Alfred Deakin High School

Teachwild Blog

Day 1: Tuesday 09/04/13

Travel to Phillip Island- Depart at 9:00 for 1hr Flight, 4hr wait at Melbourne Airport, 3Hr Drive in Traffic to Phillip Island. Arrive at 7:00pm to the Volunteer House at the Phillip Island Nature Parks Research site.

Meet the Scientists and other participants.

Day 2 Wednesday 10/04/13

Activity 1

Penguin Research Lecture from Duncan Sutherland from the Phillip Island Nature Parks.

It is a not for profit organisation who conducts research on the Penguins and Shearwater colonies to ensure their conservation.  The management provides opportunities for Ecotourism which funds their research.

Interesting facts about Penguins:
  • They don’t mate for life like a lot of other birds.
  • There is between 20-40 % divorce rate after each season depending on their success at raising the chicks in the past year.
  • They can live for over 25 years however usually don’t survive for more than 7 years if they make it through to adulthood (3 years).

Some main threats to Penguin survival have been

  1. Starvation in the early years due to not being successful hunters and normal Marine Predation
  2. Pilchard population decline due to an introduced virus from the Aquaculture industry
  3. Fox predation
  4. Oil Spills
  5. Habitat loss due to the Summerland housing estate
  6. Car accidents

The Little Penguins (Fairy) have been recorded to dive to depths up 70 metres and can hold their breath for at least 2 minutes. Usually they only need to dive to depths of 20-30 metres to find their food as the Bass Strait is only about 40m deep on average. Fish depths are dictated by the thermoclines within the water column.

Management of the penguins has saved the Summerland colony and helped to increase their population from about 15 000 breeding pairs in the mid 1980’s to up to 32 000 breeding pairs now.

How have they done this?

By reducing the predation from Foxes, through trapping, baiting, hunting of the Foxes. They now have somewhere between 10 and 40 foxes left on the Island.

Government buy back of the Summerland Housing Estate and the removal of the houses to provide habitat and reduce the car accidents, and predation from domestic pets (dogs and cats). This cost about $40 million over 15 years to complete.

And by installing lots of nest boxes which the penguins have better success rates at raising their chicks than in a burrow they have dug themselves.

Their research also used a variety of techniques for population modelling of the penguins and shearwaters, their burrow locations and how they are mapped according to altitude, habitat type etc.

They have also done GPS tracking of the Penguins to observe their fishing habits outside of breeding season when they sleep on the water.

an already set up penguin nesting box

an already set up penguin nesting box

Activity 2

Marine Debris Survey

Dr Denise Hardesty led us on our Beach Transect and Emu Parade surveys of the marine debris at the Penguin Parade – Summerlands Beach.

A transect is a line from the water line up to the sand dune where you count what you are interested in for 1 metre either side of the line. So we had 2 people spotting and picking up any pieces of marine debris on the 20 metre transect. Our first transect found no debris, the 2nd found 2 pieces of plastic rope. We had to record the environmental conditions (weather), the GPS location of the transect and where the debris was found along the transect.

The Emu Parade required us all line up and walk together in the line picking up any marine debris any of us find for a 50 metre section of beach between 2 of our transects (which had to be 50 metres apart). This marine debris will be sorted and counted later in the trip.

While on the beach we saw a few birds and a Black snake. Unfortunately we saw a gull eating a dead penguin. We will perform a necropsy to see why it died and if it has been eating any plastic. Look at their pictures and try to identify them. You could try using a free Apple app called Climatewatch or any other identification tool you can find like the Victoria Museum’s biodiversity snapshot or their field guides.


Activity 3

Lecture from Dr Denise Hardesty on her research for the National Marine Debris Survey. She provided an overview of the research that I am participating in and how the surveys have been conducted on beaches and ocean surveys from ships all around Australia. She explained how students in schools and members of the public can get involved and complete beach surveys to contribute to the research.

We watched the Catalyst program and discussed the scale of the problem and the lack of research to support some of the links made in the program regarding the Mercury build up.

So is there much marine debris and is it a problem?

To give you an idea in 2002 scientific research estimated that 6.4 million tonnes of fishing gear alone is dumped in the ocean each year and it wasn’t even in the top 10 items found in beach and ocean surveys of marine debris! Beaches often have regained 50% of their waste within 3 months.

The Plastic Bag Mockumentary

If you haven’t watched the video yet please watch the catalyst video and the video from Dr Denise on the links below.

Activity 4

Tonight on dusk we visited the Ecotourism Penguin Parade to view the colony returning to their burrows. We were VIP’s who were able to go into the skybox where the staff count the penguins. We could see the penguins walking across the weighbridge. Over 800 birds came back to their nests tonight at this site. Why so few when so many live here? There are many sites that they can come ashore and it is also due to the time in the season. Breeding is finished and the moulting is happening. So a lot of adults have left the colony for fishing and fattening up for the moult or they are sitting in their burrows moulting for 17 days. They don’t leave or eat so before the moult they need to double their mass to have enough energy for the moult. Unfortunately some come back so fat that they can’t actually fit into their burrows so they hide in the bushes until they can fit. This is a bit of a risk as they are prime targets for foxes.

I had requests for a selfy with the penguins unfortunately cameras were banned in the venue. Have a think why flash photography wouldn’t be allowed. Has a video showing the GPS movements of the penguins during different seasons.

On the way home I was all alone and saw something hiding in the bushes and tried to take a photo.

There are some interesting facts about the Little Penguins  on the photos below.

Day 3 Thursday 11/04/13

Activity 1: Marine Debris Beach Survey- Woolamai Beach

Today I woke up to some light rain. So we headed out to do another debris survey in the rain at the famous Woolamai surf beach.

