Sunday, January 19, 2014

18 January 2014: and...we're home!

Our long trip home, beginning at 4pm New Zealand time in Christchurch and ending at JFK at 12:15am, lasted 26 hours, but our spirits have not dampened.  Although everyone was tired, the energy of the trip still seemed to bubbling from all.  The last hurrah for our group included a few photos, lots of hugs, and a final huddle and cheer.  We had an amazing time in New Zealand and, with some patience from you, we'd love the opportunity to share that experience with you through pictures and stories. Enjoy those re-tellings, as they are an intricate part of your trip participant.  Listen and ask about the details; they've learned a LOT over the last three weeks!  Dr. Moran and I have learned much about our students and we feel very fortunate to have been able to do so through the flights, the activities, the housing nuances, and supermarkets we've experienced together.  Once again, thank you for sharing your student(s) with us!

Our final photo after returning to JFK at 12:15am today.

Friday, January 17, 2014

17 January 2014: our departure for home!

As I write this, our students and Dr. Moran are awaiting our boarding of our first flight enroute to home.  We leave for Auckland in about 30 min, and then we'll be on our way to Los Angeles later in the evening.  The mood is somber, as it is hard to believe that our grand adventure is at a close.  After another relatively slow day, one in which we spent several hours at the local mall, we have our ducks aligned and are ready for the grueling movement to our homes (~21 hours in the air, 4 hrs of layovers, and the time it will take to drive home from JFK).

One of the best signs that this trip has been a success among the students was illustrated to Dr. Moran and me when we arrived in the airport after delivering our borrowed trailer to a storage facility and the rental van to its respective company.  As we walked up to our group, we could see that they were writing (again) in their journals.  I thought they were working on writing their final 'daily' journal entries of the trip, but instead, they were signing each other's journals.  We've really had a special group on this trip, and I think they realize what a great set of friends they've made through the course.  As I write this, another student approached me about writing something in his journal (Dr. Moran has had several requests as well).  We've learned a lot about conservation biology, about birds, and the dual cultures (Maori and Europeans) of New Zealand, but the students have also learned a lot about themselves.  Mission accomplished!

The next entry will probably be once we arrive back on US soil, in Los Angeles.  Thank you to all the parents, family members, friends, and other folks who made this trip possible for a fantastic group of students.  Dr. Moran and I have been very fortunate to have your students with us on this trip!

One final picture of the mighty stallion that helped us get around New Zealand's South Island!

16 January 2014: Quake City, Christchurch

On our second day in Christchurch, we had a relatively slow day.  The slow day was supposed to include a 2.5 hr drive to the north to Kaikoura to possibly dive with dolphins, but the poor weather that was forecasted shutdown that effort.  Unfortunately, the weather was fantastic: warm, slightly overcast, and a bit windy.  The projected 'southerly' storm never materialized or was slow coming ashore and the beautiful from yesterday has persisted.  Oh well.

We used our time in Christchurch to visit the tributes/remembrances of the severe earthquakes that rocked Christchurch on 4 Sept 2010 (Richter scale: 7.8) and 4 February 2011 (6.3) and the efforts businesses have made to demonstrate the earthquakes are not enough to scare them from the city.  The site of the tributes is a museum called 'Quake City' and is located in the city centre, the site where the majority of the damage occurred during the earthquakes.  Quake City is located in the center of the recreated business district, named 'Re: START", a collection of shipping containers that have been co-opted into store fronts.  We walked through the city centre enroute to the museum and got a flavor for the damage that was done by the earthquakes: city corners were vacant where buildings used to stand and several churches had their walls supported by braces and were surrounded by scaffolding.  With this in mind, we entered Quake City...

