Plastic pollution: a peril to our shores

Being both pliable and durable in nature, plastic has become one of the most used human-made products in the manufacturing industry. Yet when it comes to the existence of our marine life and the status of our shores, this synthetic substance is finding itself in the firing line. This year, Keep Australia Beautiful Week puts plastic in the spotlight. While marine litter is made up of an assortment of debris, it is plastic that is the major contributing factor, accounting for 80% of the items found along many stretches of Australian coastline.

Plastic debris can be categorised into two forms depending on its size: macroplastics and microplastics. Macroplastics include large, often single-use items, such as plastic bags, food packaging, plastic coffee cups, straws and drink bottles.

Despite efforts to reduce usage, plastics still make up 80% of the debris found along our shores.  Image:  Jo Lanta  on  Unsplash

Despite efforts to reduce usage, plastics still make up 80% of the debris found along our shores. Image: Jo Lanta on Unsplash

As a substance, plastic of any kind is hard to completely eradicate and becomes impractical after its initial use. However, in terms of their slender size, straws in particular can easily fall through conveyer belts that are used in the recycling of waste products. Even if appropriate measures are taken for disposal, most end up as landfill or swirling into mouths of water drains and finally being deposited onto our shores.

While most of us are accustomed to the addition of a straw, whether to sip on a smoothie or indulge in a glass of iced tea or coffee, now consumers and some bars, pubs and cafes are starting to cause a stir, ditching the plastic accompaniment altogether. It is clear that banning and reducing straw consumption, along with other types of macroplastics, is starting to become a priority.

On the other end of the scale, microplastics - that is, any type of plastic that is 5mm or less in diameter - is also under scrutiny. Primary microplastics are a major nuisance to marine life, and include items such as resin pellets, also called ‘nurdles’ or ‘mermaid tears’, and microbeads found in shampoo, gels and other cosmetics. Secondary microplastics are those resulting from macroplastics that have been broken down into tiny particles. These are so minuscule that they can barely be seen with the naked eye.

Regions such as Port Phillip Bay are at serious risk of becoming pools of plastic pollution through stormwater run-off, which enters into systems such as the Yarra and Maribyrnong Rivers and finally into the Bay. While samples from both categories of plastic are present, along with recreational fishing nets and gear, it is the smaller form that is an emerging threat to our marine ecosystems.

Port Phillip Bay and its inhabitants are at particular risk when it comes to plastic pollution.  Image: Cathy Cavallo

Port Phillip Bay and its inhabitants are at particular risk when it comes to plastic pollution. Image: Cathy Cavallo

Port Phillip Bay lends itself to over 1,000 species of marine plants and animals. It is a cosmos of activity, providing an abundance of food and habitat to a multitude of unique species. However, plastic pollution is resulting in much cause for concern, with the Bay's population of bottlenose dolphins at particular risk. Plastics that encroach on their environs can disrupt the balance of the food chain and cause blockages to the intestinal system. In marine habitats, plastics can also soak up toxins already found in the surrounding environment, leading to further issues for the unfortunate organism that may ingest them. 

While reducing the need for plastic is a simple act that many of us can introduce to our daily routines, the impact of doing so on a large scale allows our shores to be free from this form of debris that is a pest to the marine life present. In turn, this will hopefully better protect those species that call our seas and shores home.

For more information on Keep Australia Beautiful Week, see here. 

Priya Mohandoss reports for the Royal Society of Victoria and writes a column called “Environment Matters” for the Kinglake Ranges community news magazine, Mountain Monthly. She has recently completed a Masters of Media and Communications and is an avid explorer of all aspects of nature. 

Banner image courtesy of Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash.

The world under Rye Pier

I felt the sun beating down on me and the heavy weight of my diving gear on my shoulders as I stared at the never-ending stretch of pier before me. It was my first time diving; the destination - Rye Pier.

I was told by my dive instructor not to expect too much; it was unlikely we were going to see anything apart from crabs, a few fish and a ray if we were lucky. However, it was a good place to begin learning the art of scuba diving, so with low expectations I stepped off the pier and into the water.

