Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Getting Wet in Cretaceous West

Geologic field work can be a great equalizer, erasing the artificial hierarchies all too often imposed by academia and other institutions. As one geologist I know puts it: when you’re out with a group of geologists in the field and it starts raining, you’re all getting wet, Nobel Prize winners and undergraduate students alike.

That’s why, when I do field work in a new place, I welcome the assistance of experienced, enthusiastic, and energetic local people, regardless of whether they have academic training in geology or not. There is a relief in knowing that no one has to talk about where they went for their Ph.D., who they worked with, where they published their latest papers, what grants they’ve received recently (and their amounts), and other such metrics that all become meaningless when you’re getting wet together.

So with that spirit in mind, I was very pleased that the beginning of our field work Monday in the Otway Ranges (“The Otways”) west of Melbourne – or what I am calling “Cretaceous West” – began with the help a local who fit all of the criteria just mentioned (experienced, enthusiastic, energetic), Greg Denney. Greg lives near Dinosaur Cove, just west of where we started our work at Apollo Bay, Victoria, and he does quite a bit of bushwalking and guiding around here. This, along with his curiosity about natural history, has resulted in much knowledge about the local plants, animals, and other valuable information that has absolutely nothing to do with academia or American Idol (which I sincerely hope is never broadcast in Australia).

Greg Denney, exhibiting the Australian trait of “mateship,” by helping Tom Rich across a tricky part of a Cretaceous outcrop.

His partner, Deb, owns and manages a bookstore in Apollo Bay, Galapagos Books. Both have been connected with Tom Rich through his previous work at Dinosaur Cove and other paleontological work in the Otways, and they are always eager to assist in whatever way they can when Tom or other paleontologically oriented folks come into the area.

Our plan that morning was to do a “car shuffle,” in which we took two vehicles to the intended destination of our walk, left one vehicle there (Greg’s), then took the other (ours) to the starting point. That way we would have a one-way trip for our walk, instead of backtracking over the rocky shore platform toward the end of the day, when the light was dwindling along with our energy reserves.

The starting point of the walk was at a carpark at Marengo, and the intended ending point was Blanket Bay, about 5-6 kilometers (3-4 miles) to the southwest along the coast. It didn’t quite work out that way, which is another reality of geologic field work: you always keep in mind how circumstances can change, and you just have to improvise, innovate, and adapt to whatever situation might present itself.

The ride to Blanket Bay first involved our winding through a beautiful, thick, lush eucalyptus forest of Otway National Park. Tom and I rode together in our vehicle as we followed Greg in his. During this ride, I recalled to Tom how during one previous time in this very same forest, I spotted a few koalas in the trees while speeding by in a car. Tom did not seem to believe me, so in the next 30 seconds or so, I pointed to one in a tree just in front of us, then four or five more in the next few minutes.

Behold: Koala the Forest Destroyer, which is also the most recent common ancestor of the deadliest and most dreaded animal in Australia, the "drop bear."

Turns out that this was really not an impressive feat of eco-magic on my part, as the koalas are very abundant here, and have taken over this part of the park, denuding and killing many of the eucalyptus trees. Greg informed me that this problem stemmed from a reintroduction of koalas to the area in the late 1970s that has since gone amuck. After all, even native species can outstrip their resources under the right set of conditions. So wherever we saw starkly white and barren eucalyptus trees, these were the places where koalas had eaten all of their leaves and deprived these trees of their way to make a living.

But enough talk about arboreal marsupials and their greedy ways. We were here for geology and paleontology! The three of us rode back together to Marengo, where we started out walk just before 11:00 a.m. Nearly five hours later, after traversing much Cretaceous rock along the shoreline and seeing some trace fossils – including some of the largest freshwater crustacean burrows I have seen anywhere – we were still kilometers away from Blanket Bay. We had grown tired, the sun was getting lower in the sky, a chill had suffused the air, and the waves crashing near us seemed just a bit more fierce.

Before and after photos: the first shows the start of the hike, near lots of beach houses in Marengo, the second near the end of our field work.

So Plan B went into effect. We were near well-marked access trails that connected to the shoreline, appropriately called “Decision Points.”

As the sign says, Elliot River, Decision Point 5. Note all of the graphic exhortations of peril, encouraging a hiker to turn back and just read about this trail.

Greg had brought a detailed map with him that showed all of the nearby trails, and he knew the area very well. So even though he and I each had good (and functioning) GPS units, we did not need these to figure out where to go: there’s no substitute for a fine map and the ability to read one. He also had a mobile phone, but to get reception he needed to go up one of the access trails to a carpark. From there, he called his partner Deb to ask for a ride. She came to the carpark with her sport-utility vehicle (“ute”) within a half hour of Greg calling, and soon we were speeding our way out of the forest, back to Marengo.

Rare, never-before-seen video footage of an Australian and Yank experiencing the ride out of Otway National Park on the back of a “ute.” No koalas were sighted along the way, but on the up side, neither were any “drop bears.”

Me on the back of the “ute” at the end of the ride, and back at our starting point in Marengo. Photo by Greg Denney.

During this coastal walk along the Cretaceous West coast, we also got wet together. At some point late in the afternoon, a big wave washed a sheet of water straight toward all three of us. Greg and I laughed as we ran away from it toward high ground: alas, to no avail, our boots became soaked. But it was a reminder of how field work can make us both equal and dependent on one another’s knowledge for making things work out right.

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