View from the Luxurious "Australian House of the Year" Villa Chosen By Scientists to Observe The Eclipse:
View from Mali Mali Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2012
A Rain Forest By Any Other Name Would
Be Just As Wet!
Mali Mali, located between the towns of Mossman and Port Douglas, is an award-winning "executive retreat" a mile or so back from the beach. It's surrounded by an exquisite, water-thirsty garden and forty acres of equally thirsty and equally well quenched rain forest. Here are a few more pictures:
Towards Mossman Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2012
Garden flowers, Mali Mali Ainslie Sheridan 2012
Towards Port Douglas Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2012
The morning after Alec arrived, he and I headed to Mali Mali. Scientists, students, and telescopes everywhere! The eclipse chaser par excellence, astronomer Dr. Jay Pasachoff, headed up this complex assemblage. Dr. Pasachoff has witnessed fifty-six total solar eclipses, including the one we were there to see. He is not only devoted to the study of the Sun but, from what Alec told me, devoted to his students as well. Several of his pupils from Williams College were there. He is marvelous at conveying complex scientific facts and ideas in a manner that lay people can understand. Here are a few shots of what a retreat looks like when scientists take over the place:
Eclipse Central Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2012
A scientist's bedroom Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2012
Oh, and international media were there, too--BBC and the Australian Broadcast Company (ABC):
Dr. Pasachoff's BBC interview:
And I did learn a few things. For instance, the only time scientists can study the sun's corona is when the central portion of the sun is blocked out. Normally it is invisible to the eye, whether naked or observed through telescopes. So, a total solar eclipse, which occurs somewhere around the world about once every year, is the one time scientists can measure the corona's temperatures and study how the magnetic field shapes the corona.
Alec's interview with Australian Broadcasting Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2012
The big question was WWMND? "What would Mother Nature do?" In other words, would the dawn sky be clear at the time of the eclipse? If you have clouds you can't see the eclipse, just witness its result--nighttime darkness at dawn. The local forecast was looking pretty iffy.
We were in a wonderfully elevated position to view the eclipse, but it seems someone missed the fact that Mali Mali is up in a rain forest. Now, from my experience living in Hawaii, where there is rain forest there is rain, and lots of it. From the sunlit, clear blue skies of Waikiki Beach I could see rain clouds and mists hanging over the rain forests located just a few miles back from the shore. So, as the clouds continued in Mali Mali, the astronomers began to hunt for additional sites.
Dr. Pasachoff had a helicopter on stand-by. (Yes, Mali Mali comes with its own helo pad.) Alec and others decided to head inland behind the rain forest to an elevated plateau called the Atherton Tablelands. A location was found at a camping stop, but it was only through the generosity of an Australian couple in a camper that they were able to set up telescopes, computers, and lights. The couple loaned our group a generator. Here we are on November 14, shortly after dawn waiting for an event that has amazed mankind since the beginning of time, at least of our time:
Other groups came for the eclipse:
Campers and dawn trippers Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2012
A group of Chinese scientists set up a huge telescope. They invited the children in attendance to have a look. I don't know if they were PRC Chinese, Taiwanese Chinese, or overseas Chinese. I just know that they were Chinese and very kind.
Waiting for the eclipse:
Tablelands Eclipse Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2012
The strange, almost palpable pre-totality light:
Tablelands pre-eclipse Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2012
Seconds before totality:
Totality Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2012
A collective wow was followed by the pop of champagne corks. It was stunning and lasted a good number of minutes. No wonder the Aztecs thought the sun was under attack by a monster. Their solution? Why, human sacrifice, of course. Who got sacrificed? The physically handicapped. And, guess what? It worked. In a few minutes the dark monster was gone and the sun shone brightly. Added to this, the Aztecs had fewer citizens who needed special care.
We met some lovely people and critters during our Tablelands stay. Here Alec is cuddling Missy, the dog belonging to the couple who loaned our group the generator:
Alec and Missy Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2012
Graham Newberry and his son Dominic re-build and race old Chryslers for charity:
Graham and Dominic Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2012
The Purple People Eater Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2012
When Graham isn't re-building, racing, and on scientific
travels with Dominic, he's a docent at a temple built by the Chinese during Australia's late 19th-century gold rush. He invited Alec and me to see it but, sadly, we didn't have time to learn about this quirky little episode of Australian-Chinese history.
So, on this fertile plateau we witnessed a great natural event.
But what of those scientists at Mali Mali? Sadly, their dawn looked something like this:
Telescope at Infinity Pool Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2012
Professor Pasachoff, on the other hand, outwitted the clouds with his helicopter and managed to witness his fifty-sixth solar eclipse!
The next day Alec and I visited the Cairns Zoo, larger than the Port Douglas Wildlife Habitat but not as charming.
With cataracts and arthritis there was very little hop left in this old gentleman. We watched as he attempted to cross a dry little creek bed, but he didn't trust the footing. And then he fell over. After he righted himself we stroked him and hand fed him the majority of "roo food" that we'd purchased in the gift shop.
Aged Kangaroo Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2012
He was terribly sweet and it saddened us to see him having such a tough time. I thought the staff might soon decide it was time for his life to be over.
And then, of course, we took in the croc show:
Croc feeding Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2012
This croc was huge:
And he had a girlfriend:
And so, with the barest of how-do-you-dos, they mated! I don't think I need explain where the lady croc is.