The designers of Quake City took the heart of Christchurch and put it on proud display. In addition to the 'facts' of the earthquakes, their intensities, the number of lives lost in each, and their epicentres, the museum also projected stories of persons caught in the earthquake.  The stories were probably as powerful as the earthquakes themselves and many of us admitted getting emotional while hearing the scary, emotional testimonies of the Cantabrians caught in the tremors.  Additionally, there were stories about all the international help that was sent to New Zealand as part of the relief effort.  Many of us mentioned how the USA helped with the effort, as well as the Chinese, Japanese and Australians.  It's time like this that I'm especially proud be an American. Scattered throughout the tribute were structures, from doors, church bells, and points to steeples, that were collected from the rubble following the earthquakes.  A brief security camera video recorded during one of the earthquakes gave some idea of how these artefacts of the earthquake might have been acquired.  Despite the terrible damage, Christchurch is working everyday to rebuild the city.  Displays in the museum detailed some of the technology being employed in new buildings and it was pretty impressive! Some buildings have suspension systems that allow them to 'float' on the ground if another earthquake shakes the Earth; new roads that are being built are having as a foundation columns that will support the road to prevent them from collapsing should the ground disappear from beneath them.  Our students had the opportunity to 'rebuild Christchurch' by making Lego structures from the blocks provided in the museum (see below for their creations).  The Quake City tribute was an emotional, educational experience, and I'm glad we had the opportunity to visit.

After Quake City, we had the chance to walk around 'Re:START', the shipping-container city with businesses inside of them.  The initial goal of the project was to keep Christchurch running despite the damage done by the earthquakes.  What started as a novelty has turned into something of an attraction, something that keeps Christchurch city centre functioning economically to a much-greater extent than initially planned.  Apparently, there are talks of continuing the lease on the property, along with the containers, beyond the April 2014 termination date, a good sign that Christchurch is embracing the container-front business enterprise.

Our day in Christchurch city centre only lasted into mid-afternoon and instead of running out to do anything else, the group decided to lay low for the afternoon and begin packing for our trip home.  Many students spent time catching-up on their journals for the class, or talked with family and friends online, or worked on blogs (:-)).  Everyone is feeling drained from the nearly 3-week long trip now and it was good to have a relatively slow day.

Tomorrow: we leave for home!

Two of the many businesses that are currently situated in shipping containers in Christchurch city centre.  What was amazing about these containers was that they were really quite simple, some contained messy caulking around the edges to prevent water from entering the structures.

The Quake City museum, dedicated to the events and damage caused during the major earthquakes that happened close to Christchurch on 4 September 2010 and 22 February 2011.

Our students made their best attempts to re-build Christchurch city centre by building Lego blocks made available in Quake City. Some of the structures survived simulated earthquakes (dropping the structure from about .5m above the table), others didn't fair too well!

Thursday, January 16, 2014

15 January 2014: Taylors Mistake

Our final stop in New Zealand would not be complete without a visit to the beach!  On this trip, we visited 'Taylor's Mistake', a cove of a beach that boasts some of the cleanest water in the Christchurch area.  The spot also boasts some fantastic surf conditions, and it didn't disappoint!

We arrived late in the afternoon, following our visit to the Antarctic Centre, and got into the water soon thereafter!  Most of group got into the surprisingly-mild water to do some body surfing and water-ducking.  We threw the rugby ball around for some true New Zealand experience and took plenty of pictures.  We relaxed for a while on the beach, talking about our experiences during our course, and discussed some of the changes that would improve the program.  Our students have just been fantastic on this trip and we've been really fortunate to experience this trip with them, and now, in retrospect, get their feedback on the experience.  Dr. Moran and I have some changes to make to focus more on some of the exciting or unique experiences of the trip, but according to the students, it seems like the students have had a great time!  Awesome!

15 January 2014: the International Antarctic Centre, Christchurch

A trip to Christchurch would not be complete without visiting the International Antarctic Centre.  Christchurch has long been a jumping-point for expeditions to Antarctica, and it continues to be so: the United States, Italy, and Germany all have facilities here in Christchurch that serve as the final stop before the trip to McMurdough Station, or other destinations, in Antarctica.

