Wilderness Journal

Issue #003

Welcome to the third issue of our Journal. Each month we will share stories of nature and people. Photographers, artists, citizens and scientists share insights into the beauty of wildlife, wild places and what is being done to protect them. Plus a look back at the Wilderness Society's rich history in pictures. And more besides. Enjoy.

The lost world

Story by Dan Down, photography
by Noah Thompson & Dr Cayne Layton

It’s a loss of habitat on a massive scale: just 5% of Tasmania’s once iconic giant kelp forests remain. Saving these biodiverse-rich underwater worlds now seems like a hopeless endeavour, but a passionate team of scientists might have a solution.

There is a hidden world not many get to see; a parallel universe within reach but impossible to grasp if you didn’t know it was there. And like you’d imagine some alternate reality, it is eerily familiar. A place where sunlight forces its way through a dense canopy held aloft by towering organic structures, casting a mosaic of light and shadow on an understory far below. Strange and rare creatures depend on these stately forests, dense masses of fronds offering protection from the elements and opportunistic predators. 

A privileged few get to wander the labyrinthine tracts of east Tasmania’s giant kelp forests; fewer still because they’re all but gone. “Giant kelp grows in quite a stringy form, so it's almost more akin to an underwater jungle with vines and lianas than an underwater forest,” says Dr Cayne Layton, a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Tasmania’s Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies in Hobart. “But ninety-five percent of it has been lost over the course of the last several decades.” Cayne’s mission is to restore this unseen yet vital world, using cutting-edge genetic science to tackle what appears to be an insurmountable challenge. Incredibly, he is on the cusp of success. There is hope.

Giant kelp, Macrocystis pyrifera, deserves its grand moniker; to call it simply seaweed would be accurate but also a gross insult. Like the giant redwoods of California, or the tallest flowering plants on the planet, Tasmania’s very own mountain ash, giant kelp are true colossi of the natural world. Reaching up to 45 metres from their iron grip on a rocky ocean floor, they are in fact not plants but a type of multicellular algae. The species can grow up to 60cm a day and is found elsewhere in the world, famously so off the Californian coast and down the length of the Baja Peninsula.  

So how can such magnificent, voracious organisms be in a state of terminal decline in their Australian heartlands along the eastern coast of Tasmania? “The loss of Tasmania’s giant kelp is due to climate change and specifically changing oceanography,” says Cayne. “The East Australian current—a warm, nutrient-poor current—is flowing further south due to climate change. It’s displacing a lot of the water that was more characteristic of the Southern Ocean, which is cooler and nutrient rich.” (Portrait right and Journal title image by Noah Thompson.)

The loss of our giant kelp forests is yet another tragic outcome unfolding from the inexorable rise in global temperatures. It’s a tragedy felt keenly by Tasmanians, many of whom can remember vast, glistening olive canopies swaying on the surface of the Tasman, sheltering a rich broth of life below. Like the state’s World Heritage listed terrestrial forests, so too are the giant kelp etched in some recess of the Tasmanian psyche.

A tangled giant kelp forest. Image: Dr Cayne Layton.

A tangled giant kelp forest. Image: Dr Cayne Layton.

For people like Cayne on the front lines of ecological collapse, trying to stem the tide, the giant kelp’s demise has resulted in a tangible sense of grief. “Ecologists working in many environments are suffering due to climate change; they call it ecological grief,” says Cayne. “Ecologists are like the first responders to climate change; these workers are really at the forefront and seeing that destruction day in and day out as part of their work.

“And I've certainly seen that here in Tassie. We've seen areas of dense giant kelp slowly thinned out; we've seen bays that used to have remnant patches that now literally have none left. And that's since I've been working in Tassie in only about the past seven years.”

Left (image by Noah Thompson): A flask containing a culture of millions of microscopic juvenile giant kelp. Right (image Cayne Layton): One of the last remaining giant kelp in Fortescue Bay, Tasmania. Taken in 2014, the area was once dense with giant kelp.

Left (image by Noah Thompson): A flask containing a culture of millions of microscopic juvenile giant kelp. Right (image Cayne Layton): One of the last remaining giant kelp in Fortescue Bay, Tasmania. Taken in 2014, the area was once dense with giant kelp.

