The Secrets of Lady Musgrave

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Discovers Tarius In Beliung

Marilia and I respond to the various risks we encounter in different ways, but there is one risk that conjures fear in both of us and often leaves us simply hoping for the best.  Over the past 9 months we have sailed roughly 8,000 miles where we have endured medical emergencies, long ocean passages, heavy winds, sharks, jellies and many more threats.  When people ask us how we deal with exposing our kids to those risks we barely attempt to explain that it simply isn’t that different than the level of risk in ordinary life; however, ask us how homeschool is going and we start to stammer and cluck.  We do our best to keep Sophia (10) and Julia (11) engaged in their hometown school’s curriculum with extra emphasis on math.  Our belief is that the lessons out here are invaluable.  Some of our best moments have been when that is most apparent and especially when it comes from unexpected places.  Call it serendipity.

We made our Australian landfall in a small town called Bundaberg, known for its rum and a daredevil pioneer named Bert Hinkler who broke many records at the dawn of aviation.

It is a simple place where the biggest concerns seem to be how to trick out a 4×4, get a boat and deal with the inevitable diabetes that comes from over-sized platters of fried seafood with extra-large helpings of french-fries.  Bundaberg reminds me a lot of my home in the Carolinas complete with the southern hospitality, which is actually northern hospitality in the southern hemisphere.

We spent a week in the marina participating in many events sponsored by a sailing rally that we had joined.  It offered a great introduction to Australia while providing a complete download on how to cruise the east coast, a coastline rife with risk but full of helpful resources if needed. As time wore on we began looking for things to do outside of the rally events, something that the girls would enjoy.  One fellow cruiser suggested that we check out the Lady Musgrave Experience tour which was run out of the same marina aboard a large tour boat.  We typically shy away from the tourist hype and large groups, but we were running out of ideas.  So, we bought in and jumped aboard on a random Monday morning thinking that the crowd would be thinned down after the weekenders had departed.

There must have been a holiday that we did not know about.  We were the last to board and found the boat chocked full of Chinese tourists even though we arrived 30 minutes before the scheduled time.  We left the marina at 7:30am.  By 8:00am more than half of the 100 passengers had tossed their breakfast.  What had we signed up for?  The ride out took a couple of hours heading straight into a stiff wind and heavy sea.  It was absolutely miserable.  That said, the crew was entirely professional and handled the situation better than expected.  The way they managed the barf bags was seemingly sterile and almost elegant.  We arrived to the island cleaned up and organized – every last one of us.  Our family was assigned to the Turtle group and would go for an island tour while the Clown Fish group had “a go at the reef”.  I was less than enthusiastic thinking it was a ploy to manage an overloaded agenda where everyone preferred to be diving on the reef.

So, the Turtles piled on to a landing craft and off to shore we went.  We arrived to a beach swarming with bird life.  We had seen this before in the Cook Islands where we had toured a protected rookery.  It was exciting, but felt like more of the same – tons of birds, nests, eggs and chicks – everything covered in poop.  Then our tour guide started to breakdown the mayhem.  What became obvious was that our young tour guide, along with the majority of the crew aboard the Lady Musgrave charter boat was a marine biologist and passionately knowledgeable about the order of things on Lady Musgrave island.

She explained that it was mating season and that there were two major participants among the various birds.  The Black Noddy Tern and the Wedge Tail Shearwater.  Each one had a remarkable story.


The Black Noddy Tern was nested in a very special tree, the Pisonia tree which is unique to the small island group in the area.

There were thousands of the Terns nesting or in the process of building their nests.  Our guide explained that the females found a location in the very special tree while the male collected leaves to present to the female.  Once we understood that we began to see rhythm in the chaos.  It was remarkable to see the sky full of the male Terns searching for the perfect leaves and then flying them into their partner to see if she approved.

It became even more interesting when our guide explained that the female only accepts one in ten leaves and that it take one hundred leaves to build a nest.  It all made sense – total chaos brought on by finicky females and frantic males trying to gain their approval.  Once approved, the female would take the leaf and cement it into the nest with some carefully placed poop.

The perfect tree with the perfect leaves to satisfy this very particular bird that migrates all the way from Papua New Guinea to this small island every year.  Our guide went on to explain that the Pisonia tree has a flower that weeps a sticky substance that over time will accumulate on many of the birds as they move around the trees.  It can become so thick that it disables the bird to the point that a large number of them die under the tree every season.  The bird then decomposes and provides the nutrients that tree needs to survive.  And so the pattern unfolds as this beautiful symbiotic relationship between bird and tree.

The Wedge Tail Shearwater also has an interesting relationship with the Pisonia tree.  Unlike the Tern, the Shearwater burrows in the ground under the roots of the Pisonia.

They mate and nest at roughly the same time as the Tern.  The eggs are abandoned by the parents and left on their own to survive.  The birds take to the sea as soon as they can fly and spend four years migrating as far as California before maturing to the point of breeding.  When nature calls, they return to Lady Musgrave island knowing the exact tree under which their parents had nested.  Unfortunately, these four year old birds have never navigated an onshore landing.  So, instead of some graceful approach, they literally crash land into the Pisonia tree and tumble to the ground where they find their burrowed nest from four years before.  The Pisonia tree provides a soft landing with its many leaves that allow for the majority of the Shearwaters to survive the crash.  Those that do not, provide nutrients for the tree much like the Terns.

Marilia and I were simply amazed by those two stories and the detailed understanding of our knowledgeable and caring tour guides.  I may very well look back on that day as the day that I became a “birder” – we’ll see.  The girls were just as inspired as the two of us.  The excursion ashore was matched by further education around the reef and in the water.  We learned things about coral that changed our entire outlook on our diving experiences.  For the first time, we were starting to learn the characteristics and condition of an ecosystem that we were very familiar with and thought we understood.

The weather set down that afternoon making for a very comfortable ride home.  The crew had handed out seasick medicine so they had time on their hands since they were not juggling bags and nursing unfortunate passengers.  Several of them sat down with us and discussed ideas of how we could access more resources like theirs when we return north to explore the reef next year.  They had ideas like planning our itinerary around the migration patterns that draw in scientist that we could then access for a similar type of education.  They felt that with some effort we could probably participate in research as well.  And so our trip evolves while Marilia and I enjoy peace for a day knowing that we are giving our girls a remarkable and memorable education.

Words By: teamnogal

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