Aboriginal Stewardship of North Stradbroke Island / Minjerribah, AU

Conservation on North Stradbroke Island / Minjerribah, AU

One of the world’s largest sand islands, North Stradbroke Island, or Minjerribah to the Aboriginals who inhabited it for tens of thousands of years before Anglo settlers, has a University of Queensland research station where my class went to study tropical conservation ecology.  An upside down-wedge shape, sliced off the mainland, the island encloses Moreton Bay, much of which is a protected marine park for a fragile sea-grass ecosystem that is famous for being home to lovable and highly endangered Dugongs.  The University of Queensland studies these sea-grass grazing Sirenids by tagging them, a process that requires chasing them at surprisingly high speeds in a zodiac, until they tire enough to be pounced on and mounted by several burly lads who risk breaks and concussions from the massive animals that can weigh over 2,200ibs.  Unfortunately, we did not spot any on our tour of the bay, but it was still nice to know they were around.  It is primarily loss of habitat and boat strikes, along with pollution related diseases, decimating the Dugong populations.  To further their plight, it probably doesn’t help that traditional hunting by spearing and netting still occurs without any form of management.

North Straddie, as the island is know by locals, borders both the South Pacific Ocean and the Coral sea, and in the shallow tidal waters there thrives a community of highly resilient corals which local scientist, and our boat captain, Kevin, is particularly proud of. These corals may be the last survivors as sea temperatures and levels rise, along with the ocean’s acidity, dooming the majority of calcium carbonate, Scelractinian, or reef-building corals.   In the Northern Great Barrier Reef, corals host more sensitive symbiotic algal clades, which in a hot water situation will be quicker to abandon their coral hosts and leave them bleached, with a high risk of subsequent mortality.  Fully wet-suited, we jumped into the chilly, murky water, home to many a bull-shark, to glimpse these corals, which are the most fluorescent I have ever seen.  Indeed, it was the first time I see corals that look like the ones sold in aquarium shops to glow under black lights.  On a side note, captain Kevin’s wife is a sea turtle researcher and he shared with us a story of how she solved a recent case of mysterious sea turtle deaths.  The deceased turtles appeared healthy until, lodged in their throats, the diligent researcher found tiny blue ringed octopus, one of the most venomous marine animals in the world.  This local critter’s neurotoxin is 10,000 times stronger than cyanide, and can dispatch an animal much bigger than its prey which consists of small crabs and other crustaceans.

Nestled peacefully into a residential community in the town of Dunwich, the Moreton Bay Research Center has an oceanfront view and a long intertidal sand flat in its front yard.  Here, we analyzed quadrats for different sea grass species and investigated invertebrates from the low to the high littoral.  I saw my first Crinoid, or Sea Lily, an echinoderm with more than five feathery arms, which float it through the water, and a vestigial stalk, which looks like little legs on its underside.  We were warned that if we ventured too deep into the water the bull-sharks would rip us to pieces.  This was the sad fate of an unfortunate local who was wading in the shallows with her small dog some years ago.  She no doubt tried to save the dog and ended up caught in a frenzied milieu.  These notoriously shark-infested waters are also home to Stone Fish, Blue Ringed Octopus, Cone Snails and the occasional Box Jellyfish, all of which can kill you with a single touch, long before you reach the nearest hospital.  I didn’t let this bother me too much as I lifted encrusted rocks with bare hands, away from the watchful supervisors, but I did jump back at a sea squirt’s slightest reprisal.

We also drove up and across to the north westernmost point, aptly named Lookout Point, where our professor suggested we walk the cliff trail in order to spot sea turtles, dolphins and migrating humpback whales.  “Sure, as if we will happen upon all sorts of rare mega fauna on this short tourist trail,” we thought.  Then, after a few hundred meters, I easily spotted a pod of Bottlenose Dolphins foraging in the clear turquoise sea, far below a marauding sea eagle with a brown body and a white head.  A few hundred meters later, a friend pointed out green turtles surfacing from a deep foray inside a long finger cove between high, volcanic cliffs.  Shortly after, we noticed humpbacks breaching on the horizon, and a pair of the majestic whales even hauled by near the coast, moving at full speed and breathing heavily.  It would have been an epic, albeit dangerous place to free dive, and I soon had no doubt that anything could appear within these waters.  We did, however, spot some snorkelers diving from a small motorboat, likely  collecting abalone and crayfish, and several surf-casters also braved the wind and spray.  Around the point there is an eternal white sand beach, and a huge, lodge-like building that is a lifeguard school with a million dollar view.  Surfers were riding individual peaks that rolled in continuously.