Giant kelp form forests in the truest sense of the word. Like their terrestrial counterparts, the tall stipes (the trunk or stem), and the blades (leaves) they support, held afloat by little gas bladders, provide the equivalent of a wind break from the currents. This enables smaller kelp species and other benthic algae to establish an understorey. “The kelp develop these big, dense canopies, with multiple layers,” says Cayne. “Animals and other species of seaweed utilise different areas within that canopy and within that vertical space.” Those animals are some of the most bizarre and spectacular species on the planet and found nowhere else outside southern Australia: the weedy sea dragon, a delicate wonder of camouflage; the giant cuttlefish that can grow over a metre in length. Then there are seals that hunt some of the big fish species that use the kelp for cover like snapper and bream, and the great whites that in turn feed on the seals.

In a cruel twist of irony, kelp forests—as important for biodiversity as any rainforest—are potentially also a means to mitigate the thing that’s killing them: climate change. “We know that kelp forests absorb a lot of carbon,” says Cayne. “We know that a lot of kelp can be transported to the deep ocean, which is really good because the carbon gets locked up there. But we are still figuring out exactly how much and for how long. So giant kelp is potentially an important avenue for carbon sequestration and storage.”

Giant kelp being fostered in the lab. Image: Noah Thompson.

Giant kelp being fostered in the lab. Image: Noah Thompson.

In their Hobart lab, Cayne and his colleagues have been methodically toiling away to save this Tasmanian icon. They have identified and isolated the genetic variants of giant kelp that can tolerate higher temperatures, a slow and careful process. “We're looking for individuals from that remaining five percent in Tasmania that are naturally more tolerant to warm water. We can then breed them in the lab, and they're the ones that we can plant,” says Cayne. His team has launched Kelp Tracker, a free app you can download to help them locate any remnant stands of giant kelp that could assist with the project.

Baby kelp in the lab in Hobart. Image: Noah Thompson.

Baby kelp in the lab in Hobart. Image: Noah Thompson.

This initial phase has been successful and excitingly they are now ready to start planting the super kelp they’ve nurtured. Kelp likes to reproduce in winter, which means getting in and out of an often wet wetsuit on a boat with snow or sleet raining down just to keep it interesting. At three test sites Cayne and the team are developing methods that will enable mass plantings to see if they can recreate dense patches of forest, the type that would catch the eye of a passing giant cuttlefish. From here, they will attempt to upscale. For habitat restoration to work these patches need to become self-sustaining and the giant kelp needs to release its own spores and start propagating. 

A researcher collects samples from a giant kelp forest on the East coast of Tasmania. Taken in 2012, the forest in this image no longer exists. Image: Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies.

A researcher collects samples from a giant kelp forest on the East coast of Tasmania. Taken in 2012, the forest in this image no longer exists. Image: Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies.

However, to return to the glory days of Tasmanian giant kelp would mean planting the heat-resistant strains on an epic scale, one that ecompasses the entire eastern seaboard of Tasmania. It sounds impossible, but Cayne already has a plan for that too: community. “There are many members of the public that remember how the environment used to be, because we lost these forests so quickly,” says Cayne. “And that's really important for harnessing community spirit.” In the next few years Cayne hopes to marshal that community spirit for a great undertaking: the resurrection of Tasmania’s stately giant kelp forests. “Once we've figured out how to best plant these giant kelp into dense, healthy patches, we are going to share that knowledge with as many people as possible. Hopefully we can form valuable partnerships with Indigenous Tasmanian organisations, local fishers and divers, governments and councils to just get as many individuals and groups out there planting patches as we can.”

A combination of science and a passion for wilderness mean these vital underwater worlds have a chance; there’s now hope that we can bring them back from the brink. And while not many get to experience a giant kelp forest, those that have can testify to their unique beauty: “It sometimes feels like you're flying because you’re moving through this 3D space,” says Cayne. “They can be really dark, impenetrable, but then the light will filter through to create a simply magical place.”

