28 January, 2012

Still seeing green

Time for another quick algae update. The local media has been scattered with articles over the past several days and as of Wednesday morning, the Barwon has been closed upstream of Moorabool Street to below Baum's Weir according to information from the Corangamite Catchment Management Authority who are responsible for monitoring the river's health.
Lake Connewarre is also closed but the river at Barwon Heads is not, despite toxin levels being high there too. Certainly there was no visible indication of the algae at Barwon Heads a week ago, however the problem with the toxins produced by blue green algae is that, unlike the algae itself, they are colourless and odourless, meaning that it is not possible to gauge river health with the naked eye. In addition, the toxins can hang around longer than the algae, meaning that water quality can be unsafe even once the bloom is gone, as various authorities have been at pains to point out.
On Wednesday I thought I'd have a look at Lake Connewarre and see if the bloom was as spectacular there as the one upriver, however I was to be disappointed on this occasion. Water levels were clearly lower than over winter and I could certainly see a distinctly green tinge to areas of the lake, but nothing like the luminescent shades at Queen's Park.
Blue green algae at Lake Connewarre
As of Friday morning, the river was still closed to water activities - although for some reason this doesn't seem to include rowers as it seemed that every school for a good many miles around had at least one crew on the water. Maybe they are immune to such toxins or perhaps too tough to care!
 In my own quest to maintain some grit, I went for a run to Queen's Park and back and snuck a quick glance at the river on my way past. Certainly it was still more green than brown in many parts, but there didn't seem to be quite the same crust of algae covering the surface of the water near the lilies as there was earlier in the week.
Women's coxed fours
Nor it seems is a bit of green muck a hindrance to a two day rowing carnival on the river. The competitors, officials and supporters assembled bright and early Saturday morning and with appropriate warnings about the action to be taken in case of contact with river water proceedings got under way as they have done on the Barwon for over 140 years. A previous post here has looked at the history of rowing on the Barwon.
Geelong Grammar eight

Corio Bay Rowing Club double scull
And so the events continued seemingly with no ill effects either for the rowers or the family of ducks paddling in the shallows. Meanwhile, we sat on the bank on a sunny afternoon and took in the view, high and dry and safe from the algae.
By contrast, the weather forecast for the next couple of days is not quite so benign and there may well be some rain to flush the system clean. Help may also be at hand in the form of a serendipitous release of 40 million litres of water into the Moorabool from the reserves at Lal Lal. Whilst it won't be much help upstream of Fyansford, it may help water quality downstream through Geelong.
This ten day release which began on the 23rd January is one of three for the summer designed to deliver "environmental" flows to the river, enhancing the benefits already derived from the good rainfall over the last year. It has also been timed to coincide with the release of 27 million litres of water per day into the river for use by Geelong over the summer months.
So hopefully with a little time and a bit more water, all should soon return to normal.

24 January, 2012

A sea of green...

Over the past few days there have been a couple of reports in the paper warning of a blue green algae outbreak in the Barwon. Testing of Lake Connewarre has returned high levels of toxins with further tests to take place. The more serious possibility that conditions downstream at the river mouth, where hundreds of tourists and locals per day are enjoying an extended spell of warm weather in and on the river, might be hazardous as well was also an issue. The first article appeared two days after we'd been there ourselves and the boys had both been paddling in the shallows. Great!
Well, several days later and no sign of any ill effects, however today's paper had a subsequent article - complete with graphic photos - of a subsequent outbreak at Queen's Park. Signage has been erected and the usual warnings issued.
Warning signs duly noted!
Not satisfied with reading the paper, I decided to head down to the river and snap a few shots of my own. Wow! They weren't kidding. Upon arrival, I was confronted with what can only be described as a lurid green Barwon River swirling with muck.
My First stop was at the nearby "duck pond" which was murky green and smelt vile (but the latter is not so uncommon). Clearly the ibis, ducks and egret who were happily paddling about in the pond were not too perturbed by either the colour or the smell. Good thing they can't read, or they might have been a little more concerned.
Barwon River at Queen's Park
Next, I wandered over to have a look at the river itself near the Queen's Park Bridge. Well, there was certainly no doubting that an algal bloom had occurred. Everything was green. Needless to say, I wasn't about to go paddling in the water, but even from above, I could see that the turbidity levels must just about have been off the scale.

