Tasmania's Great Kelp Forests
Unlike the terrestrial forests of Tasmania's south west, some of the forests that populate the south east coast are hard to see with the naked eye. The Great Kelp Forests are distributed just beyond the shoreline at a number of coastal locations – Bruny Island, Maria Island, the Tasman Peninsula, Binalong, Freycinet, Eaglehawk Neck and Fortescue Bay – and, despite their sheer magnificence, remain one of the lesser-known natural wonders of Tasmania, which, ironically, may be to the region's detriment. These rich bastions of marine biodiversity are in rapid decline due to climate change and direct human impact and only an estimated 5% of the original forests remain.
To understand what's truly at stake though, it pays to take a journey beneath the surface. (Don't be dissuaded by a little icy wind – 7mm of neoprene, booties, gloves and a hood should provide sufficient protection against the Antarctic chill.) Visitors enter the forest via its swaying canopy. As light streams through the surface, the silhouette of the kelp against the sun provides passage to and from the sea floor.
Often extending beyond thirty metres in height, this particular Giant Kelp species (Macrocystis Pyrifera) has fronds that can grow up to fifty-centimetres per day – creating some seriously silky appendages to navigate. Small gas-filled bulbs called 'pneumocysts' buoy the forest towards the surface.
Closer to the sea floor it becomes obvious that - to pilfer from Charles Darwin - "a great volume might be written, describing the inhabitants of just one of these beds of seaweed…" There's so much going on down here a single tank of air is hardly enough. The reef on which the kelp anchors itself is awash with colour. Almost unnatural looking hues of orange and red glow bright amongst the shifting carpet of mustard, greens and browns. Schools of fish appear silver as they cut through the deepest shade of aquamarine.
Here, sea life is attracted to the kelp forests for nutrients and sanctuary; the canopy, columns and seabeds provide habitat for crustaceans, invertebrates and all manner of fish species. The fronds are also a favourite for weedy sea dragons and pot-bellied seahorses, which, when spotted, convey the true otherworldliness of this magic destination.
In 2012, the Australian government declared the remainder of the forest an endangered habitat. And while this won't slow down the effects of climate change, it does mean the areas will be actively protected. For now, the kelp forests remain a completely unique way to experience the wilderness of our island.