Spin the Globe with Justin Butner

A world citizen may provide value to society by using knowledge acquired across cultural contexts.

Marine Education Parts 1 and 2

NOTE: I’m in the Outback now and have pretty remarkably bad connectivity when I do roll into tiny roadside fuel stations. I’m uploading posts as I can. When I can connect, I will upload a few at a time to get through the backlog. I’m doing two today. This one and one before. Enjoy.

Written 24 August

Today was a day of education. It came in two parts.

The first was the Australian Institute of Marine Science. AIMS. The logo for the foundation is stylistically done to look like a tropical fish. It is one of the best logos I’ve seen in a while. The facility is located on the water, in a national park, near the Great Barrier Reef and about an hour out of Townsville.

The tour itself was lackluster. It was two hours long, and it was free. It also turned out to be a private tour. There is something about showing up at about 10 in the morning on a weekday that sets you apart from the crowds. The Queensland Parliament, and the Indianapolis Capitol Building are two other tours that I got to myself. The exception here is that they only run one tour a week. I got lucky.

The first hour was a series of videos on what they do followed by a slide show of various information. Admittedly, the videos were done particularly well. I don’t remember much of what was in them not because they were bad at communicating but because they threw so much information at me in a short span of time. In short, the facility monitors climate change, invents devices to test the waters and corals, uses core samples to research the past, helps develop seafood farming practices that don’t hurt the environment, researches coral growth and reproduction, and heaps of other things in the same vein.

The tour around the facility was simple but effective. Machine shop with some of the inventions. Tanks growing giant lobsters (crayfish actually). Boats. Devices. Maps.

I got much more out of the second half of the tour (and lunch) from learning about the guide than from learning about the facility. She is an older volunteer whose views on simple living, selective spending, and status line up pretty well with my own. She volunteers at various information centers and museums around town. It rewards her by helping, but also by giving her free food, money for petrol, museum admittance tickets, and access to meet interesting people. I stole Amy’s story about trying to volunteer for human rights organizations in DC for my own. It seemed to fit the conversation and I grow tired of starting stories with, “I have a friend who…”

The upshot of our conversation, aside from meeting a woman who has strong opinions, is very self-reliant, can appreciate living simply, can understand not spending money on small things to save up for big trips and paying off a house, and can do it all without using a single derogatory or profane word, is that she has extra tickets to Reef HQ. It is a 2.5 million liter reef-on-land museum in Townsville that I had wanted to see but ruled out for the price tag. If I show up tomorrow at 1 when she is working, I’ll get in on one of her free passes. Ever more I’m learning that being friendly and honest about wants and restrictions results in good people doing nice things to help each other out.

The second phase of the educational day was at the Museum of Tropical North Queensland. After being told my student ID wasn’t valid because it wasn’t official but being let in on the student price anyway, I made my way up to the main reason I was there. The cannon.

I can think of few places in the world that legitimately fire cannons 1700’s style anymore. There really isn’t much reason for them other than nostalgia and history. Colonial Williamsburg is one. This is the other. And I never thought I would get a chance to fire a cannon. Granted, since I didn’t know it was an option and cannons are not a part of my daily life, the thought had never crossed my mind. I’ve never pictured myself in a three corner hat*with a lit torch touched to fuse and a puff of black smoke. But now that I realized it was an option, I wanted it. I needed to shoot that.**

The cannon lesson was educational and fun, if totally not what I had expected. First, it was a replica cannon, not an actual iron one. Second, it was in the museum. I figured there would be no cannon ball, but I figured we would be using black powder for some reason. Nope. Third, I was the only one excited about it. There were kids and adults, a group of about 15 people there. And I was the only one all thumbs up about getting to help fire a cannon. Come on Aussies! It’s a freakin’ cannon!

I took my position. As it turns out, this was position #2. The Rammer. The process was simple enough. Number 1 loads the powder sack and a wad, I ram it in the cannon. He loads a shot and another wad. I ram those in too. Then we pull the cannon into place and I step back to let the other guys line up the shot. When all is said and done, we stand back, pull a string to trip the lock, fuse lights, and cannon goes boom. I actually wasn’t really disappointed when it turned out that “firing” the cannon meant speakers went boom and then a few seconds later a red light went off and it sounded like we hit a ship.

I got a certificate for my trouble. I, Justin Butner, have been trained in the style of firing a cannon replica. My experience was the vocational equivalent of “Based on a true story.” It was somewhat more than “Inspired by true events,” but not necessarily by much.

