Presbyterian Ladies' College, Perth

Jane Brandenburg’s TeachWild Fellowship to Phillip Island Victoria


Day 1

This afternoon I met up with part of  the team. We hired a car and drove from Melbourne to Phillip Island. Taking all traffic into account the journey from the CBD to Phillip Island took close to four hours.  On arrival we met the rest of the team Together we are accommodated at Phillip Island Nature Parks Volunteer Centre,  I went to sleep with the braying of Little Penguins in thebackground.

Our team consists of:

  • Brad Wilken ACT
  • Denise De Poli NSW
  • Trish Rook TAS
  • Anthony Lyon VIC
  • Laura Collard VIC
  • Michale Hardiker VIC
  • Beth Fuller VIC
  • Karen Johns VIC
  • Jane Brandenburg WA
  • Denise Hardesty and TJ Lawson CSIRO
  • Geraldine Davis Earthwatch

Day 2

The day started with a very interesting lecture delivered by Dr Duncan Sutherland of Phillip Island Nature Parks about Little Penguins and the issues impacting their survival. The park is 2000 hectares, employs 200 people including a scientific and education team, is not for profit and is totally funded by visitation. This converts to a lot of tourists every year. Below is a summary of Duncan’s message.

General Biology of Little Penguins
  • If they make it through the early stages of life (infant mortality – 17%). Little Penguins will normally live till about 7 years of age, but the oldest record is +25  years
  • Breeding of Little Penguins has been monitored for 44 years – There was a decline in penguins coming onto the parade around 1985. Most other colonies on the island had already been lost by this time. There has also been a lot of  satellite tracking to improve understanding of penguin behaviour. The penguin’s only need to come to land to moult and raise chicks. They hatch their chicks across summer and moult across March/April. The penguins will tend to be most active in areas where the food species aggregate (e.g. Sardines, Anchovy). Interestingly, the area of the current park was used as a golf course in the 1920′s….The golf course just happened to be put in a very significant Little Penguin colony! A housing estate was also set up within the colony.
  • Little Penguins eat small fish species. They catch by diving deep and then feeding as they rise up through the water body. They are most successful feeding in waters  approx. 30 m deep and their dives are rare at a depths below 70m. Warm surface waters appear to act favourably for Little Penguins as the fish tend to aggregate in these.

 Issues that impact Little Penguin survival include:

  • Habitat destruction (golf course, housing estate, other alternative uses of the nesting habitats).
  • Disturbance (by other species including humans…..Is tourism an impact?)
  • Road kill (There was a housing estate established alongside the colony… awful lot  of penguins were getting squashed by cars driving between dusk and dawn)
  • Invasive species impacts.  Foxes have been a huge issue. Cats are also a problem. Rabbits are also very present across the island.
  • Oil spills (at sea).
  • Starvation (lack of fish resources - There was a major decline in pilchards (approx 20 years ago) due to a virus (This I understood came from fish farming). Pilchard numbers have taken about 15 years to pick up. This had a huge impact on the Little Penguin colony leading to no breeding success when the pilchard numbers first declined. With time, alternate fish species that also fed on copepods (like Anchovies) increased in numbers and breeding success improved.
  • Predation by native animals. (Little Ravens have recently learned to get into burrow and steal Little Penguin eggs.)
  • Fire (Little Penguins have no ability to cope with fire at all. There have been three fires in the area and these tend to decimate the colonies.)From Google images
Solutions                                                                 Little Penguin (from google images)
  • Loss of Habitat – All properties in adjoining housing estate (of about 800 properties) have been bought back and land is slowly being reworked to be more valuable habitat. (It’s currently degraded with weed species.) The cost to do complete the buy back has been in excess of 40 million dollars.
  • Fox control has been bought about through snaring, baiting, shooting, fumigation and other techniques. The various fox controls have reduced the population density of foxes significantly and with this, the level of fox attacks on penguins have been much reduced.
  • Habitat destruction – This has been assisted by providing artificial nest boxes. It seems the penguins quite like them. 97% of artificial nest boxes are used and data comparing nesting success and juvenile survival in the artificial boxes against natural burrows as being very favourable.
  • Oil spills – Technology has been developed to assist with cleaning of penguin’s feathers after they have being affected by oil spills. This process uses iron dust to clean the birds, the iron dust is then taken off the birds with magnets. The big advantage of this system is that all of the natural oils remain on the birds and that they can return to sea as soon as they have been cleaned up.
  • Impact of Tourism – Work has been done to compare breeding success at sites where bus loads of tourists visit on a daily basis (and are managed by Phillip Island Nature Parks) against a control site. There is currently no evidence that managed tourism (Phillip IslandNature Park) is a negative issue for the penguins.