Blue green algae swirling in the current
 Except for the fact that this stuff is rather nasty and can lead to all sorts of health problems (see my previous post on the subject here) it was actually rather pretty. The current was making all sorts of intricate patterns from the millions of green specks infesting the water and where the water lapped at the bank or became caught up in a backwater, lines and swirls were forming on the water's surface and a solid layer of teal coloured muck was collecting.
Blue green algae amongst the lily pads
In the calmer area slightly downstream where the water lilies grow, the algae were tending to collect, forming a crust on the surface of the water. All rather bad news for the water quality, but quite cool to photograph.
A build up of blue green algae near Queen's Park
As I took my photos, various water birds continued to make use of the water, seemingly unaffected by the outbreak. So too did two crews intent on their rowing practise along with their support boats which caused small waves to lap at the bank, but didn't significantly disturb the green goop.
Water lilies in the blue green algae at Queen's Park
 After a few minutes, I had taken the shots I'd come for and headed for home. The next rain is forecast for later in the week-end or early next week. I would think a fairly good downpour would be needed to clear out the green goo and get things back to normal once more. Until then, I for one won't be going swimming!

21 January, 2012

For king and country

Sticking to the topic of shipwrecks at Barwon Heads for a while longer, it may be of interest to take a look at a completely different ship from a very different time period.
The wreck of the SS Orungal took place on the 20th November, 1940. To set the scene, it is necessary to consider events occurring across the world at that time. Europe was in the grip of World War II and Australia as part of the Allied Forces, was also under a very real threat of attack.
World War I Propaganda poster at Fort Queenscliff
However, measures to guard against such attacks, had been put in place by the Colonial Government many decades earlier. These took the form of a string of forts and gun batteries encircling the bay. Chief amongst the forts was Fort Queenscliff on Shortland's Bluff with others including Point Nepean, Fort Cheviot, Fort Pearce and the South Channel Fort built on a shoal inside the bay. Gun batteries were also placed at various points around the bay and at the entrance to the Heads. The aim of these strategically positioned defensive posts was to cover the shipping channels in and out of the bay, enabling them to be blocked in times of emergency. Remains of some of the gun batteries can still be seen amongst other places, at Point Lonsdale and on the strip of land connecting Queenscliff to Point Lonsdale, known as The Neck.
The remains of military fortifications near the Point Lonsdale Lighthouse
Fortifications were also positioned in nearby Swan Bay and the newly built rail line (1879) from Geelong to Queenscliff - see the earlier blog on the Bellarine Rail Trail - was used to transport men and supplies to the fort. Further defense was provided by the laying of mines outside the Heads.
All of this, meant that Port Phillip Bay became the most heavily guarded harbour in the Southern Hemisphere and it was upon orders from Fort Queenscliff that the first Allied shots of World War I were fired from Fort Nepean across the bows of a German freighter (Pfalz) attempting to escape the harbour on 5th August, 1914. In an eerie co-incidence, the first shots of the Second World War in the Far East were fired by the same gun, this time across the bows of an Australian coastal vessel (Woniora) which failed to stop for an inspection when requested on 3rd September, 1939.
It was in this environment then, that the SS Orungal attempted to make her entry into Port Phillip Bay. Prior to the beginning of the war, the SS Orungal, was one of nine ships plying the Australian coastal trade. She, along with six of the other ships were commandeered for military transport at the outbreak of the war, however having been deemed unsuitable for this work, the SS Orungal returned to the coastal trade.
Built in Glasgow in 1923 and weighing 5826 tons she was originally named the Fezara, she was chartered by the Australiasian United Steam Navigation Company Ltd in 1927 and worked on the Melbourne-Queensland and Melbourne-Western Australia routes carrying passengers and mail.
On the night of her wrecking, the SS Orungal faced a south westerly storm whilst trying to enter the Heads through a channel which had been swept for mines. In the bad weather, the captain mistook the lights of Barwon Heads for Point Lonsdale. A lightning flash revealed his mistake and he immediately took measures to correct his course, however it was too late, and the SS Orungal ran aground on Formby Reef, a little east of the mouth of the Barwon River.
Photo of the SS Orungal burning taken from the Australian
Merchant Navy Website
Fortunately, the ship was found to be safe and the alarm raised by the use of flares and the ship's whistle. The passengers were then entertained in the music room before returning to their cabins until the Queenscliff lifeboat arrived sometime near dawn at which point all crew and passengers were safely removed from the ship.
The inevitable inquiry cleared the captain and crew of any wrong-doing, finding that abnormal currents were to blame for the wreck.
Rusted boilers of the SS Orungal on Formby Reef
During an attempt to re-float the ship in December, a fire took hold in her boiler room, seriously injuring two people after which, the burnt out remains were sold to Whelan the Wrecker. These subsequent salvage attempts also almost came to grief when, unannounced, the RAAF began firing upon the vessel as strafing practise. The remains of the vessel were then transferred to another owner. Eventually, the effects of time, salvage and the weather took their toll. Today, all that remain are two of her boilers which can be seen amongst the surf at low tide.