I spent the rest of my time in the museum learning about ocean critters and reefs. After all, I’m this close to the Great Barrier Reef. What better place to learn it? And I’d already paid to get in.

The ocean beings section was pretty weird. Plain and simple, we just don’t know much about what happens out there in the depths. Some truly freaky things for certain.

When there is no light, animals don’t need color or eyes. And yet fish from those depths seem to have eyes. But they have that milky, dead, far-away zombie look to them, mounted in sunken sockets on translucent white skin. They are ugly. And freaky. If you fear swimming out to sea, sharks and crocs and box jellies are what you should fear. But these are what really freak me out.

We were so convinced that carbon was the basis of all life and then we found silicon based life forms in the depths.

We know only of giant squid from one or two somehow beaching as corpses. We know that they fight whales because of the whales we’ve seen with giant sucker mark scars.

We don’t know where blue whales birth or raise their young. The largest animal on the planet, and it just disappears and discretely has kids without giving us any clue where.

There are gelatinous sea cucumbers that look like a cross between a centipede and those silly worm tubes kids play with that feed in on themselves and are filled with colored liquid; they walk on their legs which encircle them.

Seriously, giant freakin’ squid fight whales in the depths and we have only the battle scars to know that it is happening. What. The. Hell?

Scientists tried to learn more about the things that happen in the dark depths. But largely we have failed at it. They caught an octopus that lived in the abyss once. They attached a camera to it and sent it back. But since no light penetrates to that level, the camera wouldn’t work without some light source. So they put a tiny light on the octopus. I think it might have even been infrared. And they sent the unwilling accomplice back to the ocean to gather data. And you know what happened?

The other octopi saw it, realized something was different and wrong, and they tore it apart. The tribal council got together, they decided that the one who came back was no longer one of them, and they literally tore it to pieces. So all we know is that we shouldn’t really mess with deep water octopi. Noted.***

If I start to drown in the ocean and sink to the bottom, I’m going to be happy that a combination of lack of air and excessive pressure kills me before I get to the level of angry, frightening, zombie-eyed, tentacles of destruction, made out of silicon, living on a volcanic vent for survival beasts.

The coral part of the exhibit was also interesting, though in a much less terrifying way.

Coral. An animal that we thought was a plant or a rock for a long time. Related to worms, but way prettier. It starts out as sperm and eggs jettisoned in a once-a-year event into the ocean, where it forms large pink slicks on the surface up to a few kilometers long. It floats around until it sees a good place, sinks, and sets up residency. One polyp forms. Then it sets up a little calcium carbonate base. Then it divides in two and forms an identical copy of itself. Then the base expands. And they split in two, and they split in two, and so on, and so on, and so on. And they are all still the same because they are connected as part of the same living epidermis on the bone underneath. I suppose it is freaky in its own right, but it is pretty so for some reason it doesn’t seem that off-putting.

The coral is symbiotic with algae of a specific type (one with a name that has a lot of letters and a pronunciation that doesn’t match how it is written). They give each other energy and nutrients and they thrive. And if the conditions get bad for growth, the algae just leaves. The coral becomes bleached. If the conditions are bad for a while, the coral can’t feed itself with its mouth alone and it dies as a skeleton. If the conditions get better, the algae returns. I’m not really clear on where it goes, or if it does better on its own than connected to the coral, but somehow it all seems to work.

And so coral builds upon itself and spreads. And it forms layers of growth like tree rings. But in years of plenty it grows well. In years of famine, it doesn’t grow well or at all. In flood years, it seems to form phosphorescing bands****. And they can backdate climate data based on coral bands, and coral age based on geoclimate data. One they sliced into turned out to be 800 years old. Scientists reckon that coral is the oldest living thing on the planet based on this.

I’m likely to agree.

Then again, who knows what grandfather beasts are living in the depths that we haven’t encountered yet? After all, what better way to stay alive for millennia than to do it under the radar? Twenty thousand leagues under the radar?

* A colonial hat I associate with cannon firing. I’ve worn three corner pirate hats made out of wire and duct tape, and that suited me quite well. Captain Jack Sparrow indeed.

** Upon saying this to a Canadian friend, she let me know that I had just become officially stereotypically American. It took me some time, but I was there. I refuted. She clarified. “I didn’t realize I could shoot that, but now that I know, I have to shoot it.” Game. Set. Match.

*** Only about half these facts came from the museum. The other half I’ve garnered from various conversations and shows. I am a font of knowledge.

**** Seriously. They had a cross section of coral under black light. The glowing bands were supposedly years of flood. I know there is a step or two between that they glossed over because I don’t think flood waters = UV reactive.

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