Wilderness Journal issue #031

In this issue, the life aquatic: poetry, song and dance follow the Whale Songline as humpbacks migrate up the East Coast; the life-giving kelp of the Great Southern Reef; and more.
Above: Hunter Forbes photographed by Andrew Cowen


Life on the Great Southern Reef

Growing up, Hunter Forbes played with seaweed that washed up on his local beach in Sydney. Now 23, he studies kelp and the incredible diversity of life it supports as a marine ecologist, diving on remote corners of the Great Southern Reef, the vast cold water reef system hugging the continent from Brisbane to Kalbarri.

"I guess I'm optimistic, but I would say I'm more hopeful. Climate change is an opportunity in some ways. It requires such a huge effort and such a huge change, a big change to the way we live and the way we interact with nature, and I think that could be a really positive thing."—Hunter Forbes.

Based at the University of Tasmania, Hunter conducts surveys of life on the reef for the Institute for Marine & Antarctic Studies as part of the Great Southern Reef Research Partnership. The group is forming a knowledge base for the reef so that this massive entity can be better managed and conserved. We spoke to Hunter about living and working on the reef, the threats it faces and his hopes for the future in the face of climate change.

Hunter Forbes photographed by Andrew Cowen for
Wilderness Journal; all underwater photographs by Hunter Forbes. Interview by Dan Down.

Hunter Forbes.

Was there something that made you gravitate towards temperate marine life over tropical waters?

I was really into alpine ecosystems at one point, which I think translates well into the cold water, temperate world. I came down to Tassie and I got the opportunity to see what was happening in this space. People were studying these cold water marine environments and there were so many unknowns about this ecosystem. And that was really inspiring, to work on this underappreciated region. It excites me in a different way to the tropics, it’s more that hidden aspect. There's a bit of mystery here.

"Here I am with a long-spined sea urchin. With warming waters, these ravenous sea urchins have been steadily munching their way down the east coast of Australia, and recently we’ve started to find them turning up way down south in some of our last remaining giant kelp forests."—Actaeon Island, Lutruwita / Tasmania. Photograph by Scott Bennett courtesy Great Southern Reef Foundation.

What is the Great Southern Reef?

It's a temperate reef network, a big interconnected system dominated by kelp that stretches around the entire southern coast of Australia, from Brisbane in the east to Kalbarri on the west coast. It encompasses a whole range of habitats, not just kelp; it may be shellfish reefs or seagrass or sponge gardens, but kelp is what really defines it. There is a lot of complexity in different habitats and forms that are really dynamic.

Right: "Below the kelp, colourful invertebrate filter-feeders often dominate the reef, such as sponges, sea tulips, and even corals. The Great Southern Reef is a hotspot for invertebrate biodiversity, but we know very little about many of these animals."—Bermagui, New South Wales." Left: "I found this huge Maori octopus in the understorey below a giant kelp forest and took this photo moments before it tried to get away with my clipboard."—Actaeon Island, Lutruwita / Tasmania.

This reef is ecologically and oceanographically linked. One of the important things to understand about the Great Southern Reef is that Australia is the only continent in the world that has two poleward flowing boundary currents—both the east and west side of Australia have these massive currents that flow toward the South Pole. These link the vast reef system and have helped to stabilise and isolate it from the rest of the world.

The reef's real claim to fame is its endemism, which means there are lots of species found nowhere else in the world. The real impact of these currents is that they tie together the whole Great Southern Reef, meaning that while southern Australia has been geographically isolated for millions of years, the reef has been interconnected and developed this incredibly high level of endemism. Particularly for seaweeds, the reef is hugely significant in terms of biodiversity. And there's just so much diversity that we are still uncovering.

"Weedy seadragons are one of the most iconic faces of the Great Southern Reef and they’re very accommodating photo subjects. The patterns and colours on their skin are spectacular and we can tell apart individual seadragons based on them."—Bicheno, Lutruwita / Tasmania.

What was your relationship with the ocean like growing up?

I spent so much time in the ocean growing up, snorkelling at Clovelly or boogie boarding. And we would head down to the south coast of NSW every summer—fishing, snorkelling and eventually diving.

If you spend any time snorkelling around Sydney with the blue gropers, it's amazing how friendly they are. You can go down to the bottom and bang rocks together and they come right over and you can hand feed them sea urchins.

On the Great Southern Reef, there are blue gropers the whole way around, and different species: the eastern and the western, on either side of the continent. They would be one of the hallmark species of the reef and a great one that so many people have a real personal connection to. They have a place in Australian culture.