Our visit today was facilitated by Laurel, who gave us an introductory presentation on the Centre and led us between the different attractions.  We learned about the international contingency located at the official Antarctic Centre next to the layperson centre and a little about the penguins that we would see one-on-one later during our visit.  After our introduction, we joined a large group of children and adults waiting to see the feeding of the Little Blue Penguins (one of seven species found around the New Zealand islands).  Although this was a site specifically for Antarctica, the centre hosts a population of Little Blue Penguins that are no longer able to survive in the wild around New Zealand.  Nearly all of the penguins at the Centre were brought in because they were permanently injured (blinded after being hit by a boat), had amputations due to boating injuries or predator attacks, or otherwise.  All the penguins have identifying tags (left-wing tags for males; right for females (because 'females are always right' according to our host, Dianne) and stories about their lives.  Dianne's description of the soap-operatic lives of the penguins I think shed some light on the complexity of social life for wild animals.  Too-often we distill species characteristics into stereotypical sound-bytes; it is not often we hear about the intricacies, the nuances, of wild animals.  We heard how one female left her mate to pair-bond with another female. One male currently has 5-6 girlfriends, something unusual for a species that would otherwise be classified as monogamous.  Dianne fed all the penguins in the viewing tank and then we had the opportunity to go 'backstage' with the penguins.

Dianne first showed us around the water treatment facility that is responsible for cleaning the water in the penguins' tank.  The complete cleaning of the water takes place regularly, particularly because the water is soiled rather quickly with the feces of the penguins.  The penguins actually are in a freshwater tank, despite the fact they survive in the wild in saltwater.  Dianne told us that the use of freshwater simplifies the management of the tank, as saltwater tanks take a great deal of special management.  Additionally, because of the earthquakes that have taken place recently in Christchurch, the replacement of freshwater that is lost due to cracks in the tank can easily be done with local supplies, whereas saltwater replacement would much more difficult.

After our tour of the maintenance facility, we got to see a Little Blue Penguin up-close and personal!  We were introduced to a little bugger of female, Horatio.  She had quite the attitude, according to Dianne, and we got to see her 'tude in action when Dianne tried to pick her up from her pen.  We learned a little more about the biology of the penguins and then were off to our next adventure, the Hagglund all-terrain polar vehicle.

The Hagglund vehicle was designed by the Swedes for extreme polor conditions. The two constituents that comprise the vehicle are the driver cab (with some room for some passengers) and the passenger cab.  Our group piled into the cabs and off we went through a crazy course of steep hills, rough terrain, and a 3m-deep pool.  I was nearly motion-sick from the wild ride, but the students seemed to love it.  Sean Harrison (Business, 2015) was riding-shotgun, and his voice could be heard in the background as the driver gave us descriptions of the course were tackling.  The 10 min trip seemed much longer, but we survived the trek and were back on the ground.  The trip gave us some insight into the intensity of polar existence and how simple the major vehicles used to transport Antarctic are on the inside.  I've considered going to Antarctica for a visit, not necessarily to do research, but just to see the continent...this has made me think otherwise!

We had two final events in the centre: the Antarctic storm and the 4D movie that shows a trip across the Drake Passage (the stormiest pass on the planet) and then scenery across the continent.  The simulated Antarctic storm was easily the most entertaining of the two activities, particularly because the men in our group decided to go shirtless during the pseudo-storm.  The room in which the storm takes place starts at 32F, and then the as wind speed rises to 30mph, and the windchill drops below 0F.  As the storm picked-up, the shivering and howling (from the men) increased until the wind stopped blowing and the storm was over.  Many of us were laughing during the event, while we were shivering, and all had fun!  The most-striking part of the storm was how the room became darker and the sound increased.  These two conditions are supposedly what occurs when storms occur in Antarctica and they seem pretty accurate given what I've read by early explorers. The field conditions I experienced while working as a field technician on an island in the Columbia River were harsh, but nothing like the conditions we were subjected to in the storm room!

To contrast our experience in the Antarctic, we decided to take in one last bit of summer sun by visiting a nearby beach.  We need a tan before we leave for the snow and cold of New York!

Horatio, the female Little Blue Penguin who we were introduced to during our 'backstage' pass at the Antarctic Centre.

