18 things I’ve learnt after living on a remote island for 29 days



Reading time:

11 minutes

In the summer of 2014 I had a great opportunity to volunteer on an Australian fur seal research field work on Kanowna Island. Kanowna Island is located off the southern tip of Wilsons Promontory in Victoria, Australia. It is home to several breeding colonies of Australian fur seals with an estimated total of 10 000 seals, making it the third largest island population of AUFS.

I landed this volunteer opportunity because the data I used in my honours research project came from the main seal colony on Kanowna; hence I knew the head researcher of this ongoing long-term data set. In case you’re wondering, I used data collected from accelerometers (similar kind of technology used in smart phones to detect movement) mounted on female AUFS to find a signal for a prey capture event and used that to test if the seals’ foraging behaviour followed optimal foraging theory.

I was so grateful when the head researcher, John, invited me to volunteer on the island. I thanked him for the opportunity and agreed to go. I was super excited because it was something totally new to me as I did not get to do any field work for my Honours. But actually, John was also very glad that I could go because I was filling in for another volunteer that had to pull out and if I didn’t go, he might have to and he’s gone to Kanowna so many times in the past I think it’s not new to him anymore, haha!


So here’s our living situation on the island:

  • No source of fresh water (we have to bring and carry our own fresh water to the island) so water is mainly only used for cooking and drinking.
  • No swimming in the waters because there are great white sharks around and the waves can get very strong
  • No way to shower unless you stand in the rain
  • We clean ourselves with baby wipes
  • We have a petrol-operated generator
  • We have gas stoves
  • We have 4gb of internet for the entire month so internet is mainly to use for checking emails, GPS trackers, weather, facebook, no videos.
  • There is some phone reception on the island if you go to the right spots
  • Re-supply of food and water/ next boat transfer occurs every 2.5 to 3 weeks and it’s always weather dependent.
  • We have two pet geese – Lucy and Goose
  • We have a semi-pet silver gull – Henry or Honwi (French accent)
  • Pee anywhere you want
  • Poo in the bucket and when it’s about 2/3 full we take turns to dig a hole to empty it
  • Our jobs on the island were to count the number of seals in two colonies every 2 days, and take attendance of specific males every day, and maybe recapture male seals which were previously tagged with a tracking device to retrieve the device (if these tagged males actually came back to the colony)


18. Duct tape for everything

Hole in pants? Duct tape it!


So much fashion on Kanowna


17. Shearwaters are really noisy and they are actually kinda cute

Short-tailed shearwaters are also known as muttonbirds in Australia. They are a migratory sea bird traveling between northern and southern hemisphere every year. The primary vegetation on the island is tussock grass where the shearwaters make their burrows. There’s no way to run without one of your feet falling into a burrow and possibly leading to a sprained ankle or something. Even just walking can make you look like you are still learning to walk, the burrows are everywhere and our campsite is surrounded by them. Shearwaters wake up at dusk and they are active at night, doing their thing, which I’m still not sure what is it. Their voice/call is kinda interesting, and it’s even more fascinating when there’s so many of them calling at the same time as it gets really loud and almost kind of eerie.


Lots of short-tailed shearwaters
Short-tailed shearwater


16. How to count seals

“ok count all females in lower gully”

1..2…3..….11..12… thir..teen? did I already count that one..? crap, ok, restart. I’ll count everyone before that male.. male you better not move!


The main colony of Australian fur seals on Kanowna island and not even at peak attendance yet.
The main colony of Australian fur seals on Kanowna island and not even at peak attendance yet.


15. Ebook readers are awesome

Finished 7 books in 3 weeks. Like a boss.

Books I read:

Whole by Dr T. Collin Campbell

Carb the fuck up by DurianRider

The Starch Solution by Dr John McDougall

Veronika Decides to Die by Paulo Coelho

Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life by Thích Nhất Hạnh

The Food Revolution by John Robbins (son of the founder of Baskin Robbins, how cool is that? Promoting a plant-based lifestyle)

Why we love dogs, eat pigs and wear cows by Dr Melanie Joy


14. The French really do love their cheese

Cheese on everything, even on Thai green curry with rice.


13. Australian fur seals are skiddish animals (they are afraid of us) which makes getting close to them a fun challenge requiring the stealth of an assassin (as in Assassin’s Creed).

You know the children’s game what’s the time, Mr Wolf? Creeping around the seals is like that, except our goal is not to touch the seal but to get past it or get close enough for a good mug shot (photos of the male seals’ whiskers were needed for those we were taking attendance of). We usually have to get on all fours or flat on our bellies or backs to be one with the ground or the rocks so we are less conspicuous. I’d imagine the seal sees this bump on the rock that gradually gets bigger every time it looks away and looks back in our direction.

Back’s turned, move!
Stop and drop it low!


12. Patience is a useful tool when photographing wildlife

Sometimes when it’s virtually impossible to get any closer to the target seal for the money shot without spooking all the other seals around it, and the seal is not in an ideal position (i.e. we can’t get a good shot of it’s side profile), we have the option of throwing a small stone/rock/seal bone at its direction to get it to sit up and move around. Sometimes it works, sometimes your stone gets blown away in the wind, and ends up spooking another seal instead. The problem with spooking the seals is that if one or more feels threatened enough to make a run (or rather a hobble) to the water (where they can move most efficiently), the others will follow suit without knowing what the danger is, and soon you’ll have a stampede of seals to the water. When throwing things don’t work, we wait, and look intensely through the camera’s viewfinder while we chant: Move, move seal, move. C’mon buddy you can do it – oh oh oh!!! He’s gonna move! Nope. Sigh.

