Jervis Bay

My final destination in Australia is perhaps the most beautiful.

Arriving by happenstance at sunset, I set up camp just as the red glow reflects on the pool of Honeymoon beach, a classic Sydney destination. I watch in awe as dozens of bottle-nosed dolphins swim by as the last lights go down on Jervis Bay.

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Honeymoon beach at Jervis Bay

Climbing on the rocky outcrops to get a closer view, I enjoy a beer with my fellow PhD students. A few eastern grey kangaroos pass by the campsite, and kookaburas perch on a nearby gum tree eagerly awaiting a snack.

The next day I take my time on a nice walk down to an isolated beach, called Silicon cove, named for the silky white sand lining the coast. The fact that not one soul on the beach is hauntingly beautiful, and I quickly hike back to my friends.

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My favorite beach!

We drive out to the cliffs overlooking Jarvis Bay, and to our surprise, we glimpse humpback whales breaching! We perch on the sheer drop (which I surprisingly inch myself out to the cliff of, staring in awe as the bright blue waves crash on the rocks starkly below). I’m amazed by the climbers going straight as we welcome the whales back from their long migration across the Pacific.

We continue exploring these jaw dropping cliffs, carved in sheer limestone. White bellied sea eagles entertain from above as they swoop down over the ocean, catching fish as I stumble over the rough terrain. All sorts of beautiful song birds line the thick coastal heath trail. Cockatoos, honeyeaters, and a stunning fairy wren are among my favorites.

What a wonderful trip to conclude my time in Australia!

Angkor Wat

The remnants of the Khmer empire left gorgeous ruins with a sad history. I was excited to fulfill my dream come true exploring the jungle temples of Angkor Wat, like I saw in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider as a kid. However, so much of this part of history is left out of the textbooks, and I was saddened by all the destruction wrought on the temples as empires rose and fell, and wars put bullet holes in the temple walls.

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The main temple of the Angkor Wat complex

The temple complex of Angkor Wat is massive, with long corridors and intricate structural designs depicting hindu symbols and buddhist inscriptions. There were cool, dark refugia to take shelter from the sweltering sun and meditate, a zen moment disturbed by some tourist knocking into the Buddhist shrine.

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Angkor Wat

After seeing the dried up lake where Lara croft zoomed through on her speed boat, we navigated our way to the top of the main tower for a great view of the Angkor Wat complex.

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View of Angkor Wat

Personally, I was much more excited to explore Ta Prohm, a temple overrun with fig trees. The large buttress roots circumnavigate the crumbling temple walls, adding support and resembling the interwoven nature of these temples with the surrounding jungle forests. A beautiful parrot tweets overhead as we take a second to rest in the shade of these large fig trees.


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Ta Prohm and the famous fig vines. Lara Croft: tomb raider was here! 

The most impressive temple in my opinion is Angkor Thom, with the 7-faces of Buddha carved into the walls. I felt empowered hiking to the top of this structure, passing through the ornate doors and peering over the detailed designs.

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Angkor Thom South Gate

The next morning we returned for sunrise at Angkor Wat, the beautiful morning colors reflecting over the square pool. It was still too soon to start exploring the other temples, so we rested outside and got some breakfast as the sun first broke through the canopy.

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My only regret was stopping to see some long-tailed macaques, as they soon were in the tuk-tuk we hired to take us around the temples and stealing water bottles. The mother macaque was very angry when I tried to grab it back, so we just left them be—the baby sure was cute though! The elephant-riding also made me uncomfortable as a conservationist, but it still made for a beautiful site.

We explored a variety of other temples and learned how they transitioned from Buddhist to Hindu and back to the hands of other groups of people. The saddest part was learning about the destruction from the Vietnam war, which spilled into Cambodia and killed millions. Land mines still litter the country, and that night at the market of Siem Reap men and women missing limbs sat playing instruments for money.

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Angkor Thom

I got a beautiful mug and painting of the temples at the market and had a delicious meal to rejuvenate from the jungle heat. It was amazing exploring these beautiful temples and getting a history lesson that is often overlooked from a Euro-centrist, American perspective.

