The Solitary Islands Marine Park is an amazing underwater wonderland, and we are lucky enough to have it right in our backyard. FOCUS chatted with Nicola Johnstone, to find out more about the park and the 25th anniversary of its conception.
Can you tell us about your connection to the Coffs Coast?
I moved to Coffs Harbour in November 2000, for four months’ temporary employment assisting with the planning and management of the Solitary Islands Marine Park. I am still here 16 years later.
Describe your position and what it is that you do …
My position is Manager of the Solitary Islands Marine Park, which is the area of coast and ocean that extends from Muttonbird Island here in Coffs Harbour, north 75 kilometres to Plover Island at Sandon. It includes the five Solitary Islands, as well as estuaries to their tidal limits, beaches, headlands and offshore waters out to three nautical miles. It is a large area to manage, being one of the largest marine parks in NSW, covering 710 km².
My job is to oversee the day to day management of the park, which can involve working with researchers to improve our understanding of many aspects of the park and identify knowledge gaps, assessing activities or proposals that may impact the park and providing advice, implementing communication and education programs to improve local awareness and appreciation of the park, compliance planning with fisheries officers to ensure regulations are adhered to and working with the community, industry representative and other organisations to get the best outcomes for the park. There are many other elements to managing the park, but these are the key ones, and every day is different. There are many people involved in the day to day management of the park in some way.
What makes the Solitary Islands Marine Park unique?
The Solitary Islands Marine Park is located on a part of the Australian coastline where tropical and temperate species mix and coexist, resulting in a very diverse marine environment. This is, in part, due to warm waters from the Great Barrier Reef extending down the coast in the East Australian Current (EAC), bathing the Solitary Islands. The EAC and associated species mix with cooler waters and temperate species from the south right here off our coast. In one dive you can see cool water species such as giant cuttle fish and kelp mixing it with tropical species such as corals, anemones, tropical fish, manta rays and turtles. The park also has a lot of good habitat (for example, offshore reef or mangroves in estuaries) for species to live.
When was the marine park formed, and what was the motivation behind the move?
The Solitary Islands Marine Park was established on 11 May 1991, initially as a marine reserve. The external boundaries are the same today as they were 25 years ago, although the protective zoning within has changed over the years, as new information becomes available. A recent oral history project found that the primary motivation behind the declaration of the initial reserve was largely driven by locals who had experienced the underwater world at the Solitary Islands, as far back as the late 1960s. The first pioneer divers found an abundance of coral that was only thought to occur in the Great Barrier Reef, and through studies by locals and scientists in the 1970s and 1980s, there was the realisation the area was pretty special and worthy of protection. So, it was really the enthusiastic local divers, underwater photographers and early research scientists who pushed for the protection of the area as far back as the 1970s.
What are some of the restrictions that help protect the area?
The park is managed through various mechanisms, including a zoning plan and fisheries management tools. A multiple use zoning plan is in place to guide where particular activities occur. For example, sanctuary zones are located in areas to protect sensitive habitats such as coral, at key aggregation sites or to protect threatened or protected species. Anchoring is prohibited in this zone, as are extractive activities such as fishing or aquarium collecting. Other zones in the park include habitat protection zone, general use zone and special purposes zone. A range of activities can occur in these zones. Residents and visitors are encouraged to obtain a copy of the SIMP User Guide before venturing into the park, to ensure they are familiar with the activities allowed in each zone.
How many tourists visit the park each year?
We don’t have exact numbers on how many people visit the park each year. Anyone that sets foot on a beach or headland, swims in a creek or heads offshore for a fish, will be visiting the marine park. It would have to be in the order of hundreds of thousands of visits annually by locals and tourists. Visitors have indicated in surveys that they love the uncrowded beaches, clean waters and “naturalness” of the area. The islands are a real drawcard for visitors, with each island offering a different diving or fishing experience. Interestingly, the Solitary Islands were named by Captain James Cook in May 1770 on his voyage along the east coast of Australia.
What activities are permitted within the park area?
The park caters for a whole range of activities. It is very popular for surfing, swimming, diving and fishing at the many estuaries, beaches and offshore reefs. We really are spoilt for choice here. The commercial fishing industry relies on fresh fish and prawns from the park, and there are many tourism charter operators that offer organised experiences diving, fishing, whale watching and surfing in the park. The balance of conservation and use seems to work well.
Do you think that residents of the area may not realise how amazing a natural wonderland they have at their doorstep?
As the park has been in existence for 25 years, I think many residents are aware of the values of the park and in particular, why it is special to them. They may appreciate the park as a place to spend time with family and walk or swim at the beach, or a place to get away from it all up an estuary or on a boat offshore. They may earn a living from it, doing something they love, or for some, they are lucky enough to dive beneath the waters and see first-hand how diverse and amazing the marine life is.
What are some of the things that people may hope to see?
There are really so many things that people can see when visiting the park. A simple beach walk or rock pool ramble with kids can reveal some pretty interesting critters, such as crabs or octopus. Offshore, the options are endless. Every island offers a different experience. North Solitary Island is renowned for its tropical fish, outstanding coral and has the densest aggregation of anemones and anemone fish worldwide. North West Solitary Island is the place to go if you want to encounter manta rays. South West Solitary Island (also known as Groper Island by locals) has the most extensive coverage of corals of all the islands. South Solitary Island is particularly scenic above water with the lighthouse and cottages, while underwater, it is renowned for its big fish, giant cuttlefish, grey nurse sharks and a mix of just about everything else. Split Solitary Island has a great mix of temperate and tropical species, with coral and kelp coexisting quite nicely, as well as a popular spot for the elusive blue devil fish … and that is just the islands. There are hundreds of other reefs in the park just as interesting.
What is your favourite spot in the park?
I spend most of my weekends at the beach with my family – any beach will do, but I have a few favourite places in the park. One of the dives I did at Pimpernel Rock, offshore from the Sandon, I came to the conclusion that the sponge garden at 30 metres was “the prettiest place on earth”. North West Solitary Island is also particularly special to me, as I was able to swim with a manta ray after a dive, which was very memorable. And North Solitary Island is spectacular on any dive – just amazing. I am also partial to swimming and paddling on the Corindi River, which is just a beautiful waterway.
What are the future plans for the marine park?
The marine park will continue to be managed in a way that provides for a wide range of uses, while still preserving the health of the estuaries, coastline and ocean that we all value. A threat and risk assessment of the NSW marine estate will provide information on any priority threats in the region, upon which we can then review and amend current management arrangements to address those threats, if required. It was encouraging to hear prominent marine scientist and coral expert Dr Charlie Veron state, after a dive here in May, that his observations of coral reef condition in the Solitary Islands Marine Park were as good as they were back in the 1970s, if not better, but in his opinion this was not the case anywhere else in the world. So that is a good sign for the future of the Solitary Islands Marine Park.