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A real pearler for marine research!


 

 
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Ali McCarthy is the first research officer for this new privately operated facility and outlines some of the research already in progress. Ali is an Honours graduate in marine studies and is working with James Brown from Cygnet Bay Pearls who has set up the Kimberley Marine Research Station, a privately operated facility some 200 kilometres north of Broome on the Dampier Peninsula.
    
First begun in 2009 with guidance from the Western Australia Marine Science Institution (WAMSI), Ali McCarthy now coordinates the venture. WAMSI works with other universities across Australia as well as other research organisations like the CSIRO. One of the Cygnet Bay facility's assets is that it is a fully operational pearl farm which also comprises a small tourism venture with accommodation facilities and catering. These land-based facilities can be used by researchers, along with use of vessels, divers, scientists and other marine expertise.

 
Above: Research at the reef, Shell Island Ali McCarthy (KMRS), Dr Andrew heyward (AIMS), James Brown (KMRS)    
The entire operation is funded by Cygnet Bay Pearls and guidance has been provided by Steve Blake, the CEO of WAMSI. Amongst others, there are currently PhD students from the University of Western Australia (UWA) and Murdoch University as well as recent field work about oyster oedema disease (OOD) from Macquarie University, a disease that has wreaked havoc in the Australian pearling industry since 2006. Susceptibility to the disease OOD is linked to environmental stress including air exposure and as a result practices have been developed to keep juvenile oysters sheltered from wind as much as possible.

 
High tide at Cygnet Bay from the lookout

 
The UWA researcher is studying coral, specifically looking at the effect of extreme tidal conditions on coral metabolism. Given that the spring tides in Cygnet Bay are of the magnitude of 8-10 metres, at high tide the water will be a few metres deep and then, at the exact same spot, almost a kilometre away at low tide.
The corals in and around this zone are not only exposed to the changes in water levels but also the changes in water temperature which accompany them.

 
Low tide at Cygnet Bay from the lookout

 
Recently, water temperature was observed dropping as much as 2.4°C in areas over a 40 hour period in response to major south-easterly wind events.     
There is a huge diversity of coral species in the area, with at least 50 species of hard coral identified in the intertidal zone by Dr Terry Hughes from James Cook University when he explored a 10m² patch of intertidal reef in 2011.
One of the PhD research studies by Murdoch University is looking into the physiological changes that occur in coral when those tidal changes take place and will be able to draw on similar research at Ningaloo Reef, where the tidal changes are less extreme.

Researchers at Shenton Bluff, Cygnet Bay, November 2011

 
A second study through Murdoch University is a long-term inshore dolphin study, specifically looking at population estimates and dynamics for the main dolphin species; the bottlenose, the Indo-Pacific humpback and the Australian snubfin dolphin, using Cygnet Bay as the western Kimberley site and Wyndham as its easterly site. The Australian snubfin dolphin is our only endemic dolphin species, having only been identified as a distinct species some six years ago and is only found in northern waters stretching from The Kimberley to the Northern territory as well as parts of northern Queensland. Normally shy and elusive they are seen in playful pods of more than ten dolphins at Cygnet Bay and swimming around the boats and divers.

 
False Killer Whales, April 2012 (photo by Alex Brown, MUCRU)

 
The dolphin research has uncovered some interesting finds already. Some dolphins are transient between locations along the Peninsula and some are more residential at particular sites. In addition, during the dolphin surveys, two false killer whales were also spotted repeatedly around Cygnet Bay and observing them only fifty metres offshore was new to these researchers and is an occurrence which ought to be tracked. Following up with anecdotal reports since then, it may well be that false killer whales have been visiting Cygnet Bay for some years. A smaller relative of true killer whales, these whales are also an apex marine predator with the teeth to prove it.
The Kimberley Marine Research Station is ideally placed for such investigations. Its position is a real pearler for marine research.

 

Acropora (Staghorn Coral) Shenton Bluff, Cygnet Bay.


Ali McCarthy was interviewed by Ruby Vincent for A Question of Balance. All images provided by Ali McCarthy. Summary text by Victor Barry, July 2012.

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