Only a handful of people ever knew that Figure of Eight Island was on fire.
- A marine biologist has found only one shearwater on Figure of Eight Island after a fire
- The bird may confirm the location of Australia’s western-most habitat of the short-tailed shearwater but the fate of the rest of the colony remains a mystery
- Stone tools were also unearthed during the fire. They may provide evidence of ancient Aboriginal occupation
During the horror Australian summer of 2019–20, the nation’s eyes were fixed on the east coast’s bushfires when a lightning strike hit the small, uninhabited island off the coast of Esperance in Western Australia.
It triggered a blaze that burned for a couple of days before fizzling out.
But the full scope of its impact is just now being measured.
Last month, more than a year after the fire, a team of researchers and rangers travelled to the island to be met by only a lone baby bird.
The chick was a short-tailed shearwater, also known as a Tasmanian mutton bird, and its presence confirmed what marine biologist Jennifer Lavers long-suspected: that Figure of Eight Island may have once been home to the nation’s western-most population of the species.
But for now at least, it appears that home has been destroyed.
“We had heard that at least part of the island had experienced a bushfire,” Dr Lavers said.
“[But] almost immediately after we arrived we could see that almost the entire island had been encompassed in the fire.
“The burrows that the seabirds would normally live in have been completely washed away and it is essentially just a barren habitat.”
Only one baby bird found
Figure of Eight Island is off the south-west coast of Esperance, at the western point of the Recherche Archipelago, a group of more than 100 islands.
They are wild and unforgiving and over the years have become known for extraordinary stories: a murderous pirate, marooned prisoners, fearless surfers and sharks.
But Dr Laver’s interest in Figure of Eight lay in old records from the 1950s, that indicated the island might be home to a short-tailed shearwater colony.
That would be significant, given the next closest colony was believed to be on Wickam Island, 200 kilometres away on the far-eastern side of the archipelago.
After years of visiting the Esperance region, conditions were finally good enough for Dr Lavers and a team of rangers to make the treacherous ocean crossing last month.
But the island was eerily quiet when they arrived.
At this time of year, Dr Lavers said the island should have been alive with the seabird colony in the middle of its breeding season.
But the only trace she could find among the many abandoned burrows was the one baby chick — a meagre offering but enough to confirm the species’ presence.
Yet questions about the rest of the colony linger, and, given the suspected decline of the species’ globally, those answers may have broad implications.
Dr Lavers said it would definitely be the subject of future research.
Understanding an ancient story
The missing shearwater colony was not the only mystery created by the fire.
During the research trip, traditional owner Doc Reynolds said rangers and in-house archaeologists discovered stone tools on the island, which he said was probable evidence of Aboriginal occupation.
Mr Reynolds said this made sense as the islands had been connected to the mainland before sea levels rose thousands of years ago, and cultural sites had already been discovered on other islands in and around the archipelago.
He said after consulting with local elders, the rangers would likely return to the island and carry out an excavation to try and find material that could be dated to give a likely timeframe of when people last lived there.
Sand dune’s age determined
The discovery tied in well with another project that rangers from the Esperance Tjaltjraak Native Title Aboriginal Corporation (ETNTAC) had been working on, which dated the age of sand dunes east of Esperance.
Using a PVC pipe, they collected sand from about a metre below the surface of a dune at Wharton Beach.
After sending it away from analysis, they discovered the sand had not seen sunlight for about 4,700 years, which meant the sand dune was at least that old.
David Guilfoyle, the healthy country plan coordinator for ETNTAC, said the studies could give insights about how people coped with sea level rise and climate change, which could provide today’s society with valuable lessons.
“It’s an epic journey that people have been on for thousands of years.
“And we’re just getting glimpses of it from this type of work.”
Mr Guilfoyle said the island’s Indigenous ancestors had a “deep understanding” of the land.
“We see the immense value of integrating cultural knowledge systems into research and planning,” he said.
“They’ve experienced climate change, been through it, they knew how systems function — the seasons, plant life, the animal life — so we’re tapping into that now.”
‘Pristine’ islands require protection
Mr Guilfoyle said the stories recently exposed at Figure of Eight Island showed that even though the Recherche Archipelago was pristine and relatively unchartered, it needed management and care to remain that way.
Mr Guilfoyle said work needed to be done to reduce the island’s fuel loads, manage invasive weeds, monitor significant wildlife and protect cultural sites.
Currently, the islands are managed by the WA Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA).
The department says that Figure of Eight Island will recover on its own.
“Results from previous survey work indicate the islands recover naturally after bushfires,” a spokesperson said.
“As with previous bushfire recovery, bird populations are known to return to the islands within a few years to reoccupy burrows.”
A decade of recovery
Mr Guilfoyle believed the best way forward for the Recherche Archipelago was a collaborative approach where the ETNTAC rangers pooled funding and resources with DBCA and universities.
Mr Reynolds said continued support from the state and federal government was critical to continue cultural mapping.
He wants to see the local rangers at the forefront of researching and protecting the archipelago into the future.
Dr Lavers said the community could help by providing photos or drone footage of Figure of Eight Island before or after the fire.
But she warned that if anyone was to visit the island they should not venture off the beach as it could destroy the shearwaters’ nesting habitat.
“But it will really be the rangers and community telling me just how right I am in making that prediction.”
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