Our group after our ride on the Swedish-made Hagglund polar explorer.

Our MSMC men braving an Antarctic storm at the Antarctic Centre in Christchurch.  Go Knights!

14 January 2014: enroute to Christchurch: Moeraki boulders

The 5+ hour drive to Christchurch took us along the eastern shore of the South Island, through the Canterbury region.  This area of the South Island is dominated by agriculture.  We drove past miiles of wheat fields, primarily, as well as some corn and lavender fields.  Sheep grazing also dominated the landscape, not surprising given that New Zealand has about 40 million sheep, a little less than 10x as many people!  Looking over our right shoulders, we could see the coastline with its sublime blue hues.  After 1.5hrs in the van, we decided to make a stop for some geologic curiosities on this coast: the Moeraki boulders.

Over the course of the last 55 million years, pebbles and shells along the coast started balls that were subsequently layered with lime deposits.  The layes of lime 'cemented' together to form large boulders, some nearly 2m (~6 ft) in size.  I had heard about the boulders during our last trip to New Zealand, but we didn't stop for one reason or another.  So, we made a stop on this beautiful day.  The boulders were pretty impressive, and we could see at least a dozen boulders on the beach; we could've probably seen more, but the tide was high and there wasn't room on the beach between the water and the cliff face.  After a 45min stop, we decided to call it a day and proceed to Christchurch.

Our students and Dr. Moran standing in front of some of the Moeraki boulders.

Dorian Shann (Physical Therapy, 2015), Sean Harrison (Business, 2015), and Lara Guindi (Biology/ pre-med, 2015) contemplating the massive Moeraki boulders.

14 January 2014: Royal Albatross over the Pacific Ocean

This morning I made my way to the Albatross Colony on the far east end of the Otago Peninsula for some bird watching.  The rest of our group spent time in Dunedin, including a visit to the Cadbury Chocolate Factory, and some time on the 'Octagon', a prominent site in Dunedin.

Just like yesterday, the wind was blowing at gale force, except the winds were now out of the north, rather than the south. When I arrived in the car park of the Albatross Centre, I was immediately greeted by the local Red-billed Gulls.  Gulls the world-over are notorious for 'begging' food from humans, and these adults, sub-adults, and fledglings are no exception.  I don't choose to feed birds unless I have an experimental protocol in place, so these gulls were right out of luck.  While awaiting for non-existent donations, the gulls busied themselves with pecking a stumbling juvenile gull.  Because I didn't see the beginning of the taunting, I don't quite know why this young bird was receiving the wrath of these adults, but one thing was clear to me: abnormalities in wild animal populations are quickly rooted-out.  I watched for nearly 15 min as the adult gulls continued to peck, jump on, and harass the young gull before I stepped-in and scared away the adults.  The young gull walked under my van and that seemed to quell the beating, but I would learn later that it didn't seem to make a difference: the young gull died below my van.  Social life is very difficult for wild animals; we as humans have chosen to make life miserable for each other in different ways...

Without having access to the Albatross Colony, I spent my time looking east and south over the Pacific Ocean in search of albatross soaring over the seas in search of prey or just making their way back to the breeding colony nearby.  A short 15 min later, I spotted my first albatross, criss-crossing its way across the water at least .5 miles from shore.  It was difficult at first to recognize the albatross from other seabirds, particularly the large Southern Black-backed Gull, but when a Black-backed Gull crossed in front of my view while I was simultaneously watching an albatross, I quickly learned the difference between the two species!  The Royal Albatross, the species that nests on the Taiaroa Head (the east end of the Otago Peninsula), has a wingspan of nearly 4m (12 feet)!  The pictures I took do not do justice to seeing the albatross cruising this way and that over the ocean.  I was disappointed that I couldn't visit the Albatross Centre, but seeing the birds soaring was sweet as!

An albatross soaring above the Pacific Ocean, south of Taiaroa Head, Otago Peninsula.  The handrail in the foreground gives some insight into how far this bird was from the shore, given that the bird probably had a wingspan of at least 3m (~9 ft).