We'd like to thank Noah Thompson, who photographed Cayne Layton for Wilderness Journal in Hobart. Noah is working on an ongoing long-term project, Huon, inspired by the conflict between environmentalism and industry in lutruwita/Tasmania.


Wonderland

Lake Pedder in 1971

A photograph by Olegas Truchanas (1923-1972)

'Two walkers on beach, with Frankland Range beyond, Lake Pedder, Tasmania, 1971’. Photograph by Olegas Truchanas. Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, Launceston, courtesy Melva Truchanas. QVM.2014.P.2319

'Two walkers on beach, with Frankland Range beyond, Lake Pedder, Tasmania, 1971’. Photograph by Olegas Truchanas. Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, Launceston, courtesy Melva Truchanas. QVM.2014.P.2319

Olegas Truchanas’ extraordinary work through the fledgling years of environmental activism in Tasmania continues to inspire younger generations. His photographs help us to understand this magnificent landscape and remind us of the urgent need to respect and protect our precious, fragile natural lands. Here, his widow and ardent activist Melva Truchanas spoke with Wilderness Journal about the ongoing need to restore and sustain places such as Lake Pedder:

"The beautiful and spectacular Lake Pedder of the past will return when more caring citizens or nature have taken back this land. Encompassed by those mountain ranges and valleys surrounding it, the Lake Pedder impoundment encourages our wishes to restore the old Lake and reclaim the special flora and fauna dependent on it.

The Lake Pedder Restoration Committee is employing new specialists and scientific experience to assess the future and their reports will soon be available for public knowledge.  The Lake and the valleys will inspire the newer and younger generations. I believe we should be looking forward to the future, and not linger so much in past years. The Wilderness Society has held hope in the hearts of Australians for decades and still brings hope to future generations.”
Melva Truchanas, August 2020.


Saving the Styx Valley Rainforest

Charles Wooley visited the Styx Valley to meet someone who has dedicated years to the survival of its giant trees. And these giants are still being destroyed, just outside the World Heritage boundary of the Florentine. Eavesdrop on Charles and Graham as they take a walk through the stunningly beautiful Carbon Circuit walk.

Film by Eddie Safarik.


Into the green mist

Photography by Sue Bond; illustration by Matthew Martin.

It was a holiday, a trip down to Tasmania to catch up with family; but it was also an opportunity to see the famed natural wonders of the island state. For Sue Bond, a walk on that holiday back in 2004 to see the giant trees of the fabled Styx forest, would prove life-changing.  

Named after the tea-coloured river that winds through it, the temperate Styx rainforest is a unique place, filled with animals like pygmy possums, platypus and black cockatoos. The island’s Indigenous people, the Palawa, are known to have inhabited this ancient landscape for millenia. It had come to Sue’s attention because Tasmanian forests had become the environmental issue of the 2004 Federal election. “I'd seen reports on what was happening. I thought, ‘we must go and see this if at all possible’,” recalls Sue, who now lives in Brisbane.  

She drove with her partner Craig the 70-odd kilometres out of Hobart on the Styx Road and picked up a mud map from a cafe on the way.

It was the week after Christmas and so the Styx Road was unusually quiet, devoid of its rumbling logging trucks with little work going in the coupes. “It meant we could go in and see things, have a walk around without anyone confronting us. We’d heard about the Global Rescue Station that the Wilderness Society and Greenpeace had set up and so we decided to seek it out.” The Global Rescue Station: a last stand in the form of an outpost and camp high up in one of the colossal mountain ashes, Eucalyptus regnans, one of the tallest hardwoods and flowering plants on Earth.  

En route they pulled over to take in a scene of complete devastation, interrupting the somewhat spontaneous nature of their Tassie adventure, turning it into something altogether more sombre. “We arrived at a logging coupe; at an area that had been lost,” says Sue. “There was a very large tree stump in front of us, which we took some photos of. It was extremely dispiriting and we knew that places like this got logged, but we also knew that we needed to go and see it to understand what was happening.” They spent half an hour there, taking pictures of what was once dense, life-filled forest. They continued on their way, determined to see what had been lost forever.

