Stories from Australia’s waves, caves, and animal graves

by Natalie Sopinka

On April 8, OFNC members met for the third time at the new meeting location at the Central Experimental Farm. Murray Citron recited his first-ever published poem (in Trail & Landscape!) which captured all elements of an Ottawa spring: wind, snow and sun. On that note, as spring temperatures rise, so do the number of OFNC events and excursions! All upcoming events are posted on the OFNC website.

Anouk Hoedeman updated attendees on the work of the new Ottawa Chapter of the Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP). Volunteers are urgently needed for pre-dawn patrols and for picking up and transporting injured birds to the Wild Bird Care Centre. If you are interested in getting involved, you can read more about FLAP Ottawa here or email flap@ofnc.ca.

The evening’s speaker was Dr. Kathy Conlan, a scientist at the Canadian Museum of Nature. Kathy, an expert in marine benthos and advocate of Antarctic research and conservation, shared in photographs and storytelling her recent travels to Australia with mineralogist Dr. Joel Grice. During a year-long sabbatical, Kathy and Joel embarked on four trips that took them to diverse habitats, from mangroves and rain forests to salt lakes and lava tubes.

Upwelling brings nutrient-rich water to the ocean surface promoting phyto- and zooplankton blooms. Photo: Google

Port Lincoln
Their first stop was along Australia’s southern coast – the Bonney and du Couedic submarine canyons, which are important to Australia’s fisheries because they channel seawater from a depth of a kilometre (or more) up to the surface. This “upwelling,” which happens when strong summer winds move surface water offshore, provides the phytoplankton in the nutrient-poor surface water with all the nutrients they need to grow and multiply. When phytoplankton “bloom,” zooplankton bloom too. Fish aggregate and feed on the zooplankton before being caught by fishers.

Kathy’s job on her sabbatical was to see whether these canyons also benefited the animals that live full time on the sea floor; her studies indicate that they do and that “upwelling is an important way of renewing ocean richness, rather like turning over the garden in the spring.” Kathy is quite fond of the animals that live on the sea floor, in particular species of the genus Jassa, which she has classified. She was surprised to find Jassa slatteryi in Port Lincoln as it is native to North America; the species may have crossed continents via ship ballast water. The gulfs in this area are teeming with sea grasses that support shrimp fisheries and are home to cuttlefish, leafy sea dragons, and bottlenose dolphins.

Flinders Range and Coober Pedy
Next Kathy and Joel traveled inland through Flinders Range encountering spectacular fauna including emus, eastern grey-kangaroos, rose-breasted cockatoos (or galah) and laughing kookaburra. The next stop was Coober Pedy, noted for their opal mines. Kathy found an opal potch, dull in comparison to jewelry or precious opal because the internal structure of the potch is less “organized” and does not diffract light the same way. Some inactive mines have been turned into underground campgrounds, one of which Kathy and Joel camped in.

Naracoorte and Tantanoola Caves
Heading southeast, Kathy and Joel were drawn to the World Heritage limestone Naracoorte Caves. Eroded by ground water the caverns were excellent traps for terrestrial creatures for 500,000 years. The perished megafauna were much larger than they are today and bones from over 100 species have been found to date. Nearby are the Tantanoola caves with stalactites that look like “falling caramel.”

Underground camping in Coober Pedy (left) and the Tantanoola Caves (right).

Underground camping in Coober Pedy (left) and the Tantanoola Caves (right). Photos: Kathy Conlan

Kathy scuba diving with a grouper on the Great Barrier Reef.

Kathy scuba diving with a grouper on the Great Barrier Reef. Photo: Oak Beach Productions, Port Douglas, Australia

Undara and the Great Barrier Reef
When Mount Undara erupted the lava radiating from the mountain flowed like molasses. The outer surface of the flows cooled forming a crust, and hotter liquids continued to flow underneath the crust, “like water in a hose.” When all the lava had flowed through, tunnels remained. Kathy and Joel walked throughout the lava tubes, which can flood during rainstorms.

The tour, and talk, ended with a diving session on the Great Barrier Reef. We saw cleaner shrimps, goby, lionfish, Moorish idol, humphead wrasse, leaf scorpionfish, seahorses and clown fish hiding among the magnificent fan, stony, zoanthid and soft corals. Sea turtles passed overhead and grouper said hello, before Kathy bid members good night.

 

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