AUTOBIOGRAPHY (by our team leader, Barry W. in 2015) includes this expedition to Kap-Nuk in 1969
My grandchildren are mightily amused when I tell them that I grew up in a lolly shop. With ice cream and lemonade as well. "That's not true" they say in astonished disbelief. But it is. During the years before and during second world war my Mother ran a cafe at the foot of the western arm of the Busselton jetty (before it blew away in a storm) servicing the folk enjoying the beach and picnics on the lawn above the sea wall and walking out on the jetty. Among my jobs were cleaning out the empty ice cream drums and carrying out the empty lemonade bottles (Wilson Lemonade actually - famous in the district at that time). For my work I had a daily allowance of ice-cream, Columbines, humbugs and other treats from the shop. One way and another I managed to exceed my allowance on a regular basis, which accounts for my lack of teeth now in my old age, I tell the children, but they never see that as counter to the unbelievable privileges of such an existence.
But my privileged childhood didn't end there. The Busselton beach and the jetty were my backyard and, in summer, most of my out-of-school time was spent on, in or beside the water. I don't know whether I learned to swim before or after I learned to walk. Looking back it seems that I was a neglected child in some respects. My father was away much of the time. (He was Commanding Officer of the local army garrison.) My older brother and sisters were at high school or working and Mum had a hard time looking after the shop (where we lived in the summer) and our other house. I was given a fishing line and basic accessories and told to go away and come back when I was hungry. I discovered that the little sand whiting that were so common near the shore loved snails. These were the little white Theba, introduced from the Mediterranean (which I didn't know then of course) that were in such vast numbers along the coastal lands of the district. I would collect a tin full of bigger ones, crack them with my teeth, and use them as bait. So all I needed was a line with a hook and I could keep the family supplied with fish for breakfast.
We always had a boat, anchored just off the beach opposite the cafe. My Dad, though he couldn't swim a stroke, loved the sea and fishing, a state of mind that, naturally, I inherited. The first boat I remember was an open, 5 m clinker built boat called Osprey. It had an inboard Chapman Pup engine. After the war, when my Dad had more time, we had a 10 m sailing boat that allowed us to sally around much of Geographe Bay. Dhu-fish (that we called Jewies) were a standard for Sunday dinner. In those days they were very common in the bay and Dad had been shown how they lived associated with sea bed reefs where there were overhangs and caves that provided shelter. The water in the bay is normally very clear and, using a glass-bottomed box, you could see the fish hanging around the rocks. Their favourite places were large yellow rocks that looked like mushrooms, with fluted tops and deep crevices underneath their margins. There was one of these a few hundred meters off the jetty's end that was called the Miletree, I suppose because of its distance from shore or perhaps one of the shore-line features used to find it. Further along the coast, off Wonerup, there were many of them in quite shallow water - 10 m or less. When there was an order (from our Mother) for a Jewie for Sunday dinner, we would usually go up there. The technique was to locate one of the known 'mushrooms' (using triangulation from shoreline features) drop the anchor close to the structure's edge and watch with the glass-bottomed box. If there was a resident Jewie he would come out of hiding to see what was going on. A bait, ideally a squid's head, would be dropped in front of him. A jewie cannot resist a squid's head and within minutes he would be in the boat and headed back to the cafe and his destiny. Fishing is not like that in Geographe Bay any more. The memory of it, as it was then, has remained a point of reference for me that has shaped my personal commitment to marine conservation - but more about that later.
For many years we did not know what our 'mushrooms' were. My Dad thought they might be a kind of coral. He had had little formal education but was well read and in this case he got it right. Many years later I learned to SCUBA dive and acquired a science degree in zoology. Dad and I went out to one of our 'mushrooms' off Dunsborough and I was able to get down there and find the answer to our question. Sure enough it was a very large coral colony which I identified as Turbinaria mesentaria, a widespread tropical species that extends its range far south into the temperate waters of the South West. Over time I established that there were many kinds of coral in Geographe Bay although they were generally scattered and did not form coral reefs. (One species collected then was named Symphillia wilsoni by the expert the specimens were sent to for identification.)