Can you remember what sort of books you read as a child or what films inspired you?

I just consumed David Attenborough fanatically. And then I got into another naturalist, Gerald Durrell. My Family And Other Animals is my favourite book. Then there’s the amazing kelp forest picture book, The Hidden Forest by Jeannie Baker. I've still got a big fold-out page of the kelp forest from that book on my bedroom wall.

The real foundation of the Great Southern Reef is the golden kelp, Ecklonia radiata, which spans basically the entire length of the reef. It’s the same stuff that washes up on the beach at Coogee, Sydney, that we'd play with as kids, putting it on each other's heads, and now it’s a species I research for work. This kelp is a unifying experience for people along the reef.

"We’ve been regularly measuring kelp productivity at a number of sites around Tasmania, and one site was at a fur seal haul-out. I’m normally pretty absorbed in work while diving so don’t often spot seals but on this sunny day I finally got my first good look at a seal as it shot by underwater."—Fortescue Bay, Lutruwita / Tasmania

What role do the kelp play in the reef ecology? And what particular aspect of them do you find the most fascinating?

I've grown into this love of kelp. I've come to love them on their own merits, but they are also just this fundamental component of our reefs that we need to understand to get everything else that's happening on the reef. So my particular focus is on this community ecology and the way in which kelps affect and interact with other organisms.

That habitat provision is what really fascinates me about kelp. I love to see this whole living reefscape and the ways in which these habitats and the subtle differences between them can give rise to whole different communities, or not.

The other central service that these kelps provide is photosynthesising and producing an incredible amount of primary production biomass for the reefscape. We've just done some work measuring giant kelp productivity compared to other types of kelp in different habitats. It is just insane how productive these giant kelp are. These things are factories churning out biomass and pumping it out to the ecosystem.

Right: "My first giant cuttlefish! I stumbled upon it cleverly camouflaged in the golden kelp and was amazed to watch it totally transform in colour and skin texture when I got too close. They can grow up to a metre long and are only found on the Great Southern Reef."—Fortescue Bay, Lutruwita / Tasmania. Left: "There’s even life to be found in the city a few metres from shore at the bottom of Hobart’s Derwent River. Diving in the Derwent can be pretty gloomy, especially with this big-belly seahorse giving me the classic Hobartian side-eye."—Blackmans Bay, Lutruwita / Tasmania.

Tell us about your work with the Great Southern Reef Research Partnership?

I'm a technical officer, which in practice is a lot of survey work. A huge part of the work we're doing is travelling around the reef and surveying it: swimming along the seafloor and counting fish, crabs and seaweed and trying to see how these places might have changed through time.

We've just finished this year's monitoring of several marine parks around Tasmania, which has been going on for 33 years since they were implemented in 1992. We've now got this amazing long-term dataset to see how these places have changed inside and outside of these reserves. The ecosystems inside these reserves have recovered and we can see how they're faring with climate change as well.

"The egg case of a draughtboard shark. The baby shark has already hatched, but I like the way the case has been overgrown by little invertebrates and the pink coralline algae that covers basically every surface of the Great Southern Reef. And all around the egg case are little sponges, bryozoans, and red seaweeds. What a world to be born into!"—Bicheno, Lutruwita / Tasmania.

What's really lacking is a coordinated monitoring effort to have everyone around the country, all these diverse stakeholders and different state governments, speaking the same language about what is happening around the Great Southern Reef.

The Great Southern Reef Research Partnership is a five-year project that we're two years into now, to make the next steps towards coordinating research and conservation efforts in a way that makes sense for this bigger entity.

"The kelp forests that make up the Great Southern Reef are made-up of a huge variety of seaweeds of different colours and shapes. This one is Cystophora platylobium, a brown seaweed from a group only found in Australasia. Its relatives occur in different shapes all around the continent."—Actaeon Island, Lutruwita / Tasmania.

Do you see photography as a way to bring the scale of the reef down to something we can comprehend?

Diving gives me a different perspective. It allows me to really see the fine detail of the reef. We build such a relationship with a dive site. You go to these particular sites over and over again and you start to get a feel for these sites and the lay of the land. As soon as I’ve got something to focus on, like a cool fish that I haven't seen before, then I’m in the zone. In the cold, it's quite zen and meditative as well, just being down there meticulously counting fish. You can just focus on your breathing.

For me it's cool to zoom in really close and see what little things are different in what nook and cranny. So much of the beauty of the reef is in these tiny sponges or corals.

