Though this will not be the completion of the Steve Irwin’s journey as part of Operation Jeedara, it will be an opportunity to showcase to the public the breathtaking footage we have captured thus far of the truly remarkable Great Australian Bight.
To date we have visited the Pearson Island group, the Bunda cliffs, Nuyts Reef, Fowlers Bay, Head of the Bight, Isles of St Francis and Baird Bay. We have also had to endure some large seas, which further highlight the insanity of BP’s plans to drill for oil here, seas which are tame compared to the swells of 20 metres that can preside where BP want to drill. Incidentally, where they want to drill is right in the middle of the Great Australian Bight Marine Park.
Pearson Island Group
On arrival we were greeted by a welcoming committee of endangered Australian sea lions and long nosed fur seals. As we made our way up the beach and over the granite rocks, smoothed over by thousands of years of storms and winds, we encountered more seals, with one particular small cove where dozens of seals frolicked and played in safety, no doubt being mindful of great white sharks patrolling the perimeter.
Walking up to a lookout to gain a greater view of the islands, we were further welcomed by a peninsula dragon and some very inquisitive black footed rock wallabies, which are endemic to Pearson. Nature was putting on a grand show and we were front and centre and in awe.
The Bunda Cliffs extend approximately 100km along the Great Australian Bight from Border Village to the east of the Head of the Bight. The cliffs were formed when Australia separated from Antarctica around 65 million years ago. They are made up of fossiliferous limestone, which is made up of a white chalky material and was once part of an ancient seabed. The sheer cliffs vary from 60m to 120m above sea level and are capped by a hardened layer of wind blown sand laid down between 1.6 million and 100,000 years ago. Due to their remoteness, seas, winds and high cliffs, an oil spill here would be impossible to clean up.
The Nuyts Reef Sanctuary (within the Nuyts Archipelago Marine Park) is a huge limestone reef, home to a rich diversity of marine life. It's an important breeding colony for the Australian sea lion, seen bathing on the rocky outcrops in healthy numbers.
It was a rewarding experience for Peter Owen, Director of Wilderness Society, South Australia, to see the reef for the first time since becoming a sanctuary in 2014 as he and the Wilderness Society spent many years working to protect this remote and powerful marine wilderness. An oil spill in this high-energy area would be a disaster.
We moored in beautiful Fowlers Bay for a number of days and had a chance to explore the bay and the spectacular surrounding coastline. The Fowlers bay community and local tour operator welcomed us with open arms, even putting on a dinner for us one night. Its clear that the community that live along the coast are not only very proud of their piece of paradise, but are also deeply concerned about BP drilling for oil in the Bight.
What was also surprising about this little jewel off the South Australian coast was the diversity of life here, consisting of white-bellied sea eagles, humpback whales, southern right whales, penguins, common and bottle nosed dolphins, endangered Australian sea lions, long nosed fur seals and great white sharks among other numerous species.
Head of the Bight
We were not allowed to bring the Steve Irwin within 3 miles off the Head of the Bight and Bunda cliffs region, and rightfully so. For the vast areas is a whale sanctuary and one of the most significant southern right whale nurseries on the planet. However an oil spill does not recognise boundaries and would destroy these whales nursery, their home where they are born.
As we stood there watching the mothers nursing their young, even though I was amazed to see so many, up to 20 pairs just scanning the immediate area, I wondered how many would we be seeing prior to whaling and hoped that this population will continue to grow so our kids can see even greater numbers here. I also watched as mothers came together and stopped, while their calves would swim over to each other and play, in a meeting not to dissimilar to us humans. We could all see the babies learn from their mothers, how to tail slap, how to peck slap the water and of course how to breach and they were all fast learners.
I also thought about how for generations, going back thousands of years these whales had been coming to this spot. A spot that is not just important to the whales, but also so significant and spiritual to the mirning and when I saw Bunna Lawrie there with the whales, I knew that he was home and he was happy and I know, being a whale song man, that they too were happy to see him.
The Southern Right whale has fought back from the brink of extinction, from only a few hundred post whaling, to around 13,000 plus globally today. This success story shows that nature can recover, if it is given a chance, however, these whales still have a long way to go and putting the worlds biggest oil rig into the Bight is risking the recovery of these amazing creatures.
Isles of St Francis – Fenelon Island
Fenelon Island is the outermost island of the St Francis Archipelago. The Isles of St Francis Sanctuary, within the Nuyts Archipelago Marine Park, is considered one of the ‘jewels in the crown’ of South Australia’s marine parks network. Heavily influenced by seasonal warm water from the Great Australian Bight, the area is acclaimed by marine scientists as a biodiversity hotspot for its outstanding variety of species and habitats.
The sanctuary is a refuge for fish species heavily targeted in areas closer to the coast. It is a breeding and haul-out site for the Australian sea lion and a feeding area for the vulnerable great white shark.
These islands were proclaimed wilderness protection areas under the South Australian Wilderness Protection Act 1992 in 2011. They provide important habitat for seabirds and shorebirds, including the endangered osprey, rare rock parrot, rare Cape Barren geese, little penguin and migratory oceanic birds including albatross, prion and petrel. The islands are also home to the second-largest breeding colony of short-tailed shearwaters.
This land and sea connected area conservation estate is globally unique and would be devastated from an oil spill disaster. In a world where wilderness is disappearing before our eyes, to risk the Isles of St Francis for profit is obscene.
Here is what actor and Sea Shepherd ambassador, David Field, had to say about his time onboard so far, “It was a great honor to be asked by Jeff Hansen and Sea Shepherd to join the expedition concerning the preservation of the Great Southern Ocean and the Great Australian Bight. We began the journey at the Head of the Bight and I was mesmorized by the sight of 20-30 female Great Southern Right Whales with calves lavishing in the bay less than 100 meters from shore. It was quite obvious from the outset that this nursery, is and has been, there for eons. We then moved on to Isle of St Francis where we had the priviedge of going to shore where Australian Sea Lion and Long Nose Fur Seals greeted us. What looked like a barren land from afar was lush with Cape Barren geese, parrots and a myriad of yellow and purple flowers covering the island. We then sailed on to Baird Bay where we had the priviledge of swimming with sea lions in a pristine environment as if never touched by man at all”
Our mission is to share the wonder and beauty of the Bight that we have captured to all Australians and the world, to showcase what we would all loose if BP bring their monster oil rig south, in the hope that more people will unite with us with all they have to fight for the Bight, for loosing this battle against BP is not an option.
For the Oceans and future generations,
Managing Director, Sea Shepherd Australia
Expedition Leader – Operation Jeedara
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