TeachWild – Phillip Island
Miss Beth Fuller
I was greeted by Geraldine from Earth Watch on my arrival to the Volunteer House, which is located right next door to Phillip Islands’ most famous residences – The penguins from the Penguin parade. Had a relaxed evening getting to know everyone over dinner and a yummy cheese platter. There are 10 teachers from Victoria, NSW, ACT, Tasmania and WA participating in this program over the 5 days – some primary school teachers and some secondary science teachers. Geraldine, Denise and TJ were from Earthwatch and CSIRO who are the scientists working on the marine debris project.
Outfitted in our cool new Teach wild shirts the day begins with beautiful sunshine and a bit of breakfast.
First stop a short talk by one of the Phillip Island Rangers looking at the history of the penguin parade and how the population of penguins has changed over the years.
The most interesting points being the affect of foxes on the penguin populations (including how they have now controlled most of the fox population on the island) and also the new technique on cleaning the penguins in case of an oil spill using ‘Magnetic Cleaning’. Where they sprinkle magnetic dusk onto the birds. The dust then sticks to the oil and can be removed using magnetism but leaves the natural oils. This allows the penguins to be returned to the ocean in a matter of hours.
After a short walk to Summerland beach we were then showed how to conduct transects looking for plastic debris on the beach and an emu parade across a 20m transect. There was lots of tiny pieces of blue plastic about 2mm in diameter but also big pieces such as fishing net which was wrapped around a large piece of sea kelp.
Whilst conducting the transects a tv news crew was filming us for a segment on the nightly news for Win TV in Gippsland. So we are all famous now!
The evening was spent at the Penguin Parade – even though I have been numerous times it never gets tiring see the rafts of penguins arrive at the beach just after dusk and waddle their way up to their burrows. We were lucky enough to be able to watch the penguins VIP style in the skybox where they count the number of penguins arriving every night – tonight there was over 800 penguins in 50 minutes.
A bit of rain to start the day off at Cape Woolamai for another transect and emu parade along the beach. Lots of tiny pieces of plastic found along with twine, rope, food wrappers, surf board wax, cigarette butts, netting and a quarter of a body board littering the shore up into the dunes. Also found a ‘microchip’ tag lost from someone in the marine environment.
When we returned from Cape Woolamai the contents from the emu parade was sorted into categories such as size, type of plastic and colour. This data was then entered onto the marine debris data base to be used and analysed by scientists conducting the marine debris project.
After lunch we were shown a short presentation on how necropsies are performed on the Shearwater birds found here at Phillip Island. The birds migrate here in the 1000′s from the Arctic – they fly about 16,000km here to breed from about Oct – April each year when they fly back home.
The information collect from the necropsies include beak size (length,breath and depth), wing size, weight, size of the keel ( to look at the overall health of the bird), breast feather sample including a piece of skin, oil gland sample, then they open up the bird to look at the digestive system. They look at the contents of the crop, stomach and small intestine. Any hard pieces they find including plastics and also squid beaks they then wrap up in foil (so not to contaminate the samples with other plastics) and sent off for analysis.
Denise ( the head Scientist in charge of this project) then showed us a necropsy on one of the birds collected for us by the park rangers. I must say I had a bit of a morbid curiosity up until the point I could smell the birds and I can tell you they didn’t smell fresh. I did however have a feel of the keel – but really that was enough for me and I was happy to watch from a far. The birds were in the late stage of decomposition including a few maggots but their was no flesh left to actually dissect. Denise did find a piece of plastic left where the stomach once was. The acrid/putrid smell wafted for quite a few meters and stayed in my nostrils for a long time after. Yuck! I’m thinking I prefer live animals – then stinky dead ones!
Penguin necropsy this morning was fascinating! We found the penguin washed up on the beach wednesday morning so she was a little more fresh smelling – so I was acting as the official photographer for the morning. Denise (my roommate) was the lucky one who got to do the dissection. The penguin looked pretty healthy apart from a few bite marks from the seagull having a snack on it when we found it.
When the penguin was cut open there was very little fat on it; but what was most impressive was the size of its stomach which ran right down the right hand side of the torso. It measured about 13cm in length and was full of fish. Sardine sandwich anyone? The stomach contents was washed in a fine sieve apart from some bones of its last meal there wasn’t anything hard or plastic found for further examination. Which is a good thing – however we are still unsure why this penguin died.
T.J. gave us a talk on the topic of Seal entanglement – they have kept and documented 318 examples from the seals from Seal Rocks they they have been able to catch and disentangle over a ten year period. Most of the entanglements are in pups and juvenile seals – things such as netting, fishing line, curling ribbon (from balloons), hats, plastic bags and rings were the most common items to be found to cause entanglements.
After a spot of lunch – I was convinced to have a go at performing a necropsy myself on a male shearwater bird. It was a little fresher than the ones from the day before – so the smell wasn’t too bad. Turns out I really enjoyed myself and found it very interesting as I got into it. I found a couple of pieces of plastic in its crop (an orange piece about 2mm in length, as well as some smaller pieces). There was no plastic in its stomach, however I did find a couple of tapeworms in its small intestine which were quite long!
In the afternoon we completed some more beach transects down at Smiths Beach (practise makes perfect!) – this beach had lots of people using it for surfing, swimming, fishing and playing on the beach. We found lots of rubbish above the high tide mark – bottles, polystyrene, foam, food wrappers etc but less of the smaller hard plastic pieces which we found lots of at Cape Woolamai and Summerlands beach. Indicating that most of the rubbish at Smiths Beach was probably left by the local users.
In the evening we spent time entering data from the transects we collected earlier in the day, as well as the data for the seabird necropsies that were carried out by the group.
(On a side note – Great win by Essendon over Freo)
Early 5am wake up for a 6am start over at Cape Woolamai to look at the shearwater rookeries. Unfortunately all the adult shearwaters have already migrated and were on their way back to the Arctic so we were unable to see them take flight on mass in the morning. However, some of the juveniles, who look like little balls of fluff, were still sitting around the rookeries waiting for their turn to take flight once their wings were strong enough.
We saw a beautiful pink sunrise before we sat down and talked about the past 5 days about what we had learnt and how we could implement this into our classroom teaching. I saw lots of opportunity for inquiry learning and cross curricular activities through both science and maths – as well as art.
Back to the Volunteer house for some breakfast and clean up. Then a final goodbye to our group including the possum living in the compost bin before we headed back home.
I must say I really loved having this opportunity to help collect data for this scientific study which will hopefully help to inform and change policies by the government or industries on the use of plastics. Hopefully I will get other opportunities to be involved in other projects such as this in the future as it was a great experience.