Dad I squabbled over the glass-bottomed box. He had priority of course but when I managed to get hold of it he had difficulty getting it back. The creatures on the bottom of the sea were compelling viewing for us both. I have always thought of the sea surface as like Alice's looking glass. Pass through it and there is an alien world populated by creatures very different to the ones where we live. I had no idea what most of them were. Some of the fish I knew by name but there were so many different living things growing attached to the seabed, like plants on a forest floor, many of them so beautiful, and my head swelled with awe. Sometimes I borrowed the box and took it in my tin canoe out under the jetty where I could use it to look at the profusion of colourful things growing on the pilings and the schools of strange fishes that we never caught on our lines swirling around and seeming to be at home there. That was a real revelation. It was shaded under there and the attached growths didn't seem to be plants. Some of them disappeared when they were touched. Plants don't do that I thought. (But I later learned that there are some that do!)
Ours was a booky house but there were none about things like this. I did have a tiny book on sea life given to me at Sunday school by the Rev. Davies, a man with prescient insight as it turned out, but it was about fishes and seaweeds of the North Sea and seemed to have nothing to do with the things I was seeing. And there were two big books called Marvels of the Universe on my father's book shelf full of all sorts of fascinating life but they were also about places far away from here and were fascinating but not very helpful. Even when I got to school the teachers could not help me - what I was seeing was beyond their experience too. Most of them were English migrants themselves and didn't even know the names of the local birds. So through my childhood years I just looked and wondered and enjoyed it all. Sometimes I collected things and took them home and put them in the kerosene fridge, much to Mum's disgust. (She especially objected to squid heads kept there - being an English cook she didn't know these were calamari! Nor did Dad and I actually; for us they were bait to catch jewies.)
One day there was an event that really caught my attention. A team of jetty maintenance men turned up to fix some of the piles. They included a diver - the full "hard hat" version with copper head piece, head to toe canvas overalls, lead lined boots and hoses to an air pump at the surface. My mate Barry Killerby and I followed them out to the first head (the first mooring area about half way out the jetty) and watched, trying not to get in the way. It was an incredibly exciting thing. The diver, once fully rigged, would climb backwards down the steps of his ladder until submerged and then step off and sink vertically to the bottom with his tools. We could see him moving around down there. He was scraping the mass of growth from the piles and cutting off pieces of wood as samples that contained the creatures responsible for the damage they had come to fix. The men showed them to us later - ship worms they said. They were strange slug-like things, several inches long with two shelly structures at both ends. These animals, bivalves of the teredine family I can say now, lived in burrows they drilled in the piles. I wanted to know how they drilled the burrows in the hard wood but the men didn't know. They said they actually ate the wood but that raised more questions than it answered. The idea that anyone, let alone a soft bodied slug thing like that, could or would eat hard jarrah timber seemed preposterous to a ten-year boy.
Later that afternoon the men came into the cafe for refreshments. They gave my mother a shell that they had found on the sponge-covered piles. A cowry shell they said but they had no other information about it. It was a glorious thing, egg-shaped and about three inches long with a toothed slot along the flat bottom. The surface was polished like glass but strongly coloured with brown and white, patches of deep blue and big dark brown spots. The animal inside it was a black slug and my mother took an instant dislike to it in spite of the beautiful shell. But it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen come out of the sea.
That experience had a profound impact on me. With the help of my teacher at school I wrote to the museum in Perth and got a reply from the education officer there (Vincent Serventy - who later became a friend and colleague). He gave me some information about cowries and I discovered there were smaller kinds on the rocky shores around Cape Naturaliste. Soon I had a shirt box full of specimens I collected on the beach, the Busselton jetty one in pride of place. But I was still frustrated because no one, not even Vincent, could tell me the names of the different kinds. Some years later I found someone who could help me and I learned that the Busselton species was called Friend's Cowry (Cypraea friendii) named after Captain Friend, master of one of Captain Stirling's fleet, who collected the first known specimens at the landing near Fremantle in 182.. Not so long ago I wrote a book about the Australian cowries related to C. friendii. They are sponge-eaters and that was what my Busselton specimen had been doing on the sponge-covered piles of the jetty. I think of the experience that morning watching the diver under the jetty as the beginning of my life as a marine zoologist. The diver, my teacher, and even Vincent Serventy, could not have known that the kindness and encouragement they gave to a scruffy sunburnt child might lead to a result like that.
Two years later my family sold up the aerated water factory and the cafe in Busselton and moved out to Dunsborough on the sheltered side of Cape Naturaliste. We had a 20 acre property on the beach front. By then I was a committed marine naturalist and I had new habitat to explore. It all got more wonderful. But I had to go to high school in Bunbury where I was a boarder in the Country Women's Association hostel. That was OK too but I really lived for the weekends and holidays when I would go home to Dunsborough and get out fishing and fossicking on the shore.
