In this post, which is the third in a series of more in depth articles using material from the PMI’s collection, I’m going to look at the history and ecology of Western Port Bay. We have a number of books on the Bay and its surrounds and I’ll provide a reference list at the end. Western Port Bay, is the lesser known cousin of Port Phillip Bay, and together they form the Mornington Peninsula.
To begin with the basics; Western Port Bay is formed by the heads of Flinders and Phillip Island. You can see the view looking over the ‘Nobbys’ at the tip of Phillip Island in the photo below.
The tides are much higher than Port Phillip, partly because the heads of the bay are much wider. There are also two major islands in the Bay; Phillip Island, which as I said forms part of the heads, and French Island. I’m not going to discuss either in detail, but we have a number of books on both if anyone wants to learn more. There are a number of smaller islands in the Bay as well.
To return to Western Port Bay itself. Before European colonisation Western Port Bay was, and remains, the land of the Boon Wurrung Indigenous people of the Kulin nation. They lived around the bay for thousands of years, using its bountiful resources including shellfish, birds, animals and plant life. When Europeans arrived, food sources were depleted, Boon Wurrung were removed from the land, disease spread, some were captured by whalers and sealers, some were incorporated into European society, some were rounded up and sent to missions, where culture and language was forcibly stamped out. Today the Boon Wurrung are rebuilding their language and continue to live and share their ancient culture. It is vitally important to note that this was not unoccupied land when the Europeans arrived. You can find out more about the Boon Wurrung at the Boon Wurrung Foundation
The map below, which dates to 1940 and can be viewed as part of the PMI’s collection, gives you an idea of the scope of the Bay itself and especially the channels in the Bay.
There are a number of deep shipping channels in Western Port, which weave their way through equally shallow mud flats. This allows big ships to come into Hastings, and Cerberus (which is a navy training base), but lots of little boats make use of the many channels, waterways and even creeks that run around and in Western Port Bay.
The ecology of Western Port Bay is unique, the salt marshes are home to a vast array of migratory birds and Western Port boasts the southern most mangroves in the world, (Corner Inlet at Wilson’s Promontory might argue with that designation). The mangroves help prevent erosion, are fish nurseries, have aerial roots and produce seeds which the tides take and you find scattered along the surrounding beaches. You can see some of the mangroves in the photo below, with Hasting’s white elephant the HMAS Otama.
It’s a slight diversion, but the Otama is worth explaining. In 2001 the Otama, a 1610 ton Oberon Class submarine, was purchased by the Western Port Oberon Association. It was intended to be the centre piece of the Victorian Maritime Centre in Hastings and they had it towed from Fremantle. Sadly, over the years the Maritime Centre has got very close to planning approval and the funding to build it, but it has never succeeded. In 2008, the Otama was put on eBay unsuccessfully. Hopefully, one day it will come out of the water as part of a state of the art Maritime Centre, but for now it sits waiting in Western Port Bay.
Putting the Otama aside, the ecology of Western Port Bay goes beyond the mangroves. There are salt marshes and seagrass beds of immense importance. The seagrass meadows are the driving force of the bay, they produce seed and and are pollinated wholly underwater, they provide protection and food for a wide variety of sea life. While it might not look so pretty when it is washed up on the beach, seagrass is the bedrock on which the ecology of the underwater world of Western Port is built.
Seagrass is not the only plant found in the bay, there is an extensive assortment, including some truly striking seaweed.
The creatures of Western Port are as versatile and varied as their plant companions. The Bay is home to numerous fish, and other creatures including dolphins, seals and sharks. There is multitudinous birdlife, with masked lapwings, pacific gulls, oyster catchers, ibis, swans, white faced herons and cormorants (amongst many others) being regular visitors. You can see some of the cormorants below.
There’s also many smaller creatures, usually found around the rock pools, including sea stars and crabs, along with many many different types of shellfish.
So Western Port Bay supports an interconnected web of life, including the humans who have come to live around its edges. So I’m going to finish with a little of the human history, post colonisation. George Bass was, arguably, the first European to ‘discover’ Western Port Bay. He missed Port Phillip, coming from the wrong direction, and being short of supplies on the 5th of January 1798 sailed into Western Port. He described it as “I have named the place, from its relative situation to every other known harbour on the coast, Western Port. It is a large sheet of water branching out into two arms which end in wide flats of several miles in extent, and it was not until we had been here some days that we found it to be formed by an island, and to have to outlets to the sea- an eastern and a western passage.” He goes on to describe the tides, and the mud and is complementary of the surrounding land and soil, but goes on to say they had great difficulty finding good drinking water. Bass did not stay long in Western Port, leaving in the 18th of January to head back to Port Jackson.
So that was the beginning of European involvement with Western Port. The next encounter was when Lieutenant James Grant sailed into Western Port on the 21st of March 1801. It was stormy so he anchored in the lee of Phillip Island and went on to cultivate the land on Churchill Island, just off Phillip Island, planting Victoria’s first garden. Grant spent 6 weeks in Western Port Bay taking an extensive survey, the botanist on the the trip also gathered new plants.
The English were not the only ones to survey Western Port, the French spent eight days in the Bay in 1802 surveying and determining if it would be viable place for settlement. The expedition was led by Captain Hamelin, this surveying is most likely where the name French Island comes from. They reported back that there was good anchorage, and it had potential, but fresh water might be an issue.
Formal settlement of the area took place in 1826 when the government decided to establish an official settlement. The Dragon under the command of Captain Wright was sent to Western Port. They came ashore near Rhyll, on Phillip Island and on December 3rd the flag was raised and a 21 gun salute was fired, officially announcing the first European settlement.
As time went on settlements came and went around the Bay, many not really taking hold. There were also fishermen and sealers aplenty and eventually actual townships did develop around the Bay. There were also squatters moving into the area and large areas of land were sold off by the government as pastoral runs. The Bay has also been the site of industry, especially in Hastings which has an oil refinery and a reasonable sized port.
Today Western Port Bay is surrounded, for the most part, by small towns. Thankfully much of its natural beauty has been retained, and will hopefully continue to be valued into the future.
This is by no means a comprehensive look at the history of Western Port Bay, but hopefully it has given you a good idea of its importance from an ecological and historical standpoint and if you’d like to know more, the books in the photo below have a wide range of information.
The photos are all mine.