Distribution in Australia and new Zealand  (from

Denise Hardesty’s talk to TeachWild group at Phillip Island


Denise got interested in mid 1990s in plastic debris. Denise was doing work at Midway Island.  It’s a plastic deposition site  (a sink) for plastic that are swirling about in the ocean. Albatross that breed at Midway bring back denise_hardesty 4-5 tonnes of garbage to feed to their chicks every year.  It was found that the Albatross were feeding their chick. These included toothbrushes, cigarette lighters, small bottles and more.  Denise got motivated through this work to look at plastic debris Marine debris is both a local and global problem. It’s timely, relevant and familiar to most of us to do something about this. Plastic pollution has been recognised as a key threatening issue to biodiversity. The Earthwatch TeachWild project was born from this and is funded by CSIRO, Shell and Earthwatch.  The work is leading to collection of data that is being used by CSIRO in their research.

Where does rubbish come from?

  • Beachgoers
  • Storm sewers
  • Commercial recreation vehicles
  • Industrial facilities
  • Recreational activities
  • Landfill
  • Waste disposal activities
  • Offshore industrial activities

Fishing gear does not even make it into the top 10 plastic pollution items found in water and we know that fishing gear and fishing nets are a huge source of plastic pollution found within water.  Globally, there was 6 400 000 tones fishing gear being added to the oceans per year  more than a decade ago and this figure is known to be increasing exponentially due  to increased use of plastic/person and a the growing human population. Beaches that are cleaned regain 50% of the original load of plastic pollution within 3 months. While on the beaches plastic pollution is largely an aesthetic issue,  as scientists we really need fully understand the impact is all plastic pollution in the water body.

It is known that 250 species of wildlife are affected (from phytoplankton through to top order predators). Plastic pollution causes problems because of ingestion and entanglement. It is known that a seal with plastic entanglement about the neck of size 10 cm x 10cm increases the seal’s need for energy by 5 times, this impacting health and future reproduction, leading to the organism becoming functionally dead…they can not  pass on their genes to the next generation.

The CSIRO project is interested in where is the debris is located and the sources of the pollution. To understand this they do debris surveys, map them and keep detailed statistics about type and size of debris.  CSIRO also wants to know about how wildlife interacts with plastic. To understand this CSIRO are  doing wildlife observations and looking at the distribution of plastics and evaluating how the organism’s are living with it.  Are the plastics worse in areas where the wildlife come to shore? Are the wildlife bringing the plastic to shore?)  CSIRO also want to know what happens to the species that are impacted. Knowledge is being gained through focus specific studies. Looking at the whole of Australia, CSIRO has collected a lot of data. Schools have added in some data (beach surveys transects and emu stalks).  There have also been ship based trawls to look at plastics in the ocean.

While on this trip I will be involved in beach surveys and sea bird necropsies. I will also learn about bird colony surveys and the impacts of entanglement in fishing nets for seals.  Here at Phillip Island the focus is on sea birds. In Queensland the focus is on Sea Turtles.

The following video is well worth watching and features much of Denise’s work:

Visiting the Penguin Parade

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At dusk the penguins come up  the beach. All up this was a fascinating and to a Western Australian, a relatively bizarre experience.  There were approximately 1100 penguins and filtered floodlights shone down on the beach so the crowd (in excess of 2000 seated in concrete grandstands) could watch the penguins. The penguins gathered at the edge of the surf until they found safety in numbers. They then scuttled as fast as they could across the sand and into the dunes to their  burrows. At this point  there was a lot of  penguins that stood around outside their burrows,  vocalising and posturing with behaviours I am yet to understand.

Given it is late in the breeding season there were few parents returning and feeding chicks. Most chicks have already fledged. Attached are some  photos from Google images of the Phillip Island Penguin Parade.

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Day 3

Today has been a really interesting day and we have learned and done so much.

Beach Transects

Our first activity was to head back to the beach and do another set of transects.  This is the primary way that teachers and students can gather data for the TeachWild research project.There are two ways that students can assist.  The first is running a transect from the high water mark to 2 m back off the beach, dividing it into 10 equal quadrants and completing a belt  survey, 2m wide (1 m either side of the transects) for plastics. More detail can be found on the site It’s incredibly important that as a group we gather data in a way that is consistent with the way it is collected by other reachers so that data has a high level of validity.