One summer an elderly couple came to camp on our place in their caravan - Tom and Lil Marwick. Tom was a Country Party Senator but he was ill with asthma and they had come to relax by the sea where he could indulge in his hobby of shell collecting. He was a well educated man and knew a lot about shells. They stayed with us for the whole summer and Tom became my mentor. It was he who identified my Cypraea friendii and all the other shells in my collection of shirt boxes.
Tom and Lil went shopping in Busselton one day and came back with a face mask that they presented to me. Revelation! My vision of the sea floor and its inhabitants was no longer restricted to the glass-bottomed box - I could get down there myself, to depths of 5-6 m anyway, and up close and personal. We had shown Tom my Busselton C. friendii which he was very excited about. A very rare shell he said. Dad suggested that these cowries might also be on the piles of the old jetty at Quindalup a few miles east of Dunsborough. And so it turned out. We went down there in our boat. I hopped over the side wearing my new face mask and there in front of me on the very first pile I looked at was a huge C. friendii sitting on a sponge. I surfaced and handed it over the gunnel to Tom who was speechless - unusual for a Senator my Dad said. But he would not accept the specimen and made me keep it. I treasured it for many years but eventually put it in the collection of the Western Australian Museum where it remains.
I left high school at the Junior stage (aged 15 years). My Dad wanted me to stay at home and help him develop a tourism project there. I helped him renovate some old weatherboard holiday cottages there, and to build several new ones, and thereby learned the tricks of carpentry but somehow that vision of the future did not seem right. So, in 1953, I headed off to Queensland to visit my sister Margaret who was living there with her engineer husband Brian. And from there I went up to Cairns to see if there any job opportunities that might get me out to see the Great Barrier Reef. That didn't turn out the way I had hoped and I retreated back to the area near Proserpine close to the Whitsunday Islands where someone had told me there might be a better chance of work out on the tourist resorts.
By that time my financial position was desperate - most of my last five pounds spent on a meal and the train ticket. The train arrived at the Proserpine station in the early hours of the morning. The station master explained to me that we were quite a long way from the small port of Canonvale where the tourist boats picked up the island guests. So feeling despondent, I curled up on a platform bench and tried to sleep. At dawn a train arrived up from Brisbane and there was a bus standing out in the street that people were climbing into. I approached the driver, a friendly middle-aged man named Dave who listened carefully to my story. "Hop on board" he said "I am going down there to take this lot to the boat from South Molle Island. No charge."
Down at the Canonvale jetty there was a large boat called the Crest. I helped Dave load the peoples' luggage onto the boat and when there was an opportunity cornered the skipper, Owen Bauer, and asked if there was any work. "Might be. Stick around a bit" he said. So I went on helping with the luggage, this time belonging to people coming off the boat and into the bus. Being busy at this I failed to notice that the Crest had untied and was on her way out.
"Not to worry" said Dave. "She will be back in day after tomorrow. You had better come home with me. My Mum will look after to you until then." Their house was on the water front of the tiny town and I was given some lunch and a bed on the verandah with a marvellous view across the bay. Dave's Mum was a lovely old lady who kept me filled with home cooking for two days and I made myself busy as a bus driver's assistant.
On the second day the Crest came into port again to discharge another lot of home-going tourists. Having helped get them and their gear ashore I looked for the skipper but it was not Owen but his brother Norris. "Well" he said, "Owen did tell me there was a new deckhand coming out today." So I hung around watching for someone who looked like a new deckhand but no one meeting that description turned up. So at the last minute I grabbed my bag and jumped on the boat, feeling pretty silly. The trip out to South Molle Island was wonderful, passing between hilly islands with jungle right down to white sandy beaches. On arrival at the island, the boat was met by the resort staff including Mr Bauer senior who came over to me, gave me a thump on the back and said "Good lad. You'll sleep on the boat and come ashore for meals. Pay once a fortnight."
And so I became a deckhand on a tourist boat. I stayed there for about six months. Most days we spent sailing around the islands to various beaches, or out to the outer Barrier Reef. It seemed like paradise. My first trip out to the reef was a revelation. It was a calm day (unusual as it turned out). We went to a deep winding channel between Harding and Hook Reefs. It was low tide and Owen nosed the vessel carefully up to the reef edge and dropped the anchor up on the reef top. Apparently that was normal practice in those days but I would have freaked out if it had been years later when I had responsibility for reef management in Western Australia. The water in the channel was glassy calm and crystal clear and when the propeller froth and bubble had cleared I found myself looking over the side down at the fore-reef slope, smothered in diverse corals and with shoals of brightly coloured little fishes dashing about. The memory of that vision stays with me still - it was another life changing experience. But work had to be done. My job was to help get the plywood glass-bottomed boat over the side, the first batch of passengers aboard it and land them on the reef top.
