tim flannery

Melbourne’s Messengers of Deep Time

Imagining the intricacies of a mysterious, lost world within the confines of modern Melbourne living is a difficult feat for many, save for the scientists and passionate locals attempting to protect and discover more about Melbourne’s ancient, natural history.   

In the scorching sun of Sunday 22nd February, it wasn’t unusual to see a myriad of families, friends and individuals descending upon Ricketts Point Beach for a day in the water. It quickly became apparent though that most of, if not the entire crowd milling about the Beaumaris Lifesaving Club were there for another purpose altogether: to see, touch and learn about the very real fossils to be found at the historic Beaumaris Bay fossil site.  

Fossilised shark teeth displayed on the rocks of Beaumaris Bay. Image courtesy of http://www.weekendnotes.com

Fossilised shark teeth displayed on the rocks of Beaumaris Bay. Image courtesy of http://www.weekendnotes.com

With a range of both amateur and professional fossickers prepared to speak later in the afternoon, the event began with fossil collector Richard Casley encouraging children and adults alike to search for some previously-prepared fossils in a large container under the marquee. For both participants and spectators, it was an entertaining and rewarding experience to watch, as kids of all ages attempted to find and then identify the different fossils. Richard was kind enough to help most of them with their identifications, expertly listing what seemed to be some of the more common fossils to be found in these parts: mako shark teeth, whale bones and the beautiful Levinia heart-shaped urchin, to name a few. 

Following the enthusiasm shown during this first activity, it wasn’t much of a surprise to see kids with display boxes full of fossils making their way to the microphone to discuss their own findings from Beaumaris and other parts of the world. One boy even stumped the visiting palaeontologists with a discovery from the Beaumaris site that was potentially the fossil of an ancient crocodile jaw – a significant find for the area if proven to be true. It was amazing to hear that over 5000 fossils from this site alone have been donated to Museum Victoria, including those found by many eager, amateur collectors. The age of Beaumaris fossils generally extends from four million years to as far back as 10 million years ago – a mind-boggling figure to grasp when one thinks of the broad scope of human development along the Bayside area over only the past century or so. 

A box of wonders: a fossicker displays their own private collection.

A box of wonders: a fossicker displays their own private collection.

To the average person, however, the activities of the first part of the day may have seemed like a bit of harmless, child-like fun; fossicking, for the most part, appeared to be all about getting sandy at the beach and digging around for a few ‘rocks’. It was therefore the latter portion of the event that perhaps demonstrated the true value of this local fossil site and the specimens found there, beginning with Professor Tim Flannery stepping up to tell of his own experiences fossicking in the area. 

Tim himself grew up not far from Beaumaris in Sandringham, and therefore shares a very personal connection with the area beyond his own professional interests. A trained palaeontologist, Tim seemed keen to communicate the importance of defending the Beaumaris fossil site from pollution and development pressures; he also sadly admits that his own generation has not done as much as they could have in attempting to protect the site. Passing on this fact to the many intent children gathered in front of him, Tim encourages each of them to “dive into the water of [their] own imagination…” and to remember that the lost world palaeontologists have discovered via the Beaumaris site is a world that “really did exist”. His short but memorable speech brought to mind images of the many fossils discussed that day as actual living things, inhabiting the sea floor of our very own Port Philip Bay once upon a time. 

Professor John Buckeridge was next up to speak, enthusiastically launching into a description of the various fossil types to be found in the Beaumaris area, of which he is a local resident. Explaining the significance of the high number of invertebrate fossils found at Beaumaris, John specifically mentioned two types that are of particular paleontological importance: echinoids (sea urchins) and brachiopods (shellfish-like creatures similar to clams and mussels, although unrelated). He also reiterated the importance of protecting the area from inappropriate development that could possibly compromise the site and any yet-to-be-discovered fossils; there is a chance that many specimens could indeed be “lost forever” if further measures are not taken to preserve the location. For him, “development is not really an option here, but a world heritage site is”, the latter of which is a classification yet to be implemented. 

