Be it the jetlag or the excitement of the adventure (perhaps both), I woke the following morning at 4 a.m. Looking outside I saw that it was still dark and managed to stay in bed for another hour. Around that time I could see a slight glow behind the hills of St. Bees Island. As the distant glow became a full sunrise, the resident cockatoos and a black-and-white bird called a pied currawong (looks kind of like a crow with white on wings and tail) started their morning calls and flights between the two islands.
We had been informed that the other part of our group coming from the University of Queensland was going to be delayed. This gave us the day to settle in and get our internal clocks caught up. Of course, for me that also meant time for some exploring—a walkabout! It wasn’t long before I found myself at the top of the portion of Keswick we were staying on. From there, almost all of St. Bees to the east and a few other surrounding islands to the north could be seen. The sky was clear enough that the city of MacKay on the mainland was visible off to the distant west. The real treat was being able to watch (albeit at a great distance) two humpback whales out in the open water slowly making their way by the islands.
By that evening the rest of the team arrived on Keswick. The complete team now consisted of eight San Diego Zoo Global employees and three members of a research team from Queensland, Australia, and A LOT of equipment.
We are staying on Keswick Island each night, but the study site is on St. Bees Island. That means each and every day we travel between the two islands via a small motorboat. Though this form of travel may be less than enjoyable for some, I loved it! You see, the islands are in the Coral Sea, and the Coral Sea got its name because of all the rich undersea life in the area. During low-tide crossings, my eyes were trained on the waters below—truly spectacular life right there, just under the surface.
On our first day on St. Bees Island, we were immediately introduced to the rough terrain that would be our daily environment. Initially the hike was all up hill. Then down, then sideways and so on and so on. St. Bees and the surrounding islands were formed by ancient volcanic activity, so hills are steep and footing questionable at times. I was really fascinated by the different environments we encountered: ankle-to-hip-high grasses, dry forest, and tropical forest.
We hiked into the study site, a south-facing knoll covered in eucalyptus and tropical trees. About 40 minutes into our hike we spotted our first koala. As luck would have it, she had a “back joey” on her, meaning her joey is old enough/large enough to ride on her back. A “belly joey” is usually younger and small enough to fit on the belly but too large to stay in the pouch.)
How do you get a wild koala out of a tree? Interestingly enough, they naturally get down out of a tree if there is perceived danger. Thus, long poles with noisy plastic bags at the end are used. First we establish a small catch team at the base of the tree and discuss the options the koala may take once it is down from the tree. Then the noisy plastic is raised above the koala, to which it responds by making the descent out of the tree and right to the catch team.
Once down, the koala is placed in a soft canvas bag for its safety and ours. Another interesting note: when placed in the bag, they completely relax. Some researchers believe the bag triggers a natural response based on the sensation of being in a pouch. This makes it very easy and safe to get the koala from the tree to the spot we have set up to anesthetize the koala and do a full veterinary work-up on it.
That first female we found was in good health and the first one we did a complete work-up on. This included temperature reading, pulse monitoring, blood draws for studies back in the lab, swabbing mucus membranes for disease assessment, radiographs (x rays) on hips, and ultrasound to view and measure key internal organs. Dental checks, including radiographs of the teeth and photos of the molars, were taken, too. Once the medical work is done, an ear tag and collar that is both radio and satellite collar, are placed on the koala. The radio frequency allows for tracking on the ground and the satellite data will show the koala’s movement over the next six to eight months.
Our first day on St. Bees was quite successful. We covered an estimated 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) of rough terrain, and we documented 6 koalas: 5 adults received their own tracking collar, and 1 joey too young for a collar got a nice ear tag that will help document her age in the years to come.
Rick Schwartz is a keeper and San Diego Zoo Global ambassador.