As we began our five-metre descent I was overwhelmed. Looking off the edge of the pier into the water, one couldn’t even begin to imagine the amount of life that has found a home in these waters. Bright orange sponges and delicate red and brown seaweeds form an intricate collage that envelopes the pillars and guides the path to the sandy expanse at the bottom of the pier. Schools of porcupinefish dart across your path, seahorses curl their tails, clinging to the foliage lining the ocean floor, and crabs decorate the pillars. It really is another world.

If you're lucky, you might even spot a nudibranch in the marine habitat beneath Rye Pier.  Image: Edison Sands

If you're lucky, you might even spot a nudibranch in the marine habitat beneath Rye Pier. Image: Edison Sands

My instructor explained that he had heard of a human-made sculpture park, Elsa's Reef, just past the end of the pier. Following the flag markers just off the end of the pier, we swam along the sandy flat. The small journey wasn't without some incredible finds. Nearly every flag had an octopus, camouflaged to match the sand, hidden at its base. Little skates darted along the sand and we even spotted a few Banjo Sharks. The reef itself was striking. An abandoned bike, a trolley and other objects that made up the reef were completely overtaken by nature. Beautiful seaweeds and crabs of all sizes coated the structures. Schools of fish swam around, even curious enough to swim between our hands and legs.

Elsa's Reef is home to a diversity of marine life that utilises this human-made 'sculpture park'.  Image: Edison Sands

Elsa's Reef is home to a diversity of marine life that utilises this human-made 'sculpture park'. Image: Edison Sands

Stingrays dart along the sand as scuba divers swim nearby.  Image: Edison Sands

Stingrays dart along the sand as scuba divers swim nearby. Image: Edison Sands

Perhaps a feeling words won't be able to capture was the moment I lay on my back on the sandy ocean floor. I looked up through the five metres of water above me, admiring how the sunlight filtered through and touched the ground. The only sound was my own breathing. It was this experience that told me I would be back in this underwater world again. It is one of the most peaceful places we can venture with so many wonders.

Swimming back along the pier I couldn't help noticing the undeniable human impact leaching into the beautiful habitat. Littered along the bottom of the pier were the abandoned lines and hooks of fishers. We even found an octopus who had taken up residence in a littered tin. It was as I was struggling to untangle a hook and line that had caught on my gear that I noticed the thrashing in the corner of my eye. A Banjo Shark was entangled, desperately swimming against the lines that constrained him. Drawing closer, I realised that the shark was stuck due to a hook in its mouth. A fisher had obviously caught it and thrown it back alive without removing the lines that would inevitably entangle the fish and stop it from hunting to survive.

Hermit crabs are another form of marine life you might encounter near Rye Pier.  Image: Edison Sands

Hermit crabs are another form of marine life you might encounter near Rye Pier. Image: Edison Sands

For me, this dive was another reminder of the importance of protecting our natural world. Though life may seem scarce when looking off the pier into the water, we must remember that underneath is a whole world of life. Properly releasing fish and avoiding discarding waste into the ocean is something we can all do that makes a big difference to life down there.

Re-surfacing and walking back along the pier my gear felt light. I had just had my eyes opened to the marvels of the blue backyard at our doorstep. I leave you with the goal to try scuba diving for yourself and experience the wonders of the marine world beneath Rye Pier.

Monica Coleman studies Science and Arts at Monash University. She grew up spending time in nature, traveling, reading and fostering a guilty pleasure for reality TV. She hopes her future will be dedicated to the fight to protect our environment and lives by the motto it's not a good day if you haven't learnt something new.

Banner image courtesy of Edison Sands.