However, perhaps the most striking speech was that given by Erich Fitzgerald, doctor and curator of palaeontology at Museum Victoria, who painted an unforgettable picture of life in Port Phillip Bay and the Melbourne area before human habitation. Like Tim, Erich explained how his passion for fossils began at an early age: a common theme demonstrated throughout the event itself, as the crowd seemed to be largely made up of families and children. Erich’s professional interests lean more towards vertebrate fossils than those of invertebrates. With this in mind, he was able to portray a slightly more relatable picture of a lost marine world filled with ancient whales, dugongs, seals, penguins larger than the Emperor species, as well as huge sharks, including the largest to ever swim the Earth’s oceans: the magnificent Megalodon. These creatures existed in “a time before the wheel” and certainly before Facebook, peak hour and the towering skyscrapers of our modern city. Perhaps most significantly, this ancient time involved “a world without us”, and is a period that can perhaps only be re-discovered through the fossils found at Beaumaris. With a warmer climate and sea shores at least five kilometres further inland than they are today, Erich paints this world as one that is both awe-inspiring and mysterious. 

A fossilised whale vertebrae uncovered right on Melbourne's doorstep.

A fossilised whale vertebrae uncovered right on Melbourne's doorstep.

Despite the potential for the Beaumaris site to continue to reveal more about Melbourne’s amazing past, Erich is the third speaker of the day to emphasise the dire need to protect this area for the sake of future generations, research and indeed the planet. He lovingly describes the fossil site as “the jewel in the crown of Bayside and…Melbourne”, the heritage of which belongs not just to Melbournians, but “to the entire world”. It is indeed true that “the great days of discovering are not yet done” when it comes to the many fossils still buried deep in the sands of Beaumaris Bay. Erich also explains that this important site could be providing us with fossils that demonstrate the potential effects of climate change, and is therefore a haven of information that could benefit us in the here and now. 

Finally, it was time for both Vicki Karalis, President of the Sandringham Foreshore Association, and Felicity Frederico, Mayor of Bayside, to close the formal part of the day. Despite the heat, it wasn’t difficult to see that it had been an engaging event for both children and adults. As Erich Fitzgerald meaningfully described, we are lucky to have a world-class fossil site so close to our city, yet we must continue to put more and more effort into protecting it from surrounding development – or else, sadly, countless “messengers of deep time” will either be damaged or lost forever in the process.  

If you would like to visit the Beaumaris Bay fossil site, it is located off Beach Road in the suburb of Beaumaris, not far from Ricketts Point. Refer to here for a more exact location of the fossil site along the beach.

For more information on the site, surrounding area, and news pertaining to its potential development, visit the following websites:

-Sandringham Foreshore Association

Marine Care Ricketts Point 

Beaumaris Conservation Society 

- "No Marina" Petition Website

-Beaumaris Motor Yacht Squadron

Banner image courtesy of Museum Victoria

A Night With Tim Flannery

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Professor Tim Flannery never planned to become a scientist. Discovering ‘more new species than Charles Darwin,’ was never a major life goal, nor was becoming one of Australia’s most important proponents of climate change action. Instead he was to become an English teacher, while spending his weekends searching for fossils at Black Rock beach in Melbourne.

However, this was not to be. Tim Flannery has become one of Australia’s most successful and influential scientists, while also communicating his love of natural history through both novels and television. As such, Flannery has the ability to demand quite the audience at any speaking engagement. Monday night’s conversation with renowned journalist, Anne Summers, was no different.

However, it’s Flannery’s latest, and perhaps most significant achievement that brought such a crowd to the Melbourne Town Hall. For many years now, Professor Flannery has been a strong advocate of climate change action, as both a scientist and head of the Climate Commission. Now, after the Abbott Government brought down the Climate Commission in one fell swoop, Flannery has gone on to bigger and better things in heading up the Climate Council.

Professor Tim Flannery launches the Climate Council

Noticeably, the pride swells in his voice as he begins describing the Climate Council’s early success; ‘It’s true. I was terrified the morning we launched the Council because if we didn’t get the public support, it would have sent a terrible message.’ Instead, the reverse occurred, with the Council raising well over one million dollars to date and Flannery couldn’t be happier. With sincere gratitude, he then said directly to the audience; ‘Thank you so much, you’ve done a great thing for your country.’

However, Tim Flannery’s initial exposure to the issue of climate change was surprisingly humbling. After being asked to report on the issue to the South Australian government, it was only then when he realised just how big a problem it was. ‘My colleagues in South Australia in the climate area were pulling their hair out at the lack of public interest. If I as a trained scientist can have overlooked the importance of climate change, what are the chances that the average person on the street has done the same, and that’s when I decided to make the switch.’

