Much More Than a Desert: Australia
A Unique Variety – Few places on earth have enough space and climatic diversity for rainforests, coral reefs, deserts, and grasslands to survive. Australia is an exception. Millions of years of evolution have developed a comprehensive diversity in both the biomes and wildlife. To explore this variety, we spent more than three weeks from the South Australian outback to the Great Barrier Reef’s Remote Islands to experience breathtaking wildlife and fascinating conservation projects firsthand.
Yellow-Footed Rock Wallaby – The Gawler Ranges, located in South Australia’s outback, are home to countless numbers of kangaroos, wombats, and emus, but its most notable resident is the yellow-footed rock wallaby. This species lives in caves on rocky cliffs and has yellow-orange limbs, a silvery grey back, and a ringed tail. When they emerge from the caves to sunbathe, they feed on the nutritious shrubs and grasses that thrive in the harsh climate. This food is in limited supply, and there is competition for the food between wallabies and other species. Goats, which were introduced by colonists, steal the nutritious food, and have decimated rock wallabies throughout Southern Australia, confining them to the Gawler and Flinders ranges.
The Wallaby Search – A sunbathing rock wallaby was our motive as we searched an isolated gorge and hiked around large crevices. Not a single wallaby appeared despite our efforts. During another search on the other side of the valley, I spotted one at the top of a cliff within two minutes of walking. I hiked up the steep wall and tried to be as silent as possible. The rock face was dotted with loose, circular rocks, and because it was so hard to get secure footing near the top, it was like running over a mountain of pool balls. Eventually, I reached a level of more stable rocks and used the shrubs and large boulders as cover to get as close as possible to the wallaby.
Wallabies Close Up – The wallaby was stunning to observe. It took a lot of effort to find them, and the animal stood there for maybe ten seconds as it tried to decide what to do before bolting away to the other side of the rocks.
Baird Bay – On South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula lies Baird Bay, which is home to a large colony of Australian sea lions (one of the most endangered species of marine mammals). Since these waters are occasionally visited by hungry great white sharks that feed on sea lions, I was fairly nervous about being in the water. The captain advised us not stray far from the guide, who wore an electric shark deterrent, and we jumped off the boat.
Australian Sea Lion – It took just a few seconds for a curious female sea lion to join us in the water. She did backwards flips in the water like a flexible acrobat. They have powerful oar-like flippers and a highly evolved tail that helps them steer when they hunt and evade predation. These adaptations make it incredible to watch them in the water.
Unforgettable – What happened next, though, is something I will never forget. A young sea lion suddenly came so close that it looked straight into my mask before giving me a big kiss on the face with his whisker-covered and fish-smelling snout. I would never have imagined that a wild marine animal would chose to get so close to me, especially since he had no motive or reward waiting for him. He hung around for a few seconds, and I reached out to give him a little scratch on chin, which made him lift his head up like a dog. It’s no wonder they are called “puppies of the sea.”
The Great Barrier Reef – The largest living structure on planet earth, the Great Barrier Reef, has faced climate change stress worse than anyone ever predicted. Once a densely packed mirage of healthy coral atolls, the reef has been seriously altered by warmer water. This warmer water forces the corals to abandon the food producing algae that lives inside them, known as zooxanthellae, which causes the coral to starve. This phenomenon has killed more than half of the Great Barrier Reef in just the last two years..
AIMS – To understand the severity of this threat, we visited the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS). For decades, this organisation has worked to protect the marine environment. Founded in the 70s to research marine sustainability, AIMS now focuses on the threats to the Great Barrier Reef like climate change, coral bleaching, and invasive creatures. They have produced groundbreaking studies and developed projects like the sea simulator, a giant aquarium that gives insight to the reef’s security and stability. Another one of their developments is an accessible online database that shows trends in the reef’s health and informs the public of the threats.
Coral Growing – They also showed us the comprehensive coral growing labs, where specimens are used for scientists to create experiments to understand coral survival in warming temperatures. Visiting the sea simulator and speaking to many researchers provided an insight that could only be gained in person. The initiatives that they have created will contribute greatly to public knowledge about how to protect the reef. I am optimistic that the data AIMS has produced will influence government policy and aid in the continued survival of the world’s reefs.