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Mad Dogs and Whale Researchers
Over the years we have gained a reputation in Australia for heading out to sea when others would rather sit at the pub. Our research vessel may be small (6.3 m) but it can ‘take a lickin’ and keep on tickin’. Open ocean research is not for the faint of heart, bearers of bad backs, weak bladder or easily disturbed digestive system. Other than that, you are fair game to ride along.
While there may appear to be no limitations to our bold madness, we really are restricted by the weather. Short, steep swell coupled with 25+ knots of wind results in water flying everywhere, making photography near impossible. Ditto for rain. Now we do manage to work around such inclement conditions by having Annie shoot next to me in the wheelhouse, under the awning. But when conditions get so bad that water is coming in sideways, well time to stop.
Contrary to popular belief we don’t take undo risks either. Our research vessel is surveyed to carry up to eight passengers. We have a VhF radio, cell phones, compass, GPS, EPIRB (beacon that automatically sends out a distress signal if we flip or become swamped), flares, v-sheet, mirror, whistle, horn, back-up batteries for the engine, and carry twice the amount of fuel we need. Of course we always have at least 1 liter of water per person onboard, food and extensive medical kit. Also if our aluminum hull gets pierced, our Kevlar pontoons will keep us afloat, or vice versa. If both the pontoons and the hull become damaged, we have paddles and a prayer.
We are known for going out in just about any kind of weather, which has prompted a Hervey Bay whalewatch operator or two to tell their whinging passengers (on those stormy, wet, cold days), “If you think you are uncomfortable, imagine those researchers riding around in that little rubber duck.” Rubber duck indeed. Rigid hull inflatable boat is the correct terminology or RIB. We have outlasted the Australian Navy during a gale on day in our rubber duck (“just one more photo”), a day where only mad dogs and whale researchers would be out.
Yes we are dedicated, and a bit adventurous, but we are not stupid. Our motto is: ‘Live to research another day,’ nothing is worth the risk of not returning home. We have also learned never to trust the weather forecast. The weather will be, what it becomes and you better keep a keen eye on the horizon at all times.
This morning we head to sea, and it is glorious. Flat as a pancake, or as they say in Oz, “flat as mate’. It is sunny with no wind. Suddenly a captain comes on the radio and declares, “This is the best day we have had all year!” Mistake. The Curse of the weather gods is now upon us all – you make that declaration at the end of the day, never at daybreak mate.
We head past Low Isles and find three bottlenose dolphins feeding. They are the smaller near-shore variety, Tursiopsaduncus. “These dolphins look so tiny compared to bottlenose (Tursiopstruncatus) we were studying off Maui before we left,” says Amanda. She’s right; they are about half the size – perhaps 3-4 feet in length.
We cruise north down the shipping channel and head NW towards a submerged shipwreck about 3 miles east of Snapper Island. Then we survey east towards Pratt Rock and then ten miles further east to the end of Rudder Reef. No whales, but a small white cap appears. Then another. We are 24 miles offshore, and I smell weather. A large squall is forming quickly. I turn the boat back west, and within two miles our glorious ‘best day of the year’ has turned into a foaming 25 knot sea churning to 1.5 meters.
We try and survey along the eastern edge of Undine Reef, but that proves a bit difficult, so we head SW on a broad reach towards Snapper Island. It is noon when we arrive, and there is a small 100 m wide sliver of lee behind the island. Snapper Island National Park and Marine Park is located at the mouth of the Daintree River some 11 nm north of Port Douglas. There are no buildings on the island but you are allowed to camp, but not quite sure how people get on the island, except swim or wade ashore.
We take time having lunch today, hoping the wind will back off. It doesn’t, so we brace ourselves for the 11 nm pounding home, we will be heading directly into a head sea (a sea in which the waves are running directly against the course of your boat.)
We arrive home shaken but not stirred, and wonder if the weather will break for tomorrow. Will we be mad dogs once again braying at the spray or tethered to the post in the harbor? We’ll be up at day break to see.