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Southport Lagoon Conservation Area

Highlights

Southport Lagoon

Southport Lagoon
(Photo by Andrew D. Short)

Geoheritage

Southport Lagoon is a large, shallow expanse of water covering 1,060 hectares. A spit encloses it with one narrow channel opening to the ocean on its eastern side. Blackswan Lagoon, in the southern region of the conservation area, is a shallow sheet of water covering a further 50 hectares. A spit also encloses it, which has been closed to the ocean for the last several years.

These lagoons have developed over the last 6,000 years or so with rising sea levels. These spits occur along the east and north coast of the State, but they are relatively rare in the south-east.

The northern portion Southport Lagoon conservation Area, including the spit and the area directly south of the spit, is underlaid by Jurassic dolerite. The remainder comprises sediments of sandstone, siltstone and mudstone.

Sandy deposits some distance from the coast and at altitudes of 20 metres suggest that Southport Lagoon and Blackswan Lagoon hinterlands were larger inlets 120,000 years ago during the last interglacial period when sea levels were higher.

Vegetation

The reserve has an unusual complex of forest, heath and sedgeland communities and a rich diversity of species. Over 190 vascular plant species have been recorded in the conservation area; 16 of these are endemic to Tasmania.

It is the site of the first botanical collecting in Tasmania by Bruni D'Entrecasteaux's 1792 expedition, and all the plants described then are still to be found in the Southport area, including the Tasmanian bluegum Eucalyptus globulus, the floral emblem of Tasmania.

Well-drained slopes and flats on Triassic sediments support forests of stringy bark Eucalyptus obliqua with low shrub understoreys that include melaleuca Melaleuca squarrosa, prickly beauty Pultenaea juniperina, parrots food Goodenia ovata and native daphne P. daphnoides.

Open plains support closed heath, or sedgeland dominated by buttongrass Gymnoschoenus sphaerocephalus, or low open woodland dominated by black peppermint E. amygdalina and swamp gum E. ovata, with a closed heath understorey.

On dolerite, well drained slopes and flats also carry stringy bark forests with a wet forest understorey including dogwood Pomaderris apetala, blackwood Acacia melanoxylon, lancewood Phebalium squameum, woolly tea-tree Leptospermum lanigerum and melaleuca. Open plains and drainage flats support a closed heath to low open woodland dominated by melaleuca, black peppermint and occasionally Smithton peppermint E. nitida and swamp gum. Other poorly drained areas support closed heath and buttongrass sedgeland.

Southport Lagoon supports extensive areas of seagrass communities, particularly the northern end of the lagoon.

There are a number of threatened species within the reserve. Swamp eyebright Euphrasia gibbsiae ssp. psilantherea, was thought to be extinct until a very small population (only 25 plants) was discovered in the conservation area in 1985. Currently the population is thought to consist of about 20 juvenile, and only 30 adult plants having the capacity to flower and reproduce. It remains the only known population of this species.

The endemic heath Epacris stuartii is confined to a narrow zone at the top of dolerite cliffs and ledges - the only known populations of the species.

Animals

Shore and water birds concentrate around the seaward beaches and outer edges of the lagoon. Typically, species include silver gulls and Pacific gulls, Caspian terns and crested terns, pied oystercatchers and sooty oystercatchers; hooded plovers and black cormorants, little pied cormorants, little black cormorants and black-faced cormorants. The little penguin is also found here. The terns breed only on the small island near the lagoon outlet.

On the landward side of the lagoon with its associated estuarine coves and wetlands, ducks are found, including chestnut teal, black duck and musk duck well as black swan, hoary-headed grebe, Lewins rail and white-faced heron.

Seasonal use of the lagoon is evident for many species. Black ducks, black swans and crested terns tend to be numerous in the summer months while pacific gulls and hoary-headed grebes use the lagoon more frequently during the winter months.

The azure kingfisher has also been reported in the area.

The ground parrot is found in the heathland areas around Southport Lagoon. Interestingly, the critically endangered orange-bellied parrot is historically known from the nearby Actaeon Islands Game Reserve. Other heath birds include the southern emu-wren and the striated field wren.

Inhabiting the forest portions of the conservation area are swift parrots, grey goshawks and white bellied sea-eagles. A pair of breeding wedge-tailed eagles uses the reserve for foraging.

Leopard seals, elephant seals, and Australian fur seals are all known to occasionally haul out on Big Lagoon Beach and Little Lagoon Beach.