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Flight from the Thailand Coronation

Bangkok

The taxi driver was frantically explaining how the police were setting up blockades as we negotiated a ride to the airport. It was time for the king’s coronation, and we just barely escaped as the city was shutting down for the most momentous day in Thailand.

I was so scared about eating food due to my peanut allergy, but in my first night in Bangkok all I had to do was to motion to leave peanuts off–and I had my first delicious pad thai as a welcome to the country! I even tried a scorpion head, which was distinctly crunchy. I also had to fend off lady-boys grabbing me in the streets; I didn’t feel super safe in Khao San Road.

However, I had a great time touring the temples of Bangkok during the day. The grand palace was aptly named; the incredible decor, fascinating murals on the walls detailing history, and the ornate temples gave meaning to a place where the new king was soon to be crowned.

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At the Grand Temple palace, the site of the King’s coronation

We visited a huge reclining buddha statue with some of the best decorated feet I’ve seen in my life. We also stopped by a floating market, tasting some delicious rice pudding out of a coconut. My friends insisted on a river boat tour to see Wat Rong Khun, and we saw a water monitor and people coming up to us in boats to sell trinkets.

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Water taxi tour of the Bangkok temples, avoiding the traffic from the King’s coronation

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A very large reclining statue of buddha. The feet had very ornate drawings!

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Wat Rong Khun

I was in awe at sharp white spires of the final temple on our tour.

Ao Nang

I was immediately struck by the pandora-esque landscapes before me, with large green hils erupting suddenly along the roadside. I later learned the karst limestone cliffs formed from volcanic cones bubbling to the surface, then eroding over the millenia into the wonderous shapes (my favorite of which was shaped like a hand).

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Even the hostel sat at the base of the wondrous cliffs. Not far from the beach, we watched the sunset over the bay, dubbed “ugly beach” as it seemed in comparison to the others we saw the next day.

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Though I was sick from a green tea milkshake smoothie we had our first day, I could still appreciate the cerulean waters and fish that came to greet us. It was like seeing old friends: parrotfish and moorish idols swimming around my feet and several new kinds of coral that only exist in the world famous “coral triangle”–stretching from Indonesia to Australia to the pacific ocean.

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I almost fainted from the heat on what was probably the most beautiful beach in the world, second only to Railay beach where I took shelter in the shade of the karst caves where a fertility shrine was built.

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The fertility shrine offered shade and a wonderful view of Railay beach!

The next day, my strength returned and we hiked over 1200 steps to the tiger temple in the midday sun. It was very hard and hot but the views of the rolling hills from the top were worth it. The buddha statue at the top was also very impressive, and the wind kept the space cool.

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Amazing karst limestone landscapes! The “Tiger Temple” has the best view in town

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The temple was named for the tiger print left in the rock at the base of the temple. It was interesting seeing people bring offerings and gifts to the monks as we rested in the shade after the arduous hike.

Personally, I enjoyed playing with the long tailed macaques at the bottom, who were not as aggressive as the ones in Angkor Wat. They were keeping cool by the waterfall, eating fruit and occasionally investigating the tourists for food.

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A long tailed macaque enjoying a piece of pineapple.

We ended the trip with one delicious passion/dragon fruit smoothie-worth the traveler’s diarrhea I got from it.

We watched what was probably the most beautiful sunset over the “ugly beach” celebrating two years since graduating from Rice with my best friends from Martel college.

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A collared kingfisher enjoying the sunset view with us at Ao Nang

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Reunited with my college roommate in Krabi, Thailand!

Singapore: SciArt, Foodie’s Paradise & The Future

I stand in awe at the top of Marina Bay Sands watching the skyline of Singapore come to life as it turns from gray to blue to purple and white. The rooftop bar turns into a club at night with the best view in town, where I can see the light-show from the Gardens by the Bay. These electronic trees are mesmerizing as I watch from the skybridge to the tunes of “staying alive” and other hits from the ’80s.