Back at the field station, we had a timely introduction to aboriginal culture in a presentation given by a local tribal man named Matt, who had more muscles in his forearm than I have in my entire body, and was not someone you would want to mess with.  His daughter, named an Aboriginal name for Koala, and having a slight resemblance to the cute, albeit grumpy local tree dwellers, helped him with his many props.  Noonuccal and Gorenpul are the people who have inhabited the island historically, and like the Torres Islanders of Northern Australia, they subsisted for thousands of years primarily off of sea turtle and dugong meat, as well as local fruits, roots and berries.  More recently, people like Matt have adopted kangaroo hunting with traditional, long, iron-tipped spears, which would have originally been made of bone. Matt had many painted and plain, aboriginal tools, ceremonial objects, shields and weapons from across the country, and surprised us with a smooth, wooden mortar that was also used “to take care of women’s business.”  We were also shocked to learn that many of the weapons were used for punishment as well as for hunting and warfare.  In many parts of Australia, Matt explained, Aboriginal law comes before Crown law, and he still remembers, as a kid, witnessing a man suffer the penalty for having dealt drugs and also slapped a younger girl.  Matt will never forget the man scream and his anklebone shatter under the blow of a wooden mallet.  More serious offenses could get a spear driven through your leg.

On a brighter note, Matt talked about Aboriginal sign language, and demonstrated a “hey, do you have any grog, is your wife home?” Which he afforded was pretty much the extent of his knowledge in those respects.  Matt then turned the conversation to that of music, and the famous didgeridoo, which comes from more central parts of the country.  Matt busted out an impressive didge solo, in which he mimicked at least five different animals in one circular breath, with added hand motions for us inexperienced listeners to identify the eagle, dog, snake and other local fauna that comprise the aboriginal people’s extended family.  We also had a chance to walk the Goompi Trail, my favorite trail name yet, and Matt taught us briefly how to make paint from local stones, start a fire with local plants and throw the famous boomerangs, which after much practice, and nearly breaking the van windows, we were able to aim more or less. There is not just one boomerang shape, but many, each with a different and specific purpose be it for war or hunting.

At the end of the trip, in Brisbane, we happened upon another Straddie local, Joshua Walker, introducing the Mulula Tabil ban, or dancers of the sand and the sea.  This performing group from Moreton Bay aims to be “the beginning of an expanding base for opportunity for Aborigines in the Cultural/performing Arts industry, and a stepping stone for young people to shape their own destiny.”  As Joshua clapped two loud stones together and sang powerfully ethereal songs with vibrating high and low tones in his native tongue, and the dancers did simple routines in front of a seated man with a didgeridoo, I felt lucky to receive a farewell song performed by a locals from the starting place of our Australian journey. It was also comforting to be reminded of their ongoing respect for their native wildlife, which once guided them spiritually and physically, even helping them fish in the case of the dolphins and sea eagles.  Timeless messages, such as having had the ability to communicate and cooperate with the highly intelligent dolphins in the wild, and learning from the sea eagle to never take the first fish in a school, so that the rest of the fish would follow, resonate in conservation management and environmental ethics today.  It was likewise cool to see a Sea Shepherd sticker on Matt’s truck, next to the Aboriginal flag, a yellow sun framed by black on top and red on the bottom.

If Matt and his daughter represent the new generation of Aboriginals, then Margaret Iselin, better known as Auntie Margaret, speaks for the sad and poignant past of these oppressed peoples.  A local aboriginal elder, and daughter of a tracker, Auntie Marg is now the local authority on native plants and their traditional uses.  A cute, stalwart, grey haired lady in her 80’s, Auntie Marg is a pillar in the Aboriginal community and someone who remembers how things were for her mentors, or grannies as she called them.  Granny Lillian Lifou and Grannie Alison Parsons were shown to us in an old black and white picture from the turn of the century, which revealed a clearly hardened and resolute group of men, women and children, at that time confined to Myora mission.  Until recent times, this community had to survive by doing whatever labor was available, including the unpleasant work of changing bandages at the leper colony on Peel Island across the way.  Where as many American Indian groups were segregated together on reservations, the practice of stealing children from their families, changing their names and brainwashing them into British culture, was commonly inflicted on Aboriginals into the early 1900’s.  One social program alive today aims to trace people genetically and re-discover their birth names.