The importance of Flannery’s burgeoning interest in climate science cannot be understated, as it instigated somewhat of a watershed moment in Australia. He has since written an outstanding book on the subject (The Weather Makers) and raised considerable awareness both at home and abroad, despite some strong opposition. Remarkably, Flannery has even faced death threats for communicating the clear, factual science of climate change. When asked if he was scared of the perceived threats, he said ‘No, I don’t usually get scared by that sort of thing, but I get dismayed.’ This proved a poignant moment in the night, with Flannery clearly still saddened by the strong rejection of the science he is trying to communicate.

Naturally, Summers pushed the conversation in the direction of addressing climate sceptics, including the absurd politicisation of the issue. While being somewhat diplomatic with regard to climate change sceptics, it’s something Flannery has little time for; ‘Once you engage with this sort of information, you give people credibility that they otherwise wont have.’ Flannery then commented on the methods some journalists use to mislead the public on climate science; ‘If you’re thinking about buying influence, you go to the least informed because they’re the cheapest. Throw in some misinformation, don’t make it too complex, and you can buy influence cheaply.’

The conversation then quickly turned back to the science, with Flannery emphasising the importance of the next few years. ‘I don’t think we have crossed a tipping point yet, but I think we’re getting close. This decade is the one that really counts. If we can get our emissions trajectory on a strong downward slope, we’ve got a chance of avoiding that tipping point.’

Summers then asked about the potential effectiveness of the current government’s plan of direct action, with Flannery’s answer managing to draw a few laughs; ‘Well Anne, what is direct action? I don’t think anyone knows, we’re waiting to hear?’ Unsurprisingly, it’s an economic approach that Flannery suggests will achieve the greatest effect, suggesting ‘if you ask economists what the best way of dealing with carbon pollution is, they’ll say put a price on it… because it works.’

The angry summer of 2012 / 2013. Professor Flannery and the Climate Council predict things will be worse if no action is take. Photo: Climate Council. 

The angry summer of 2012 / 2013. Professor Flannery and the Climate Council predict things will be worse if no action is take. Photo: Climate Council. 

Flannery then extends his commentary to the management of the Australian environment as a whole; ‘Ecosystems are important; they’re what sustains us. What we don’t do, so often in environmental issues, is ask where are the key issues and then cost effectively address them.’ Its here where the normally softly spoken Flannery raised his voice somewhat, the passion obvious as he reflected on Australia’s current environmental policies, ‘we don’t seem to prioritise; we don’t seem to hold people accountable. If we fail and species go extinct, who is accountable?’

Despite the apparent dire situation, Flannery remains hopeful; ‘I do have a deep faith in human nature, I do have a deep faith that we’ll deal with this issue when we understand what’s at stake.’ Throughout the 90 minutes for which Flannery was on stage, this was the point to which he kept returning to and reinforcing – the need for education and understanding of the issue. It’s a notion that’s unfortunately lacking across a number of issues in which ignorance breeds resistance.

Arguably the best part of the night came as Anne Summers finished her interview and allowed the audience to question Flannery. The questions were far reaching from in depth climate science to Flannery urging the general public to stand up and take action. In particular, his suggestion for younger people, ‘If I was a student now... I’d get involved with organisations that are dealing with clean energy. Certainly get involved with the Australian Youth Climate Coalition. Or I would get involved with politics.’

His answer for dealing with climate sceptics is brilliantly simple, suggesting that the basic question of ‘What would it take to change your mind?’ is enough to encourage people to stop and think. Flannery then reinforced this by suggesting that ‘a lot of their problem is they’ve stopped listening. So I think that question is really important as it re-engages them.’

Importantly, an event such as this highlights how vital scientists like Tim Flannery truly are. Not only are they fantastic researchers, but also they’re wonderful and engaging communicators prepared to speak out on important issues. Mention must also be made also of Anne Summers, who proved to be an excellent interviewer, never rushing Flannery through his anecdotes or answers to her questions. Those in attendance have been given one powerful thing tonight – hope. The fact that Flannery remains confident that climate change can be curtailed serves as sound advice for us all to not give up just yet.