The wreck of the Charlemont

The Barwon River has never really played a significant role in Australia's shipping trade. Punts and ferries were used to to cross the river in the early days of European settlement prior to bridges being built and the Wathaurong used bark canoes, however the Barwon has never really been used for the mass transport of goods and people.
The various weirs and breakwaters  along the lower reaches of the river and a variety of low bridges make navigation impossible for large vessels and nor is its depth suitable for the purpose. Consequently, the only real link between the river and shipping (the daily passage of container ships and the Spirit of Tasmania past the river mouth not withstanding) is the several shipwrecks which have taken place on the reefs and beaches surrounding Barwon Heads.
View west and south from Barwon Heads Bluff
One of the best known shipwrecks to occur off the coast only a few hundred metres from the mouth of the river was that of the Earl of Charlemont. The vessel was a three masted, ship-rigged, 878 ton clipper, with a crew of 37 and carrying 366 passengers - immigrants from England. She departed Liverpool on 13th March, 1853 on her maiden voyage with the intention of making a quick stop in Port Phillip before heading onwards to Sydney with the majority of her immigrant passengers.
However, in a heavy fog at 4am on 18th June, 1853 she struck a reef - now known as Charlemont Reef - only a few hundred metres south west of Barwon Heads Bluff. Some reports indicate that three lives were lost, including that of a passenger who suffered a heart attack shortly after the ship struck the reef, however media reports of the day indicate no loss of life. The passengers and crew were landed on the beach below the Bluff by means of running a line from the stricken ship to the shore. Three lifeboats capsized in the heavy conditions whilst attempting to achieve this aim and a line was only secured when a passenger was able to swim the rope to crew members on the shore who had scrambled down the broken mast and rigging and swum to shore. The survivors were then taken ashore in one of the rescued lifeboats which was secured to the line. Women and children went first, then the invalids and married men and then the remaining passengers and crew. This operation took until 8:30 that night to complete.
It was not long before the alarm was raised and someone sent overland from the Heads to investigate. However, being unable to cross the Barwon in rough conditions he returned and sent word to Geelong where the police magistrate was informed of the situation on Sunday morning.  The master and second mate from the pilot boat Boomerang were able - at some risk - to swim across to the immigrants to help with the rescue effort which also included the removal of the passengers' luggage from the stricken vessel.
By Monday, the ship Anonymous was sent in parkland near the Barwon Heads Bridge the scene in an attempt to provide assistance, but was unable to make a safe landing and returned to its base at Williamstown.
The immigrants meanwhile, found shelter on the property of Mr McVean. This gentleman provided them with supplies and assistance until more could be sent from Geelong on drays. Those who couldn't be accommodated in either his house or outbuildings found warmth around large fires until the authorities arrived and their transfer to Geelong began.
Anchor salvaged from the Earl of Charlemont
Despite his passengers attributing no blame to their captain he - Captain Garner - was found guilty at a later inquest of negligence and had his captain's license suspended.
Over time and with the "assistance" of wreckers, the ship broke up and its remains sank to the sea floor. It was not until 1961 that they were rediscovered by local divers who with the help of a group of divers from the Barwon Grove Skindivers in 1972 were able to raise the ship's anchor which today stands in parkland near the Barwon Heads Bridge. The ship's bell was also salvaged and can be found in All Saints Church. What is left of the wreck still lies on the sea floor and continues to draw the attention of interested divers. The following blogs posted here, by a local diver show photos and give a description of the site as he found it in 2011.
The wreck of the Earl of Charlemont is also remembered in various other ways. Local author and member of the dive team which raised the ship's anchor in 1972 - Brian Latter - has devoted an entire book "Breakers Ahead - Wreck of the Earl of Charlemont" to the topic. Then of course there is Charlemont Court, Ocean Grove and at a point some distance inland but not too far from the banks of the Barwon River, Charlemont Road runs south from the swampy land which surrounds Reedy Lake and Hospital Swamp.
Road sign in Marshall
In addition, the name Charlemont has recently been selected for one of the new suburbs to be built as part of the Armstrong Creek development in the same area.

18 January, 2012

What's the Point?