Marg’s expertise is in plants, but she is also involved in the nursing of the local youth, and her favorite story is of a local boy who blossomed into a specialist doctor that now treats fly-induced eye infections in under-serviced Aboriginal communities in Central Australia.  Marg has kept youths out of trouble and even out of jail, and also shares with local school groups her knowledge about the natural world, emphasizing its ongoing value to the community.  She kept asking for confirmation of historical events from our professor, Simon, but calling him Kevin instead, which got a lot of laughs and is something my own grandma would do.  She also reminded us of how hard things have been for indigenous peoples in Australia, and how an Aboriginal’s legal status did not go from animal to person until the 1960’s, around the same time of the Civil Rights Movement in America.

Margaret credited the local sand mining operation for rescuing her people from poverty, and for providing much needed services such as the local healthcare center.  The current mining operation has exhausted its terrain and is moving to new grounds, while the recently ratified National Park on the island will not allow new mining initiatives to develop.  Therefore, despite her appreciation for the natural state of the island, Marg is more concerned with the livelihood of people who do not yet have the necessary socio-economic means and education to look for work elsewhere.  As in the case of some indigenous communities in the in the American Southwest, and many other culturally-displaced peoples such as hers, Auntie Marg knew that not everyone is suited to be a park ranger, and that the alternative might be vagrancy and drugs.  Ironically, Auntie Marg is not in support of the National Park, nor for that matter, of the recently instated Native People Title laws, which in her mind further impede the Aboriginal community’s rights to the land with increased bureaucracy.  For instance, if she wants to go harvest a plant for her studies she must now undertake a political greasing process that was previously unnecessary.

Auntie Marg said she did not know how much longer she could keep up her work in her old age, but that as long as she had the vitality she would endeavor to retrieve, record, and revive traditional language and culture, and preserve a record of the traditional uses and names of indigenous plants.  These plant recipes are to be used only for good, and she no longer writes about toxic plants in order to prevent people from causing harm to themselves or others.  However, some plants like Cunjevoi, a lily like plant is indeed poisonous if ingested, or in “Aboriginal-English,” Cunjevoi is chilla, but is also a healing balm if applied topically. Auntie Marg thus gives it a place in her book, translating “Aboriginals use conjevoi on burns and stings held in place with tea-tree bark,” as Goories use Cunjevoi on kulkuns and barter held in place with oodgeroo.  This is definitely the coolest language I have been so lucky to hear, and I join Marg in hoping it lives on well into the future.

Perhaps the most amazing plants on the island, with the most ecologically significant capabilities, are the mangroves.  I have always been captivated by the mystery and raw energy of the mangrove ecosystem, which essentially acts as the lungs of the intertidal community.  Our group pulled off the side of the road and followed a stream called Myora springs to its mouth, wading in the swiftly flowing water that is clear but reddish brown with tannins from the decomposing mangrove leaves.  We attempted to identify several different species of mangrove by looking at the leaves and root structure.  The prop roots, only characteristic of some mangrove species, look like broken stems protruding from the mud and are responsible for the plants respiration.  They thus need to be above the water’s surface for an extended period of time, and rising sea levels or increased sedimentation can drown them.  When we did our practice Environmental Impact Assessment, pretending to work for a hotel developer who would be replacing the recreational fishing area and campsite with a huge luxury hotel, we found that damage to the mangroves would be the most detrimental factor to the local ecosystem.  The Mangroves are closely interlinked with the sea grass beds and corals, helping to retain excess sedimentation and providing a nursery ground for juvenile fish, mollusks and crustaceans.  On a side note, while working on the environmental assessment at the camping area, I noticed that a group of about 20 student kayakers were setting up to paddle in a ludicrously small shark-netted swim area near the main channel.

The wildness of the open ocean was evident in the presence of a bottlenose dolphin outside the shark prevention net, playing with its food as he let a wounded mullet swim away from its jaws before re-capturing it.  A large sign said “environmental conditions make sharks more active in these waters.”  My initial impression of Australia, from the sandy island with its unique bush, to the fluorescent corals, my first spotting of a koala, the many rainbow lorikeets around the field station and the huge flying fox bats at night, the whales breaching from the beach, and the caricature-like locals at the Little Ship Bar, was certainly a lasting one.  If you forgot it by the time you went to sleep, the cacophony of psychotic birds would remind you at dawn the next morning.  The next stop for out class would be farther north into the famous Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, where untold ecological treasures awaited us.

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