snorkel

Melbourne's Best Kept Secret

… up to 82% of the marine life [in Port Phillip Bay] is found nowhere else in the world, so it’s completely unique. You compare that to the Great Barrier Reef, where only 10% of the marine life is unique to the area.
— Sheree Marris, author of Melbourne Down Under

Port Phillip Bay is one of the most unique areas in the world.  Let that sink in for a moment. On our doorstep lies one of the most impressive, species-rich and colourful marine habitats in the entire world - yet how many people are even aware of its magnificence?

If it’s so impressive and we live right next door, then surely Melburnians would know about it, right? After all, we know when the latest café or restaurant opens - yet we are unaware of the beauties that live in our own oceans. This may come down to the misconception that colourful fish and corals are only found in warm tropical waters like the Great Barrier Reef. Contrary to that idea, temperate and even polar waters are home to a wealth of colourful fish, sponges and corals. Another reason might be that our knowledge concerning oceans is relatively limited. More than 90% of our oceans remain completely unexplored and considering 12 people have been sent to the moon since 1969, less than a handful of people have reached the deepest part of our ocean, the Mariana Trench.

Wandering sea anemone.  Image: Cathy Cavallo

Wandering sea anemone. Image: Cathy Cavallo

For a seemingly small area, Port Phillip Bay is home to an abundance of marine life.  Over 12,000 different marine species call Victoria home, whilst up to 1,300 different plant and animal species are completely unique to Port Phillip Bay. In fact, the Bay is even home to approximately 100 individuals of our very own species of bottlenose dolphin known as the Burrunan, which some studies suggest may be a distinct species.

The Bay itself covers nearly 2,000 square kilometres and averages just 13 metres in depth, making it a particularly shallow bay given the extensive commercial use that occurs here. It consists of a variety of habitats including sandy seafloors, tall kelp forests, thriving seagrass beds and colourful rocky reefs and sponge gardens. However, most of the seafloor is sand and silt where diverse groups of invertebrates play a crucial role in filtering nutrients and pollutants.

Due to the large expanses of sandy floor and relative shallowness, dense seagrass meadows have made their home here, covering much of the western coast from Queenscliff to Werribee as well as some pockets on the east coast from Sorrento to Mordialloc. While some may not appreciate the beauty of seagrass meadows, I am certainly one who can testify to it. When I conducted my Master’s research project, I looked at the impact that burial and erosion had on these majestic and often under-appreciated habitats. Many times while snorkelling, I found myself completely transfixed by the peaceful swaying of seagrass blades and how fish used the meadows like a garden, darting in and out playfully.

In fact, seagrass meadows aren’t anywhere near as boring as they may look. They are integral to the functionality of the Bay and provide a home for a plethora of animal life including King George whiting (Sillaginodes punctatus), spotted pipe fish (Stigmatopora argus), the eleven-armed sea star (Coscinasterias calamaria), Maori octopus (Macroctopus maorum), banjo sharks (Trygonorrhina sp.), a threatened snapping shrimp and many more. Seagrass meadows also play a critical role in reducing sand erosion from beaches, are a food source for marine life, provide a home for many commercially important fish species, and help cycle nutrients throughout the Bay.  

Shaw's Cowfish.  Image: Cathy Cavallo

Shaw's Cowfish. Image: Cathy Cavallo

A vividly coloured sea urchin.  Image: Cathy Cavallo

A vividly coloured sea urchin. Image: Cathy Cavallo

Verco's nudibranch.  Image: Cathy Cavallo

Verco's nudibranch. Image: Cathy Cavallo

The rocky reefs, tall kelp forests and vibrant sponge gardens are also teeming with marine life. Predominantly found on the margins of the Bay, they are dominated by hundreds of different seaweeds, fish, crustaceans and sponge gardens. For anyone that has dived or snorkelled in Port Phillip Bay, vibrant colours become strikingly obvious - something that is not initially expected. For example, take one look at the southern blue devil (Paraplesiops meleagris), Shaw's cowfish (Aracana aurita), sea tulips, wandering anemones (Phlyctenactis tuberculosa), six-spined leatherjacket (Meuschenia freycineti), sea stars and the blue and yellow tambja (Verconis macro) and you can see that life in Port Phillip Bay is far from boring - even rivalling the colours seen on the Great Barrier Reef. The Bay is also home to giant kelp forests.