Lonsdale actually. Point Lonsdale. And its connection to the Barwon River? Well, that's a little tenuous too, but here goes. From The Bluff above Barwon Heads, the narrow entrance to Port Phillip Bay is clearly visible.
Looking towards Point Lonsdale and the Rip from Barwon Heads Bluff
The Rip as it is known is one of the ten most dangerous passages of water in the world. It incorporates the stretch of water between Point Nepean and Point Lonsdale outside and Shortland's Bluff just inside the heads at Queenscliff. The distance between Point Lonsdale and Point Nepean is only 3.5km wide.
A huge amount of water flows in and out of this narrow entrance to Port Phillip Bay with the movements of the tide. The depth of water within The Rip varies from 100m to as shallow as 5m whilst just outside the Heads it is only 30m. Within the bay, depths reach 90m, creating dangerous currents which have brought many ships to grief over the last 200 years.
Queenscliff Black Lighthouse
These factors along with an array of reefs and rocky shoals mean that there is a navigable passage through the Heads not more than 1km wide and in the case of larger vessels, significantly less than this. Consequently all ships entering the bay must be guided by a qualified pilot. Whilst some vessels carry their own pilot, most rely on the services of the Port Phillip Pilots, based at Queenscliff who use their powerful and brightly coloured pilot boats to ferry the 30 former ships' masters who act as pilots, to and from the vessels entering and leaving the bay.
Commercial shipping is controlled from the Point Lonsdale Light House (aka the Point Lonsdale Light Station) and the pilots navigate their way through the Heads using a number of lights and beacons including the two lighthouses at Queenscliff - the black (or Queenscliff High Light) and the white (or Queenscliff Low Light). By aligning the lights from the two lighthouses, one above the other, pilots are able to determine the correct bearing on which to enter the Heads.
Mouth of the Barwon River from Barwon Heads Bluff
Of course, whether coming or going all shipping passes the other heads - Barwon Heads, where the Barwon River meets Bass Strait.
As the crow flies, Barwon Heads and Point Lonsdale are separated by little more than 10km. A stroll around the coast via the beach is a little longer and for those who like to exercise in company, then the annual "Rip To River" run takes place each summer over a 10km course starting from the Point Lonsdale Light House and finishing on the beach at the Ocean Grove Life Saving Club.
Whilst I like walking on the beach, running on sand is not exactly my thing, so this is one "fun run" I haven't undertaken.
Point Lonsdale Lighthouse
I do however, intend to add a walk, perhaps from Shortland's Bluff to Point Lonsdale, and then from Point Lonsdale round to Ocean Grove to my to do list at some point in the not too distant future.

03 January, 2012


It is bushfire season. As the temperature in Geelong and surrounding districts peaked at 41 degrees yesterday, a small grassfire broke out near the Barwon River outside of the township of Stonehaven. On this occasion, it was contained within a few hours. Despite media and government reports of an aerial firefighting unit, several tankers from Geelong and surrounding towns and the possible presence of smoke, there was nothing to be seen from a distance. None-the-less, the tanker from Gnawarre became bogged and then trapped in the flames. No-one was injured, however the truck suffered substantial damage.
Ten News footage of the Gnawarre tanker in flames at Stonehaven
The potential for danger was clearly quite real and it got me thinking  about what role fire has played along the banks of the Barwon over the centuries. Certainly, the local Wathaurong tribes are known to have conducted burns as part of the land management strategies they used to encourage the propagation of various food sources. Studies have suggested that the current growth of native trees in what is believed to be an untouched remnant of bushland at Ocean Grove - not far from the Lake Connewarre Game Reserve - may have changed over the last 150 years with the cessation of burning by the Wathaurong tribes.
Man-made lake and remnant bushland in the Ocean Grove Nature Reserve
At the other end, near the headwaters of the Barwon, it is rather a different story. The Otway Ranges receive more rainfall than any other part of the state. This has lead to the growth of temperate rainforest which does not burn easily - if at all. I am informed that prior to European arrival, a bushfire could be expected in some parts of the Otways no more regularly than every 300-500 years!
With the arrival of white settlement however, things have changed somewhat. Clearfell logging has had an impact on the ability of the area to withstand bushfire damage and both have had a significant effect on water catchment capacity and water quality. Clearfell logging in the Otways ceased in May, 2008. It is predicted that within 60 years if no further logging takes place that water yields will increase by 10%.
Over time, damaged areas of bushland will regenerate, however even this comes at a cost to short term water catchment capacity. Young trees draw water from the soil, evaporating it through their leaves as they respire and grow. Old growth trees by contrast retard the flow of runoff water through the soil which remains moist, allowing more time for it to drain into the creeks and rivers of the catchment area. Likewise, bushfire can not only damage old growth trees, but it draws moisture from the ground which would otherwise end up in the catchments.
Section of regrowth  and old growth forest at West Barwon Dam
The West Barwon catchment area is largely old growth forest however, parts of this were burnt out during bushfires in the area in 1919 and again in the 1939 Black Friday bushfires when Victoria's rivers were reported to be at their lowest levels for 80 years. One story tells of Bill Kellas, a survivor of the more recent 2009 Black Saturday Bushfires who as a six year old boy, spent two days sheltering beside the Barwon in 1939 with his mother. They survived the bushfires by ducking beneath the surface of the river to avoid falling embers and hiding beneath wet blankets.
Bushfire management has come a long way since then and not surprisingly, the threat of bushfire in the Otways and along the Barwon is very much a "hot topic". So much so in fact that the authorities responsible for developing safety strategies in the region (the Department of Sustainability and Energy and Parks Victoria) have won the Motorola Innovation Knowledge Agency Award for those deemed the most progressive in the fields of fire and emergency.
Let's hope their innovations are effective!