Along a gravel road they parked and started walking, the mud map their guide, to a little human outpost set up to protect the giants around it. “We plunged into the forest and entered another world completely,” says Sue. “We were surrounded by trees of all different ages and heights.”

On the muddy trail (now the famous Tolkien Track), marked with wooden planks, Sue and Craig made their way slowly upwards. “There were gigantic trees that had fallen, covered with mosses. And there were all sorts of new and old growth trees surrounding us,” says Sue. “You could hear all the little birds and various other creatures. It's hard to convey just how extraordinary an experience it was to be enveloped by these extraordinary trees. It felt almost like we were in a green mist: the air smelt differently; it felt slightly moist, slightly cooler. We were revelling in this atmosphere and kept going.”

They arrived at the Global Rescue Station, announcing itself in red letters on a large sign. It marked the spot where activists were making a stand, camping up in one of the giant trees: the famous 84-metre tall Gandalf’s Staff. There were information boards and a table with a book for the likes of Sue and Craig to sign in and offer any thoughts. 

“We breathed in the atmosphere and looked up,” recalls Sue. “We did a lot of looking up; I've got several photographs of the giant trees. And one, in fact, I had enlarged and still have on a wall.  

“I honestly can't remember how long we were there because time just evaporated: it’s like we went through a portal and into a different time zone. And so I have no idea how long we were there, but we could have stayed for a lot longer.” 

After some time spent in that green mist they wandered back down the slope. And eventually they came out of the forest. 

Sue became a member of the Wilderness Society soon after. “Ever since that day, I realised that I had to do something, to try and preserve these magnificent trees,” she says. While the Global Rescue Station was a success in that it saw the end of logging in tens of thousands of hectares of old growth forest, it wasn’t until 2013 that some of the giants of the Styx Valley were given proper protection in the Styx Tall Trees Conservation Area and enveloped into the Tasmanian World Wilderness Heritage Area. Unfortunately, not all the Styx Valley has been protected and forests just like the one Sue and Craig walked through continue to be logged, including the big trees within them.

“My memory of that day in the Styx Valley has always stayed with me,” says Sue. “I'm getting older now, so some of the detail has faded, but the emotional experience certainly has never left me. And I've never quite felt the same again.”


From the archives

Wilderness Journal was once in print and a go-to for everything from nature photography to walking maps and bird-spotting. Past editor of the Journal Geoff Law recalls the significance of the publication and its role in shaping a nascent Wilderness Society. 

Photography by Oscar Martin, words Geoff Law.

"In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Tasmanian Wilderness Society issued a series of journals that explored the concept of wilderness. They featured scholarly articles by the fledgling organisation's director, Kevin Kiernan, in which he covered topics such as the caves of the Franklin and lower Gordon rivers, the affinities between Tasmania, New Zealand and Patagonia, and the inherent value of wilderness. Some of his contributions were downright prophetic. In 1977 he canvassed listing the Tasmanian Wilderness as World Heritage in Danger to enable the federal government to override the state of Tasmania in deciding the area's future. This call to action foreshadowed the Hawke government's deployment of this power by six years.

Image of Journals by Oscar Martin; cover image by Peter Dombrovskis.

Image of Journals by Oscar Martin; cover image by Peter Dombrovskis.

Early editions were in black and white. Once colour made its way into the journal - first just on the cover but then throughout its pages - the increased use of the photographs of esteemed wilderness photographer Peter Dombrovskis was possible. The readership was treated to Peter's images of the Franklin's gorges, the highland rainforests, and the wild south-west coastline. Eventually such images would appear all over the nation, in books, films, magazines and postcards. At the same time, thanks to the arguments articulated by Bob Brown, Australia's newsprint and airwaves were full of descriptions of the wonder and fragility of the country's wilderness. The journals gradually became redundant. Now, 40 years later, there is again a hunger for such materials. "—Author, conservationist and past editor of Wilderness Journal, Geoff Law. 

Take a peek at covers and content past in the gallery below.

If you have a story about anything that may have appeared in the old Journals above, or anything from your own archive to share, let us know by sharing your experiences

In case you missed it, take a look at previous issues of Wilderness Journal. And if you haven't signed up to have the Journal delivered to your inbox once a month you can do so here.