Is catching a long-nosed fur seal from Cape Gantheaume harder than hunting?

I just did a 10 h drive from Melbourne to Adelaide. About to start fieldwork on Kangaroo Island, South Australia. Listened to a lot of podcasts during the drive. In one of them Joe Rogan talks about his latest bow-hunting trip in Hawaii.

Joe Rogan is good with words, describing things, and creating the scene in his audience’s imagination in detail. He has probably developed that skill from being a stand-up comedian and consuming his company’s (Onnit) brain supplement (Alpha brain).

He spoke of how you gotta pay attention to a lot of little details when hunting a deer. I could relate. Gotta be aware of stepping on sticks, noise, sight, smell, the heart beat increasing, the build up of the shot/releasing the arrow, taking hours to get into a good position, the this-is-it-don’t-fuck-it-up moment. It was similar to what I’ve experienced with trying to catch a seal. The only difference is that I think it’s more challenging when you want to keep your “prey” alive, and your animal is part-land, part-sea animal. That’s all.

What even is this
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Comparing up vs comparing down

Every time I return to my blog it reminds me to return to Derek Siver’s blog. What new insightful lessons has Derek shared? This time I read his latest post “Think like a bronze medalist not silver“.

It put the saying having “an attitude of gratitude” into perspective for me. Sometimes my understanding for fundamental life principles gets cloudy when I’m so caught up in things I have to do, stress and all that. It’s good to be reminded again and reinforce those lessons.

The analogy of the bronze medalist goes something like this. A silver medalist compares upwards, full of envy that he/she was just one step to getting a gold, it was so close. The bronze medalist compares downwards, he/she was so close to not getting a medal – full of gratitude. So think like a bronze medalist. Think about how much worst it could have been.

I immediately thought of those times I was unsuccessful in catching a seal. Especially those that I was trying to recover tags (i.e. valuable data) from. Sounds ridiculous, I know. But I did feel down, and felt like I’m not good enough for this fieldwork. Can’t even catch a seal… I forget about all the other times I did successfully catch a seal. Those didn’t matter, it was all luck, and I can’t keep counting on luck. I expected myself to never miss another seal, I mean how hard could it be? But I have to acknowledge it is hard, even if past PhD students made it seem easy. I should think, hey, I didn’t catch this seal, but it could have been worst. I could have hurt myself, and then it would make catching future seals harder. Or at least I’ve caught previous seals, I could have caught none. Or at least the seal got to escape and have a good laugh at me and feel good about itself (haha maybe). Just keep thinking like a bronze medalist 🙂

(I got 3rd out of 3 competitors that day, could have not competed at all I guess!)

bronze

Being local vs global

Local is good, but having the flexibility to be global might be better…?

Random weird comparison:

Australian gannets from a small colony are restricted to feeding locally even in years of bad environmental conditions (reduced food availability). This constraint might be due to intra-specific competition with other near-by colonies, which prevents birds from this small colony to extend their foraging range. The result is reduced breeding success in bad years.

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Reading this I somehow am reminded of an article I read on Derek Siver’s blog about being local vs global. After experiencing both, he prefers being global. He prefers to have bigger reach to have a bigger impact. I wonder if this bird example can provide a case-study of what happens when you limit yourself to one location/thing/etc.
But of course, in good conditions, being local rocks
! So I guess it all depends (as with many things in life).

The first one was hard

Organising and doing long-term fieldwork in a remote area was like riding a rollercoaster in the dark. You never know when the next turn is going to happen and it comes when you least expect it. Well that’s what life is about anyway, but the rate of conflict and resolution seemed accelerated when you are far from your creature comforts. Doing it for the first time was like being trapped in a room and someone released the drop gate of… skittles (trying to see obstacles as opportunities here) that I had to swim through. They didn’t always come hard, but they came fast.

Here are some of the problems I noted down during the field trip (I apologise if some don’t make sense):

  • Couldn’t find dive logger communication cables – found it in a different box with the GPS trackers.
  • No dishwashing liquid and brush for days – it was left at the old campsite
  • No basin – made one
  • Sand in tent – built a foot scraper
  • Lead battery connected to the solar panel short circuited accidentally in strong winds and melted – somehow still works next day
  • Incomplete instructions for GPS trackers – thank goodness Sirtrack (the GPS tracker company) person checked his email on the weekend, and thank goodness for phone reception in a remote area!
  • Day of crazy wind and rain. Everything got wet – sunshine and more guy ropes to hold down the tent
  • Couldn’t find neoprene – found it.
  • One shovel – one shared drop toilet.
  • Needed someone to drop a volunteer off at start of 4wd track – asked the graduate ranger for a favour.
  • Not enough flipper tags? – found it!
  • More Sirtrack problems – do they not want happy customers?
  • One volunteer had to leave earlier than expected – managed to organise last minute volunteers to take her place in a couple of days.
  • Meeting volunteers I never met before – it’s ok. Just treat them like humans.
  • Seal catching – gotta catch ’em all. Epic unsuccessful day ~ 7 unsuccessful attempts at catching them – But finished with a win.
  • Supervisors have left me. Now I’m boss. Noooo – it’s ok just breathe.
  • Had to do my first ever tag recovery. And as boss in the field. DEEEP BREATHING – I did it. First successful tag recovery.
  • Forgetting to pack certain equipment in the field equipment tool box when they were needed in the field – make do with that you got. AND DON’T FORGET IT EVER AGAIN!
  • WANTED: pups that escaped during capture of female seals (studying mum and pup pairs so ideally, pup is caught at the same time mum is caught). Sometimes when pup runs into a group of pups it’s hard knowing whether the pup we caught was the right one – no solution yet but if only I could use a paintball gun… Just kidding, don’t think I’ll get ethics approval for that.
  • This particular wanted pup kept getting away – But we eventually got her in the end.
  • Some GPS trackers were not working as expected – but at least some do. Still, we are disappointed with the performance of these expensive trackers.
Preparing light-activity loggers for deployment in the field
Preparing light-activity loggers for deployment in the field

