national park

A tourist's perspective of the Great Forest National Park

This is a guest article by Molly Manwill.

I was road tripping through Melbourne last month when I heard the “Great Forest National Park” (GFNP) mentioned on a local discussion station. Intrigued, but busily meandering through Melbourne traffic, I looked up the GFNP later that evening with the idea of visiting. I was surprised to see that it is simply a proposed park. Many national parks around the world were set up long ago, recognising the conservation and economic importance of natural areas. So as a conservationist and tourist in Victoria, it’s extremely interesting to see history in the making, the ongoing discussion from both sides, and also to develop my own view, purely from a tourist’s perspective, on this park.

The GFNP proposal stands to add 353,000 hectares of new protected forest to the 170,000 hectares already existing in the area. There are big arguments for the instatement of the new park, including conservation of the mountain ash ecosystem and especially conservation of flagship species such as the Leadbeater’s possum. Conservation also goes hand in hand with the tourism potential of the park, with visitors coming in and spending money to see species like the extremely cute possums.

Leadbeater's possum ( Gymnobelideus leadbeateri ).  Image: CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2264884

Leadbeater's possum (Gymnobelideus leadbeateri). Image: CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2264884

Much of Melbourne’s drinking water catchment forms in the proposed park’s coverage and the proposals would protect this vital water supply, which is already under pressure. Health and spiritual benefits associated with nature are another important bonus to the increased park protection. Carbon storage is another reason to protect these areas, with programs even available to pay for this ecosystem service. Carbon storage has benefits beyond Victoria and even Australia – the violence of Hurricane Harvey, which hit Houston in August this year, has been attributed to climate change and there are pressing needs for global climate stabilisation and carbon sequestration.

However, with the designation of the proposed park, jobs associated with the logging of these areas would be lost. Coming from a farming background myself, I understand how daunting and scary this would be for families who rely on logging in these areas. A large company that commercially logs and sells hardwoods in the area is not only contesting the park, but also requires an increase in the amount of logging permitted to maintain expansion and to prevent the loss of around 280 local jobs.

There are arguments for and against the park that understandably impassion local residents who share a stake in the decision. Being a tourist and therefore having no stake in it, I can’t really comment on the topic further – but I can comment on an important perspective, considering that one of the biggest arguments for the park is the potential income from tourism.

Data from the Blue Mountains National Park Authority released for the year 2016-2017 suggested that the biggest majority of international visits to the Blue Mountains were from British tourists, aged 15-29. The most popular activities were visiting coffee shops and restaurants, visiting parks, bushwalking and rainforest walks. I fit into this demographic, and dutifully I journeyed to the Blue Mountains when I visited Sydney in 2015.

Image: Molly Manwill

Image: Molly Manwill

If I hadn't travelled through Melbourne with an Australian friend, I may not have visited the city with four seasons, but I would certainly have wanted to visit the national park with the tallest flowering plants in the world – the mountain ash – and with cute Australian wildlife like the Leadbeater’s possum. The popular demographic currently visiting the Blue Mountains is the Instagram generation in the era of “collect memories, not things”. That is, tourists visiting to trek and post their trendy mid-hike coffee on Instagram. Creating a vibrant, trending eco-park would be a huge draw to tourists wanting to get that “back to nature” selfie.

This may also be a wonderful time to add an element of rewilding to a newly formed park. It would be a fantastic opportunity to reintroduce species that will naturally “engineer” these landscapes for better ecosystem health. Researchers and scientific staff could then be employed to monitor these projects, adding data and findings to this highly regarded aspect of ecology. Lessons from Yellowstone show that natural reintroductions often have far-reaching positive impacts. Conservation has historically been about conserving species from extinction and this is as important as ever; however, rewilding brings fantastic opportunities to conserve many species at once, sustainably and long term.

The GFNP is an exciting opportunity for Australian wildlife populations and human populations. I think the proposal for this park presents wonderful opportunities: for new, modern tourist villages to evolve in the park, with lost logging jobs turning into roles as park rangers and hotel owners, creating a range of sustainable, innovative jobs and not only bringing tourists to the park, but to Melbourne.

