VIC – Merri MPA Warrnambool

Merri Marine Sanctuary On a coastline noted for its pounding surf, there are still a few spots where it is relatively easy and safe to interact with the local rocky reef. On the western coast of Victoria, the best of these small quiet coves is Stingray Bay, and it is in the middle of a marine sanctuary zone. Sources; M.Jacques and Friends of Merri Marine Sanctuary. ParksVic Merri Marine Sanctuary, located at the mouth of the Merri River in Warrnambool, Victoria, covers 25ha of coast from the Warrnambool harbour Breakwater to Thunder Point. This sheltered bay in the middle (Stingray Bay) incorporates the mouth of the Merri River. This river flows around the eastern edge of the city of Warrnambool. It is one of those spots that have high recreational values. It’s sheltered with a nice beach, close to the city, and offers a shore dive or snorkel in most weathers. It’s the sort of place for an intertidal walk, beachcombing, family picnic, paddle in a canoe, a SCUBA training event, or some coastal photography. Before becoming a reserve it was fished excessively and despite the reserve status, fish sizes are still small. The reserve is probably too small to allow local reef fish to really bounce back, as they can be easily fished out from access points at the nearby park boundaries. The site offers small kelp forests in the sheltered bay and limestone reefs. The seaweed gardens are lush and the variety of species is noticeable. The sanctuary supports the second highest number of algal species in subtidal reefs monitored on the western Victorian coast. A diverse range of marine life can be found in the area because of the varying sandy and rocky habitats and cool, nutrient rich, oxygen charged waters. Fish life includes wobbegongs, morwong, leatherjackets, perch, sea sweep and sting rays. The only drawback here is the variable underwater visibility, averaging at about 5 metres. This is partly due to the nutrient charged waters on this coast, the compensation being rich marine life. The outflows from the river after rain also don’t help, nor does the pounding surf outside the bay that is constantly mobilising sand. Larger swim throughs are found on the more exposed ocean side, but this exposed area is rarely dived. It would have to be done by a fit and 9 experienced party, exploring on a very calm day. Between the islands is a deep canyon packed with sea life. Overhangs and crevices provide excellent hiding spots for marine animals including Giant Cuttlefish, Draughtboard Sharks, Parrotfish, schools of Zebra Fish and Southern Rock Lobsters. The sheltered waters of Stingray Bay are near the port and easy to access via good roads. The islands that form this sheltered harbour can also be accessed at low tide, but instead use the provided walkways to prevent erosion and the collapse of the many seabird and penguin nests present in the vegetated parts of the islands. You also need to be wary of the tide and swell. The area is not rough, in fact it’s deceptively calm. A quiet walk out to the islands at low tide where you are protected by fringing reef, can become a struggle through raging surf on a high tide. Drownings are unnecessarily frequent. Views out to sea and over the sanctuary from the Thunder Point lookout in particular are an attraction for many visitors to Warrnambool. The landscapes and seascapes are spectacular and the council and Parks Victoria have provided good walking tracks. Extensive ancient middens along the Pickering Point walking track show the importance of the waters and reefs to Aboriginal people. Intertidal reefs, particularly the Pickering Point intertidal reef, are very diverse. “Sun-bleached red coralline algae form a carpet of colour over the rock platform, and shallow pools are fringed by Sea Lettuce and Neptune’s Necklace. At the edge of the reef is Bull Kelp and Bubble Weed”. Common invertebrates include snails, limpets, crabs and anemones. The western portion of Pickering Point intertidal reef is particularly diverse and has been designated a Special Protection Area. The sanctuary has its problems as it is in a highly modified area sited on an estuary that passes through a large city. Sediment sampling in the Merri River has found high concentrations of zinc and lead, and there have been several blue-green algae blooms in the river. The incoming sea water keeps the sanctuary itself pretty clean. The Warrnambool wastewater outfall is also only 500 metres west of the sanctuary and discharges approximately 10 mega litres of wastewater (about 10 big farm dams) per day consisting of domestic sewage, milk processing wastes, abattoir effluent and light industrial wastes. Wastewater was untreated until 1991, but has since been processed. Monitoring results indicate that the outfall has a minimal impact on the sanctuary. Modifications to this area, including the construction of the breakwater, have resulted in a significant accumulation of sand adjacent to the sanctuary. In the past, the harbour area was regularly dredged, and the sand was deposited west of the Stingray Bay car park. The good news is that the MPA declaration has helped to change the dynamic. Dredging in the sanctuary is now prohibited, fishing has died down, pollution is being better managed. It is now a little gem for the locals and on the bucket list for all Warrnambool travellers.