Orpheus Island… possibly the East Coasts’ best kept secret! IF you have a soft spot for marine invertebrates, “geekin’ it out” with researchers, total disconnection from mobile and internet services, and scavenging for bush tucker (“taka”) when supplies run low. I loved it (although I wouldn’t have survived indefinitely)!
I found out about it while I was in Kuranda. An American woman staying at the hostel had spent the last month teaching marine ecology to a group of students from the States. They’d stayed at all the major research stations from Brisbane to Carins. When I told her how cool I thought that would be she mentioned that there were volunteer positions available. Within 24hrs I’d secured a spot on the next boat to Orhpeus Island. It cut my stay in Carins a little short, but was well worth it!
Not an atoll (an island developed from coral build up over thousands of years) like many islands found in the Great Barrier Reef, Orpheus is rock solid… with a heavy frosting of sand! The boat ride from Taylor’s Beach took about an hour. As we pulled into the bay, a white strip of beach emerged between the rainforest and mangroves. Idyllic!
Only after getting off the beach, did the research buildings emerge from behind the foreshore scrub. The island is also a National Park, so the footprint of the research station is very small. The first thing that you find when approaching the station is a large round touch tank – I spent a lot of time scaring the clams and coaxing Nemo from his anemone!
The research station is run by James Cook University. They’ve got a constant stream of researchers and volunteers running through the station. While I was there I spent quite a bit of time with the crew volunteering for a woman doing her PhD on Ciguatera (a toxic microorganism with effects similar to shell fish poisoning from red tide). From what I understand, ciguatera is a dinoflagellate that lives on algae, which the herbivorous reef fish eat, which are then eaten by bigger fish, and bigger fish, etc… until humans eat it. Along the food chain the toxin bioaccumulates or builds up, so by the time we eat it the levels are high enough to be toxic. The symptoms are really unpleasant, including a tingling pain so horrible that people suffering from it have asked for amputation instead of waiting for pain killers to set in! EEEPP! At the moment there is no commercial test for it, so technically you run the risk every time you eat a reef fish. This researcher was trying to determine if there were seasonal variations or certain areas on the reef that tend to have higher levels of ciguatera to help reduce the cases of ciguatera poisoning.
So these algae folks were great fun! They were out on the research boat in shifts – one day on, one day off sort of thing. Sooo, on their day off we was lucky enough to get to go out in the dingy for snorkeling. The reefs around the island were beautiful! Lots of fish, sea turtles, and humpback whales!
Volunteer Work…. Shouldn’t Really Be Called Work
Other then having lots of fun, as a volunteer on the island we were expected to do some work. Jess and Amy were volunteering with me; they were nursing students from Townsville on a weekend getaway from school work – great girls! Most of the work was weeding, but on the last day I also got to drive the mini-tractor! We were pulling out lantana, which is an invasive exotic that spreads everywhere – kinda like the Himalayan blackberry at home. We tied a rope to the back of the tractor and around the base of the lantana stalks, and then hit the gas…very slowly.
The research station is located on the West side of the island, so its beach is very protected. The beach on the East side of the island gets hit hard by incoming waves and a lot of debris. We hiked up and over to the East side to check out the beach and I was shocked by how much garbage there was. The research station cleans it up every three months when their garbage barge comes, so I can’t imagine what it would be like if they weren’t there to clean it up! Most of the washed up garbage was shoes, and smaller pieces of hard plastic. All slowly breaking up, and on it’s way to the garbage island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Exploring the tide pools is one of my favorite past times, so it was very cool to see the tidal flats exposed on Orpheus. During my visit the low tides were some of the lowest of the year; at low tide the tidal flat stretched out for about 60m. The bottom was sandy for the first bit, and then started to become coral. Closed toe shoes were a must because of stone fish (danger danger) and cone shells (danger danger) and sting rays (danger danger). It was amusing to watch everyone jump from sandy spot to sandy spot in an effort to avoid walking on the hard coral, but as you got further out it was inevitable. The soft corals looked like colourful inflated rubber
gloves. As the day wore on it really started to stink because the corals were excreting nasty smelling slime to protect themselves from the sun. In the shallow pools there were baby sharks to chase, giant clams (nature’s water gun), anemones, and tube worms to watch.
One morning a big prawn fishing boat was sitting in the bay because it was too rough to fish. The algae folks bought a few kilos of fresh prawns and we all feasted on them on our last night on the island! Very delicious.
I left a couple days early because the algae folks offered me a free ride down to Townsville. Townsville isn’t very exciting, but it is the gateway to another island paradise – Magnetic Island.