Scenes from the Skeens

Ocean Encounters

August 25, 2007 4:57 pm by Dan

Since I’ve written a bit about surfing I should mention one of the best things about being out there is the ocean life you encounter. Here’s a few sketches of things I’ve seen while waiting for the next wave.

– I was out one day and had paddled out a pretty good distance where waves were breaking off Neil Street in Dicky Beach. About 50 feet off I suddenly saw a slick grey back of some large creature break through the surface of the water. In general, big gray things are not a welcome sight for surfers, but with a big sigh of relief I watched as it arched its back and went back under. It was easy to tell from its movement that it was a dolphin. Anyway, I carried on surfing and about 5 minutes later the same fellow popped up about 10 feet away, blasting water out his spout with a loud noise like someone clearing out a snorkel. Spray flew in the air, and with another arch of the back it was gone.

– Another time near the same spot as above, we’d noticed some schools of fish swimming nearby. They are pure silver, and glisten in the light. They travel in packs of hundreds. The waves were big so we were all pretty focused on timing the next set. One fellow gets ready to take off on a wave and suddenly dozens of silver fish leap out of it right in front of his face. We had a good laugh, and to his credit he got over the surprise and still managed to catch the wave.

– An amazingly big school of 2-inch black fish was moving through the water. There were so many, swimming so closely, that it made a black cloud in the water in roughly a circular shape about 15 feet across. Gulls has found them and were diving down, plunging 40 or 50 feet in a nose dive in a big splash, then pulling away from the water, often with a struggling fish in their mouth. So as I’m watching all this the school moves nearer and nearer. Suddenly it’s upon me – I couldn’t have moved if I tried – but of course the fish neatly part around me, leaving about 1 inch between the collective black mass and my body, which then immediately pulls back together once the school moves past. It was an eerie but amazing sensation. Either the school was panicked by all the gulls or they got temporary protection from the birds by being near me, but they came back 3 or 4 times and swam around (it truly feels like they’re swimming through you) me.

Struggling in the Surf… and loving it.

4:50 pm by Dan

So, I haven’t mentioned it thus far, but I’ve spent a lot of time surfing (or trying to). I have some experience with the sport – in Northern California we were spoiled by being close to Cowell’s Beach in Santa Cruz. One of California’s best spots for beginning surfers, it’s a point break that yields slow, consistent waves that are very easy to ride.

Finding my way in the local waves was definitely more of a challenge. I had one lesson, and for the rest I’ve been self-taught. There have been many, many hours of frustration, which led to some short-but-outstanding moments of triumph.

The technique didn’t come easy to me, and quite honestly I’m still not much of a surfer, but I catch the occasional wave. The hardest part has been reading the wave and wind conditions so that I can find the right type of waves that suit my skill level. I’m beyond riding broken waves, but not ready for the 6 to 8-foot overheads that sweep through here occasionally. I need a nice crumbly wave breaking in either direction.

So anyway, after an embarrassingly long learning curve I’m out there catching some waves and having a 5 or 6-second ride on it. I use either a monster 9’6″ longboard or a 7’6″ board, and likely won’t ever ride the toothpick short boards the skilled surfers use here. Still, all in all I’d say I’ve done alright for an Ontarian.

I’ve had a lot of fun boogyboarding (or bodyboarding) as well. It’s a good thing to do when the waves are huge – you can go pretty crazy on those things and not have to worry about your board clonking you on the head. One day I caught a wave just right I had such speed and such a sharp angle across the face of the wave it made a cool ripping sound as my board sliced through it. Pretty fun.

Surfing is a bloody hard sport to learn. I’m sure others might pick it up faster than me. For anyone who’s tried snowboarding, I suppose it’s similar but now imagine that the board is not attached to your feet and the mountain is constantly moving.

Still, I wouldn’t take back a second of the struggle. It’s a great workout and it’s a pleasure to be in the water, trying to work with the waves for what is a truly unique experience. And when it all falls into place and you find that sweet spot where a wave is forming and breaking, and you feel the sudden push under your feet like a loving nudge from Poseidon, it creates one of those moments that you’ll carry vividly in your memory, perhaps to your last day. There is something eternal that exists inside those shimmering tunnels of water, a place between the wind and the waves where everything exists perfectly. It’s gone in a matter of seconds, but it may also last forever. I’ve talked with some 60-something Aussies who can still describe their first wave.

