Estuary habitat mapping for Monash University

This was a rare privilege: a job that involved going to some of the most picturesque coasts of the state; guaranteed no swell or large waves to worry about; no large and heavy boat required and all in the calm, peaceful mid-autumn weather....a job made in heaven! No sooner had the trusty 4.3 m ducky Dragon Prawn been dusted off, holes patched, wheels fitted (yes there is nothing more useful than a boat with wheels) and tied to the roof rack, Ryan Woodland and myself were driving west across the Basalt Plains, toward the setting sun and their first site at Port Fairy.


Port Fairy – Moyne River Estuary and Belfast Lough

It could be said that that the first day of the project was a ‘shake down’ day – both literally and metaphorically. It always takes at least a day to iron out the glitches and get an efficient work flow sorted out, including working out the best way to set up my Magic Box of Tricks (MBOT for short), including battery, computer, sidescan sonar, bathymetry and video units in a rather small, flimsy looking tent, with what I think was a modest size monitor. Ryan was enviously eyeing this off as bigger than the one on his office desk (lucky I didn’t fit the 60” plasma ... as I have done in the past!). After a none-too-short gearing up time (i.e. ages and ages), we finally got in the water fired up the electronics (no problems there) and headed upstream, well for a few minutes anyway until I ran aground...luckily there didn’t seem to be anyone watching. Some time later we made it to Belfast Lough, not having been delayed by running aground several more times even slightly. It was about then we discovered the patch on the port pontoon was leaking, and we that we would be spending much of the day pumping the bellows to remain afloat.  At least it was calm.

We quickly got into a routine – habitat mapping is like mowing the lawn – up and back...up and back, constantly checking the computer is logging all the right data, but with plenty of time to admire the scenery, the cows and ... the gathering, darkening clouds. The wind soon picked up and we were hit by 30 kt squalls. The flimsy tent was not so flimsy after all and the gear withstood the wrath of the weather gods. A wind gust stole Ryan’s hat – his favourite, judging by the impressive superman dive he made after it. The waves soon built into massive 30 cm peaks and, with our inflatable only half full of air this made for a very annoying rocking.  Coupled with the constant need to pump up the pontoon and bail the incoming water, it was a long day on the water. Matt pumped while Ryan helmed – which meant we didn’t run aground anymore. It was all character building stuff though and we soon got to know the Lough like the back of our hands and did not run aground at all, very much. Returning to Port Fairy on dusk, sodden but successful, the squalls were clearing: a good omen for the following day. Needless to say, I spent the evening repatching the leaking pontoon.


Peterborough– The Curdies

Ryan and I headed east to Peterborough and the Curdies. The weather was much kinder – overcast skies but with light winds. We had the Dragon Prawn off the roof racks, geared up with the MBOT, and wheeled into the water.  In no time at all we were headed off down the channel. The Curdies is a coastal lake/lagoon in a rural setting with many ducks and swans. The swans were a sign: swans = shallow water. A relatively peaceful day was had, working our way down the lake. Only half of it was navigable depth, the rest we had to leave to the swans. Not having to pump up the pontoon was bliss. The clouds were brewing and broiling to the west throughout the day and it looked like a heavy front was on the way so we got off the water, but the presaged storm never eventuated. We hightailed it back to Melbourne, dosed up on good coffee and country cooking.


Wingan Inlet

Wingan Inlet lies in the far east of the state, 6 hours and 50 minutes from Melbourne to precise. It is well worth the long drive though. The inlet nestles in densely wooded hills and is very picturesque. For this trip, I was assisted by Kevin, a volunteer from Malaysia who had never been in the Australian bush or to the Victorian coast before, so this was a trip jam-packed with new experiences for him. We arrived in the early afternoon to set up our remote research station and were soon greeted by a large goanna snuffling around the campsites for food and climbing the nearby trees. Kevin went and hid in the tent but seemed reassured when I told him it was only the killer possums he need worry about. Kevin whipped up an amazing Katsu Don for dinner and a pleasant evening was spent around a small smoky fire.


The next morning commenced with pancakes, as every field excursion should, only the pan was sticky and the pancakes were a failure (that’s my excuse anyway) and I went to plan B – burnt toast. Eating toast was tricky though, as the eagle-eyed kookaburras would swoop it out of your hand no sooner had the jam been applied.