 

The toilet at camp. Poo with a view.
The toilet at camp. Poo with a view.

Ok, many of the problems seemed to be simple lost and found type problems. But being in a remote area makes you realise how we take these simple luxuries in life for granted.

My first PhD research fieldwork was completed in summer. I was in the field for 5 weeks (though the 1st week was for another seal related project called the annual pup count). However, I did return to civilisation for a day every 1-2 weeks to do a volunteer swap. Every time I got out of camp, I would stay a night in Kingscote (the main town on Kangaroo Island) due to the arrival times of volunteers and the difficulty of driving the 4×4 track to get into camp. The track is only 18 km long, but it takes about 1.5 – 2 hours to drive because of the rough and rocky terrain. That means driving at 5 – 10 km/h.

 

no we're not there yet

 

The fieldwork was mostly successful:

The good:

  • No accidents on humans and seals.
  • I learnt a lot. The most significant lessons were about being in-charge (something I don’t naturally feel comfortable with), organising fieldwork (finding funding, paperwork, bureaucracy, food and equipment, people, activity plans), and of course, a lot about the animal handling (catching seals, sedating them etc).

What could be better:

  • I only managed to recover 3 out of 6 expensive GPS trackers from the seals due to time constraint.

I had set a fixed departure date from KI by planning my return to Singapore shortly after finishing my fieldwork. The problem was that it wasn’t finished. I underestimated how long it would take to do a perfect job. I thought a month would be sufficient but didn’t account for the fact that the speed of recovering data loggers depends on when the tagged seals come back to land! Duh!

The whole experience was overwhelming at times. My mind was often occupied with things I got to do, and problems I had to solve which were unfamiliar to me. It would bring about feelings of loneliness, anxiety and discomfort. Sometimes these thoughts and associated feelings seep in even while I was training BJJ. That wasn’t not good. But the good thing was that I was aware of it. Because that meant I could try to resolve it.

Whenever I noticed I’m not being present in whatever I’m doing. It’s a sign for me to meditate. Meditation wasn’t really the solution, but more a method to bring me closer to it. Another thing I did to help me keep moving forward and staying positive was to keep telling myself – “Just keeping taking the next step. Doesn’t matter how small. What can I do next to progress?”.

I feel that many of the problems were magnified due to my personality and character at this stage. I always try to solve things myself first. But sometimes it might be mixed with a fear or hesitation of asking others for help. Some problems might have been easily solved but just asking. Asking for help – that’s something I have to work on. And that trait is probably linked to overthinking and not being true to myself. Whoa, deep. Hmm… time to meditate on it.

The office with a view
The office with a view

 

Getting a firearms licence was harder than I thought

For my PhD fieldwork, I needed to use an air-pressured dart gun to immobilise seals so that I could attach data loggers on them (animal ethics approved). In Australia, dart guns are considered a firearm (gun); hence, I needed to get a firearms licence to possess one. Firearm laws are very strict in Australia, which is generally a good thing I guess – That’s until I came across the storm of Bureaucracy, which threw many stop signs at me…

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welcome to the waiting game

I started my application early, about 6 months before I was leaving for fieldwork. I submitted my firearms licence and supporting identification documents to the government person behind the counter. She checked my documents, said it was all good and that she’ll send it off the Tasmanian Firearms Department, and I paid my application fee.

Weeks went by, still no news, I sent TAS Firearms an email. Still no response after weeks.

 

nope, no licence from us.

I sent another email. Finally, I get a response within the week, and it said that they had a backlog of applications, they will get to mine soon. More waiting, then finally I received a meaningful email! There was a problem with my application. Firstly, I had to be a Tasmanian resident – Huh? I am considered a resident for tax purposes, I’ve lived in Tasmania for 4 years, and I’ve provided my student visa to prove that I’m going to be staying another 3 more years in Tasmania to finish my PhD. I can even go into MONA museum for free because I’m considered a resident! Surely, if David Walsh (owner of MONA) says I’m a resident… but apparently, for the TAS police it meant that I had to be a permanent resident.

Secondly, in any case, they weren’t going to give me a firearms licence if I was solely going to use the dart gun in South Australia (where my fieldwork will be). Fine. I’ll take my business somewhere else.