Perimetre Walk

It’s just before a quarter to seven in the morning; the temperature is over 25 degrees and the sky is streaked with pink, purple and orange clouds. It should be autumn, but it’s still summer.  Waking to a temperature that exceeds the normal average maximum for the time of year is not the best way to start the day. Tea may sluice away some of the night’s disturbance, but it does not make up for lost sleep. The roads are quiet even for this time of the day. Most people are still asleep in what passes for the cool of the morning. I drive past a few houses where people stand in their gardens and, shaking their heads, look up at the sky. Another week will have to slip by before we see temperatures in the teens, before sleep is cool and refreshing.

The flags on the Westgate Bridge hang limp and unmoving as the sun burns away the cloud and sky turns from pale in bright. For me, it’s a well-worn path to the east, towards Queenscliff, towards a day on the bay.

I read the road signs, formal and informal, homemade and manufactured. Voices from the radio talk about climate change and weather. People phone in to complain about bias. It’s 28 degrees at 7.30am. I concentrate on the road, and smile at the found poetry of the painted signs.

Clean fill,

Fresh fruit,

Horse Poo.



Fresh Strawberries,

Lemons and Limes.


Park here for free,

Stop here for coffee,

Keep Left, Keep Right, Keep Going.

One of the bright beaches of Mud Islands.  Image: Stewart Monckton

One of the bright beaches of Mud Islands. Image: Stewart Monckton

There are very few people in the car park at Queenscliff. This select few, this band of birders, are pulling on old shoes, battered hats and buff-coloured clothes. The birds they watch are always better dressed than the watchers – even if they are in deep moult. The air smells of sun block, insect repellent and coffee. Wafts of bacon drift from the harbour-side cafes. It still feels early and it feels hot. I look at my bag and decide to take less food but more water.   

The boat is sleek and pointy – comfortable seats and some shade. A rushing tide and contrary wind ruff up sharp waves in the Bay. We head away from our destination to avoid the chop. Wind and waves conspire to kick sprays of water over the edge of the boat. If you want to look forward you need to keep one eye shut. A few hats are dislodged, a few people dampened. We swing off our distancing tack and head for Mud Islands, over water less than one metre deep. It’s strange to feel all at sea, but know you could jump overboard and still stand with your head above water. If there was ever an experience to show how much difference a change in sea level would cause, it has to be this. Australia is old enough for people to have watched as the grassland that was once here flooded and turned the land to sea. To watch the land become sea, the solid become fluid, must have so perfectly shown the true nature of a changeable climate to Indigenous Australian people.

Red Knot (central), Sharptailed Sandpiper (out of focus ginger cap, green legs in the foreground), and Ruddy Turnstone.  Image: Stewart Monckton

Red Knot (central), Sharptailed Sandpiper (out of focus ginger cap, green legs in the foreground), and Ruddy Turnstone. Image: Stewart Monckton

The islands are not that impressive from the sea – in fact they are almost invisible. They don’t have the height to break the skyline of the shore beyond and so merge into the background. It’s only when you wade ashore – through ankle-deep water – that they take on the form of real islands. The highest point on the island becomes your own head and from that vantage point you can look down to sea, land and now a distant horizon. And, despite the name, a lack of mud.

The beaches are squint-eyed bright under the cloudless sky. A mixture of white sand and shells brings a sense of tropicalilty to these normally cooler beaches. Welcome Swallows flash over the sand, and groups seem to hover over the clumps of low plants that stud the upper beach. Once you touch a plant it’s not hard to see why – swarms of small blue butterflies spring from the vegetation whenever it moves. A wind shock or a footstep releases them and the swallows dive and dine. Once the butterflies land again they almost disappear, their underwings a counterfeit of a leaf or a dried stem. 

The point of arrival is unremarkable except for two bright orange buoys floating just offshore that mark both the beginning and end of a circular walk. The choice of pale clothes and old shoes is validated as soon as we start to walk. The sun above and the reflections from below are harshly bright. It feels good to wade through the water when needed, and it happens frequently enough for your feet never to gain that almost dry feeling that is far more annoying that simple wet feet. A few people change shoes constantly between a dry pair and a wet pair.  They balance on one leg and wobble in the wind. The waders on the rocks seem to have the one-legged standing routine better rehearsed than the people.  I am reminded of and adapt the words of my brother: wet feet are only a problem if you assume you can keep them dry in the first place.