Altogether we had about fifty people on the reef for nearly an hour, walking around among the corals and tide pools, until the tide began to turn and everyone had to retreat. In between my duties I managed to walk on the reef myself. At first I couldn't believe the variety of creatures there - the ones that impressed me most were live tiger cowries and two kinds of giant clams in the pools, big colourful cone shells nesting among the corals, pink-mouthed spider shells with their big spines and bright blue sea stars. Some of the people were picking up shells and pieces of live coral. They were taken back on to the Crest but the corals in particular began to smell on the way back to South Molle and many were thrown over the side before we got there. I had had no experience of this kind before but even in my youth and ignorance I knew that this behavior was not good. It remained like that for many years until the tourist operators themselves realised that long-term damage was being done to the resource that they relied upon and imposed restrictions on their guests. Now of course these marvellous reefs are part of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and taking specimens without authority is prohibited by law.
Very soon after my arrival on South Molle I discovered the resort's small library and several books on the coral reef life of the Great Barrier Reef. .... Saville-Kent ... etc. I spent most of my evenings poring over these books. It wasn't long before I found myself acting like a tour guide during our explorations on the outer reefs. It was no surprise to me that most people were enthralled by the diversity and beauty of reef creatures but I was surprised by their utter ignorance of their life history. The idea that a cowry shell they picked up on the reef had a mother and a sex life entertained them enormously. They might remember my account of the bizarre mating habits of cowries and some general impressions of the beauty of the coral reef and its inhabitants. But there were rarely any questions about how the corals grew or what they ate, or how the reef was built. Most peoples' interest in the natural history of the reef was superficial and short-lived. It struck me that they had no framework for recognition of the enormity of the natural history story that lay at their feet on the reef top. I felt an urge to tell the story but I didn't know it myself. For the first time in my life I became aware, vaguely, that here was something a person could devote their life to.
I stayed on South Molle until the end of the tourist season and then began the long journey home on the other side of the continent by train. Before I left Perth Tom Marwick had given me a letter of introduction to a lady named Hope Macpherson who was Curator of Molluscs at the National Museum of Victoria in Melbourne. I hadn't given it much thought but there was an overnight stopover in Melbourne and I decided it might be interesting to visit that museum and see what I information was there about shells.
So I rang Hope who invited me to come over. She read Tom's letter carefully, gave me a cup of tea, chatted a while and took me down into the basement of the museum where the shell collection was stored. There were rows and rows of steel cabinets with shell specimens carefully kept in boxes and vials, all labelled with information about the localities where they had been found, and all arranged in taxonomic order. Thousands of species were represented. Here was another revelation. But the climax of the experience came when Hope showed me the series of reference books published by the great conchologists of the 19th Century - Sowerby, Reeve, Hanley and others. These big volumes contained thousands of wood-cut prints of shells from all over the world, beautiful, colourful pictures of beautiful things. I was blown away not only by the beauty of these books but also with the realisation that there was a long history of clever people who had dedicated their lives to the study of shells. Maybe I was not such a wierdo after all.
"Well" said Hope, "why don't you go to university and study zoology. Western Australia has never had a conchologist." I thanked her for her kind thought but to me university was a place where the rich people from Nedlands go. I was only a kid from the bush and I had no entrance qualifications for university anyway. But the seed was sown. Hope could not have imagined it, any more than I, but I would do what she suggested and one day return to the National Museum of Victoria as its Director.
So that is an account of the series of events that led me, as a late student, to qualify myself in science, and the people who directed me there. Looking back I see that there are several important points in this story. I didn't get here by accident or chance and I wasn't born to it. I came to it because there were people along the way who encouraged my interest in natural history. First of all there were my parents. Without any formal education themselves they put aside their own interests and fostered my quirky habits, without any idea, theirs or mine, that I might become a marine scientist. Then there was the Busselton jetty maintenance diver who took the time to show me his trade and tell me what he knew of the creatures he met during his work. And Tom Marwick who was perhaps the first to recognise the potential of my interests. And Dave and his Mum of Canonvale who picked me up from my despair at the Proserpine train station, fed me and pointed me in the direction of South Molle. And the Bauers at the South Molle resort who recognised my interest in the creatures of their coral reefs and encouraged me to indulge it during my work for them. And Hope Macpherson who took the time to show me that natural science is a worthy thing to do and the direction to take in making a career of it.