Crocs Mating Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2012
Most of you have probably seen at least an episode or two of The Crocodile Hunter on television. And most of you know that Steve Irwin was tragically killed by a sting ray whose barb entered his heart. He was taping a segment of his show about rays on the Great Barrier Reef. His body was brought back to Port Douglas. Australia still grieves over the loss this entertaining and highly committed conservationist.
Salt water crocs are everywhere in Queensland waters. I thought I would put my feet in the water during a walk to the harbor at Port Douglas, but then saw this:
Croc Achtung Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2012
I continued on to a little cove and another sign:
Croc wise Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2012
And so I decided to be "croc wise" myself and keep my feet to--and perhaps for--myself!
Every year there are shark attacks in Australia, particularly where we were--the northeast. A woman told me that one of her students, a seven year-old aborigine girl who was wading ankle-deep, was grabbed by a croc. The aborigines threw their spears, which only drove the animal and his catch into deeper waters. As you saw in the photo of the croc feeding at the Cairns Zoo, salt water crocs can leap. They've been known to grab fishermen right out of their boats.
Alec and I went on to find a more sociable type of animal on display--Dingos!
Dingo and Alec Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2012
There were two, and while one was quite reserved, this dingo wanted to be friends and have a good time. Though there was a fence in between Alec did his best to oblige him:
Dingo and Alec playing Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2012
It was hard to leave that dog. There were no toys in the exhibit and he had to be bored. He'd obviously been domesticated but serves as one of the zoo's two representatives of Australia's national dog.
It is believed that Dingos found their way to Australia approximately four thousand years ago. They are also found in other southeast Asian countries. As an apex predator, the dingo filled a necessary role in maintaining the balance of Australia's ecosystem. But then came farmers and ranchers with their sheep, lambs, and calves--easier than grabbing a leaping wallaby or kangaroo and more filling than a mouse or rabbit. Dingos were shot on sight and still are, except in protected areas. Dogs brought by the British beginning in the 18th century have bred with Dingos, so there are few pure animals left except on Frazer Island. There are no feral dogs there to mix with the Dingos. DNA tests confirm that the Dingos there are "pure," that is, they are genetically very, very old and not mixed with any other kind of canine. In the Tablelands where Alec and I saw the eclipse, there are plenty of Dingos, but since there are a great number of farms and ranches in that area, the Dingos may be poisoned or shot on sight.
Other zoo residents:
This is a Brolga, a tropical Australian crane known for its spectacular mating dances as well as its spectacularly bad temper.
The toilets for staff and guests at the Cairns Zoo did not harbor any of the following green creatures. At the reptile and amphibian exhibit this was his personal abode, and it just happened to be a commode. I think he comports himself with a wonderfully serene yet engaging demeanor:
Tree Frog Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2012
SEA HORSES (OR WHEN A STALLION MAKES A GOOD MARE!)
The Windflower Weekly is supposed to be about horses, and it normally is, but my trip to Australia was so interesting that I couldn't resist writing about it. Yet in keeping--somewhat--with the main focus of the blog, I thought I'd tell you about the incredible seahorse, many of which live on the Great Barrier Reef.
I first saw live seahorses about a year ago at a local aquarium and was enchanted. It was like watching a miniature aquatic fairy tale. Their little fins fluttered as they swam--very slowly--vertically up and down. Sadly for me, but probably to the relief of my husband, keeping a pony tank (that's what it's called) of sea horses requires a skilled and attentive hand. They are fragile and require perfectly balanced ph, perfectly balanced salinity, constant temperature, and a gentle current.
But for those who have the time, keeping seahorses seems a wonderful hobby. They are such fascinating creatures. When they become acquainted with you, they will eat out of your submerged hand as well as wrap their prehensile tail around one of your fingers. As many of you know, the male carries the eggs until a single contraction (lucky man) releases his precious cargo of between one thousand and fifteen hundred fully formed but ever so tiny baby ponies. Seahorses are monogamous in captivity and sometimes monogamous in the wild. The male attracts the female by inflating his brood pouch. This act informs her that he is ready, willing, and able to bear her children. The pair perform a beautiful--again, very slow--vertical courtship dance during which they will lock tails. As the finale the female tickles the male's tummy causing his pouch to open. She then deposits her eggs which hatch from nine to forty-five days later depending on the species. The parents renew their vows every morning with a shortened version of their courtship dance until the eggs are hatched.
And that's when all parental duties end. The little creatures must take their chances drifting in currents of predator laden water, sometimes managing to wrap their tails around a blade of sea grass or some other aquatic plant so that they may eat and grow. But sadly sea horses have greater things to worry about than setting anchor in shallow, brine filled waters. Every year the Chinese scoop up twenty million of these creatures, the majority of which are ground into powder for Chinese medicine. Others are dried whole and sold--usually with an assemblage of shells wrapped in plastic--to be exported as home decor items.
The Latin name for the seahorses that were stabled out in the Great Barrier Reef is Hippocampus Queenslandicus. Hippo means horse and campus sea monster, though I find nothing monstrous in the delicate little dancers. But neither do I understand why the part of the brain essential in forming and retrieving long- and short-term memories, and that connects our emotions and senses, is also called the hippocampus or "horse sea monster." If one must use the term hippocampus, perhaps we could simply chuck this Latin and declare a new, more sensible name like "equestrian school."
Our next blog will take us to the Great Barrier Reef--and perhaps a seahorse or two--as well as my beach ride on an Australian stock horse. Thank you for reading The Windflower Weekly--