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Gardens By the Bay. The artificial trees put on a show as we danced along the skybridge, and my friend taught me West Coast swing.

 

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Marina Bay Sands Hotel

The architecture of the buildings is incredibly aesthetic, and many are designed with the environment in mind, including green roofs for insulation. My favorite was the cloud forest dome, an art exhibit covered with flora from the cloud forest, my favorite biome. The gorgeous wall of greenery and stunning lighting displays at night highlighted the best these ecosystems have to offer. Unfortunately, because they are so sensitive to change by climate change, will this be the last remnants of these forests?

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The cloud forest dome, featuring the flora of one of the world’s most endangered ecosystems

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A long-tailed macaque, following us along the trail of Bukit Timah nature reserve.

I was impressed to see how much nature was still intact in Singapore. I woke up at dawn to see monkeys in Bukit Timah reserve along the MacRitchie water catchment, where I spotted a water monitor, a plantain squirrel, and plenty of long-tailed macaques. Hiking to the canopy walk, which was closed, we came back the next day only to get caught in a rainstorm. Still the lush rainforest was gorgeous, and even the botanical garden had a small patch with sunbirds and butterflies flitting around the orchids. My favorite orchid genus, Aranda, had a whole section!

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A water monitor cruising through MacRitchie Water Catchment

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A plantain squirrel. If you look closely, you can see the skin flaps under the arms that allow her to glide through the canopy!

Science fuses with art all around the city, which springs to life at night with an almost magical aura. I watch with my friend, a mechanical engineer, as she explains to me how her company, ARUP, built the tower with their sleek design team. They also designed the “DNA Bridge” connecting Marina Bay Sands to the fun wharves, like Clark Quay across the way where I got a Turkish delight ice cream surprise in the upbeat neighborhood. I originally had an oolong tea ice cream that I tossed out in exchange from this charismatic Turkish ice cream scooper. He made eye contact with me, motioned for me to toss out my cone, and he played a trick where he gave me a new scoop of thick, creamy vanilla which I didn’t mind one bit!

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The “DNA” bridge, also designed by ARUP, and the Science and Art Museum

We dined on some of the most unique and delicious food I’ve had in my life. It was like being in one huge Chinatown: walking down the street grabbing Durian ice cream, having soup dumplings, then eating some Michelin star “Chicken & Rice,” approved by the famous TV food guru.  I could’ve sat and ate all day long (and we did!) going to the Hawker-style food courts, enjoying braised duck with noodles and soursop and ice for dessert, all for less than $5! There were these rosewater milkshakes called milo dinosaurs (Milo being an Aussie chocolate powder drink sprinkled on top of a fruity delight).

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The Michelin star restaurant found at a Hawker’s market

My favorite dish was the black carrot cake. A bit of a misnomer, this dish is egg based and has a “melt-in-your-mouth” texture reminiscent of flan . However it is very chewy, smooth consistency, and absolutely paired well with a light dinner after a long walk along the marina bay sands’s most touristy hawkers market. I remember gawking at the “overpriced” $4 cake!

Walking through Chinatown, it was clear to see the influence of the Chinese immigrants that built the community. I even had the chance to take a stroll through the Hindu temples in Little India, the community built by the Indian immigrants. The shops were lined with spices and I even picked up an umbrella to keep dry from the pouring rain. Touring further along the easily accessibly train line, Chinese temples adorned the streets and gave a teaser of what was to come in Bangkok. I really enjoyed learning about the buddhist customs and traditions, and monks and religious patrons were lighting incense in honor of a holiday at one of the temples.

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The Jewel: This shopping complex made me feel like I was in the future!

On my return layover, I never even had to leave Changxi airport. From exploring The Jewel to the butterfly garden, I was in awe of how futuristic the place was.

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The butterfly garden in ChangXi Airport

There was a sad aspect as well, as everything was automated, I ordered food from machines and went the whole day without speaking to another soul. Is this the future–machine run and nature existing only behind closed domes?

Feb Fieldwork Reflections

Snakes, Ticks, and Leeches Oh MY!

