Killer crocs and cute koalas: Going to extremes with Australian wildlife

Australian wildlife is full of surprises. I first discovered that crocodiles look a lot like alligators, but with a very different attitude toward humans. A trip to the museum’s George Observatory in Brazos Bend State Park often features an encounter with an alligator sunning on your path or floating like a log at the water’s edge in Creekfield Lake. You’re warned to keep dogs on leashes and leave the gator alone, but no fences restrain you or the gator.

Australian crocodiles are more aggressive, and unfortunately recognize humans as food. Fencing confines all the crocodiles at Hartley’s Crocodile Adventure near Cairns, Australia. And a boat ride in crocodile-infested waters requires all hands inside the boat with Plexiglas windows on all sides.

CIMG6146An alligator show often features the handler taping the gator’s mouth shut and actually sitting on the patient gator. In contrast, a crocodile show is billed as a “Crocodile Attack Show.” It usually features only one crocodile that must be distracted when the keeper dashes across an open area to the protected spot for the feeding. There’s nothing leisurely about a crocodile jumping for food or initiating a death roll when the food is attached to a rope that the keeper does not release.

CIMG6110After grabbing the bait, we watched a croc rolling under the water, a technique designed to disorient and drown its prey. This “death roll” allows a croc to feast on large animals at its own pace. As the late Steve Irwin said, “The crocodile death roll is potentially the most powerful killing mechanism on Earth.”

CIMG6121Koalas are as cute as crocs are deadly. Koalas are marsupials native to coastal regions of Australia. Like all marsupial babies, baby koalas are called “joeys.” At birth, a koala joey is the size of a jellybean! It has no hair, no ears, and is blind. Joeys crawl into their mother’s pouch immediately after birth and stay there for about six months. At Hartley’s Crocodile Adventure, we petted the soft fur of a female koala and watched an 11-month-old Joey still clinging to its mother’s back. Back in Houston, our only marsupial is the lowly opossum, which just doesn’t compare.

Reporting from Down Under: It’s a solar eclipse shark attack in Australia

I had never realized before that a photograph of a partial solar eclipse behind lots of colorful clouds at sunrise looks so much like a shark attack. Especially if you’re watching it over the Pacific Ocean with about 40,000 other people in Cairns, Australia.

Total Eclipse of the Heart

See the fin?

In my nine eclipse expeditions, I have never seen these unique atmospheric conditions before. Traditional knowledge suggests it’s best if your solar eclipse view is cloudless, with the sun’s corona surrounding the moon’s black disk at totality. But if clouds spoil that view, I discovered that dramatic images can hide in the cloud decks, especially if the clouds are thick enough to filter the sun’s light (effective neutral density of four or greater) and allow a camera to capture images without a solar filter. (Safety note: We kept solar filters ready at a moment’s notice if conditions improved. We also viewed only through the LED display of the digital camera, not through the viewfinder.)

The museum’s solar eclipse travelers had a front row seat from the balcony of their rooms on the 11th floor of our Australia hotel. Boats had anchored in the harbor below us, and eclipse watchers camped on the boardwalk by the water. The event became a dynamic interplay of clouds and the partially eclipsed sun. Sunrise began with decks of clouds drifting between the sun and us. We aimed cameras mounted on telescopes to the place where we knew the sun would appear when the clouds parted.

Total Eclipse of the Heart

The view from out hotel balcony at 6 a.m., when the sun was just clearing the peninsula’s tallest peaks. The Takahashi FCT-76 is on the left and the FS-60 is on the right, riding on a Sky Patrol equatorial mount.

Rays of sunlight through cloud decks also showed the sun’s location. As the beams moved across the land, we knew it would soon be our turn to see through a tiny thinning of the clouds just before totality. As totality approached, the sky gradually darkened and the temperature dropped. The city lights below us had just turned off at sunrise and now flickered back to life. Flash bulbs blinked over the city as photographers hoped in vain to light a path through the clouds. For the two minutes of totality, the rays of sunlight vanished, the clouds became black shadows and a sunrise glow illuminated the horizon. Then daylight returned, and we looked to see if our cameras had captured anything our eyes had missed. That’s when we discovered the shark fin shapes of the partially eclipsed sun appearing to sail behind a fantastic display of pale hued clouds. Did we have the best view of totality? Maybe not. But in the interplay of thick colorful cloud decks, we were treated to a very rare unfiltered solar eclipse at sunrise.

Photographs tell the story better:

Total Eclipse of the Heart

Here I’m focusing the Celestron 5 telescope. Next to me is the Takahashi FCT-76 and the Takahashi FS-60 is closest to the camera.

Total Eclipse of the Heart

At about 6:20 a.m., the partially eclipsed sun peeks through the clouds. Photography through a Celestron 5 with focal reducer (focal length 800mm).

Total Eclipse of the Heart

The shark’s fin is the sun’s disk, partially covered by the moon and by several banks of Earth clouds. Photography through a Celestron 5 with focal reducer (focal length 800mm).

Total Eclipse of the Heart

At about 6:25 a.m., totality is just over 10 minutes away. The colors become more dramatic as the sunlight level drops. Photography through a Celestron 5 with focal reducer (focal length 800mm).

Total Eclipse of the Heart

The camera cuts off most of this shark fin, but notice the sunrise colors lingering in the clouds. Photography through a Takahashi FCT-76.

Total Eclipse of the HeartAt about 6:30 a.m., the clouds and colors become dramatic as totality nears.
Photography through the Takahashi FS-60 at 600 mm focal length.

Total Eclipse of the HeartFour and a half minutes later, as totality approaches, the clouds darken, with only the closest illuminated by the last rays of the sun’s photosphere and perhaps the first faint glows of the corona. Photography through the Takahashi FS-60 at 600 mm focal length

Total Eclipse of the HeartAt 6:38 a.m., totality began and the clouds obscured the fainter corona. The sky became as dark as a full moon night with sunrise colors streamed across the horizon.

What’s the over you’ll make it Down Under? Final chance to book a trip to Aussieland for a rare eclipse

It’s your final chance to get in on the trip of a lifetime (or at least the next several years) to Australia and New Zealand.

Cairns, AustraliaThe only total solar eclipse of the year is viewable on land only from the northeastern coast of Australia. The Museum has secured hotel space in Cairns for the rare eclipse and planned a trip around the voyage with an optional extension to Fiji.

Led by Dr. Carolyn Sumners, HMNS’ VP of Astronomy, the two-week tour of the South Pacific includes Cairns and Sydney, Australia as well as Christchurch and Queenstown, New Zealand and an ideal eclipse viewing spot on the coast of Australia near the Great Barrier Reef.

What: South Pacific Wonders and Solar Eclipse
When: Nov. 10 through Nov. 24
Where: The other side of the world

For more information on booking, email travel@hmns.org or call 713.639.4737. Click here for full itinerary and pricing.