We setup the Dragon Prawn with the MBOT and headed out onto the mirror-calm waters of the inlet. We wound our way up the river and into the beautiful valley and encroaching forest. The sonar side-scanning on the way back was interesting, seeing fallen trees and branches underwater. We worked our way back down the river and lagoon area towards the sand banks at the southern end. Some bush walkers, trying to cross the inlet and return to camp, were squished onto Dragon Prawn and taken on a transect run back to camp, offering opportunity for some interesting conversations. Toward low tide we headed to the entrance channels, altnavigating between sandbanks with pelicans standing tall over the boat. They were much taller than Kevin and it took a bit to convince him he was not going to get eaten by the birds eyeing him from above (I probably should not have told him he was more likely to get eaten by killer possums). We beached the boat on one of the sand banks to stretch our legs and enjoy the sun and sand after four hours cramped in a small boat. The rest of the afternoon was spent zigzagging around collecting bathymetry data. Kevin had his first ever go at helming a boat, a steep learning curve on the use of outboard and tiller. Thus it was the transects had more zag than zig and some of the near-shore sampling was more on-shore than near-shore (but hey, who am I to talk!).


After another fantastic Malaysian dish cooked by Kevin, the fire was stoked up for a couple of glasses of wine and toasted marshmallows. A not-so-killer possum came to join us and failed to viciously attack Kevin. Owls and bats flitted in the darkening sky.


The following morning we packed up the research station, carefully guarding our toast from marauding kookaburras. With reluctance we left the inlet and headed home for the Easter break.





Following Easter, Kevin and I commenced a marathon program to survey the remaining estuaries. Next on the list was the Aire River near Cape Otway – a series of channels and lagoons on a valley floor nestled between steep-sided hills and, dare I say it again, very picturesque. The entrance was closed and recent rains filled the estuary up by an extra 1.7 m, making the navigation and mapping easier than it might have been. Parks Victoria lowered the water level the next day so our timing was fortunate. Kevin got to hone his helm skills, with squally easterlies making this a very challenging job. Reed beds on the inlet edges limited the extent of our ‘on-shore sampling’ experiences.alt


Kororoit Creek

The next day we swapped the countryside setting for the urban vista at Kororoit Creek in the heart of Melbourne, putting in at the Altona Boat ramp. Our set up garnered considerable interest. I guess a rubber ducky with a tent on board, bristling with electronics and being wheeled into the water is not a common sight at a boat ramp. With no wind or waves to speak of the water visibility was amazing, so we had a very pleasant cruise over the reefs and sand banks to Kororoit. Kororoit Creek only features a small surveyable area and we were soon heading back to the boat ramp, passing through a pelican and seagull feeding frenzy and dodging the naked old guy having a wash. We hit the road and battled the peak hour traffic on our journey to Port Albert. We stopped at Cranbourne for a quick bite to eat and thankfully got takeaway as someone tried to steal the ducky off the roof rack while we were inside the shopping centre.


Tarra Estuary – Port Albert

After a pleasant evening and a meal in the country town of Yarram, we arrived at the Port Albert boat ramp to blasting easterlies, overcast skies and rain. Cosy in our wet weather gear, we wheeled the trusty Dragon Prawn into the choppy waters and motored off. Right then a squall came through, coinciding with the computer jamming up. Kevin’s new helming skills were put to the test to keep us off the lee shore in a cross-current, while I had my head down in the not-so-magic MBOT to reset the gear. We copped a few soaking waves over the side before getting on our way. I also discovered my wet weather pants had a hole in the bum, so I spent the day sitting in a mobile, personal puddle of water. The sheltered northern reach of the bay made for easy surveying and a drop in the wind allowed similar efforts in the exposed southern section. We packed in record time and high-tailed it for Phillip Island in the evening.


Bass Estuary

The conditions on the Bass Estuary were the opposite to the wild ravages of Port Albert – warm, dry, quiet and mirror calm. We geared the Dragon Prawn up in the squishy mud of the estuary bank on a rising tide, only to notice the tide rising inside the boat as well – the floor of the ducky was holed. Kevin dutifully spent the whole day bailing. We made it back to Melbourne that evening, hosed off the mud and made repairs.



The Werribee River boat ramp is one of the busiest in Melbourne, at times quite a circus of people jostling to get boats in and out of the water. As expected, our curious setup turned a few heads and we were hassled for taking 5 microseconds too long on the ramp when wheeling our boat into the water. Karma dealt a fine hand as the hassler’s winch cable jammed with the boat half on their trailer and they spent the next half hour clogging up the boat ramp.



Surveying the outer estuary here presented a new challenge – the recreational fisher. The whole length of the shore and jetty bristled with fishing rods and lines. While I understand these people have a traditional privilege to catch fish to their heart’s content, I don’t understand why they can’t also have the courtesy to pull in their lines for a few seconds so that a boat can actually come ashore without getting hooked. There were some tense moments doing the slalom through the nylon line forest, but I didn’t hook up anyone’s line. In addition to mapping habitat, sidescan sonar revealed several sunken boats. We packed up at the ramp in record time, excluding that spent chatting to the lovely people in our boat ramp lane.


Back in Melbourne, the marathon field effort criss-crossing the state was over and we took a well earnt rest before the processing and mapping of the millions of collected data points began.




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