Things are going better this trip! It’s actually fun catching lots of animals, and it helps that we have a third volunteer. I feel bad because I don’t really want to work/am pretty unmotivated as the project isn’t along the lines of my interests and I feel like all the work  may not be worth it. I want to focus on the quoll reintroduction for majority of the research, as that’s where my motivation is and I wasn’t able to satisfy it. However, the third volunteer is a big help. Her name is Amoi and she has really shifted the not-so-great dynamic Matt and I had. She is very helpful and encouraging and calls Matt out when he’s not explaining things well or not being very understanding.

I’m getting better at 4WD too which is scary, but fun. We also saw a spot tailed quoll in the morning one of the traps, a big boy hissing and running around the cage. We released him near a wombat burrow and he went scrambling down the hole!

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A common wombat. They run surprisingly fast when spooked for something that wombles so slowly along the road.

The best part has been the spotlighting, where I saw my first (three!) wombats! They are so cute and waddle along the road, but when they run off they can really move! One let us get so close that we could almost touch it on approach, then it bolted across the road. I was so upset when I hit the wombat during my first ten minutes driving at night in the field that I spiraled into depression until the next day. I was happy by evening though after a long afternoon setting up traps for the antechinus.

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An antechinus, the marsupial that we caught over 100 individuals of during the February-March trip!

There were many possums and greater gliders at the site with their bright orange eyes. The possums just freeze in the bright torch light with their pig-like noses and big fluffy tails. They are more closely related to other marsupials than the possums in the US.

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A common brushtail possum we captured. Matt let him go because they are too difficult to handle

To end the night, Matt heard the sound of a sugar glider knocking on wood. I sprinted over to find the little creature perched up in a tree. Its wing flaps were visible as it turned its head away from the light. They are very cute and we watched it in awe as it sat still.

We tried to do spotlight surveys again and got stuck in a hailstorm. It was scary and the tree fall was bad, so we cleared the road and had to chuck sticks away while Amoi did a good job of not killing us with the car as she followed along. 

I was inspired by flocks of birds and kangaroos to start doing videos of myself in the fielD. I loved seeing the yellow tailed black cockatoos this morning up close. They are so cool and could approach within 5m!

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A Yellow-tailed black cockatoo keeping us company as we checked traps for possums and quolls

 

 

We caught lots of Antechinus one morning, and boy are they are fun to play with! We put them all in a bag then released them at the same time in a mass exodus of cuteness.

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An antechinus frozen after being released on a nearby log

Food in the field: I really am happy hereafter a 8 hour sleep, productive afternoon inside, healthy egg breakfast and lunch, and no processed snacks! And the view from the house is beautiful. We even had a delicious gnocchi dinner!

We took a day trip to Scone (and had some tasty scones!) and I got to practice driving over some steep curves. The cold mountain air is very stark, and we took a jacket out as we stopped at a wetland heath. Matt, Amoi and I explored a bit by going to lookouts, wetland heaths with grass that flowed like waves across the green sea. We took a birding break at a beautiful lookout, and Matt insists he saw a rare Rose robin. I just love looking at all the common birds, like rosellas, fan tails, and cockatoos. 

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My favorite lookout at Barrington Tops National Park!

On the last day of collecting camera traps, Matt almost stepped on a snake. It turns out there were two, in the middle of having sex. They were going at it in the sun while we were checking traps. The penis appeared stuck in vagina, so she pulled the male away towards the burrow still attached. The 3m long conglomeration of snakes appeared like a two headed serpent, as the female pulled the male back towards the log.

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Red-bellied snakes in the midst of mating

Throughout the state forest, there were also lyrebirds! We went in search of them as Matt and I got devoured by leeches, which are 2 in long and suck for 3 hours, swelling up like a water balloon. I also got a tick bites, which Matt said not to worry about, but I ended up getting a strange rash between my hip and my groin. To be continued….

Update: It was a parasite infection! Because of this strange illness, I had trouble sleeping and there were even some behavioral changes. With some holistic medical treatment the infection cleared right up and I went back to normal.