We completed 3 transects and an emu parade in the rain finding a surprising amount of surfboard wax, bean bag sized foam balls and lots of little plastic pellets which are called nirdles.

After we finished the rain eased and we went back to the Penguin Volunteer House to dry off, sort and count our emu parade data and enter all the data onto the CSIRO national Marine Debris Database.

sorting marine debris

sorting marine debris

Activity 2: Lunchtime Guest Speaker Dr Rebecca Overeem

Dr Rebecca spoke about her research on the Little Penguin colony on Middle Island, Warrnambool in Western Victoria near where I was born.  She told us how her research changed due to the impacts of 1 fox on the island that was killing up to 40 penguins nightly while there were no programs to monitor or manage the population let along trap or cull foxes on the island. She lobbied the council, while a uni student, to protect the penguins, which has eventually led to the council developing a program to manage and protect the colony which looked like it was going to collapse. Thankfully the colony has been maintained despite being a small through the help of Maremma dogs. To find out how dogs have helped to save penguins go to Maremma Dogs on Middle Island to watch the video. Maremma’s are also used in some farms. Catalyst also featured them only last month.

Her research changed to determining the genetic diversity of the population to find out if it could recover from the fox predation. To find out more about her or the other staff and their career stories read about them on the link below.


Later after lunch we performed Necropsies on 4 Short-tailed Shearwater birds. The first 2 birds were highly decomposed and were basically just feather and bones with a few pieces of plastic inside. The second 2 birds weren’t as decayed and therefore not as smelly and required a proper dissection of the internal organs. I assisted in one dissection recording all the important features of the dissection. First we had to take a sample from their oil gland which they use to preen their feathers and make them waterproof. We found 1 piece of plastic in the stomach, 13 pieces of plastic and 2 rocks in its gizzard and 1 rock in the intestines. The other bird only had about 3 pieces of plastic in it. We were going to complete another necropsy on a Penguin chick however ran out of time.

While these were being performed Dr Rebecca and Jacqui observed the necropsies and provided us with some more of their experiences and research with the Shearwaters and Penguins. Read about Jacqui on the link above as she completed a double degree similar to mine. Warning the photos of the Necropsies are graphic.

performing a necropsy

performing a necropsy

Activity 4: Watch Bag It

Tonight we watched a documentary called Bag It. I highly recommend everyone to watch this documentary.

I have also heard about a challenge to be plastic bag free during July. Check out the programs at  or next week

More information on the gyres and the plastics on midway island and how they impact the Albatross can be found at

And another video trailer is

Day4 Friday 12/04/13

Activity 1 Necropsies continued

This morning we performed more necropsies on several Shearwaters including a chick and 1 penguin. One Shearwater had a few flat worms which was interesting. But not much plastic was found. Jane dissected the Penguin Heart, Liver and Kidney which was interesting.

Activity 2 Went for a Walk

I explored the nearby Swan Lake saw a few waterbirds, then went for a walk along Flynn’s Beach and checked the surf out which was very nice so it was a shame I didn’t have a board with.

Activity 3 Seal Nets

TJ gave us a talk about the data collected on the seals entanglements in ghost fishing nets. Only 318 seals have been recorded as entangled out of a population of around 20 000 during a 15 year period. So is that significant and is it impacting the population? Unfortunately it is juveniles who become entangled more often due to the size of the nets fitting around them easier and they are more inquisitive and playful than the adults. Some interesting findings were that green nets were most common due to cost and the idea that green becomes invisible, to humans at least, in the water. Commercial fishing vessels cut tangled nets and the segments are often lost overboard or illegally dumped. She discussed the questions they have with the data and where they would like to take the research next.

Activity 4 Beach Transect Smiths Beach

This afternoon we completed our final beach debris survey at a popular town beach. This involved completing the 2 transects and emu parade on the beach amongst Friday afternoon beach goers. A few people asked us what we were doing. We found different debris here to the previous beaches with more food and beverage items.

On the way home we drove down to the far south western point of the island to see Seal Rocks. On the way I saw many great surf spots on each of the headlands with great waves. We used some binoculars to try to see the seals which were on an island 1.6km out to see. I am not convinced that I saw any it was just too far away to tell any difference from rocks.


After returning to the volunteer house we set about counting and sorting the debris, then finishing up data entry and cleaning up the equipment. This was interrupted by the discovery of a microbat in the researcher’s quarters. It was in in a bin in the toilet. A Koala researcher found it and collected it. They fed it some water in a pipette and let it wake up before it flew off into the sunset.


 Day 5 Saturday 13/04/13
Travel to Woolamai Beach to observe the juvenile Short-tailed Shearwaters or Mutton Birds. We only saw a few trying to practice flying and no adults as they have all departed for this season. They migrated up to the Berring Sea. We could see their burrows and saw the big Pacific gulls trying to catch the chicks. Expedition debriefing on site at Woolamai Beach headland.Agenda: Wake up at 5:30AM ! On a Saturday morning.

short-tailed shearwater burrows

short-tailed shearwater burrows

Return for Breakfast

Cleanup, pack up and depart for Melbourne Airport.

If you would like to be involved in the Marine Debris Survey you can check out their facebook page  Marine Debris Australia Facebook


  1. Belinda Bartlett

    I am really enjoying reading your Blog Brad. The Necropsies are revealing – 13 pieces of plastic in the gizzard really amplifies the problem in our ecosystem. I hope students reading this are excited andmotivated – your supporting vids, career directions and information from this project are most inspiring! PS: pictures most recently loaded are not opening on your blog, but open in new tab when clicked on!!

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