Beauty in the heart of The Pilbara

We have been pretty lucky so far with mechanical issues. The Mitsubishi Challenger is travelling extremely well and makes the journey very pleasant. The ECOCEAN trailer, which we have nicknamed ‘Shaz’, hasn’t been as lucky. The hinges have snapped, Kylie may have misplaced the cap on the fishing rod tube, which is also now being held on mainly by cable ties (Thanks Trent!). Just when Kylie and I were congratulating ourselves on not having a flat tyre so far, BOOM! Shaz got one. Kylie had been wanting to change a tyre, so this was her chance!

Kylie changes our first flat tyre for the Road Trip!

After 1 tyre change, the most expensive ice coffee to date and 7 hours on the road, we rocked into Karratha, the first ‘mining town’ we have experienced. It was peak afternoon traffic and most of the cars had the tell-tale signs we were in ‘FIFO’ country with orange flags and fluro-clad drivers. We headed to good friends Tash and KC’s house. KC grew up in Karratha and after years away has returned to his hometown to bring up KC junior with Tash. It was great to see them and good to get a local’s perspective of the changes Karratha has seen over the past 30 years.

Karratha was built in 1968 to support the growing iron-ore industry and the need for a new regional centre caused by a shortage of land in Dampier (built earlier in 1965). Today, there is still a large iron-ore industry in Karratha as well as Australia’s largest natural gas projects, the North West Shelf LNG facility and the newer Pluto LNG. There has been some debate over the development of the latter project on the nearby Burrup Peninsula.  This area is home to the world’s largest collection of ancient Aboriginal rock art that some claim date back as far as the last ice age about 10,000 years ago. The Burrup Peninsula, part of the Dampier Archipelago, has been listed in The National Trust of Australia for its ecological, historical, cultural and archaeological significance.

Looking out over Dampier, built before Karratha in 1965 to support the iron-ore industry

Kylie and I spent the next morning at St. Lukes College (KC’s old school!). The Pilbara Echo newspaper came down to meet us and take a photo with the students and Gulliver. I did a presentation to a group of the upper school students who are heading to Exmouth in a month to swim with whale sharks. We spoke about ECOCEAN’s Photo-Id program and how they could become ‘citizen scientists’ and join in. Without the help of citizen scientists (everyday people who collect data for scientific studies) ECOCEAN wouldn’t have been able to collect over 45,000 photos of whale sharks from all around the world and contribute to the protection of this threatened species. The students promised me they would have their cameras ready.

The year 8 students at St. Lukes College in Karratha get a visit from Gulliver

While we were at St. Lukes College, one of the art students painted a coral trout on the ECOCEAN trailer. Coral trouts are beautiful red and white spotted fish with a splash of electric blue found in the tropical waters of the northwest.  Not only are they amazing to look at under water, but also a favourite with the local fishers.

An art student from St. Lukes College in Karratha adds a coral trout, a local favourite, to the ECOCEAN trailer

That night we headed to Wickham for our community meeting. The original meeting was planned for the Karratha Library, but current renovations meant we had to hold the meeting at their other Library in Wickham. I didn’t realize Wickham was a 40 minute drive from Karratha and a completely separate town, built largely by mining giant RIO TINTO. We still had a good cross-section of community members attend our meeting and as Wickham is close to Point Sampson, it meant we even had locals from this town as well.

Through our community meeting and from interviewing people throughout our stay in Karratha, we recorded 6 previous whale shark sightings off the coast! A couple of these were from RIO TINTO employees who spend time on the water through their jobs. They suggested we contact the marine fauna observers who are contracted to RIO as well as talking to helicopter pilots in the area. Some great suggestions and a good example of how industry and community can work together towards the protection of a species.

The previous whale shark sightings off Karratha have all been in the past three years around the Dampier Archipelago, made up of over 40 pristine islands. Very interestingly though, the sightings have ranged from April to November. Could Karratha be important to the world’s biggest fish? Evidence suggests that it may well be!