It's hard not to imagine it all from the perspective of a nudibranch [sea slug], the world they're looking at is just these weird sponges and orange bubbles and strange fluids. It's wild. Imagine being a nudibranch!

I'm also still a sucker for the megafauna. I like a big friendly octopus or a cuttlefish. One of my all-time favourites is the giant cuttlefish down on the south coast, but also the little cuttlefish that you get up around Sydney. They transform completely in seconds, not just the colour but the whole texture of their skin. It's wild to watch.

A shark we see a lot on the south coast is the draughtboard shark, they're little catsharks and you'll see one on pretty much every single dive. They often just hang along the bottom and are super chill.

There's a global tropical coral bleaching event taking place. Are you seeing anything like that on the Great Southern Reef?

This summer was predicted to be a really significant marine heat wave; thankfully it was much less severe than we feared since most of the really hot water sat offshore, but it still left a mark and we saw in certain areas what seemed to be a big die-back of some of our kelps.

We've dodged the bullet for now, but there's just as much chance we could be faced with another marine heatwave soon and a lot of these species are at their physiological threshold of what they can cope with.

"This little pile of baked beans is a wandering anemone, one of my absolute favourite inhabitants of the Great Southern Reef. They come in all different colours from green to red to pink and during the day they cling to kelp and tuck up into little balls like this one. At night, they unravel their tentacles and go on the hunt."—Tinderbox, Lutruwita / Tasmania.

It's the reality of the oceans we're living in, be it in the tropics or temperate regions: these oceans are getting warm. There are mass bleaching or mass kelp dieback events that we'll have to deal with.

Since the '70s we've lost giant kelp in Tassie, several decades before I was born. So I'm starting work in this impacted ecosystem and it's interesting to be with colleagues who remember it like it was. A lot of my work so far has been on a ghost of the previous system.

"This is one of the last little patches of giant kelp forest left in Tasmania, and it died off completely at the end of 2021. But since then we’ve watched it slowly recover into this young forest full of spindly kelp. The forest had a ghostly feel on this dive."—Southport, Lutruwita / Tasmania.

As a 23-year-old, how do you feel about the future of the reef? How do you come to terms with climate change as a young person?

I guess I'm optimistic, but I would say I'm more hopeful.

Climate change is an opportunity in some ways. It requires such a huge effort and such a huge change, a big change to the way we live and the way we interact with nature, and I think that could be a really positive thing. We could come out of this stronger. If we respond to this challenge we could fundamentally reshape our society to make it more equitable and sustainable and, I would say, more fulfilling. And that's exciting and I'm hopeful for that.

Photograph by Andrew Cowen.

Thank you Hunter Forbes for sharing your underwater wonderland and Andrew Cowen for your photographs.



Artwork by Stan Squire

Made on Yuin Country.

Hectics, inspired by the cold water down past the NSW/Victoria border.

Long Right, based on the Pambula Rivermouth (view from the south side).


Thank you to Stan Squire for sharing this beautiful work. Explore more and purchase prints here.


Baraya Barray

Proud Gunai woman and poet Kirli Saunders, OAM, introduces Baraya Barray—Whale Song. Baraya Barray means 'Sing Country' in Gathang, the ancestral language of Nicole Smede, the founder of this initiative under the beautiful Poetry in First Languages umbrella. This groundbreaking new First Nations arts project from Red Room Poetry connects young people with Elders through language, Country and culture, following the East Coast whale migration. As humpback whales begin their migration this year, communities will follow their progress and the Whale Songline with workshops of poetry, song and dance.

With thanks to Kirli Saunders for her words and also Kiama, a Year 10 student from Shoalhaven High, NSW, for sharing the poem Burri burri tulgu.
Photographs by Anthony Smith

Kirli Saunders at the first Baraya Barray workshop in Nowra on 9 May on Wodi Wodi and Yuin Country.

"I live on Dharawal Country. I'm a proud Gunai woman, and my family are from the East Coast of Gippsland. We have ties in Yuin country where my mum was born, and then also on my grandfather's side we’re Birpi people, with ties to Dharawal and Bidjigal Land and Gundungurra Country as well. And all of that's important because everywhere we go on that Whale Songline, my family and I feel really lucky to have a deep ancestral familial and homelands connections.

"I love to surf the beaches around Dharawal Country and Yuin Country; you can see those beautiful whales. We're also really lucky that we have some incredible walks in our community and up into the Royal National Park. So all of those places I love seeing the beautiful whales moving up and down the coast in those areas.

