary, accommodation, most of the meals, and transfers while in Cairns. We organised our own transport to and from school to the airport and the meals not covered in the package. (One dinner, one lunch).  We were, of course, responsible for supervising the kids and making sure they were safely in the right place at the right time for the 4-day adventure. The study tour included serious educational content with presentations from marine biologists balanced by hands-on activities including snorkelling at Fitzroy Island and Moore Reef.

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On arrival, the weather came as a bit of a shock to the students! I am not sure what they had expected, but the 2000 km plane ride had taken us out of the subtropics to well north of the Tropic Of Capricorn.  When we left Sydney, it was only 16ºC with low humidity. When we walked out of  Cairns Airport, we were hit by a wall of heat and humidity. (34ºC and 69% RH) and some of them started to melt.

students sitting in a lecture hall
Learning about deadly critters from a PhD student

Our first visit was to the marine research labs at James Cook University. Here we learnt about the myriad of toxic, deadly and dangerous critters found in this part of the world, including brown snakes, cone snails, box jellyfish, Irukandji jellyfish, stonefish, the blue-ringed octopus and to top it off large salt-water crocodiles!

The second day had us at the Reef Fleet Terminal at 9:00 AM for a day trip out to Fitzroy Island to visit the Turtle Rehabilitation Centre, snorkel and to do some mapping activities.

Turtle Rehab Centre

4 girls wearing full body stinger suits getting ready to enter the water
At this time of year, stinger suits are a MUST!

 

Day 3 was the highlight for both myself and the students with a trip to the Outer Reef.  We were booked on a Sunlover Reef Cruise, and after 2 hours cruising, we pulled up alongside their  Moore Reef Pontoon. On the way, we listened to Pablo, a marine biologist, explain what activities we would be doing and the tasks we needed to complete.

A life gaurd on the pontoon

The students participated in two citizen science projects involving surveying designated areas for species abundance and coral cover and condition.  Once back on the catamaran, their findings were uploaded to the Eye on the Reef database, giving a real sense that they had done something that actually counted.

Green Sea Turtle
This photo was taken by one of my students (Piper) using an iPhone in a waterproof case.

All in all, we had 4 hours on the pontoon and students were able to snorkel and explore for nearly all of that time, either as part of the arranged activity or on their own. A buffet lunch, snorkelling gear and stinger suits were all included.

 

Small Journeys always include a social justice/sustainability twist to their itineraries so our final day involved a talk from two remote area health workers. These nurses work with patients who travel to Cairns for treatment from very remote areas of far north Queensland and the Torres Strait Islands. These people, often indigenous, suffer from a range of complex health problems which are exacerbated by their remoteness and the long term effects of colonialism and discrimination. Alcoholism, domestic violence and child abuse are all too often part of their daily lives. The students sat quietly reflecting on what they had heard while they made up personal care packs using toiletry and sanitary items donated by the students themselves and other community groups.

Fish swimming near a boat
Through the observation window

We stayed at the Cairns Central YHA, which was comfortable and very centrally located. I am sure the other guests let out a muffled gasp when they saw a swarm of over-excited teenagers descending on the pool area after a hot, sweaty afternoon at the University! The next night we gave the house guests a break by taking our kids to the Cairns Esplanade Lagoon, a large public swimming pool which had plenty of space for everyone!

Cains Laggon at sunrise
Cairns Lagoon

 

I would highly recommend Small World Journeys to any school looking for an excursion of this sort. The guides were knowledgeable, friendly and well organised. The price was very reasonable for the inclusions and the provided risk assessment, excellent.

If you were looking to go to Cairns on a family holiday,  I would certainly recommend the Sunlover trip. There were plenty of other activities in Cairns, which I did not get an opportunity to visit. If you are not a fan of the heat, you might prefer to go in June or July. According to the Small World Journey’s leader, September is pure bliss. Warm, but not humid and no stingers! I will certainly be looking to go back for another visit without 42 kids in tow.  (AND with an underwater camera!)

A clown fish swimming near an anenome
Found him!

 

 

The Rock Route

Science Nerd Heaven?

Scotland is an excellent place to get your geology nerdiness happening! The Rock Route, which is part of the Northwest Highlands Geopark, is a great way to see some breathtaking scenery and get a bit of education at the same time.

Rock Route Explainer Board.
The explainer boards point out the major features that you can see in an easy to understand way. Here my photo is overlaid with sections of the board.

For me, a science nerd from way back, the “Rock Route” was a dream come true and discovered almost by accident. I was heading that way anyway and then I saw the purple road signs. It combined my existing road trip, incredible scenery and information all in bite-size chunks!