Sydney has a network of easily reachable parks close to the city, and Melbourne has the scope to emulate this, but in a modern and innovative way. The proposals already in place, such as ziplines, skywalks and new campsites – to name only a few – suggest that this park will be the exciting, cool park for younger generations, but with the infrastructure set up for “grey nomads” as well. The GFNP could be an escape for tourists and city-weary Victorians alike wanting to see Australia’s wildlife the way it should be.


Molly Manwill is a conservationist with a passion for rewilding and sustainable development, and how these can work together. She loves making conservation issues accessible and involving community as much as possible.


Banner image courtesy of Molly Manwill.

The Path to Grahams Dam

Not a fan of crowded beaches or community pools on a 34-degree day? Neither. Frustrated with the sweltering heat, we decided to steer away from the mayhem and head towards Lerderderg National Park, approximately 50 minutes north-west from the northern suburbs of Melbourne. This 20,180-hectare park boasts six scenic bushwalks, one of which enticed us more than the others due to its close proximity to the water and popular swimming holes.

Turning off from Lerderderg Gorge Road just before the Lerderderg River intersects it, we found Mackenzies Flat car park. Here, we were provided with ample parking, toilets, a well-maintained lawn, barbeques and tables, all of which face out onto the Lerderderg River. This spot itself is ideal for a shallow, knee-deep splash if you're planning on having a barbeque and staying put by the lawns. However, if you're in search of a body of water to fully submerse yourself into, I suggest you take the well-signed pathway toward Grahams Dam.

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This particular walk involves following a clear dirt pathway that meanders through the native bushland, leading you directly to the dam. We visited in a dry month (February 2017) so were able to walk directly on the river bed itself for most of the way. Walking on the river bed was a novel way to take in the splendour of the entire gorge; however, it proved to be tough on our calves as the river bed stones made for a very uneven terrain. I would strongly recommend walking shoes or quality reef walker shoes for such an activity.

Walking on the river bed for quite sometime, we began to wonder if all the pools of water had dried up. There wasn't a body of water in sight. Then we began to notice moss, native bushes and plants we knew only grew in the presence or close proximity of water and river banks. Small stagnant pools of water started to show up as we continued on.

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Once our calves were well spent, we decided to climb up the river bank wall and settle for the designated walking track. Here, mountain grey, manna and yellow gums towered over us as we walked through a wide variety of native vegetation. I've been told that koalas live amongst the manna gums, but we unfortunately did not encounter any. We passed many kangaroo and wallaby droppings but the chances of seeing them in the sweltering heat at that time of the day was low. The park is also home to echidnas, greater gliders, mountain brushtail possums, the bent wing bat, the powerful owl and the wedge-tailed eagle!

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The path began to rise above the gorge and before long we came across what appeared to be a deep pool of water with a couple of people swimming in it. This was the halfway point between MacKenzies Flat and Grahams Dam. We decided to stop off here to take a dip, exhausted from the short walk due to the increasing heat. To get to this pool, we had to leave the path and climb back down to the river bank level. We were so surprised to find the water crisp and cool - cold enough to send shivers up our spines! It was such a welcome change from the dry heat. The water quality was in pristine condition and turbidity was low, making for beautifully transparent water. At this point of the year, the middle of the pool was deep enough to dive or jump into, and once submerged in the water, neither my friend or I could stand up. Always walk into the water first to determine depths of various parts of the pool.

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After cooling down in the water, we got out to continue our walk to Grahams Dam. The track began to rise above the gorge again, presenting us with breathtaking views of the towering and thick vegetation.

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Only another 15 minutes up the track and we found ourselves at this gorgeous spot, also known as a popular watering hole. Only knee-deep in height, Grahams Dam is ideal for a quick, cool dip, and then perhaps a picnic by the banks where there is ample space to sit down and relax.

There is the choice to continue on to Grahams Dam Circuit Trail, but we decided to escape the heat and walk back to the car.


Tanya Rajapakse

Tanya holds a strong passion for the conservation and preservation of local ecosystems. She recently completed her Masters of Science, focusing on the biodiversity of fauna in Port Phillip Bay and its relationship with seagrass meadows.


All images courtesy of Tanya Rajapakse.

SpongeBob is Moving House

This is a guest post by Fam Charko.