 

Wetlands and Your Health

Looking at a wetland, buzzing with mosquitoes and filled with muddy water and thick vegetation, it can be hard to imagine how this swamp could be good for your health. However, wetland health is intricately linked to human health through the ecosystem services that these habitats provide.

Wetlands maintain a steady supply of clean water, filtering the groundwater that many Americans depend upon to survive. Water flow slows as it passes through wetlands, allowing pollutants to be trapped in the soils and consumed by the microorganisms that live there. Wetland plants absorb the excess nutrients, cleaning the water and preventing dangerous nutrient build-ups that can cause harmful algal blooms.

In addition to cleaning water, wetlands are a source of medicine. Leeches, blood-sucking animals that live in wetlands, were often used in traditional European medicine for their bloodletting abilities. While these animals are no longer commonly used in medicine, they are still the main source of a major anticoagulant (Hirudin) used in healthcare to thin blood and reduce the risk of blood clots.

Natural chemical defenses against predators, pathogens, fungi, and bacteria give wetland plants and animals unique properties. Occasionally, these defenses have medical applications, just like those of the leech. The extremely harsh conditions of wetlands, especially ones located at high altitudes or high temperatures, fuel these adaptations among the life that lives there. For example, Thermus aquaticus, a bacteria tolerant to the hot thermal pools of Yellowstone, has a derivative that can also tolerate the intense heats of a biomedical practice called PCR (Polymerase Chain Analysis). This critical biotechnology, used for detecting genetic disorders and other diseases, can run effectively thanks to research conducted on these wetland bacteria.

Some fungi, bacteria, and algae from wetlands also have medical applications in the form of antibiotics. For example, one type of soil bacteria (Streptomyces sp.) found in wetlands is used to produce two-thirds of the world’s antibiotics that are derived from a natural source. Some bacteria can also break down toxic metals and clean water supplies. Imagine all the possible medical applications of some of these wetland microorganisms that have yet to be discovered!

Help ensure a clean water supply and source of medicine for your health by protecting wetlands.

You can:

  • Volunteer with wetland monitoring projects to help your local wetlands and public health.
  • Contribute to healthy wetlands and healthy communities by helping to keep source water clean.
  • Support public lands by visiting one of these wetlands to see the source of many medical advancements

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Bird is the Word

Whooping cranes are big birds, about the size of a large child. They also have large migrations, flying from the great plains of Canada all the way down to central Texas, where they spend the winter. Even for birds with a wingspan as large as 7.5 feet across, that distance is substantial. Flying through the Great Plains of North America, the birds need to take breaks for some rest and relaxation.

That’s where wetlands come in. Wetlands are like an oasis in the plains, providing a source of water, food, and protection for the birds. They also serve as a major breeding grounds for the whooping cranes, which fly to Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada from their wintering grounds in Texas.

However, a recent study shows that the migration path is narrowing, which suggests a loss of available wetland “pit stops” for the birds. The birds can adjust their flying route to some degree, but they need wetlands to refuel. Many other migratory birds, or those which fly great distances between seasons, also depend on wetlands. These birds are important to the environment, serving as indicators for habitat health like a canary in a coal mine. Their presence is a signal of a thriving wetland, and the disappearance of these birds can mean that the wetlands are in trouble. Many migratory birds, like the whooping crane, are endangered, meaning that they are in danger of going extinct throughout most of their range.

Wetlands aren’t just essential for the birds; they also support the economy. The diversity of birds and other wildlife that depend on wetlands attract wildlife enthusiasts and other people engaged in recreational activities, which make up multi-billion dollar industries. Outdoor recreation alone contributes $887 billion to the US economy and supports 7.6 million American jobs!

You don’t need to fly large distances to visit a wetland—there are wetlands across the US that you can visit on a short road trip. Just like a migratory bird, you can take a pit stop at a wetland and see the habitats that are important to wildlife recovery. If you aren’t able to make it out to a wetland, find out more about what you can do in your community to help protect wetlands and the migratory birds that depend on them.

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