For me the best moment came last week. After about a week of flat seas the winds picked up and suddenly BIG waves came rolling through, but with a nice offshore wind to make them break nice and slow. The waves were about 7 feet high, which doesn’t sound so big but when you’re lying on a board looking up at one, it seems like the Great Wall of China toppling on you. I paddled around for a while on my long-board, not quite getting where I needed to be and sometimes chickening out when I got to the crest of a big wave. Finally, tired of paddling, I decided to catch one in. I waited for a big sucker to break, planning to ride the white water. This was no typical broken wave though; I caught it shortly after it broke and it spit me forward like a rocket. I was simply hanging on to my board as hard as I could for a few seconds, then got to my knees, then stood up, still moving at a fast pace. Then I actually started accelerating, moving so fast that I had to lean back completely to keep the nose of my board from dipping into the water. The wave was re-forming, picking up speed and shape, and I was gliding along at amazing speed. I bent my knees and curled to the left, making the tightest turn possible on a 9″6 longboard. This banked me to the left and positioned me nicely in the tube of a lovely wave breaking from right to left. I skimmed along the tube for a few seconds, then banked to the right before it closed out in a splash of white water. I rode this white water in to shore until I felt my board’s fin hit the sand. What a way to finish the day!

Stargazing in the Southern Hemisphere

4:27 pm by Dan

So we’re having a lovely winter here in Queensland. Today’s temperature was about 25 Celsius, a nice breeze off the ocean and no humidity. It’s about as comfortable as weather gets in my opinion. But the one downside to our season is that the daylight hours are reduced. The sun goes down around 5:30 pm. So, with this combination of warm nights and dark evenings, I’ve taken up stargazing. The view of the sky from where we are is staggering. There are so many stars visible, and the Milky Way is so full and white it’s really something to behold. Getting oriented is a bit of a challenge initially. The southern hemisphere has an entirely different starscape than what I’m used to. No North Star, big dipper or any of the familiar formations. And Orion the hunter is standing on his head.
milky-way (a photo of the Milky Way as seen from Australia, with the Southern Cross showing clearly. Not sure what the silver line is – ignore that)
Here the predominant feature is the Southern Cross, a brilliant set of stars, including a red dwarf, that form the basis for the Australian flag. With a bit of help from some books and websites, I’ve started identifying the constellations. It’s easy to spot Centaurus, the centaur, and the scorpion, Scorpius, shines incredibly brightly at this time of year. I have no trouble identifying Lupus, the wolf, as well, and Sagittarius and a very faint Libra. Now that I’ve got those to help me orient the skies I should be able to spot more constellations fairly easy. With the help of binoculars I’ll also be looking at some nebulae and other interesting things in the night sky.

It’s very hard to describe, but to lay on the beach, with the waves crashing on the shore, and to look up into the heavens and see millions of stars, and the brilliant glow of the cosmic dust in the Milky Way is a pretty amazing experience.

Some Video from the Whitsunday Islands

August 12, 2007 3:25 am by Dan

Here’s a few clips that I finally got around to transferring from our trip to the Whitsundays. The first one is of us snorkeling. I had told the kids they shouldn’t walk around in swim fins – they should take them off before they get out of the water so they don’t trip. So as I snorkel off into deeper water they completely ignore my instructions.

Their wobbly motions were enough to disturb a local wallaby who goes jumping off.

In the second video (you’ll need to click the Play Now link to watch it) Nate is enjoying the attention of a King Parrot. Not one to spoil a good Kodak moment I asked him to look my way … big mistake apparently.

Footy in Brisbane

August 5, 2007 1:22 am by Dan

A while ago we went to our first Australian Football League (AFL) match. It was between the hometown Brisbane Lions and Western Bulldogs. Despite a good start, Brisbane got killed something like 68-20 or so. While it wasn’t much of a thriller for the local fans we had a great time just checking out the sport and soaking in the atmosphere. We scarfed down some Four n’ Twenty meat pies, some sausage rolls and a few beers and managed to fit in just fine.

Sorry the video looks so cruddy – it looks good on the camcorder but for some reason it’s not converting well.