Rock RouteP1870177

 

With plenty of “explainer boards”, maps and signposts along the way you can trace the tumultuous geological history of the area.  The rocks along the rock route are old, really old and represent the oldest rocks found in Europe. They contain evidence of tectonic movement and the fossils captured in the sedimentary rocks are some of the earliest life forms ever discovered.

 

The Rock Route
It’s easy to see the two layers of different rock in this image. The darker rock, now on top, is older than the lighter one.

To top it off, the North West Highlands was one of the birthplaces of modern geology with Benjamin Peach and John Horne showing how stratigraphy needed to be carefully interpreted because the rock layers on top might not necessarily be the youngest. The accepted idea is that rocks are laid down in layers. The rocks on top are the youngest, the ones underneath are older. However, if the layers become deformed and folded, they can overlay each other, and older rocks might be higher than younger rocks. Geologists look for clues in the types of rocks and fossils to help put the rocks in the right order.

 

 

 

I started the Rock Route in Ullapool and while not stopping at all the highlights was able to get a good feel for the area. I dallied at the Rock Shop in Kylesku (just north of Unapool) and had one of the best toasted cheese and tomato sandwiches I have ever had! The day was a bit bleak outside and the warm cosy shop and museum, a welcome respite.

UNESCO Geoparks

The NorthWest Highlands Geopark is one of the many UNESCO Geoparks.

The UNESCO Geoparks are

“are single, unified geographical areas where sites and landscapes of international geological significance are managed with a holistic concept of protection, education and sustainable development. Their bottom-up approach of combining conservation with sustainable development while involving local communities is becoming increasingly popular. At present, there are 147 UNESCO Global Geoparks in 41 countries.”

Getting to the Rock Route

I don’t think it would be efficient to do the Rock Route any way except by car. This allows you to take your own time, stop where you want and take as long as you like. I did the trip from Ullapool right through to Scrabster in one day covering a  distance of 197 miles  (317 km).  This was made possible through an early start and a late finish, thanks to the long daylight hours!! As stated, the weather was not great, and I did not take in all the highlights or linger long except at Knockan Crag, where I took a walk along the well-marked track and Unapool for lunch.

The best place to start the Rock Route is either Ullapool or Durness. Look out for the signs with a purple Celtic design on the A835 heading out of Ullapool.

Durness Beach - The Rock Route
The end of the Rock Route at Durness.

 

Daydreaming

The other day I was listening to a podcast and letting my mind wander. The podcast was Radio National’s All in the Mind and the topic up for discussion was daydreaming and dementia.

Do you daydream? I hope you do!

Daydreaming has a bad rap, but as it turns out, we should not be so hard on ourselves when we wander off. Daydreaming is a very healthy brain activity and while it may get you into trouble if you are zoned out when someone (like your boss) is trying to get your attention, the fact that you CAN daydream, especially if you are older, is an indication of a healthier brain.

Researchers at the University of Sydney have found that

“people living with frontotemporal dementia ­– a form of younger-onset dementia – lose the ability to daydream. ”

We let our minds wander a lot! Up to 50% of waking time. Daydreaming allows us to explore the unknown, practice conversations and confrontations, escape from reality, plan and problem solve. I know I write my best stories when I am out running! Pity I don’t remember them when I get back! 🙂

People with frontotemporal dementia lose this ability and remain rooted in the present and stimulus bound.

“They become increasingly focused on what is immediately in front of them, such as watching TV, listening to a piece of music, or eating food.”

They lose the ability to create their own internal world.

I have a particular interest in dementia and have done lots of reading on the topic and even an online course through the University of Tasmania.  I am concerned about developing dementia (and arthritis!). Being an old chook (a female over 55), I am getting dangerously close to dementia being a real thing in my life. While I can’t change the genetic road map I have been given or do much about getting older, I can do my best to look after the modifiable factors that influence dementia risk.

A woman sitting on a park bench. The photo is blacka nd white excpet for the woman's red jumper and dress. It is a dark and desolate scene with the sea in the backgrond.
Let your mind wander!

It turns out that the sorts of things we have been told to do to maintain heart health will also look after the brain and the joints because they reduce inflammation.   Inflammation is a big contributor to both these conditions. We need to ensure that we keep our blood pressure at a healthy level, stay active and keep moving, maintain a healthy weight, eat a healthy diet which is based mainly in plants, never smoke and drink alcohol cautiously.  Easy!

While there are some promising studies that may lead to a cure for dementia, it’s not likely to be in my lifetime. So just excuse me while I go and stare out the window and think up some new dreams!

 

Just by the by, if you are interested in things to do with the brain and psychology, the All in the Mind podcast is fabulous. I must say I have a bit of girl-crush on Lynne Malcolm, the show’s presenter!

(As this is published I’ll be in an aeroplane somewhere returning home after my epic Scottish adventure)