Upbeat about visit to Land Down Under

While many in the area are planning to get out of town in the coming weeks, one Catonsville resident has just returned from a recent trip to Australia that featured adventure and lessons in environmental conservation.

During her month-long stay in the land Down Under, Casey Morsberger, 19, worked to protect the Great Barrier Reef, scuba dived with sting rays and survived an unsettling experience while skydiving.

"One of my goals was just to push myself to every limit that I've ever had," said the rising junior and marine biology student at the University of North Carolina Wilmington June 26, two days after returning home.

"And I definitely did that," she said. "I pushed myself to every limit and I pretty much exceeded it all.

"I'm scared of heights, but I went bungee jumping three times," she said.

"I went sky diving. I went rappelling in the Blue Mountains. I jumped off rocks into the Tully River when we were white water rafting."

As part of a program called International Student Volunteers, Morsberger spent two weeks planting trees, pulling weeds and doing other physical labor, before embarking on a two-week adventure trip along the country's eastern coast.

Through the nonprofit organization, more than 4,000 students from over 800 universities worldwide travel to places such as Australia, New Zealand, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, eastern Europe, Ecuador, South Africa and Thailand, according to the group's website.

Morsberger, a 2009 graduate of Seton Keough High School, the all-girls Catholic high school on Caton Avenue in southwest Baltimore, filled out an application for the program after hearing about it in a college biology lecture.

When she learned that she had been accepted, her parents, Shirley and Jeff Morsberger, and donations from close family friends to help pay for airfare and the $3,500 program cost.

Nervous and excited, Morsberger left Baltimore early on the morning of May 26 — flying first to Los Angeles, where she spent the day in the airport, before embarking on the 14-hour flight to Brisbane, Australia, late that evening.

She had traveled outside the United States several times before, going on family cruises to the Bahamas and the Cayman Islands.

But this was her first by herself.

"I wasn't sure what to expect," she said.

Morsberger said she had never been on a plane for so long.

"They had a little screen in front of you and I watched five movies on the way over there," she said."I was so excited, I could barely sleep."

Because their flight had been delayed in Los Angeles, Morsberger and the six other American girls she would be working with found themselves waiting five hours in the Brisbane airport, having missed their connecting flight to Townsville, the coastal town where they would be staying.

"By then, we were just done," Morsberger recalled. "We were so tired."

Over the next couple weeks, the girls shared a house and worked to help the town recover from a February cyclone that had demolished trees and habitat for wildlife.

They replanted trees along the nearby Ross River and cleared up debris in the Ross River Bush Garden.

They camped near a beach in Toomulla, planting trees in sand dunes and setting up irrigation pipes to bring water to them.

"By planting all the trees on the coastline by the dunes and the Ross River, it helps to keep out some harmful things that go through the soil into the ocean," Morsberger said. "And the rivers and (the) ocean all feed into the Great Barrier Reef, so we were helping protect that."

For Morsberger, who hopes to someday work in coral reef conservation, knowing that she was protecting the nearby corals was particularly meaningful.

"Some of the places were just beautiful, especially the beach," she said." We would wake up at around 7 a.m. and get to the beach at 8 a.m., and then work until three or four in the afternoon.

"So we saw the sun rise," she said. "We saw the tides coming in and out. Sometimes we saw dolphins."

Morsberger said she didn't find the work too hard because she is used to doing yard work at home.

"It wasn't grueling," she said. "It was just hot. And we were required to wear work boots and long sleeves, so we wouldn't get pricked, or bitten by bugs or scraped."

Through stories told by one of their local guides, the group learned about various aspects of Australia such as the exotic fruits they had never heard of, its music and its television shows.

Though they had a television, most nights the Americans opted to cook dinner and sit around talking.

"We became so close, especially (during) the first two weeks," Morsberger said." We all got to learn each other's strengths and weaknesses through our work.

"I love those girls so much," she said. "I cried when I left them. We all cried. It was so sad."

During their two-week tour, the Americans joined other International Student Volunteers groups and traveled by bus along the coast from Cairns to Sydney.

Morsberger, who had become scuba-certified through her university's scuba club in October, was thrilled that her first big dive would be along the Great Barrier Reef.

"There's so many beautiful fish. There are giant clams. We saw stingrays. It was great," she said.

But after a morning bungee jumping, the self-professed "adrenaline junkie" had a scary moment while skydiving with her friends.

She had jumped out of a plane once before, just after her 18th birthday in Orange, Va., and wasn't too worried.

For her second experience, she was enjoying the view of the river and mountains on her way down, with the great reef and ocean beyond, when her instructor told her that there was a problem.

Their parachute had become twisted and they were falling too quickly.

Thanks to a series of aerial movements, however, he managed to right the situation and land them safely.

Morsberger kept a journal to reminder her adventures that were less dramatic and said she learned a lot about herself during the trip.

It's an education she hopes to continue in the future and said she hopes to travel more.

"One of my goals is to travel to at least every continent once and hopefully, all 50 states," she said. "We'll see how that goes."

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