Nate’s Three Favorite Things About Our Trip

July 8, 2007 12:42 am by Nate

Nate and Mountain

Nate’s three favorite things:
1. I like when we played mini golf. (Daydream Island had an ‘All Around Australia’ themed mini golf course)
2. I liked when we swam at the Great Barrier Reef.
3. I liked when we went home.

When I asked Nate about him listing ‘going home’ as one of his favorite things to do he said, ‘ Well Mom you said I only had to list three.’ Writing is not one of Nate’s most favorite things to do. I should have asked him to calculate the distances between each place we stopped at and I probably would have gotten a much better response.

Maddy’s Thoughts on Our Recent Trip

12:40 am by Dan

On June 21st, 2007 we started our ten day trip to the Great Barrier Reef. We traveled in a large and noisy campervan. We stopped only twice before we reached Shute Harbour and rode a ferry to Daydream Island. The weather was bad to start. The worst part was that it was cold and windy and it didn’t rain enough to water the plants. Despite the weather we had a great time. The wildlife was amazing! The rock wallabies came right up to us and snooped through our bags.

Kids and Wallabys

Nate and I were attacked by lorikeets, which are small parrots. The lorikeets would come right up and eat out of your hands. The snorkeling was fabulous, but the snorkeling wetsuits were the opposite of fabulous. My brother and I looked like Thing 1 and Thing 2 from Dr. Seuss. When we went snorkeling we saw a giant clam and about 20 black sea urchins. Sea urchins can sting but black sea urchins can really sting!

Snorkeling, Daydream Island

On Daydream Island, one really neat thing was that they didn’t have sand. Instead they have millions and millions of little bits of dried coral. Day dream Island also has the biggest man made reef in the world. They let you pet and feed the reef animals.


After we left Daydream Island we drove to Airlie Beach and stayed for one night in a very pretty area (Eungella Park). Then off we went to Emerald. There are mining areas around Emerlad where you can pay to do some fossicking for emeralds, rubies and diamonds. We stayed there for one night and it was fun. Nate and I built a treehouse.

We stayed for two nights in Cania Gorge. They had bird feeding and the beautiful King Parrots that would land right on your hand and head.

Maddy & King Parrot

At night time you could go to the bird feeding area or sit around your site and there would be little bettongs eating the bird seed. Bettongs are the smallest marsupials. When we left Cania Gorge we finally went home!

Trailer Park Skeens

12:23 am by Melissa

We spent our two-week winter break driving in a rented campervan heading towards the Whitsunday Islands. We knew that we couldn’t leave Australia without seeing the Great Barrier Reef (not actually the whole thing, but a very small part).

Britz Campervan

After a very slow start in Brisbane, where we rented the campervan we set off for day one of our trip. Our goal was to reach the town of 1770 by dark. I was actually quite excited about seeing this town as I had just taught an Explorer’s unit to the Grade 5/6/7 class I was working with and I had learned a lot about James Cook and his contributions to Australia. The town 1770 is named after the year that Captain James Cook of the Endeavour and his crew landed on the shore here. Unfortunately after five hours of driving and reaching long, dark winding roads we decided to park the campervan in a park in Miriam Vale for the night and recuperate for the morning when we would have another seven hour drive before reaching Airlie Beach.

The next morning we drove (I should say Dan, as he did all the driving) to Airlie Beach. We were feeling a little glum about the trip at this point as we had driven through some very wet areas. We had also been experiencing our coldest temperatures in the Sunshine Coast (13 C) and had pulled out our long pants for the first time. We had all decided though that we were not going to let the weather ruin this long awaited trip. It also helped to know that we would be staying at a resort on Daydream Island for four days. It sounded a lot more appealing than a campervan.

We had heard from some Aussie friends that we would see a lot more roos at this end of Queensland. We just didn’t realize they meant mainly along the side of the road as traffic casualties. I had visions of one jumping out of the bush and having to somehow explain to Maddy that we had just killed a kangaroo. She gives Nate a hard time for stepping on ants so I knew she wouldn’t let us off easy.

