EACH day the high tides deliver a new treasure trove to our golden beaches (anyone remember what was written at the entrance of Wonthaggi?). The physics of our moon and sun interpose to cover our shores with a new strandline, each one slightly unique. Add in the barometric readings, wind direction and strength, and the sheer uniqueness of each high tide is apparent.
The treasure may be tiny and delicate – a sea jelly or feather – or huge – a shipwreck or whale. Some years, in the spring, there will be a muttonbird wreck: birds that have lost the battle between energy use and mass, attempting to return to their mate and particular burrow, a return that may have been going on for more than 30 years. When I see them I marvel at their sense of home, and weep at their loss. Their return and departure is a far more impressive sight than our rock-star penguins.
You may happen upon the body of a sea-dragon, one of nature's most outlandish creations. The male is responsible for nurturing the next generation, proving that some men are responsible! Some years ago, Venus Bay residents were confronted by the sight of a huge, hairy sea monster, the size of a bus. Turns out it was a lump of whale. The fatty tissues had dissolved, leaving the tentacular connective tissue wafting about, disturbing and delighting those who brave the beaches.
Similarly, the whale stranding at Harmers Haven a century ago gave us the legacy of Taberners Whalebones. The local miners realised the value of such a prize, and promptly rendered the flesh for its oil – recycling at its finest.
My strangest find came when I was visiting the Summerland Peninsula during my work as a penguin research assistant. One of the small coves was festooned with white, typed foolscap sheets. I started to gather them up, and soon realised they were part of the instruction manuals for the HMS Brittannia, Queen Betty's private yacht. It had sailed from Melbourne the previous day. The portion I collected outlined what flags should be flown when the royal barge was being launched. I sincerely hope these royal documents were accidentally washed overboard by a freak swell, and not deliberately discharged into our waters as her majesty's ship left Port Phillip Heads. I wonder to this day what arcane ceremony was performed by the crew as the treasure was dispersed – knickerbockers, cannon and plumed hats?
Now to the tragedy. Fishing net floats are often collected by coastal wanderers. Earlier versions were artworks – glass globes encased by woven ropes. More recent ones are fluoro-plastic, daubed with black-painted numbers, and the latest are crappy expanded polystyrene - a persistent insult to our shores. The lost nets are probably entangling seals and fish for years to come.
The real tragedy was a few years ago when drums of chemicals began washing up along the Bass Coast beaches (coincidentally?) when the desal work barges visited our coast. Students were evacuated from local beaches and decontaminated, and the CFA was dispatched to contain these toxic "gifts". The EPA promised a full investigation. I am yet to find out what the drums contained, or where they originated from. "definitely not desal-related" was all we heard. More drums have been washed up recently at Venus Bay. I hope the contents are innocuous.
The mass of plastics in our oceans will soon outweigh the mass of fish. This is the only statistic you need to understand this disgraceful legacy we are leaving the planet. Do whatever you can to stop plastics poisoning our marine life, entering the food chain, and littering our golden sands. I dream of a world where my grandchild is more likely to discover a beach-washed seastar than a plastic bag …