Thursday, 24 February 2011

Western Australia V: Ain't it the life?

A few stories remain to tell from my Australia series, put on pause from last year. You rejoin us at the most northerly point of our road trip along the Western Australia coast, a mile out to sea, where I am having a few difficulties. The rest of the series, which covers topics as diverse as landslides, sheep, epic railway journeys, mutiny and the difficulties of finding breakfast, can be found on my travel page.

THE problem with small boats is the plumbing.

The presence of twenty tourists gleefully sunbathing, drinking and helping themselves to the bountiful buffet, ravenous after several bouts of vigorous exercise swimming in the open ocean, ultimately puts a strain on the ablution facilities of such a vessel. Eventually, they can no longer cope and flatly refuse to flush any longer, creating a moment of panic for whoever might be standing nearby at the time.

I mention this not to put you off your dinner, but to help you understand. We had spent the entire day about the Indian Ocean just off Ningaloo Reef, swimming first with manta ray and turtles at a fish cleaning station and then, throughout the day, three whale sharks. These immense creatures, around 12 metres in length, are the largest fish in the ocean, mysterious filter feeders with distinct and unique spotted patterning. To give an idea of scale, the mouth of the whale shark can reach 1.5 metres in width, and the largest ever rumoured to have been caught, at 18 metres in length, was holding up to 1,000 baby whale sharks inside. The fish had been our hosts, allowing us a privileged 30 minutes or so of their company at a time before diving beyond reach as they migrate along the coast. We would chug up and down the North West Cape coastline, awaiting the call from a spotter plane above. When a whale shark was spotted and the call came through, dozens of boats would race to be the first to reach the animal, sometimes running rings around one another in a bid to block their rivals from reaching the quoted coordinates first. One boat per shark, those were the rules.

The ocean was cold, and I had foolishly opted out of using a wet suit (I was the only one to do so), but only a few minutes of swimming alongside the shark was enough to get the blood pumping and to keep warm. For the whale shark, effortlessly gliding through the water, this was a mere amble. Indeed, a true shark would have scythed through the water at a far greater rate, but for the humans eagerly following alongside this was more than fast enough. The rules were to stay at least 3 metres from the body or 4 metres from the tail and never to swim in front of the fish, but in reality it was difficult to ever get this close: the fish was just too fast. Not that the fish cared of course, as it happily pottered along, eating, pondering and peering curiously at these human things, so clumsy in their locomotion.

Between swims we would dry in the sun, breathe the salty air and spot dolphins and humpback whales in the distance. The buffet was a fine, healthy spread. The day, all in all, was relaxing, healthy and a once in a lifetime – really – experience: to swim with such a creature was an honour. To swim with three, well, you get the idea.

You can see then, why problems involving narrow plumbing might ruin the mood. True enough, it was I who was the bearer of the final insult and, not to be too graphic, the timing of such a catastrophic disposal refusal could not have been worse.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Hot like wasabi when I bust rhymes

A paper!

Trophic neuron-glia interactions and cell number adjustments in the fruit fly
Alicia Hidalgo, Kentaro Kato, Ben Sutcliffe, Graham McIlroy, Simon Bishop, Samaher Alahmed.
Glia, epub 1 Dec 2010, doi: 10.1002/glia.21092

If you'd like to know a bit more, I recommend starting from the very beginning, with the 1986 Nobel lecture of Rita Levi-Montalcini, describing the discovery of nerve growth factor (NGF). It makes for an interesting story of how science used to be done.

Image from the work of Levi-Montalcini, not us