A Koala Kwest, Part 1

One of the many sulfur-crested cockatoos seen in Australia.

Having never been to Australia before, I was thrilled when I was told I was being sent “Down Under” to work with some of our staff and researchers from Queensland University on a wild koala study! Before we even packed, we had a few meetings where I was told over and over, “We are going to a small Island off the coast of Queensland. Be prepared for bug bites, heat, humidity, spiders, and challenging hiking.” I was amazed at people’s reaction when I told them work was sending me to Australia. “Be sure to go to this city… See this… Eat there… Oh, and go to that place with the koalas” were all things I heard. To which I would reply, “No, you don’t understand. This isn’t a vacation, I’ll be working.” And it was work, but also an amazing adventure. But I’ll get to that in a moment.

The single-engine plane is ready to take us to Keswick.

Thankfully, the long trip to Australia was uneventful. (However, I must say it was odd to lose a day on the calendar due to crossing the International Date Line.) Shortly after landing in Brisbane and getting through customs, we took another flight north to the smaller city of Mackay. It was there that I got to experience something I have never experienced before: riding in a single-engine airplane. And the best part was, every seat was a window seat because there were only five seats (including the pilot’s)! The waters off the coast of Queensland were beautiful, and we were even treated to seeing a couple of humpback whales.

We finally arrived on the island of Keswick, about 35 kilometers (21.7 miles) off the coast of Queensland. Keswick is right next to St. Bees Island, separated by about a quarter of a mile or 0.45 km, depending on the tide. And Keswick is where we stayed each night because St. Bees does not have any accommodations for a long stay with overnights. We arrived in the early evening, and as soon as we got off the small aircraft we were loudly greeted by a flock of wild sulfur-crested cockatoos flying to Keswick from St. Bees Island. This was another first for me, seeing so many of these bright, white birds in flight. I immediately looked at my watch to mentally note the time; given birds tend to have habits based on time of day, I wanted to make sure I was in the right place to watch them again tomorrow at this same time.

Suddenly there was the sound of a blast of air off in the waters between the two islands. Sure enough, two humpback whales were slowly making their way down the channel of deep water between the two islands. Everyone—and I mean everyone, even the people that live there—stopped what they were doing and rushed to the shoreline to stand quietly as we watched them slowly pass by.

The infinite stars seen on Keswick.

Like I said, this was an amazing trip. Wild cockatoos and humpback whales all within minutes of arriving, and it didn’t stop there. Once the sun had set, we were treated to a clear sky filled with what looked to be infinite stars and a lot of large flying foxes (fruit bats). For the most part we could only hear the squeaks and chirps of the bats, and every now and then we could see their silhouette against the star-filled night.

And to think… this was just how the day of travel to our koala adventure ended. The actual adventure had yet to even begin!

Rick Schwartz is a keeper and San Diego Zoo Global ambassador. Read his previous post, Clouded Leopards Make TV Debut.

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