Dual sex sea creatures swamp Far South Coast beaches

Bluebottles at North Durras. Photo: Christa White Facebook
Bluebottles at North Durras. Photo: Christa White Facebook

Locals and visitors have been returning beaches along the Eurobodalla and Bega Valley coastline, the chill of winter replaced with the temptation of a swim under big, bright, blue skies.

But that springtime enthusiasm has been tempered on some beaches with the mass arrival of familiar but alien looking creatures – Bluebottles.

Not one creature but many, these duel sex visitors to Far South Coast beaches are a collegiate group each with a job to do before being blown ashore.

“I love bluebottles, they’re awesome,” says Kerryn Wood, Manager of the Sapphire Coast Marine Discovery Centre in Eden.

“They’re actually a colony of several animals, all with specialised functions – feeding, catching prey, and reproduction.

“Fascinating!” Kerryn says.

A tangle of Bluebottles. Photo: Colin Eacott Facebook
A tangle of Bluebottles. Photo: Colin Eacott Facebook

According to the Australian Museum, the Bluebottle is a colony of four kinds of highly modified individuals known as zooids, and come from the same family of life that includes coral and sea anemones.

“The zooids are dependent on one another for survival.

“The float (pneumatophore) is a single individual and supports the rest of the colony.

“The tentacles (dactylozooids) are polyps concerned with the detection and capture of food and convey their prey to the digestive polyps (gastrozooids).

“Reproduction is carried out by the gonozooids, another type of polyp,” The Museum says.

Generally speaking, northerly winds bring Bluebottles onto local beaches.

“There have also been some pretty big seas lately,” Ms Wood says.

The beauty of Bluebotlles. Photo: Jackie Saunders Facebook
The beauty of Bluebotlles. Photo: Jackie Saunders Facebook

The Bluebottles famous float can grow to over 15cm, it’s job is to sail the colony across the ocean surface capturing the breeze with its aerodynamic shape. A degree of muscular contraction in its crest gives the Bluebottle a sense and skill similar to a holidaying windsurfer.

Local surfboat crews training for January’s George Bass Surfboat Marathon are reporting large “schools” of Bluebottles bobbing about at sea.

“The float may project either to the left or to the right; the left-handed forms sail to the right of the wind and vice versa,” The Australian Museum explains.

“Thus, if the sailing angle of one form leads to its stranding on the shore, the others sailing to the opposite side of the wind may escape.”

A neat survival trick that maintains the population even when Far South Coast beaches are blanketed in dried and popping specimens.

Food and reproduction drive life and Bluebottles have some impressive tools to call on.

Their stinging tentacles drift downwind for up to one metre capturing food in their wake, responding swiftly to the presence of food, they twist and tangle prey, and “become all mouth” to digest their meal.

A range of enzymes are deployed to break down proteins, carbs, and fats across a menu of small crustaceans and surface plankton.

Reproduction is another impressive Bluebottle trick that helps it’s species survive on the high-seas.

Bluebottles are hermaphrodites, they carry female and male parts.

“Awesome, I love that so many marine creatures are hermaphrodites,” Ms Wood says.

“And sometimes they’ll wash up on the beach with a variety of other really beautiful ‘blue’ animals like Glacus atlanticus or the Blue Sea Dragon – also hermaphrodites.

“The Glaucus atlanticus actually eat blue bottles and ‘steal’ their poison, making them even more poisonous!” Ms Wood says.

The Glaucus atlanticus, AKA Blue Dragon, eats Bluebottles. Photo: Commons Wikki
The Glaucus atlanticus, AKA Blue Dragon, eats Bluebottles. Photo: Commons Wikki

All this is very interesting but from a human perspective, avoiding the stingers and knowing what to do if stung is front of mind during a day at the beach.

Andrew Edmunds from the Far South Coast Surf Lifesaving Association says northeasterly winds and swells in particular bring Bluebottles on to beaches between Batemans Bay and Eden.

“Avoiding north-east facing beaches in those conditions might help families dodge Bluebottles,” Mr Edmunds says.

“The best treatment for a sting is hot water, a shower as hot as you can without burning does the trick.

“And if hot water isn’t available ice is a good alternative in relieving the pain after you have washed the tentacles away,” Mr Edmunds advises.

“Swimming at a patrolled beach this summer will ensure that first aid is close at hand from lifesavers.”

And be aware beachcombers, as thousands of Bluebottles lay shipwrecked on local beaches the toxic mixture they use to immobilise and digest their prey is still active and can sting you, however the contractions that trap their marine victims becomes inactive.

Bluebottles are awesome, the sting they can inject into a day at the beach instinctively demands our respect, but so to should their survival skills.

*Become a member of About Regional and support local news and stories, thank you to the Bega Valley Regional Learning Centre, Linda Albertson, Julia Stiles, Ali Oakley, Rosemary Lord, and Simon Marnie.

