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Field Note: Adventures in Australia

Updated: May 14, 2021

By Eric Pulis, with commentary by Michael Andres (MA)

Edited by Kelly Weinersmith

In the spring of 2010, Michael Andres and I had an opportunity to travel to Australia to collect fishes for our dissertations. That trip was our first real experience on an international expedition where we took care of the travel, collecting logistics, and permitting. We were working (still are) on the taxonomy of the Haploporidae, a family found mainly in mullets, but many other fishes as well. While traveling across Western Australia, Northern Territory, and Queensland we collected plenty of worms and learned the local host fishes quite well.

MA: This was far and away one of the best experiences of my life. “WA” in particular was a blast to travel up and down the coast, particularly because we never went south of Carnarvon and traveled during the off-season (spoiler - it was darn hot, we both were quite white, and needed boat loads of sunscreen) so there were not many people around the places we stopped. It was also awesome and frustrating to be around such large tidal amplitudes (I have spent most of my life now along the Gulf Coast).

Our usual schedule involved cast netting mullet at high tides during day light hours, and retreating to a hotel room for dissections. Most of the motels had strict “No Cleaning Fish on Premises” policies. Unsure of how examination of fishes for intestinal heliminths fit into that policy, all dissections were clandestine in nature. The only time we almost got into trouble was when Mike forgot a mullet in his pocket. The house keeping staff noticed a strange smell in the room, and became worried about our hygiene.

MA: Look, pocket fish happen. When you are wading through mangrove swamps and have moved too far away from your bucket/livewell, swim trunk pockets make great portable livewells. They even have little holes at the bottom to help with water exchange. That being said, sometimes I am forgetful, and do not always remember just how many fish are in my pocket. My wife has found a few in our dyer.

As we travelled across the country, not only did we get to catch and examine a lot of great fishes, I was also able to see many species of birds. Mike was probably annoyed with my stops to check new boxes on my birder’s Life List. While not anti-bird, Mike is defiantly not pro-bird. At one location, I made him stalk up the side of a small mountain, covered in thorny brush while we waited on the tide to see brush turkey. I had previously learned about brush turkey and their incubation mounds on the BBC, and it was a real treat to see one in the wild. We finally got a good enough look at the bird to positively identify it, and went on our way to catch some fish. Mike was unimpressed. Upon arriving at the park where we would walk down to the tidal creek, there were several brush turkeys milling around. Mike remained unimpressed.

MA: I am not necessarily on the “Birds aren’t real” spectrum, but I certainly am way more #TeamFish. The climb was not so bad up the mountain, or maybe I blocked out the thorns. I even had to just now look-up what a brush turkey was. I was certainly a bit more interested in “collecting” the different beers across Australia for our evenings in the hotel.

Throughout our adventure, we had been warned by everyone to watch out for the potentially dangerous fauna. We kept vinegar in the vehicle to combat jellyfish stings - never needed it. We always wore shoes in the water to avoid stepping on octopuses and other venomous things. All snakes were assumed to be venomous. Each new collecting spot came with its own warning about the particular things to watch out for from the locals.

MA: Not to mention the apprehension of wading in certain areas where you couldn’t see the bottom because of the potential of saltwater crocs…

Near the end of the trip, we were near Yeppoon, Queensland catching scatophagids and mullets in a small drain. When cleaning my cast-net for the next throw, I did not see the few small stonefish in the net as I flopped them against my legs.

It hurt real bad.

Stonefish were one of the species that we had been warned about many times. In fact, the signs at the beach warned that stonefish stings could be fatal. I let Mike know what had happened. Mike, being the better ichthyologist than I, confirmed they were in fact stonefish. We knew we were supposed to put hot water on the sting site and get to a hospital - so we headed to the truck.

The first stop we made was to a gas station to pour scalding hot tea water over the affected area. That part hurt worse than the actual ‘sting’. (Luckily the attendant did not charge us for the water, in exchange for not dying on the premises.) Then we headed off to a clinic that would hopefully know what the next step should be. At the hospital they gave me a bed and put some hot towels on the spot where the stonefish poked me, and kept track of vitals. Between the shallowness of the spine pokes and the relatively fast addition of heat, there were no serious complications.

MA: I was perhaps more worried than Eric once I saw the stonefish. I was a fair distance away and had no idea how bad the stings were. I drove quite quickly to the gas station and fairly frantically explained to the attendant (and one local) why I was stealing hot water from them. I am almost certain they just dismissed me for being a crazy Yank. Everyone at the hospital was great!

I do not recall if Mike checked the stonefish for worms.

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