Sorting of Plastic from Emu Stalk on Beach Transects

Class 4Here we examined and analysed the types of rubbish found on beaches. The rubbish varies from being incredibly small micro plastics through to large chunks such as a broken polystyrene/foam surfboard.  The board had been breaking down and many polystyrene beads were found across the beach. We will learn more as we also found polystyrene beads found within the gut of  one of the Short Tailed Shearwaters dissected.



Logging of Data

This is important for our data to be useful in  research.





Dr Rebecca Overmeen- Phillip Island Nature Park’s

We were spoken to by Dr. Rebecca Overeeem who heads the Education sector of Phillip Island Nature  Parks. She had an amazing story of her passion and how this had led her to her dream job. As a Year 11 student she volunteered to assist at Phillip Island and work with Little Penguins. Following this she studied Biology/Ecology at Uni and went on to do Honours and a PhD, with her PhD focussing on genetics of penguins across from Kangaroo Island to Phillip Island.  She had a  particular focus on Middle Island, an area suffering heavily from predation of penguins by foxes.   See following catalyst program for more details.

I also spent more time talking with Rebecca. Her research was fascinating. She used DNA studies to assist her work. She removed blood samples from the Little Penguins, PCR’d up the DNA and then ran gel electrophoresis on the penguins to see if those from the various island populations were of the same breeding populations or not. She found that all across the Southern Victoria and in the east of South Australia Australia were one breeding population, while those on Penguin Island were a second population.  She also said that since her PhD, another student has been investigating Little Penguins from Kangaroo Island across to Western Australia.

Rebecca’s research was based on both micro-satellite DNA and mitochondrial DNA.  Interestingly, she also used gel electrophoresis to sex the penguins to test the correlation between bill size and sex of Little Penguins. Females being ZW chromosomes were heterozygous showing two band lengths in the DNA profile while males being ZZ were homozygous in band lengths.

Necropsies of  Mutton Birds. This was fascinating……today as group we only managed four. Two quite decomposed birds were dissected along with two more recently dead birds. While we could not be sure of the exact cause of deaths, all of the birds were found to have  plastic in their digestive tracts, and one had tiny little beads of polystyrene foam within it’s digestive tract. I have added many images of the birds as we have dissected them.


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Day 4
Today we did another 6 necropsies meaning we did 10 in total. 9 were Shearwaters and 1 Little Penguin. 8 of the Shearwaters contained plastic in their digestive tract. This included the juvenile that had not yet fledged. Mosyt plastic was smaller than 7or 8mm in size. Given that the juvenile contained plastic this suggests plastic is being foraged in Australiuan waters and fed to chicks.
We also did more beach transects to really hone our skills along with more data entry. We ended the day with a bit of site seeing.  It’s worth coming back to get to know Phillip Island a little better!.
Day 5

Today was a trip to the Shearwater colony……we got to see the burrows, one chick considering fledging, some Pacific Gulls that were enthusiastic in their presence amongst the colony and amazing views of Cape Woolamai at dawn. It was then back for the final sharing of photos, packing, cleaning, sharing of contact details and goodbyes……then back to the airport.

And last of all…..
Thank you EarthWatch, CSIRO and Shell for the TeachWild Fellowship. I am  very grateful to PLC, Perth for providing me with opportunity for time out during the busy school term. More specifically my appreciation is extended to Beth my Principal, Denise Hardesty and TJ Lawson of CSIRO and Geraldine Davis of Earthwatch for giving me the opportunity to learn more, re-nourish my love of Biology and my desire to share all I know with my students and those beyond. This has been a wonderful experience and I encourage all teachers to find similar opportunities to enrich their teaching.

  1. Hi Jane – I have enjoyed reading your blog though found the last pictures confronting. Do you know what the mutton birds eat and what their feeding behaviour is? Are they ingesting the plastic directly or is coming indirectly through their food source? Look forward to seeing more. Cheers, Rebecca

  2. admin

    Hi Rebecca,
    Its fantastic to have your thoughts and questions.
    My understanding is that they eat krill, squid and fish although the fish are quirt small.They feed at the ocean’s surface. It is amazing to think that these birds migrate between the Berring Straits (se between Alaska/Russia and Southern Australia on a yearly basis and when they return to Australia to nest, they return to the VERY same nesting burrow.
    With regard to the plastic we really don’t know if it was floating on the surface or if it was in food they ingested. The bits of plastic were about 8mm and smaller in size.

  3. admin

    Sorry, I hit enter too fast… is an amazing website that will tell you a whole lot more and take you through their yearly story.
    I understand that it is possible to observe the most amazing migrations as the birds leave their nesting sites early in the mornings and return again at night.

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