Celebrating 10 Years of RLS, Rottnest Island 2018

The calm before the storm….

Reef Life Survey divers on the West Coast are used to getting up early to catch the weather, especially when they know that in May the first winter storms are never far away. So when a window of awesome weather opened up a week before the 11th annual RLS survey weekend at Rottnest Island (and the 10 Years of RLS celebration), Ben Jones, Kevin Smith, Alicia Sutton and Paul Day hit the water early for the trip to Rottnest from Hillarys Boat Harbour.

Good conditions during the crossing suggested West End was diveable and should be the first site to check out, and it did not disappoint. Across three transects the divers encountered up to 11 Grey Nurse Sharks (Carcharias taurus), interesting tropical species Threadfin butterflyfish (Chaetodon auriga), Racoon butterflyfish (Chaetodon lunula) and the seastar Leiaster leachi.

The second site the divers visited was at Armstrong Bay inside a sanctuary zone on the North coast of the island. The divers encountered more tropical species Scarus schlegeli (Schlegel’s parrotfish), Scarus ghobban (Blue-barred orange parrotfish), Scarus rivulatus (Surf parrotfish) and the prolific algal grazer Siganus fuscescens (Black Rabbitfish) which has been seen more frequently by divers over the past few years.

Species targeted by recreational fishers were also encountered such as Choerodon rubescens (Baldchin groper), Panulirus cygnus (Western rock lobster) and Sillaginodes punctatus (King George whiting).

The storm…

The 11th consecutive annual Rottnest Island Reef Life Survey long weekend was held on Thursday 24th to Tuesday 29th May and saw a team of 12 divers in total. With a poor weather forecast in the lead up to the trip only four divers (Graham, Rick, Toni and Michael) braved the ferry crossing on Thursday.

A severe cold front passed through south west Western Australia on the Friday to Sunday. Friday and Saturday saw 100 km/h winds and 5-6 m swells and ferries cancelled on both days. Not the best weather for diving! The weather had finally improved enough on Sunday evening for the Underwater Explorers Club (UEC) vessel to make the crossing on Monday morning. “Manic Monday” saw RLS divers survey 5 priority sites from the UEC vessel and 2 priority sites from shore (completed by Ben and Michael).

Conditions improved further on Tuesday and RLS divers completed another 2 sites before catching the ferry back to Fremantle. Including the two sites surveyed in the lead up to the long weekend trip, a total of 9 sites have been completed so far for 2018 (with the potential for a further 2 priority sites to be surveyed if the weather provides the opportunity).

The WA team of RLS divers and crew comprised Michael Brooker, Claire Butler, Chris Cunnold, Paul Day, Sophie Edgar, Wendy Hutchison, Ben Jones, Cheryl Petty, Kevin Smith, Alicia Sutton, Rebecca Watson, and were joined by the Tassie RLS contingent; Graham Edgar, Toni Cooper and Rick Stuart-Smith. The overall vital statistics for the team: 13 divers in the water, 24 transects at 11 sites, 92 species on Method 1, 62 species on Method 2.

Following the second and final day of surveys for the eleventh annual survey trip to Rottnest Island RLS divers in Western Australia gathered in Fremantle along with representatives of Rottnest Island Authority (Cass Thomas and Shane Kearney) to celebrate the 10th anniversary of RLS. Many awards were presented as part of the presentation and some notable mentions include:

  • Ben Jones for the “Fast Learner Award”. Ben was thrown in the tropical deep end (pardon the pun), and was very quick to learn all of the species.
  • Wendy Hutchison and Chris Cunnold for the “Full Package Award”. Wendy and Chris make up the ultimate diving/boating duo and our Rottnest trips would not be possible without them!

The celebration was a highlight for the Rottnest survey participants given the short survey trip and a fun time was had by all.

The story did not quite end there though.

Two high priority sites were still left to do as the conditions during the survey weekend prevented us from being able to get into Fish Hook Bay and made Kingston Reef undiveable. So on the 16th June, Kevin Smith, Wendy Hutchinson, Sophie Edgar and Paul Day ventured back to Rottnest on the UEC boat Cape Cruiser skillfully skippered by Chris Cunnold and our able decky was Peter Northrop (pirate Pete to some!).

The swell made for a precision entry to Fish Hook Bay where we found surprisingly good conditions underwater compared to the washing machine top side. The divers recorded Scarus schlegeli (Schlegel’s parrotfish) and a school of Pseudocaranx georgianus (Silver Trevally).

At Kingston Reef, the divers were dropped off directly over the wreck of the Denton Holme and descended into reasonable visibility of 8-10 m, this saved a long surface swim from the mooring to the site in a gnarly swell and 15-20 knt north easterly.  Seriola lalandi (Yellow-tail Kingfish) and Grammatorcynus bicarinatus (Shark Mackerel) buzzed past with lumbering Kyphosus sydneyanus (Silver Drummer) trying to mingle with them as if trying to raise their street cred! On method 2, numerous Panulirus cygnus (western rock lobster) were recorded tucked under ledges and a lonesome Astroboa ernae (Basket Star) was found.

Substantial thanks go to the Rottnest Island Authority (Cass Thomas and Shane Kearney) for their continued support of the RLS monitoring at Rotto, Wendy Hutchison and Chris Cunnold and the Underwater Explorer’s Club for the vessel (and expert and patient skippering). – Written by Michael Brooker and Paul Day

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