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STEM Tour to Lizard Island

Exploring our Blue Planet on Wenona’s inaugural STEM Tour to Lizard Island left our students feeling inspired with a sense of wonder and curiosity.

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Ever since David Attenborough filmed the Blue Planet, the numbers of students interested in the field of marine biology has escalated, with many increasingly aware of the issues facing marine wildlife. This includes the coral bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef, which has been linked to rising water temperatures, crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks and tropical cyclones. In the July holidays, a group of 16 STEM students headed up to Lizard Island Research Station to explore the world heritage landmark for themselves, as part of our inaugural STEM Tour. They were accompanied by Director of STEM Dr Thompson and Science Teacher Ms Nash.

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Here is what Ellie (Year 10) and Environment Captain Jasmine (Year 12) had to say. “The aim was to learn more about our changing marine environments, get a taste for what it’s like to work in the field, and to learn from some of the world’s leading scientists and university professors. STEM is often stereotyped as a very technology-oriented subject, with a lot of robotics and computing. Contrary to this assumption, the tour was focused on other areas of science and technology, such as marine biology and geology.

The tour went to a small granite island in the northern great barrier reef off the coast of Cook Town called Lizard Island. This island is particularly special because of its Research Station and its protected reefs. Our reefs have been suffering over the last decade or so with heating oceans and cyclone events and so having the ability to get so close to the reef and observe the way it changes and grows with lab facilities is incredibly important for the reef’s future. The more we know the more we can do to protect it.

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On the trip we were accompanied by two University professors, Dr Vila Consejo and Dr Webster from the University of Sydney. Both are also members of the Geocoastal Research Group. They were extremely knowledgeable and helped us to understand the complexities of the environment, wave patterns, the reef and the island itself while we were working and exploring. During the weekly island barbeque, we were also able to interact with other researchers from around the world to learn about their effort to save the reef. They were very kind and answered our endless questions. One researcher was researching UV reflectiveness of clownfish and how their stripes affect their pecking order. Another team was measuring how well a type of fish, a cleaner wrasse, could count and found that the complexity of the reef systems they live in determines their IQ.

Dr Vila Consejo took us to help with her research project, measuring how reefs dissipate the wave energy at different parts of the reef that surrounds the island. The main hypothesis was that there would be less pressure from waves further from the edge of the lagoon because the reef wall would absorb the wave energy.

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Small teams of students volunteered to help set up the wave pressure sensing devices. We had to brave the hot Queensland sun in full length wetsuits and walk for what felt like kilometres on the reef, avoiding the deadly cone fish and dodging reef sharks, until we found dead coral suitable for attaching the delicate - and very expensive - sensors. This gave us an opportunity to use GPS devices, pressure sensors and maps, and it taught us a lot about the process and importance of recording research methods in the field.

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Most days we would go out to help Dr Webster collect sediment samples. We collected over 70 samples of sand and rubble from beaches all around Lizard. This research project was a follow up from the Honours thesis Dr Webster did in 1993 on Lizard Island. When he first did his thesis, the reef was much less damaged and stressed, so it will be interesting to find out how the content of the sediment has changed after the 2015/2016 cyclones followed by 2016/2017 bleaching events.

Dr Webster explained that by looking at the sediment of a certain location, you can reconstruct the history of the reef, as well as measure its health. Collecting the samples was lots of fun as it meant we got to explore all the different beaches around the island.

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Hiking over hills to reach the tiny coves in wetsuits was tough, but well worth it. And it was particularly special to go to places on the island not frequently visited by tourists.

Despite being so far from civilisation, there was a huge amount of rubbish that had floated up onto the rocks including a pool noodle, chairs, more flip flops than we could carry, and a ton of plastic bottles. We took back as much as we could carry.

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In between sample collections, we went snorkelling every day to see the incredible reef up close. Favourite sightings included the many turtles and sharks. We ventured to the “outer reef” to a place nicknamed the Cod Hole, where we were able to see the most incredible coral, a few sharks and humongous deep sea fish.

The trip was exciting, with Jasmin getting stung by a blue bottle and accidently throwing it on Bella, students almost being swept out by the strong outer reef currents, and teachers desperately counting heads hoping they hadn’t lost anyone! On the way back, we stopped the boat and saw about ten reef sharks, lemon sharks and grey reef sharks. Jas was very excited, and it took some convincing to stop her from jumping in with them!

One night, Dr Thompson and the directors of Lizard Island Research Station organised a special night snorkel. The night snorkel was intimidating as the water was completely black with only the torch light to guide us. But ultimately, the amazing nightlife quickly distracted us. We saw things like lionfish, sharks, squid, and a giant octopus hiding in a coral hole. Ellie’s personal favourite was the tiny purple squid that inked on her when she got too close.

Overall, some of the beaches and coves were in particularly bad shape due to bleaching and it was quite saddening to see the large stretches of brown dead coral. As much as the snorkelling was fun, it also gave us a harsh reminder of the damage the rising water temperatures are doing to this unique, beautiful and once diverse habitat.

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It was a busy tour, but the most rewarding and incredible week. Everyone on the tour was incredibly thankful to everyone who helped us. Thank you to the Research Station managers who maintain such amazing facilities. Thank you to the scientists, Dr Vila Concejo and Dr Webster who guided us. Thank you to Ms Nash for her amazing boat driving skills, organisation and encouragement. And finally, thank you to to Dr Thompson for providing us with a real opportunity to conduct research, establish links with scientists at university, and for her unwavering enthusiasm, good spirits and can-do attitude.”