While their current stands do not compare to their previous abundance, Victoria’s majestic marine state emblem, the weedy seadragon (Phyllopteryx taeniolatus), can be seen here in all its glory. I can distinctly remember seeing this species for the first time or, more accurately, not seeing it until a colleague pointed it out to me. Floating gracefully and peacefully through the water, I wondered how such a delicate creature was able to survive in the often turbulent waters of Port Phillip Bay - a truly majestic animal indeed.

Luckily, we at Wild Melbourne aren’t the only ones who think Port Phillip Bay is amazing! There are several other groups, including Reef Watch, Explore Underwater Victoria and Melbourne Down Under, that aim to promote the diversity found in Port Phillip Bay so that everyday Victorians can discover these underwater secrets for themselves. Port Phillip Bay is still Melbourne’s best kept secret; however, it’s time we told everyone else about it so that they too can appreciate and experience the joy and beauty it can provide.

Victoria's marine state emblem, the weedy seadragon.  Image: Cathy Cavallo

Victoria's marine state emblem, the weedy seadragon. Image: Cathy Cavallo

FAST FACTS

The Bay supports:

•         approximately 300 species of fish;

•         several hundred species of molluscs;

•         several hundred species of crustaceans;

•         at least 200 species of seaweeds;

•         several hundred species of polychaetes (bristle worms);

•         two species of seagrass;

•         several hundred species of cnidarians (jellyfish, corals, etc.);

•         and several hundred species of sponges.


Banner image courtesy of Great Ocean Road Coast Committee.

 

Beauty Abound: The Hidden Wonders of Wilsons Promontory

Recently, a deep-water reef was discovered at Victoria’s largest and most biodiverse marine park, Wilsons Promontory.

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   View along Tidal River to the Oberon Bay hiking trail.  Image: Lauren Hall

View along Tidal River to the Oberon Bay hiking trail. Image: Lauren Hall

This article is a guest post by Lauren Hall. 

Wilsons Promontory Marine National Park is the largest marine park in Victoria, approximately 220 kilometres south-east of Melbourne. It surrounds the southernmost tip of mainland Australia and is home to an extremely diverse range of marine wildlife and habitat types. This marine park is particularly unique due to its seagrass beds, unusual granite coastline, white sandy beaches and deep reef habitats abundant with colourful sea sponge gardens, stalked ascidians, fan-shaped gorgonian corals and diverse fish species. The park’s near-vertical granite cliffs, bright orange boulders, remote setting and frequently clear waters offer incredible diving, swimming, snorkeling and bird watching opportunities for all to enjoy.

Compared to the rest of central Victoria’s marine parks, Wilsons Promontory has the highest biodiversity of fish species, with both cold temperate species from the south and warm water species from the north. This is due to the influence of the East Australian Current, which flows down the east coast of Australia from the Great Barrier Reef. Wilsons Promontory is therefore an exceptional place, as it marks the boundary between the warmer waters of the east Australian coast and the cold temperate waters of central and western Victoria. Many of the warmer fish species are brilliantly coloured, such as the red velvetfish, wrasse, eastern blue groper and magpie and butterfly perch. It is also a nationally significant area for the recovery of great white shark populations, as well as the hooded plover seabirds and the white-bellied sea eagles. The islands within the marine park are known to be important breeding grounds for little penguins, Australian fur seals and New Zealand fur seals. Other animals known to use the marine park include southern right whales, humpback whales, orcas, leatherback sea turtles, green sea turtles, bottlenose dolphins and even leopard seals from Antarctica.

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     Red velvetfish in Wilsons Promontory Marine Park.  Image: Mark Norman, Museum Victoria

Red velvetfish in Wilsons Promontory Marine Park. Image: Mark Norman, Museum Victoria

Wilsons Promontory Marine Park is more unique and diverse than ever imagined.

As 90% of the marine park reaches depths of more than 20 metres, the full extent of its reef habitat has not been discovered until recently. In 2015, scientists decided to explore the unknown depths of its waters, which they suspected might house undisturbed and unique ecosystems. What they did not expect was the enormity of what they would find: an undisturbed, deep-water coral reef so diverse and teeming with life that it rivals even the Great Barrier Reef.  