"I started working with Red Room Poetry in 2017. While I was there, I created the Poetry in First Languages project, which had Elders and knowledge holders teaching dance, song, story and language out on Country with students, and together they’d write poems about their experience. It was rolled out in the first three years, in 12 different communities across three different states, in 60 workshops. I loved seeing language being taught out on Country with community and kids being able to use language in a meaningful way, by writing these beautiful poems and remembering the language words in context. We yarned way back then about the Whale Songline, and I'm so glad that sis [Nicole Smede] at Red Room Poetry took this iteration of Poetry in First Languages to develop the very special Baraya Barray, bringing in her knowledge as a song woman.

"The east coast humpback migration is from all the way down past Palawa, and all the way up into Gubbi Gubbi Country and Batjala Country. It incorporates so many family places for me: Gunai, Yuin, Dharawal, Bidjigal and Birpi Lands. I feel very lucky that I get to be a part of teaching these stories and songs of the whale as a part of this project, and to continue the teachings been taught to me by my Elders and community on Yuin and Dharawal lands.

"Baraya Barray runs in the same way as Poetry in First Languages. We have Elders and Custodians come together with students out on Country and we teach stories and song and dance about the whale. Students respond by writing their own poems, songs and stories in response to the Whale Songline, adding to a collective Songline, a collective story, a collective poem that moves from all the way down from Palawa Country, all the way up to Batjala Country. So it's a continuous project, something that will migrate, continue to move up and down the coast as those whales do and something that many communities will get to be a part of.

"Students respond by writing their own poems, songs and stories in response to the Whale Songline, adding to a collective Songline, a collective story, a collective poem."
—Kirli Saunders

"Our language is melodic and poetic, and story is such an integral part of our culture, this project is important because our students don’t always have opportunities to learn like this with the community out on Country from their Elders and with other mobs from other schools or nations.

"And we've always learned collectively, with our Elders. We've always learned out on Country and through story. It's a 60-thousand-year-old way of teaching. Something that’s so important in the way that we continue to teach our kids moving forward is this work in relationality and also in reciprocity; everything we do is with each other and for each other, those beautiful ocean Elders, those whales and our community, and the land and the sea. It’s our way of adding to the songline, and keeping it alive for all times."

Burri burri tulgu

Poem written in Gumea Dharawal / Dharawal by Kiama, Year 10 Shoalhaven High, Nowra

Burri burri tulgul
carry our gali
our yabun
our songlines
burri burri yaga ngia
burri burri ngara ngia
burri burri ngaa ngia
burri burri gali like a moth to a gambi
spread your knowledge like gundu spreads its djimbaga
keep our songlines strong like the yunga claws
look out for us like minga looks out for boori
yadingji burri burri
ngia yadingji bugiah
ngia yadingji naway
ngia yandingji buradja
ngia ngambumaya yindi

~ English translation

whale spirit
carry our dance
our music
our songlines
whale speak to me
whale listen to me
whale see me
whale dance like a moth to a flame
spread your knowledge like the tree spreads its roots
keep our songline strong like the lobsters claws
look out for us like a mother for her baby
thank you whale
I thank you yesterday
I thank you today
I thank you tomorrow
I love you.

Find out more about Baraya Barray and upcoming workshops and activities at Red Room Poetry.


From the archives

A look at some old Wilderness Society badges (and one current one). Words and badges courtesy of Eastern Suburbs Sydney volunteer, Andrew T. S. Ross.
Photograph by Dan Down

"Thirty or more years ago, a Wilderness Society employee left the badges with my mum, Vera Ross, in her Glebe Point Road record shop known as 'Recycled Records'—it was originally a second-hand vinyl record shop.

"The agreement was that mum would sell the badges out of the shop as a favour to the Wilderness Society, in a fundraiser effort. The badges pictured below are the remainder that didn't sell. The Wilderness Society office at that time was down the road at the corner of Glebe Point Road and Broadway (the block I grew up on)."— Andrew T. S. Ross.

Note: The Wilderness Society Sydney office moved to Broadway from late December 1995—early January 1996 (source: Sydney Branch Newsletter of that period). The Wild Planet Appeal badge was in the Christmas 1993 shops network catalogue; the triangle logo badge dates to a year or two before that. Thanks to Geoff and Judy Lambert, Honorary Life Members of The Wilderness Society, for research around this.


We thank all the artists, photographers, writers and scientists who've given their work to this edition. If you have anything from your own archive to share, get in touch.

If you haven't signed up for the Journal you can do so here. And take a look at past issues of the Journal below.

We recognise First Nations as the custodians of land and water across the continent of Australia and pay our respects to Elders past and present. We acknowledge sovereignty was never ceded.

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