Fall is an amazing time to live and study abroad. Signing up for a full semester abroad is always something we encourage our JU students to do. There is so much value in a long immersive experience, where students can really feel like they’re a part of a country’s rich culture. In the end, many students feel like they’ve created a second home. We had 4 students abroad in the Fall 2018 semester and Sean Wilms is one of them! He studied abroad with CISabroad, at James Cook University in Townsville, Queensland, Australia. He spent about 5 months abroad, starting his Australian semester in July and ending in November. Sean, a Marine Science major, was really able to expand his horizons and participate in a variety of hand-on classes, working outdoors and in the water constantly. He certainly was able to witness all the beautiful biodiversity that Australia has to offer. Here’s his reflection on the Fall 2018 experience, written as he was flying back home to the states.
Today I’m flying home after a nearly 5-month study abroad experience in Queensland, Australia. This was, by far the single most important and exciting thing I have ever done. I gained countless experiences, more than I’ve had in my entire life so far, and took on an incredible appreciation for the natural world, it’s curiosities, and the diversity of life that we share this world with. I’ve made lifelong friends that it truly pains me to say goodbye to, but they helped make this experience as grand as it could be. I am so thankful for my family that helped make this happen, making a lifelong dream a reality. My Mom, Dad, and cousins even traveled across the world to see me. I also now have a huge appreciation for aboriginal culture. Their music, community lifestyle, respect of wildlife, art, and dancing is something deserving of immense respect that I consider myself lucky to have experienced in person.
I’m so happy to have spent the time diving, fishing, and hiking, the things that make me the happiest in the world. It was incredible to me to be able to step outside and see wild parrots flying about and hear the classic, spine-shivering jungle call of the laughing kookaburra. Walking around campus you’d laugh at the clumsiness of both the adult and newborn brush turkeys while also praying to not get “swooped” by the aggressive magpies. I remember going on spotlighting sessions with friends after dusk to find green tree frogs, snakes, and lizards (and many many spiders). Every night the sky would fill with huge groups of flying foxes, the memorizing meter long fruit bats that were so abundant. I got a chance to explore the wet tropical rainforests and the dry tropical woodlands and see the vast differences between the two. Walking into an Australian rainforest is liking taking a step back in time to the Jurassic period with towering tee ferns, vines, and huge trees with buttresses. You’d have to watch your step to avoid the stinging trees with ironic heart shaped leaves or you’d be hurting for up to several months (thankfully not an experience I had to go through). At night, glow worms would light up the ground and leaves to add to the eerie but fascinating atmosphere of the rainforest. The dry woodlands have a mysterious and adventurous aura that just calls you to wander and explore. With a kangaroo and wallaby, or even the occasional camel around every corner in certain areas, it’s hard not to become infatuated with the landscape. We also had the opportunity to go searching for rarely seen animals by anybody in wild like the platypus, bandicoots, golden bowerbirds, and koalas. It’s easy to want to spend all of your time exploring when you get to witness the largest waterfall in the southern hemisphere, Wallaman Falls. These falls were one of many that I was blessed with the chance to see on this amazing trip.
Every time I would go fishing in the mangrove forests, I was on the hunt to try and find saltwater crocodiles and mudskippers, two incredibly unique animals. When I really paid attention, I discovered all kinds of hidden gems out on the water like reef sharks, spotted eagle rays, sea turtles of many kinds, epaulette sharks, wobbegongs, and giant pufferfish. Fishing itself gave me the opportunity to encounter so many new species of so many shapes, colors, and designs; my photo album certainly speaks for itself. The diversity of fish life alone fascinates me and every time I went fishing I felt like an explorer, and nothing to me is more exciting. By the end of the trip I recorded nearly 100 new species of fish that I’d caught, with several being fish of lifetime that I will never forget.
The real treat of this trip was the diving and snorkeling opportunities. In a short bus and ferry ride I had access to the nearby Magnetic Island with beautiful reefs right off the beach. Magnetic Island quickly became my favorite place for its wonderful food, great local people, beautiful beaches, and fantastic fishing, diving, snorkeling, and hiking opportunities. I also made it out diving to the Great Barrier Reef twice, as well as two wonderful trips out to the shipwreck of the SS Yongala. On the GBR I found one of my favorite reef creatures, the Giant Clams that grow well over 200 pounds, as well as other fascinating creatures like clownfish, crown-of-thorn starfish, and the most beautiful collection of coral. Plus, there was always a good chance of seeing humpback whales during transit. The Yongala is truly special in the size and number of wildlife that can be found on the wreck. It’s safe to say SCUBA diving the Yongala is one of the most amazing things I have ever done. Some of my favorite encounters was with many huge humphead wrasse, one beautiful and critically endangered hawksbill sea turtle, giant groupers the size of a VW bug, mysterious sea snakes, marble rays larger across than I am tall, and 10ft plus tawny nurse sharks.
Each one of my classes offered valuable field skills and experiences that exemplifies the reason why I wanted to study at James Cook University in the first place. In my Coral Reef Ecology Class, we spent 3 days at a research station on an offshore island surrounded by pristine, untouched reefs. On that trip we got experience directly measuring coral and data collection in the water with transects and snorkeling gear. For my Aquaculture Class we visited 3 different commercial aqua-farms: Red-claw crayfish, Barramundi, and Grouper aquaculture and learned through hands on experiences the intricacies of the industry. In my Biodiversity Class we practiced the ethical trapping, handling, and releasing of Australian wildlife in the dry woodlands of the wilderness. Finally, in my Mangrove and Coastal Ecology Class we went to nearby estuaries to practice making ecological observations and comparisons that managers in the field must do.
Like good nerds, my friends and I found going to Trivia night and playing against Australian teams to be quite challenging but very exciting and it quickly became a weekly activity. We also made going to the local pool, riding bikes by the river, hiking and birdwatching, and going to Magnetic Island common activities that everybody greatly enjoyed. One of the friends I made rehabilitates orphaned wallabies and I got the chance to hold and interact with the sweetest little baby wallaby. That something that very few people can say they’ve had the chance to do.
Long story short, so many experiences and valuable memories were made in the last 5 months that it’s honestly difficult to summarize all of it. Here’s to an amazing experience full of adventure and fascination. I’ll be back! Cheers Australia.
– Sean Wilms