An underwater viewpoint courtesy of an ROV.   Image: Parks Victoria

An underwater viewpoint courtesy of an ROV. Image: Parks Victoria

Using Remote Operated Vehicles, or ROVs, scientists were able to explore these reefs at 30 to 100 metre depths, capturing footage of enormous colourful coral fans, sponge gardens and an abundance of fish species. The fish spotted in these reefs were as long as 80 cm and included rare species such as the Australian barracuda, indicating that these habitats are acting as a refuge for species struggling in more shallow Victorian waters. Also seen by the ROVs were sand dunes up to 30 metres high and two kilometres across, boulders as large as houses and 90-metre deep holes filled with schools of fish. Steffan Howe, Marine Science Manager from Parks Victoria, has said that the abundance of corals, sponges and fish species in these reefs are a particularly exciting find, especially as it is likely that there are never-before-seen species present.

Although these ecosystems are too deep to access and are currently unmapped, Parks Victoria is keen to encourage divers to explore the region within recreational limits (down to 40 metres) in specifically marked areas yet to be identified. Through the help of recreational divers’ photographs and personal accounts, further discoveries could be made. Due to its depth and inaccessibility, Parks Victoria feel that it should attract minimal tourists, keeping the ecosystem relatively safe from most disturbances. Marine park authorities are currently gathering as much information as possible before allowing divers access to minimise potential impacts and stresses to the new ecosystem.

Protecting this unique ecosystem

As 90% of the plants and animals in these southern Victorian waters are found nowhere else in the world, it is imperative that this area is kept in its natural state.

Marine pests are a major potential threat to an ecosystem such as this, so visitors should assist in the prevention of the spread of pests and diseases by washing all boating and swimming gear in fresh water before and after use within the park. Divers and boat operators should always be conscious of keeping a safe distance from all marine animals and plant life at all times.

Access to the islands where the breeding of seabirds, little penguins and seals occurs is prohibited except for beach areas of the Great Glennie and Rabbit Islands. During the breeding season of the Australian fur seal, boats and other motorised PWCs are encouraged to keep well away from the islands, as they have been known to disturb breeding seal colonies in the past. Between August and April, it is particularly important to keep an eye out for the hooded plover: an endangered seabird known to nest on exposed beaches in Wilsons Promontory and elsewhere in Victoria.

A hooded plover.  Image: Dean Ingwersen

A hooded plover. Image: Dean Ingwersen

If you are not a diver or boat operator, you can enjoy the beauty of Wilsons Promontory by visiting its many secluded beaches, some of which are bright white and sandy, others grey and pebbly. Colourful granite boulders ranging from grey to light brown to bright orange, reminiscent of the Bay of Fires in Tasmania, can be found dispersed along the coastline and dotted along the beaches. The moderately easy two and a half hour hiking trail from Tidal River to Oberon Bay is a great way to explore the unique coastal habitats and secluded beaches along the way. Some of the best snorkeling can be found at Little Oberon Bay alongside the granite boulders and floating kelp where fish are abundant. The beaches along this trail also provide birdwatchers with many opportunities to see flocks of crested terns, sooty oystercatchers, silver gulls, short-tailed shearwaters, and the pacific gulls which only breed in this area of Victoria.  

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   A flock of crested terns on the beach at Oberon Bay.  Image: Lauren Hall

A flock of crested terns on the beach at Oberon Bay. Image: Lauren Hall

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   Bright orange granite boulders, Little Oberon Bay.    Image: Lauren Hall

Bright orange granite boulders, Little Oberon Bay. Image: Lauren Hall

Efforts must be made to minimise disturbances to this marine park. Whilst participating in water activities, it is imperative that care is taken to reduce damage from anchors, fins and intertidal trampling. The removal of flora and fauna is illegal throughout the national park. Thus, all visitors should be aware of park regulations and take away any leftover rubbish. Additionally, maintaining a safe distance of at least two metres from wildlife is vital so that animals and their habitats are not affected.

The true joy of visiting places such as Wilsons Promontory is in seeing, exploring and taking away memories in the form of photography and experiences. Further exploration of this remarkable ecosystem is imperative in our quest to protect it. Our ability to communicate its wonders will play a vital role in conservation education so that future generations will continue to enjoy this spectacular marine and coastal wilderness.