The whisker shots we were after
The whisker shots we were after


Juvenile seal
Juvenile seal


11. Sea gulls love placenta but not gummy worms

It’s easy to know when a seal has just given birth, you’ll see a large group of sea gulls take flight to feed on the placenta just was delivered with the pup. MMM YUM! It’s good that nature provided cleaners though! Imagine if no one cleaned up all that blood.

Yeah and I tried feeding Henry gummy worms, he didn’t go for it.

Gulls all over that placenta, noms!
Gulls all over that placenta, noms!


10. Seals look like slugs when they move on land

After staring a seals long enough, they are pretty weird creatures… Anna described them as giant slugs, and I think it’s pretty true.

Oh hai.
Oh hai.
Seal version of a Russian doll
Seal version of a Russian doll
A male and his harem. They be always in that yoga pose.
A male and his harem. They be always in that yoga pose.


9. Animals live a simple life and they live in the moment

As you know, I read a book about mindfulness (see above) and I tried to walk mindfully and eat mindfully after reading it. I thought about the seals and the geese, how their entire day was either sleeping, changing their sleeping position, fighting with each other, going for a swim, hunting for fish and maybe mating (during this time of the year). And they repeat this every day, for their entire lives. I don’t think seals get bored, or regret doing whatever they have done (as in they don’t dwell on the past?). Everything they do in the moment, is exactly what they want to do. And I think there’s something to learn about that.

Juvenile sleep pile
Juvenile sleep pile
Photobombed by either Lucky or Goose.
Photobombed by either Lucy or Goose.


8. Sunsets can be even more amazing than I’ve imagined

Yeah check this out, best sunset on the island, and maybe in my whole life so far.

My human companions whom I enjoyed the sunset with.
My human companions whom I enjoyed the sunset with.
Best sunset on Kanowna #nofilter
Best sunset on Kanowna #nofilter
Our tent in the magnificent sunset colours
Our tent in the magnificent sunset colours
Anna soaking up the colours of the sunset
Anna soaking up the colours of the sunset


7. It’s easy being a vegan on a secluded island

Breakfast: an orange (if there’s any left), hot muesli (oats with dried fruit) and/or bread or a wrap with jam/vegemite

Lunch: Bread + Tomato + Mustard or leftover dinner or peas or canned beans or canned corn

Dinner: Rice with thai curry (veg + thai curry paste + coconut milk) or pasta with tomato based sauce (canned tomatoes + veg + tomato paste + italian seasoning) or mexican wraps (canned tomatoes + tomato paste + veg + taco seasoning)

Snack: jelly beans or dates

No worries about meat going bad and no need to use the cheese grater. Too easy!

The meat eaters ate the same food but with added cheese/meat.


I enjoyed my wrap as much as he did ;)
I enjoyed my wrap as much as he did 😉


6. Time away from distractions, or from the business of the society, is good for the mind, body and soul

Knowing that I couldn’t surf the internet or stream videos online, which is what I usually spend most of my free time doing, I had time to finally rest my mind. I did a lot of reading, but when I didn’t read I just closed my eyes, lay back on the grass, and meditated; or I would watch the seals do their thing or watch the waves crash repeatedly against the rocks. After reading Carb the fuck up! I wrote down what I thought my life’s purpose was. It was good to write it down, even though it’s always been at the back of my mind since young, but when I wrote it down, I was clearly reminded of it again. Yes, this is what I want to do, and every day I should be doing something that is in line with that purpose. I thought about my time in uni, and checked if that was in line with my life’s purpose. It was. Phew! Because I hadn’t checked in on it for 4 years.


Kanowna band album cover
Kanowna band album cover


5. Even though living on a beautiful island with amazing wildlife sounds like paradise, I wouldn’t want to live there forever if I could

Life was good on the island. But I couldn’t do blood pumping workouts or exercises because I would be stinky and would stay stinky because we couldn’t shower. Plus, even if there were showers, at this point in time I don’t think I could live secluded from the rest of the world in my own paradise when there are so many problems going on. I want to get in on the action and be part of the solution!

Kanowna living room with 360 degrees life size 3D TV
Kanowna living room with 360 degrees life size 3D TV


4. Even when you literaly have nothing to do, you can always still find something to do

Kite making competition anyone?


You will find things to keep you occupied on #kanowna. Today: #kite making competition. The hardest work so far apart from carrying fresh water up a hill! Loser team will have to carry remaining water containers up.

A video posted by Dahlia Foo (@stolenbananas) on Nov 11, 2014 at 12:03am PST


3. Water is precious

I couldn’t shower for 3 weeks but I had a date to look forward to my next shower when I left the island. I can’t imagine what it must be like for all the people in the world who lack access to clean water for most of the lives. Although these people might be able to wash themselves in a river somewhere, most of the time their water source is polluted as well, hence they struggle to find clean drinking water in the first place.


2. I don’t need much to survive

I would say I lived pretty comfortably on the island. I had shelter, a bunk bed, sleeping mat, sleeping bag, food, water, ebook reader, phone, internet connection, a laptop, camera, a pair of running shoes, sandals, toilet paper and a shovel. I think I’ve just got my tried-and-tested minimalist list of essential things to survive quite happily.


1. Attitude of gratitude

I’ve had the opportunity to go on an island to do research, and have food, water and shelter provided. I can never complain my life is hard as compared to the people struggling just to survive each day.

Beautiful night with a full moon in the sky
Beautiful night with a full moon in the sky. And one of the rare occasions we stayed up past sunset outside the tent!


Life's pretty good :)
Life’s pretty good 🙂
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