Pelicans flying overhead.  Image: Stewart Monckton

Pelicans flying overhead. Image: Stewart Monckton

Water bottles are hidden in the bushes, not for fear of thievery, but to gain some shade and the promise (or hope) of cool water on our return to this point later in the day. We start to walk around the island – clockwise or so it seems from our starting point. White gulls hang over the white beach, white waders – stilts – fly low over the gentle wave breaks just offshore. Everything is bright and clear. The group of island walkers pick up bags and rucksacks, pull on straps and open and shut Velcro fasteners. Fine-tuning complete, we walk on.

At what feels like a corner on a circle, a mixed flock of waders gathers to roost. Beaks to the wind, tail feathers gently flickering, they wait for the turning of the tide. Long beaks, medium beaks, long legs, short legs. Mud probers, stone flickers. Large birds, tiny birds. As we slide slowly into an autumn that should already be here, a Red Knot is putting on its spring clothes, getting ready for a long flight north and a breeding party on arrival.

Most others of his kind are still dressed in the dull functionality of their work clothes. No party suit for them yet. A few Sharp-tailed Sandpipers – sharpies - are starting to get dressed up, as are a few godwits. It seems a shame that they put on their showy breeding finery just to leave, and return in the drab colours of camouflage and safety. I settle at the back of the walking group and sit down. Moving my tripod a metre at a time, I bum-shuffle down the beach, edging closer to the birds. I end up with my feet in the water, a very wet bum and pictures I am pleased with. That’s a fair trade. 

Overhead, the small white birds are not gulls. They distract me from the waders as they land, just a little out of lens range, on an open sand bar. They are terns, but the question becomes what sort? They are very small, with pale legs and dark bills. Fairy Tern? Little Tern? Or the as-yet-undescribed hybrid, the Tiny Tern? As ever these birds seem to have a combination of the features of both species. And it does not help that I can see (or think I can see) both in the air over my head. The ID of this bird becomes a Bridge Too Far. I plan to consult my photographs when I get home in the hope of finding an answer – optimism never goes amiss.

The mystery terns - probably Fairy Terns.  Image: Stewart Monckton

The mystery terns - probably Fairy Terns. Image: Stewart Monckton

The prospect of lunch hangs heavy in the air as we walk along a creek edge. Pushing into the middle of the island, this creek splits the mud in two, hence the plural name – Mud Islands, rather than Mud Island. Sitting on the edge of a salt marsh, rich with halophyte Salicornia, a sausage-shaped bulbous plant, ripe for the bursting by little fingers. We are overflown by pelicans and ibis. Egrets stab at fleeting targets and Buff-banded Rails do a passable impression of chickens. I nibble on an apple, doing a passable impression of a rodent. The lunch ground smells of coffee, cheese sandwiches, and the unmistakable aroma of warm chocolate.

Soft mud, the first we have found, oozes over the top of my shoes as we wade across the creek. Dozens of small fish, the revealed target of the egrets' beaks, flick away from my churning feet. The water is warm and clear. Bigger fish break through the surface and a few crabs sidestep the issue in holes and under rocks. Life is abundant as we enter a graveyard.

The remains of a dead pelican on Mud Islands.  Image: Stewart Monckton

The remains of a dead pelican on Mud Islands. Image: Stewart Monckton

In the proper season the islands are home to a colony of pelicans. The birds raise their graceless chicks on nests of sun-bleached sticks, edged with sea cast weed. But now the colony belongs to the dead. Broken birds lie in slight, fractured disarray. Desiccated beyond putrefaction, there is no smell beyond that of salt and dust-dry sand. They look like feather rags and bones. Some died in the nest where their bones join the sticks and their feathers flicker, catching the breeze, a memory of the life potion that failed. Some died under bushes, maybe seeking protection from the afternoon sun, maybe hoping for some hint of warmth and shelter on a chill night.

