A student internship - Part 1. by Grace McNicholas - Sharks And Rays Australia

It’s safe to say, each of us were equally as excited to be part of an all-female team representing women in science. Our international research team consisted of myself (Grace), a visiting Master’s student from the University of York (UK), conducting a two-month internship with SARA, Annmarie, a Master’s student from the University of Mississippi (USA) visiting Australia as part of the #SawSearch project, Julia, an Aussie undergraduate student at the University of Wollongong, and of course Dr Barbara Wueringer, principal scientist and founder of SARA.

It was now the middle of August and I had been in Cairns since the beginning of July 2018. As part of my Master’s programme I was required to complete a two-month placement with an external organisation. I had contacted Barbara earlier that year and was lucky enough to secure a project, much to my excitement! After skyping a few times, and brainstorming some ideas, we decided I would investigate the effect of environmental parameters (i.e. temperature, tide, salinity etc) on sawfish distribution. I would be using data collected by SARA over the last 4 years of river systems of the Gulf of Carpentaria. Of course, as grateful as I was to spend two months in sunny tropical Cairns, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to get involved with some data collection myself, so I booked myself onto the two-week Southern Gulf expedition in August and headed down under.

Barbara welcomed me with open arms and we soon began to establish a daily routine working from her home office. I spent my days working through spreadsheets and analysing data under her guidance. When my eyes started to feel a little bit too square and I needed a break, Mr. Jaxy (Barbara’s adorable dog) was always there for a cuddle. I was loving every minute of working on this project, but I couldn’t wait to get into the field and see for myself how the data I’d been using had been collected.

We met on a sunny Monday morning in Cairns and soon began packing up the Troopie and boat trailer with everything we would need to camp and conduct research for the next two weeks. Stuffed to the rafters we set of on our long drive, headed to Normanton on the west coast of Far North Queensland. From there we made our way to the homestead of the large cattle station we had kindly been allowed to camp on. Now as an English girl, I had no concept of what a cattle station is or how big they are. So, for those of you who like me don’t know, picture an American ranch, cowboys and the lot, then add an Aussie twist. We were greeted by the managers daughter and son who gave us directions to a little dirt track which ran parallel to the river and where we would find a clearing we could set up camp. The kids joined us on a sampling session a few days later and proceeded to make fun of me for accidentally calling mustering ‘herding’ and for daring to worry about crocs and snakes.

We found the clearing, backed the boat into the river, then after a slight mishap involving a lot of mud, furious shovelling and a tow from the station manager, we were finally ready to set up camp. Being a seasoned expert, Barbara has the whole camp thing down to a fine art. We swiftly erected a large gazebo as a cooking and resting area, two privacy tents (one for our bucket water ‘showers’ and the other for our very luxurious drop toilet), and finally our own private sleeping swags. After dinner, we sat around the campfire chatting and marvelling at the night sky, the buzz of excitement growing for the days ahead.

The next day Barbara gave us a research induction and then the four of us set out on our first gillnetting session of the trip. Setting gillnets is an art but after a few questionable first attempts, we soon got to grips with it. Sampling sessions usually consisted of setting two nets, which were checked every 30 minutes. Between checks, we anchored the boat within sight of the nets and kept our fingers crossed we would catch a sawfish, ray or shark. Checking the nets requires some good spatial awareness and team work, carefully lifting the top (float line) and bottom (lead line) out of the water to check the full depth of the net. It’s all hands-on deck during these sessions, untangling and measuring fish, writing down data and photographing animals to assist with later species identification. I went from having no prior gillnetting experience to confidently setting and checking nets after just a few days, testament to being thrown in at the deep end from day one and learning on the go. Most sampling is done very early in the morning or during the cooler evenings, as we choose sampling times based on activity patterns of target species and not our own. We had caught a range of teleost species including bony bream, barramundi and some very cute catfish, but after three days we still had no luck finding any sawfish or other elasmobranchs. We decided to try our luck elsewhere and relocate to different river.

Apparently, the outback had different ideas.

continue to Part 2 here