Water, mud and bugs

When conducting fieldwork in the muddy waterways around Adelaide, many things can go wrong. And they did.

JosephB/Flickr  (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

JosephB/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


Field Trials is a regular column in which early-career researchers recount the unexpected highs and lows of collecting data.

Since I was no bigger than a larva, I have had a passion for the watery environment and everything that entailed: fish and fishing, frogs, aquatic bugs and mud. Imbued with this passion, I trained as an aquatic ecologist. Over my career, one field trip has become deeply etched in my science research recollections. Our plan was to assess stormwater wetlands, rivers and creeks in and around Adelaide, South Australia. Take stifling, oppressive, and desiccating weather with some contaminated, stagnant, sulphur-gas emitting wetlands, and an encounter with a dangerous member of the local wildlife. The result? A comedy of fieldwork errors.

Our field program began with an assessment of Adelaide’s stormwater wetlands. Beforehand, my colleague and I had agreed that the perfect sampling uniform would comprise a long-sleeved shirt, shorts and Dunlop Volleys. On reflection, we were wrong (perhaps it was the heat or, more likely, the heat’s impact on our minds’ logical thought processes). At the first step, my shoes changed to a beige colour. On each squelchy step, black, tepid, organic-rich water oozed back out of them. Decayed organic particles clung to our leg hairs.

Part of our stormwater wetland study involved investigating fish diversity. We conducted our surveys by haphazardly setting up fish traps, and checking them the following day. Relocating these elusive trap cords was often an exciting moment, leading to a scramble to the trap. On one occasion, in my impatience I scrambled onto a floating island of debris and duck poo. As I stepped onto it, the island gave way beneath me and I sunk up to my shoulders in floating sediment — eye-to-eye with green, sausage-shaped waterfowl excreta. Slowly, I pulled myself onto dry, firm ground. Water and sediment gushed out my clothes. I could feel stranded invertebrates crawling all over my skin. Sediment was everywhere; it clung to the hairs on my legs, the hair on my torso, and my arm hairs. It hid in my belly button. It nestled in my underpants.

But fieldwork stops for no one and no situation. No clean up. No shower. No new clothes. Just move to the next bait trap for retrieval. As I walked, I left sodden, muddy footprints, tracked over the dry crusty crater rim of the stormwater wetland.

Aquatic ecologist Cameron Amos (left) has made his career conducting fieldwork in wet, muddy locales, not always with complete success.  © Cameron Amos

Aquatic ecologist Cameron Amos (left) has made his career conducting fieldwork in wet, muddy locales, not always with complete success. © Cameron Amos

Next, we were to assess river and creek catchment health by collecting water and macroinvertebrate samples at different sites. On the last day of sampling, time was against us. We leapt from the car, grabbed the water bottles, sample jars and macroinvertebrate nets, and, now wearing waders, waddle-sprinted to the waterway. I started collecting the macroinvertebrate sample, but, on the bank, something moved toward me — a snake! A black snake. I stepped back, surprised but not concerned, for I had lost sight of it. It must have gone down a burrow, I reasoned. I returned to sampling. After a while, I looked inside the net to check if I had collected enough debris and macroinvertebrates — and there, coiled at the bottom of the net, was the snake. Not drowned, but exhausted.

On the bank, I stood with the net resting on the ground. The snake lay motionless inside. My workmate — tall, large, imposing, and a ruckman in his youth — cowered behind my rover height. “Careful,” he kept repeating. A mantra for me to follow. I lightly kicked the back of the net, and bang! Out the snake went, fast and vigorously to its safety.

Although shaken by our close encounter of the reptilian kind, we completed our afternoon of sampling. But we had little time to savour our success. Anxious not to miss our flight home, we had no time to clean, unpack or refuel the car. We dumped the equipment, with no care, at the client’s house, and raced the car to the rental drop-off. At the Adelaide Airport check-in counter, the attendants had to call up the pilot to hold the plane, and they gave us a final order: to run!

When we boarded the plane, the other passengers had already been seated and belted for some time. A tsunami of foul cocktail odours accompanied our arrival, without a boarding pass. The passengers were hit with the stink of anoxic sediment, fish slime and body odour. The smell made them cringe, gag and water their eyes, but, mostly, made them wish we had missed the flight. Luckily for me, I was far too exhausted to care, or notice, what people thought of me and my invisible attachment.

Edited by Andrew Katsis