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Environmental and Ecological Survey of the Australian Coast

As an island continent/country the coastal marine environment is a very important part of Australian life. In our beach nation over 85% of us live in coastal catchments and a quarter of our population live within three kilometres of the coast. It is also of great social and cultural importance for Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islanders and the general populace alike. Our interaction in an economic sense ranges from recreational uses, transport, fishing, tourism, and offshore petroleum estimated to be worth around $17 billion annually.

While the Windeward Bound circumnavigates Australia throughout 2002/2003, the Captain and crew have taken the opportunity to provide environmental data on various issues affecting our coastal marine environment. These include flora and fauna surveys (from Algae to Acacia and Plankton to Porpoise), seawater testing, port and marine debris surveys.

Our vision is to encourage people to participate in activities that allow them to enjoy: the ecology of our coastline; the history of our early maritime explorations; and to introduce people (especially youth) to this heritage.

In following in Flindersí wake, our aims and objectives are to:

  • complete an environmental and ecological survey in a similar fashion to, and for the first time since, Flindersí original writings. This survey will therefore be compiled, compared and contrasted with his findings.
  • where possible, coordinate and plan local Coastcare activities with the arrival of the Windeward Bound into ports across Australia.
  • compile data on the state of specific coastal marine environmental issues that we are physically able to come into contact with on the voyage such as marine debris, port issues, flora and fauna, and seawater testing.
  • draw attention to the problems affecting the coastline and to showcase how the help of Coastcare funding can help solve these issues.
  • showcase the use of non-toxic anti-fouling paints.


Australia is surrounded by the Indian Ocean to the west, the Southern Ocean to the south, the Pacific Ocean to the east and our northern shores are enveloped by the Arafura and Timor Seas. The dominating ocean currents are the South Equatorial Current to the north, the Leeuwin Current to the west, the Antarctic Circumpolar Current to the south, and the East Coast Current to the East.

With these unique characteristics a coastal marine environment has evolved over the past 600 million years and at present traverses a great range of climatic, geomorphological, oceanographic and biogeographical zones. In the absence of any major upwellings from the ocean, Australian waters have low nutrient status and low biotic productivity. In spite of this our waters are also home to a high proportion of endemic species and high diversity in temperate waters and in the tropics have the largest area of coral reefs in the world.

As Australia is the oldest continent and well worn by the elements it is also the driest, has infertile soils, variable weather patterns, dominated by floods and droughts, with most rainfall concentrated on the coasts draining directly into the ocean. The terrestrial and marine environment have evolved out of these conditions and since European settlement the river catchment discharge has been significantly altered in volume and content, through agriculture, forestry, urbanisation and transport.


Flora and Fauna Surveys

Under the guidance of Sir Joseph Banks and with the botanist Robert Brown aboard the Investigator, Matthew Flinders took the opportunity to collect as many specimens of plants and animals as was physically possible. Brown and Flinders noted, in their journals, the places along the coastline where they collected their specimens from, and it is in these documents that Brown listed many of the plant species found.

It is intended that where possible, on our re-enactment circumnavigation voyage, we will go ashore, in some of the places Flinders visited, and note the dominant species of plants and if deemed necessary send some to a herbarium to be catalogued. It is hoped that this will provide a snapshot of the present plant assemblage, in these areas, while noting any changes that may have occurred in the last 200 years such as introduced species, human impacts, or geomorphological changes.

The fauna surveys are less intensive and done when time, conditions and sightings allow. There are forms to be filled out for a sighting with the species description, location (latitude and longitude), time of day, weather conditions and number of them sighted. These are catalogued and sorted according to each region (Eastern, Northern, Western and Southern coasts) of the voyage and are also to be recorded in order of species.

Click here to view a summary of the species of fauna already sighted on this circumnavigation voyage.

Seawater Testing

Through the use of a digital microscope, which Apple supplied, images of plankton will be posted on our web site. It is hoped that people on board will be able to identify some of the specimens and for us to receive positive identification from others visiting the website.

Perceived variations in phosphate levels may encourage investigation of sources of outflow, looking closely at coastal land use, water catchments and possible natural inputs.

Testing of salinity levels has been used to demonstrate the salt water wedge effect near river mouths. Samples will be taken from the surface where it is more likely to be present at sea laying above the salt water, it may even show evidence of "wonky holes" - fresh water springs discharging from the ocean floor believed to be present in parts of Northern Queensland.

Water has been tested for presence of oils by using the same chemicals as used in wet chemical fire extinguishers. This converts the oils to soap. It is most effective on animal and vegetable oils, though milkiness is achieved with petroleum products. The devised system gauges the degree of opacity through the level of soap/froth in the test tube when shaken.

Turbidity will be tested using a sechi disc in the usual form attached to a marked line measured in metres, and in conjunction with the salinity test, the measured distance from river mouths and estuaries may provide possible clues to a source.

Water temperatures will be documented and may provide evidence of water currents on a local, regional or oceanic scale and may even prove a baseline when viewed in the long term, depending on a number of factors. The level of pH will also be included in our water testing for evidence of any variation, this will be posted with other data on the web site and where differences may occur an appropriate source of the alteration may be investigated.

Port Survey

During the course of the voyage the vessel will be docking into over 150 ports and settlements each with a variety of services available that are, at times, difficult at best to know exist. Services such as recycling, oil waste and electrical 3 phase plug in facilities are not available in every port. As part of our commitment to environmental and maritime safety we are conducting a survey in each port we berth in so that we and other users can access the information via the web site and make better informed decisions about what to expect before arriving.

It is hoped that the survey will benefit users and save precious time, money and be of value to them in times of need from a safety perspective, but also from an environmental view to what recycling facilities are available in what port, or whether they have something of particular need such as a waste oil facility.

Marine Debris Survey

The coastal marine environment is, unfortunately, the last place for many by-products of modern society to find a resting place either sourced from beach goers, land litter (from drains and streams) and maritime operations. Marine debris is a danger to marine wildlife through entanglement, ingestion of plastics, and have wide ranging implications for fisheries and tourism operations. While few systematic surveys have been undertaken on the topic in Australia, the surveys that are available suggest that ocean currents play a great role in the final destination of the debris. It is with this in mind that our results will be posted on the web site and compiled at the end of our voyage to show the differences on our four major coasts.

Where possible our surveys will include taking a party ashore and collecting as much of the rubbish as possible to take back to the ship for a quantitative assessment of its content. Where this is not possible the shore party will fill in the survey based on a visual assessment of what is present. It is envisaged that this information will be used to add to the data currently available to be compared and contrasted with past surveys for detection of any change in debris content or volume.

Click here to view a summary of the marine debris surveys already completed on this circumnavigation voyage.

Jason Glover
September 2002


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