The economy of over-production, safety in numbers, selection in action. The weak, the failing or badly built, abandoned by genetics. All left behind by the ones who did not die. Those who passed the test and remain part of the DNA river that flows, generation to generation, away from the first cells, away from the well spring of life, branching as new species form. It’s a site filled with brutal honesty, a clear lesson about the nature of the real. To see such things is to be reminded of our place in the world.

We walk till we find the paired orange buoys, the hidden drink bottles, and a boat to take us home.

The beach on Mud Islands.  Image: Stewart Monckton

The beach on Mud Islands. Image: Stewart Monckton

This article was originally published on Stewart's blog, Paying Ready Attention.

Born in the South West of England in the early 1960s, Stewart Monckton has been a life-long watcher of all types of wildlife. With one exception, he has lived in the four corners of the UK before moving to Australia in his 30s. He is more interested in wildness than just wilderness, and finds delight in the common and the overlooked. You can read more of Stewart's writing on his blog, Paying Ready Attention.

Banner image of Bar-tailed Godwit courtesy of Stewart Monckton.

Living life in between

The veranda is an interval, a space, where life is improvised. The beach, in Australia, is the landscape equivalent of the veranda, a veranda at the edge of the continent.

This quote from Phillip Drew in Tim Winton’s book, Land’s Edge: A Coastal Memoir, accurately describes a life experienced by many who live near the coast.

Image: Penguin Random House

Image: Penguin Random House

Australians are inextricably linked to the coast. Over three quarters of our population live within 50km of the coastline and, considering the magnitude of our country, that says a lot about our lifestyle and desire to connect to the ocean.

When many Australians think of the coast, it is not unusual for multi-award winning author and environmentalist Tim Winton to come to mind. For anyone who has read his books, Winton draws upon and paints vivid pictures of Australian life in dynamic landscapes. His strong ties to the coastal landscape are particularly prominent, and in Land’s Edge, this is no exception.

Winton’s main focus is exploring life on the edge - that is, a life caught between the coast, the city, the Fremantle Doctor, and the ebbing and flowing of the tide. He explores how he has constantly been drawn towards the ocean, while also being torn away from it simultaneously. His reflections of childhood holidays at the beach, beachcombing, the sun, and the surf reveal an adult life, like so many of ours, that was immediately and so uniquely shaped by infanthood along the seashore.

During the early years, his appreciation of the ocean was innocent, as he explored rock pools and the initial wonders of the life-giving ocean. Later, it became a mature respect as he grasped with the raw power and authority the ocean commands. Through all of this, the longing for the coast became irreversible.

Winton also beautifully captures nature in its simplicity and how it influences a person. In Winton’s case, it was ‘outside in the mornings, in the water; the wind would drive him indoors in the afternoons, to books and reading. This ebb and flow became a way of life.'

From page one, I was so completely and utterly captivated that I couldn’t put the book down - so much so that I read the book in a day. This may have been because I feel equally connected to the ocean and its calming yet often raw and wild appeal. It may also have been because Winton so beautifully captures the wonder and awe one feels when experiencing a raging storm or the peacefulness of a calm body of water with the fresh smell of salt bouncing around in your nostrils. More likely than not, it is a combination of the two.

Ultimately, Winton's book is a must-read memoir in which an exploration of the Australian connection with the coast demonstrates the intensely shaping influence of an ‘in-between’ life.

Land's Edge: A Coastal Memoir is the first title in Winton's autobiographical trilogy. All three books in the series are available to purchase from Penguin Random House.

Stephen McGain

Stephen studied a Bachelor and Master of Science at the University of Melbourne. His Masters involved investigating the impacts that dredging and climate change might have on the important seagrass habitats that exist in Port Phillip Bay. He is currently studying a Diploma in Conservation Land Management in the hope to further contribute his knowledge and skills to the local community.

Banner image courtesy of Photo by Matthew Kane on Unsplash