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Is that light i see at the end of the tunnel?

If Tasmania won’t give me a firearms licence when I already live here, I was afraid what SA was going to say when I asked for one. There was little information on the SA Firearms website about getting a licence for special cases like mine. I generally preferred emailing rather than talking on the phone because I don’t feel comfortable talking on the phone with strangers for some reason (I developed a habit of passing the phone to my mum since young, even when ordering pizza). But at this point, time was running out, I had about 3 months left. Sometimes you just gotta stop being a wuss and step up. So I called SA Firearms and I asked if I had to be a resident to apply for a firearms license in SA, the police officer said yes. I panicked and thanked her and ended the call. Why did I do that?! I immediately regretted hanging up because I had more questions to ask.

Ok is it weird that I feel guilty for calling up busy working people even though that’s their job to answer my calls? I felt like they were doing me a favour for picking up my call for some reason. Anyway, I waited till the next day so no one could recognise I was the same person calling again, even though probably no one really cares. So this time, I explained that I was an international PhD student studying and living in Tasmania, but my research project was based in SA, blah blah blah. The police officer said I could submit an application. Thank you for some good news finally!

I was already going to Adelaide for an Ultimate Frisbee tournament so it suited me well, as I had to submit my firearms application in person. It was sometime in October when I submitted my application to SA Firearms and I had about 2 more months to get this licence thing settled! After a couple of weeks, I still had no news so I called them up. Apparently SA also had a backlog of applications. Now this seems to be a recurring problem in government jobs… a problem that could be solved by machine learning perhaps? Or maybe it’s because machines can’t tell a potential serial killer?

 

persistence ?

Anyway, I was told by my supervisor to hassle them! Gosh, now I really feel like a pain in the butt. There’s a reason why I don’t think I can ever do sales! Alright, it was time to put aside my ego and insecurities once again to get things done. I told myself, I love challenges, obstacles are opportunities, and I’m lucky I get to worry about bureaucracy today so that I when I finally get through this storm, I can smash it the next time.

I called SA Firearms, told them it was urgent. Waited a few days, called again, told them it was urgent, they said it was already sent off to a higher authority and there was nothing else they could do. Can I talk to the boss (aka chief police commissioner aka the police of police, aka top cop)? No, they said.

Days went by, and each day I don’t get any news brings me more anxiety and stress. It’s amazing how uncertainties can have such a big effect on wellbeing. All I want to do is research… but obviously, the universe likes to mess with me. Challenge accepted! I meditated and reminded myself that I can only do what I can. I tried to find the boss’s hotline, but no boss hotline to bling. I found the boss on LinkedIn, I hesitated to contact him through that. It might be a bit creepy. I decided to go ol’ skool – snail mail.

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I googled how to handle bureaucracy, some interesting stories came up, and there were a few good tips. I worded my letter carefully, tried to play my cards right, made sure my letter popped with a tinged of desperation and urgency. I posted my letter – express mail.

A few days later, the firearms department boss (not top cop) sent me an email saying that he’s seen my application and they have approved it. I was so relieved, it was a great day. My approval letter was already in the mail and it had all the information I needed to enrol and do my firearms safety course, a requirement to get the licence.

 

the squeaky wheel gets the grease

A few days later again, I received another email from firearms department boss, he said the top cop has seen my letter and waived my firearms safety training. They will send a new letter with my provisional firearms licence until I get the plastic card version. I read the email and pushed away from the table, WHAT! WOW. That’s cray cray. Haha, Life, you’re so funny.

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That’s a pretty good shot 😉

My supervisors still wanted me to do the firearms safety training though since I had zero shooting experience, so I did. I’m glad did go for the training, despite having to make an another trip to Adelaide (and paying out of pocket cause I didn’t have project funds to cover… 😔 ). I learnt a lot and gained more confidence about using the dart gun.

My target from the first time shooting a .22 rifle with a scope. First time shooting anything at all. I'd say that's not too bad! I passed my practical anyway despite aiming at the wrong target initially. I was aiming at the target in the lane beside me and but realised before I shot whewwww haha would have been awkward because there was someone else in that lane 😅 And also passed my shotgun practical – knocked down 4/5 steel rabbits (no real rabbits harmed). First shot from the shotgun sent me back a few steps but I still hit the target. #proud I was in the same room as many excited future hunters. I guess it's better to be hunting for your food then paying someone else to do it cruelly for a start. The law here is quite strict on animal ethics emphasising that hunters should only shoot to kill on the first shot and if they didn't have confidence that the animal would get head shot the first time they shouldn't shoot at all to just injure. #vegan #targetshooting #firearms #gun #adelaide #hunting #shooting #rifle #shotgun #australia

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It worked out in the end (but a few days to go till I leave for fieldwork and still have not received my plastic firearms licence card! At least I’ve got the provisional version so that’s good). This was my first big challenge since starting my PhD, and I’m currently experiencing new and bigger challenges – planning for my first field trip, the biggest logistical exercise I’ve ever had to do. Such stress, much meditation needed. Just. Keep. Taking. The. Next. Step.

 

Till next time. Peace.