On day three we took at ferry from Shute Harbour over to Daydream Island. It is the closest of the islands to shore, only ten minutes by ferry, and it is also the smallest. We were very pleased to be greeted by a host waiting for us with shell necklaces and tropical drinks. It made us think that somehow they were going to make all those clouds in the sky disappear. We spent a good part of the first day exploring the island. You can walk from one end to the other in under an hour. They have also constructed the world’s largest man made reef (as Maddy will tell you more about in her blog post.) All in all our time on the island was probably the best time of the whole trip. It is hard to believe that one small place provided us with a diverse range of boating activities, stingray, shark and fish feeding, amazing wildlife along with all the other activities such as swimming, snorkeling and bird feeding.


Maddy and Nate spent each morning feeding the large barrimundi fish or petting the shark stingrays. These experiences were as Nate described them to a friend of ours today, ‘so nervous and exciting at the same time, I almost cried!’ We were sad to leave after four days and I think it will be something the kids remember as a favorite part of their time in Australia.

Wallaby with Joey

Our last four days were spent at campgrounds; all were appealing for different reasons. After driving up Queensland along the coast we wanted to experience the hinterland or outback part of Australia on our way back.

Our stay at Eungella National Park was quicker than we would have liked it to be. We had a breathtaking view from our site and it was the morning we woke up to bright sunshine that continued for the rest of our trip. This was also an area where you are almost guaranteed a sighting of a wild platypus at a place called Broken River. Unfortunately after several days of hard rain they all seemed to be off in drier areas. We drove a little farther inland to Emerald and it looked like the weather was finally on our side. The drive was unlike anywhere else we had been before, although parts of it reminded us of Arizona.


You could see absolutely nothing besides trees, sand, termite mounds and a few hopping kangaroos for over a 100 kilometers before reaching a town that consisted of four houses and one shop (which had the four home owners sitting out front of it). A friend of ours had warned us about filling up with petrol at any station we came across so luckily we didn’t run dry. We also passed hundreds of termite mounds on our way. It took us a while to figure out what these massive mounds were. It seems obvious now as I explain it but they resemble massive anthills spread out throughout the deserted fields. I didn’t share out loud the thought of what would happen if you stomped one of these mounds because I knew Nate would be the first to volunteer for the experiment.


Our last two nights were spent at the Cania Gorge. This camping ground was set within the Cania Gorge National Park. The drive into the park was incredible and again breathtaking. I think the thing that surprises me the most about Australia and the areas that we have visited is that every place is so unlike the other. The array of wildlife also changes and we were happy to see that this particular area had a large variety of birds.


Maddy had spent her days on Daydream Island mothering the lorikeets that would feed out of her hands so she was doubly excited to see King Parrots and cockatoos flying around our site. Each day in the late afternoon you could feed the birds that lived in the area. We soon gave up our favoritism toward the lorikeets and bonded with the King Parrots who were a lot gentler and quieter than the lorikeets.

Rainbow Lorikeets

The absolute highlight of this park was the bettongs. A lot of you are probably saying, ‘the what?’ Bettongs are the smallest of the marsupial family and are very rare in Australia. For some reason this area was crawling with them. Every night while we were sitting around the campfire you would look down and see these small creatures digging holes in the ground looking for food or just snooping around the campsite for some scraps. They are incredible to watch as they hop just like a kangaroo but resemble a large hamster. It took all the kids strength to not try and pick one up. If they have the kangaroo’s hop I am sure they have the kangaroo kick as well.

Our drive home was thought provoking. We all agreed that it was going to be strange to arrive home and not have an over excited dog to greet us, but we also agreed that what we had missed the most about this ‘home’ was the beach. We have become so accustomed to seeing the ocean every day and walking along the beach. Now that our time here is down to ten weeks and counting it seems like too short of a time to do everything we would like to do. We do feel extremely lucky to have experienced all that we have. I just know I plan on spending each and every day here on out in some way or another on the beach………that is when I am not in the classroom!

A Rare pic of Dan and Mel

June 2, 2007 8:48 pm by Melissa

Here’s one that Cathy shot when she visited recently.


Noosa Beach

8:36 pm by Melissa

We’re about an hour’s drive from Noosa and that has quickly become our favorite weekend day trip. There is a national park there with amazing coastal views. We were lucky enough to find a koala bear munching eucalyptus leaves one day. Snorkeling is great too – just jump in anywhere and you’ll see dozens of large fish everywhere you look. And the beach… well, see for yourself.

noosa beach