Invertebrate species include an undescribed endemic burrowing crayfish Parastacoides species with a limited distributional range. The species is present in the wetter heathland, making quite deep burrows in peat and clay in waterlogged soils or near watercourses. The species is tolerant of fire, but susceptible to changes in drainage regime.

The live-bearing seastar, Patiriella vivipara, alo occurs in the region. It is a rare species, endemic to Tasmania and one of the smallest seastars in the world (15-20mm).

Aboriginal Heritage

Aboriginal places and landscapes have a strong and continuing significance to the Tasmanian Aboriginal community. Southport lagoon lay within the territory of the South Eastern Tribe which occupied an area covering over 3,000 square kilometres and over 550 km of Tasmania's coastline.

Accounts of the D'Entrecasteaux expedition in 1792 and 1793 and the Baudin Expedition in 1802 from the Channel and Huon area provide some of the most complete descriptions of the lifestyle of the Tasmanian Aborigines prior to the devastation caused by European occupation of the island.

The band that controlled the Recherche area were the Lyluequonny. Other bands from within the tribe and from as far as Port Davey were also reported to come to Recherche Bay. The presence of a large seal colony allowed Aboriginal people to spend a significant portion of the summer in this area. D'Entrecasteaux located one camp near Blackswan Lagoon that was inhabited by 42 Aboriginal people.

Historic Heritage

On the 21 April 1792 two ships, the 'Recherche' captained by Bruni D'Entrecasteaux and the 'Esperance' captained by Huon deKermandec, made landfall off the south-west coast of Tasmania - then called Van Diemans Land. The next day they took anchorage in the northern arm of Recherche Bay, behind what is now known as North East Peninsula. D'Entrecasteaux had twin goals of finding the missing navigator La Perouse and advancing scientific study of the Pacific. He established this location as a base for repairs, maintenance and scientific exploration spanning 22 days.

The immediate area became the focus for scientific endeavour including exploration of Recherche, the Huon, Channel, Derwent region and Bruny Island, establishment of a geophysical observatory and an experimental garden.

On 21 January 1793 the two ships of the D'Entrecasteaux expedition re-entered Recherche Bay to take on fresh water and timber to repair their vessels. On 8 February 1793 the botanists and their assistants were working near Southport Lagoon when they noticed the approach of a large group of Aboriginal persons. The Frenchmen laid down their weapons and approached the group of about 40 men, women and children. A number of items were exchanged and apparently a good humoured rapport was established between the two groups.

In 1838, further collections were made by Ronald Gunn. As a result of this and the previous D'Entrecasteaux expedition, the area between Southport and Recherche Bay is the type locality for a large number of Tasmania’s native plants - an area, like Botany Bay, from which a large proportion of the Australian flora was first collected, described and named.

Between the late 1830s and early 1840s, four shore-based whaling stations operated in the bays immediately to the north of Southport Bluff. The remains of three of these stations have been identified.

Several small coal-mines operated in the vicinity of Southport Lagoon. A coal-mine, probably the first in the Recherche Bay area, was operated on the D'Entrecasteaux River Estuary.

Early forestry operations in the area involved several sawmills and associated tramways, and a cattle run was established just south of Frog Flat in the 1950s but fires destroyed fences and wild stock were gradually killed.

On the evening of 12 March 1835 the George III, a convict transportation vessel, enroute from Great Britain to the colony, struck a reef directly offshore from the conservation area. The ship quickly began to break up. Convicts were confined to the hold at gunpoint until the ship’s longboat was launched and taking its first load of occupants to the safety of the nearby shore.

The resultant loss of life from this shipwreck means it still stands as Tasmania’s third worst maritime accident. None of the ship’s officers lost their lives, nor any soldiers. However 128 convicts, three children, the wife of a soldier and two crew members were drowned.

In 1839 a monument, in the form of an inscribed tomb, was placed on Southport Bluff to record the event. The monument still stands and its existence is the chief reason for the proclamation of the surrounding historic site. The main inscription on the tomb reads:

Near this place are interred the Remains of Many of the Sufferers
who perished by the Wreck of the George the III, convict ship,
which Vessel struck on a sunken rock near the Actaeon reef
On the night of the 12th April 1835
upon which melancholy occasion 134 human beings were drowned
This Tomb is Erected by the desire of His Excellency
Colonel GEORGE ARTHUR, Lieut.-Governor
to mark that sad event,
and is placed on this spot by the Major THOMAS RYAN, 50th Regiment
One of the Survivors on this Occasion