During my work in various natural history museums I have been approached many times by people, young and old, seeking information about things in the natural world that have caught their attention. Regardless of who they are, it is always mutually rewarding when you take the time to encourage their interest. Sometimes it may be more than a passing interest but a step in a process that leads to life changes. You never know what influence you may have on young people when they make contact with you or what may come of it. And that is why I am writing this book.
Use beach/boats painting as focus
Polilio and the conversation with Jesuit priest -
⦁ Jesuit and evolutionary biologist
⦁ population control
⦁ Faith or Dogma? Do they work in a changing world?
The world's greatest center of marine biodiversity - East Indies triangle @ Sulu Sea - Plate tectonics and the extreme changeability of the world
Poverty in the middle of all those biological riches
Use images of dredging tray & Tiki (who is he and what does he stand for?)
Isolation - Marquesas & Pitcairn
Speciation - distance barriers; OK for spp with pelagic larvae but how did people get there? What are the principles for life in isolation
French admin - Gambier Is. Nuclear weapons tests. Spies? Mai Monsieur we are only collecting sea shells. Cast out without sufficient supplies or fuel. Rescued by the crazy people of Pitcairn
"No money no fucky - no nothing" - transition from subsistence to money economy - not all the fine people make it
Use image of girl in taro patch or similar
Crown of Thorns - the telegram - fan out over the Pacific
Kapingamarangi / Nukuroro
Atolls - oases of biological activity in an ocean desert
The terrors of flying with the US Navy; a coral head, a hole in the belly and near descent into 30 fathoms.
The pig, the party and coconut wine
Sustainability with finite resources; use what you have and wisely but if you run out raid your neighbour or kill your kids. The history of our western world is full of that now held together by law and education - and enough food for everyone
Use image of Kai pots - womens' business
Catching a giant clam - shell for WAM, meat for the village
Dredging ops on stern
The bump in the night - the floating teak log and near disaster
Ambon & the Dutch/Portugese; Rumphius 1741 one of the first great books on shells.
Flight home over the pristine Kimberley - ethics of conservation
Use image of Mt Trafalgar - the view from a hill - the whole story is laid out there
Sea level change - terrestrial v. marine habitats; half the Kimberley peoples' traditional land is under the sea
Crocodile country - be sure to sing out to the spirits before you enter
Creation stories - Christian, Indigenous, Science
Reserves to preserve in perpetuity or enable resilience in the face of change?
Conservation ethic again - or is it pragmatism for survival?
Dogma & stability or enquiry & adaptation?
"There is Grandeur in This View of Life" (Charles Darwin 1859)
"Nothing endures but change" (Heraclitus c. 2500 BP)
Biologists (like me) say that life on Earth began in primordial ooze as the planet cooled two and a half billion years ago. They say that with its rare (if not unique) abundance of water and suitable atmosphere and temperature, the development of life was inevitable, as was the process of evolution towards increasing complexity, driven by natural selection, one of the most powerful forces in nature. Anthropologists say that our own species Homo sapiens, along with its co-existing sister species, came "out of Africa" and spread into Europe and Asia, and thence to Australia and the Americas, to become a dominant species in the ecosystems of almost all the earth's terrestrial habitats.
I have a variation on these proposals. I say that life began in April 1935 on the corner of ... Street and the Esplanade in the small coastal town of Busselton in the remote south-western corner of Australia. But, of course, I am speaking of my own life. The Busselton District Hospital where I was born was then located on that corner, just over the road from the beach where my parents ran a cafe at the foot of the town jetty.
My early childhood was spent there - a privileged life of abundant sunshine and clear, clean sea water, with a diet of milk and honey, fresh meat, fruit and vegetables from the local farming lands and fish caught by myself and my Dad in the sea in front of our house. My days were spent in the sea as much as by it. My Mum said I might as well have been a fish myself. And so, blessed with an enquiring nature and indulgent parents, I became steeped in the natural history of the sea shore. It was inevitable, just as life on our living planet was inevitable given its fortuitous circumstances, that I would later find my way into marine science. So here I am, eighty years later, and this is my story and my account of some of the things I have learned in a long and privileged life.
|Views seen from seaplane window between Truk (Chuk) and Kapinga (1969).|