The largest sponge transplant project in the world is currently happening right here in Port Phillip Bay. Operation Sponge, a community-led initiative taking place in Blairgowrie, aims to move and re-attach 5,500 wild sponges within the next three months to preserve one of Victoria’s most beautiful dive spots.

On a cold, rainy Sunday in August, I find myself donning a ridiculously thick wetsuit and slipping off a boat berth into the 10-degree water of Port Phillip Bay. ‘Why am I doing this again?’, I ask myself as freezing water creeps down my spine and makes me gasp for breath. I put my scuba regulator in my mouth and descend, forcing my unprotected face into the cold that instantly numbs my cheeks. But I soon realise that it’s worth it. With nothing but the sound of my own breath and bubbles accompanying me, I descend into a temperate underwater wonderland. The drab, grey pier pylons suddenly burst into a wonky version of the rainbow, as I see sponges of many different shapes and sizes growing all over each other, hosting arrays of fragile, nearly transparent bagpipe-shaped sea squirts. Seaweeds are lazily waving their broad leaves in sync with the undulating current. Crusts of bryozoans grow around the base of their stems. I swim past pylon after pylon covered in brightly coloured life forms, fish fleeing before me, hiding in nooks and crannies between the seawall’s wooden panels and huge orange sponges. The whole experience is quite psychedelic.

‘A project like this has never been attempted on this scale before,’ Operation Sponge coordinator AJ Morton says. ‘It has attracted a lot of attention over the last few months, including from people in South Australia and Western Australia who are facing similar issues.’

A few months ago, Dive2U dive school operator AJ and his wife Nicole found out that the Blairgowrie Yacht Squadron was planning to replace the seawall that protects the marina from wave action. The current seawall, which is made of timber, has been weakened to the point of needing replacement by an invasive, wood-boring mollusc called shipworm. Similarly to termites, the shipworm drills into the wood, creating tunnels and hollowing out the structure to the point of disintegration. 

A diver is ready to glue. Photo credit: Flavien Foncin

A diver is ready to glue. Photo credit: Flavien Foncin

Upgrading the seawall, however, also means the destruction of what is arguably Victoria’s most beautiful and popular shore dive site. As the marina is privately owned by the Blairgowrie Yacht Squadron, there are no permits or compulsory mitigating environmental measures required – for example, re-homing the species that live there – and sea life attached to the old timber panels risk being carted off to landfill.

‘Blairgowrie pier is home to an incredible number of sea creatures, attracting Scuba divers from all over Victoria,’ AJ explains. ‘The place is amazing. We have seen many species of nudibranchs, sea stars, red-handed shrimp, spider crabs, all kinds of fish, sea squirts and of course many colourful sponges. We really wanted to preserve this dive site and were racking our brains on how to do this. One night, Nicole and I stayed up very late talking about it, desperate to think of some way we could help. In the early hours of the morning, Nicole suddenly sat up in bed and cried: “I got it! Why don’t we scrape off the sponges, and glue them onto the new wall as it is being built?” ’

Shortly after this eureka moment, Operation Sponge was born. The Mortons did some research and found a special underwater glue that is used by scientists to attach coral onto new substrate. They tested their idea by scraping off a few sponges and sea squirts and gluing them onto a new location. The pilot proved successful: about half of the transplanted animals survived and started growing in their new home immediately.

‘The next step was to come up with a proposal for the Blairgowrie Yacht Squadron and see if they wanted to work together,’ AJ says. 

The seawall will be replaced in sections over a period of a few months. The Mortons proposed to deploy volunteer divers from the community, and have them remove sponges from the old panels that will be taken out, then glue them straight onto the new panels that have been put in that week before. Elastic bungee cords strung tightly along the panels keep the glued sponges in place to ensure that they aren’t dislodged by strong wave action until they have attached onto the substrate by themselves. ‘If we do this every weekend for the next few months, we should be able to transplant most of the sponges and preserve the marine life at the site,’ AJ explains. 

To their delight, Blairgowrie Yacht Squadron was happy to cooperate and together with the company contracted to do the panel replacements, Aegir Divers, they worked out a strategy. AJ is full of praise for the Yacht Squadron and Aegir Divers: ‘They have been absolutely fantastic. The Yacht Squadron has even donated $1,000 to the project to help with buying the glue and they continue to support us.’