*Large elements of this article originally appeared on Riot ACT.

Yellow buoys off Merimbula and Malua Bay listening for sharks

Shark listening station - Malua Bay, supplied DPI.
Shark listening station – Malua Bay, supplied DPI.

The sapphire waters of the Far South Coast naturally draw your attention – forever changing, forever surprising.

This summer, just below Batemans Bay at Maula Bay and further south at Merimbula, a tall yellow buoy beyond the last line of breakers will catch your eye as your bum finds that sweet spot in the sand.

It’s a Shark Listening Station or VR4G, installed during November before the place filled up with holiday makers.

The one off Main Beach Merimbula brings the number of listening stations along the New South Wales coastline to twenty, all designed to give our feeble bodies the jump on these ‘monsters of the deep.’

Other locations include Kiama, Sussex Inlet, Mollymook, Bondi, Byron Bay, Ballina and Lennox Head.

The Member for Bega, Andrew Constance says these satellite-linked VR4G receivers record the presence of tagged sharks swimming within 500 metres of the listening station.

“Information on the movement of tagged sharks captured on the VR4Gs goes straight to a satellite and is then instantly sent to mobile devices via Twitter and the SharkSmart App.” he explains.

There are 114 White Sharks and 88 Bull Sharks that have been tagged by either the NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI) or CSIRO. These are the beasties that give themselves away when they swim near one of these hi-tech posts.

“Whilst we can’t tag every shark, the new listening stations will enhance bather safety by alerting beachgoers and authorities when a tagged shark is in the area,” Mr Constance says.

“They provide beachgoers with information and knowledge to help them assess their risk of a shark encounter before they hit the water.”

Shark at Bournda Island December 25,from https://twitter.com/NSWSharkSmart
Shark at Bournda Island December 25, from https://twitter.com/NSWSharkSmart

The technology is one component of the NSW Government’s $16m Shark Management Strategy and follows a run of fatal and near-fatal shark attacks in northern NSW during 2016.

Other parts of the strategy being seen locally include regular DPI helicopter patrols running between Kiama and Eden, and soon a new $33,000 viewing platform overlooking Pambula Beach.

Since the aerial patrols and listening stations became active seven local shark sightings have been reported to the Shark Smart App – all south of the Bega River mouth at Tathra.

The first alert on December 17 pointed to four Whaler Sharks near Bar Beach Merimbula, and two unidentified 2 metre sharks off Pambula Beach – both spotted by the DPI aerial team.

The most recent alert was sent out on December 29 with the helicopter reporting up to eight juvenile Bronze Whaler Sharks off Main Beach Merimbula.

In all cases, nearby authorities were notified and it was assessed that there was little threat to swimmers and surfers – sometimes simply because there was no one in the water.

If there is deemed to be a risk to people, lifesavers on the beach or the aerial patrol have the capacity to clear the water of swimmers.

Looking further north to the Shoalhaven, 13 shark alerts have been trigger during the same time frame around Ulladulla and Jervis Bay. On the Central and North Coasts, where there is a more intensive monitoring effort, 60 alerts have been issued taking in beaches between Lake Macquarie and Tweed Heads.

Unidentified sharks spotted 1km north of Tathra Beach on December 19, from https://twitter.com/NSWSharkSmart
Unidentified sharks spotted 1km north of Tathra Beach on December 19, from https://twitter.com/NSWSharkSmart

Broulee’s Andrew Edmunds, Director, Far South Coast Surf Life Saving says his organisation welcomes anything that helps lifesavers manage risk and allows people to make informed choices.

“Sharks are not the biggest risk to swimmers though,” Mr Edmunds says.

“Since the start of summer, we have had 18 deaths in New South Wales waters, none have been a result of shark interaction,” Mr Edmunds says.

“Unpatrolled beaches, rips and strong currents, not wearing life-jackets, unsupervised pools, ponds, and dams – these are the biggest risks.”

Mr Edmunds is hoping the listening stations might ease people’s concern about sharks.

“People will start to see sharks in the natural environment as normal,” he says.

“The frequency of the alerts will increase over time as more sharks are tagged, people might start to realise how commonplace sharks are.”

Shark Smart alerts as there appear on Twitter
Shark Smart alerts as they appear on Twitter

The yellow VR4G units sit high in the water and have been somewhat of a curiosity to beachgoers this summer with lifesavers taking regular questions.

“Stand-up paddle boarders have also been going out and back to investigate,” Mr Edmunds says.

The odds of being attacked or killed by a shark are said to be 1 in 3,748,067, despite the regularity of their presence in our environment that Mr Edumnds points to.

Those long odds however, are easily challenged by our active imaginations, fed by frequent news reports from the North Coast pointing to surfers bitten or killed and White Sharks snared in drum lines.

The tall yellow buoys that now sit out the front of Merimbula and Malua Bay not only highlight the physical presence of sharks but also our fragile minds when it comes to these creatures.