It’s no secret that with greater education our appreciation and understanding of those we live with and the world in which we live is enhanced. With regards to understanding the environment, we’ve hit a stumbling block – the disconnect with nature is becoming more apparent in our modern lives and the language of science often seems to be spoken in an alien tongue. The challenge before us all is to reconcile these differences by actively seeking involvement in nature and making science more accessible to the general public.
As a marine biologist, I love nothing more than working with communities because of the opportunity it presents for us all to share our collective knowledge and experiences in nature. Importantly, I’ve found that it’s not just nature that benefits from this, but the community itself. When working together, nature becomes the conduit by which new friendships are forged and existing bonds are reinforced. Nature becomes part of the community’s identity, and a permanent reminder of the successes of both the individual and the whole. There is no better example of this than at Point Leo, a small coastal community on the southern coast of Western Port Bay, Victoria.
Point Leo, or Bobbanaring as it is known to the indigenous Boonwurrung tribe of the Kulin people, has drawn people to its shores for over 8000 years. Point Leo has always been a popular coastal retreat with a right-handed point break that has been the cornerstone of Point Leo’s iconic surf culture and community since the 1950s. At only one hour from Melbourne, Point Leo’s drawcards of sand, surf, coastal woodlands and rich biodiversity have seen its popularity grow over the decades with more and more Melburnians turning to Point Leo as an ideal coastal daytrip or laid-back weekend of camping.
Recognising the increasing rates of visitors year after year, a significant challenge was put before the Point Leo community of how to best manage this increase in demand alongside the preservation and restoration of the local environment. Consequently, they decided that the best way forward was to welcome and educate visitors about the environment in the most effective and engaging way possible. Through a chain of serendipitous connections, I remember receiving an email from Monash University asking if Wild Melbourne would like to take part in the redevelopment of the Point Leo campgrounds, providing the necessary expertise to educate the public. It was a no-brainer - I let the Wild Melbourne team know and we all jumped right in and relished the chance to share our passion for nature.
Coffee in our hands, hearts on our sleeves, Chris, Emma and myself first sat with Tony Walkington (Manager/Ranger of the Point Leo Foreshore Park and Reserve) and discussed ideas about how best to make an educational experience rewarding, enriching and most of all, fun! We had BIG ideas and there was no shortage of them, but the challenge was going to be fitting it all into the budget. Point Leo is entirely self-funded with no financial assistance from government, but with the additional financial support from Monash University we felt confident we could deliver.
I won’t lie, the project had its challenges and we had a few hiccups (more like awkward burps, actually) along the way. There were delays in delivery, late nights getting drafts approved, several weekends sacrificed and sleepless nights hoping that it would all pan out as we had envisioned. But it was during these lows, the power of collaboration and a shared experience shone through and made it all possible.
Everyone had the opportunity to give back to the community and the environment in one way or another. Local carpenters made it possible to up-cycle a rotting boat into both a table and a sand-filled, interactive representation of the shoreline. Milly Formby, zoologist and artist, brought to life an intimate moment in the lives of the red-capped plover in her pencil-and-gouache illustration. Paul Ikin, illustrator extraordinaire and keen surfer, turned our imaginations into reality by designing and illustrating Point Leo’s interpretive ‘surf’ boards. A local who collected fungi even helped keep the visitor centre’s terrarium constantly evolving with the seasons. But, if you ask me, it was the mural painting that was by far the most humbling and rewarding experience.
On a brilliant summer’s weekend in January, we painted with holidaying campers from all over Melbourne, transforming a bleak toilet wall into a bright and colourful seascape. I’ll never forget hearing the voices of paint-spattered children playfully arguing about who was better at identifying the species on the wall. I remember smiling and thinking, ‘It worked! The kids are learning and they don’t even know it!’ Frankly, in that moment, our purpose was achieved – everyone laughed, sang, made new friends and bonded over a shared experience, creating a memory unlikely to be forgotten. Nature was healing and all we had to do was get out there.
Point Leo is no longer ‘just a playground.’ Education through unique and fun, interactive experiences has strengthened it as a place of reconnection with the land and sea. I believe that this reconnection, even if in the most minor ways, makes for a portable experience whereby visitors’ memories and experiences encourage stewardship of the environment beyond Point Leo’s shores. The hope is that when your memories of Point Leo echo in your daily life, you’ll briefly stop, smile, breathe that little bit deeper and take note of the natural wonders around you that you’ve missed on every other day.
I regularly think of Point Leo in some way, shape or form. It’s the crisp, salt air filling my lungs. The crunch of sand beneath my heels. The rhythmic rumble of waves as I sleep. The smiles and greetings of those walking by. I’m forever grateful that by giving to the land, I received much more than I could have ever imagined.
If you would like more details about our interpretive and interactive displays at Point Leo, please visit http://wildmelbourne.org/services/community-works.Wild Melbourne would love to help showcase your local community's natural beauty and have its story told.
For more information about Point Leo Foreshore Park and Reserve, visit www.pointleo.com
Following a childhood love for sharks, Leo recently completed his PhD at Monash University investigating the effects of fishing on shark and ray populations. He is Director of Community Operations for Wild Melbourne.
You can find him on Twitter at @ElasmoBro.
Banner image courtesy of Leonardo Guida.