Transplanted sponges and wild sponges in the sponge gardens of Blairgowrie. Photo credit: Fam Charko

Transplanted sponges and wild sponges in the sponge gardens of Blairgowrie. Photo credit: Fam Charko

Help is currently coming from all directions; not just from volunteers donating their time, but also through a donation of glue from the glue company itself. This is much-needed sponsorship, as the glue costs $50 for a 300ml tube; AJ estimated that they need about 50L in total. To raise funds for the purchase of more glue, Dive2U has started a crowd funding campaign.

Operation Sponge is exciting not only because it brings the community together; it now also involves scientists who have transformed it into a citizen science project. Kade Mills, a marine scientist who runs Victorian ReefWatch for the Victorian National Parks Association, wasted no time getting stuck into the scientific side of Operation Sponge. ‘When I first found out about the project I thought: what these people are doing is amazing,’ Kade says. ‘If we can ask a few scientific questions, get people involved in doing citizen science and get the results published in a journal for other people to benefit from, then all that time and energy spent by the volunteers would be rewarded.’

Under the pier, I closely examine the newly transplanted sponges, freshly glued to the new panels and supported by the bungee cords that press them onto the timber. On the old seawall, there are many sponge species growing in a seemingly random composition, providing homes, food and breeding places for many other animals, much like coral reefs do. When a sponge is transplanted onto a new structure, it will first attach itself firmly to the substrate. Then it will start spreading in all directions as fast as it can, competing for space with other sponges, algae, seaweeds and tubeworms. Depending on the species, this could take anywhere from two weeks to several months. The encrusting sponges in particular have been observed to be relatively fast growers, covering the new panels quickly, like lichen. Ball sponges and finger sponges may take longer.

Kade is hoping to use simple data collection methods to answer a few questions, such as how many sponges survive the transplanting process initially; how long will it take for the sponges to completely cover the new panels; and what will the species composition of the new wall eventually look like?

The question of survival rates can simply be answered by counting the number of sponges that were transplanted, followed by counting how many survive the process over time. ‘One big advantage for the sponges is that the aspect of the new seawall is exactly the same as that of the old wall,’ Kade explains. ‘Variables like shade, water quality, food abundance, water flow and temperature will all stay the same. The expectation is therefore that sponge survival rates will be relatively high.’

The question of sponge growth rates will be answered using data collected by the volunteers: ‘Anyone with an underwater camera of any description can help. Training time for this is minimal and nobody needs to sit through an hour-long lecture to do this. I’m aiming for the divers to ‘adopt a sponge’, where they regularly visit the same sponges they have transplanted, and take photos of individual sponges at different points in time. We use a simple and free software program that can then calculate the percentage of sponge cover from the photo, eventually showing us the growth rates over time.’

Diver scraping sponges off the old panels for transplanting. Photo credit: Flavien Foncin

Diver scraping sponges off the old panels for transplanting. Photo credit: Flavien Foncin

By leaving a few panels bare of sponges, the rates of colonisation between transplanted panels and ‘natural’ panels can be compared. If the panels with transplanted sponges recover faster than the bare panels left to be colonised on their own, this shows that there is merit in doing this work when marine structures elsewhere need to be replaced. It would also be interesting to see if leaving panels bare will favor the establishment of invasive species, rather than natives. ‘The most difficult part of this will be to convince AJ to leave a few panels bare,’ Kade laughs.

The last question is about what the entire ecosystem on the new wall will look like in the end. What sponge species will have successfully established themselves? And will the artificially established sponge garden be as biodiverse as a naturally grown ecosystem? Kade estimates that these last questions will take at least two years to answer. But first things first: there is about 150 metres of seawall that needs its sponges transplanted. 

With less than half a scuba tank of air left, I ascend to the surface where AJ helps me out of the water. ‘What do you think?’ he asks me.

‘Amazing,’ I answer, the words coming out slowly as my face muscles defrost. ‘What an amazingly beautiful dive spot. What an amazing project.’

He smiles and says, ‘Only about 5000 sponges to go!’

Click here to see the Operation Sponge crowdfunding campaign.
Like Operation Sponge on Facebook here. 


Cover image by Jacqui Younger