Waves foam on pale sand. In the shallows, children leap white crests. Pairs of mothers idle on the warm sand, and grandparents sit along the low wall spanning the south leg of the beach.
At the end of the walkway, the old pump house has been painted the same blue as the sky. Its barnacle-encrusted pipes extend 30 metres out into the ocean, terminating in a big green lump of cunjevois like a sunken tropical island. South of the pump house, low rocky cliffs split the beach in two. Black heads of surfers speckle the waves south to Sandon Point. Further north, far beyond the freshly painted, resplendent yellow surf club, a long rock shelf juts out beneath the striped masses of Austinmer cliffs.
Thirroul is a historic but thriving town planted between the ocean and the escarpment some 13 kilometres north of Wollongong. From its farming and coal mining origins, Thirroul has reinvented itself to cater to the well-to-do drifting down from Austinmer. Recently the old shoe shop, Buck Hamlin’s, was reopened as a cafe. The black painted brickwork of the Finbox surf shop are especially iconic, in the hazy afternoon sun fading into the dark bulk of the escarpment behind. In summer the beach is flooded with tourists and the locals complain of a dilution of familiar faces on the streets.
I fell in love with Thirroul Beach working at Rutledges’ garage, but it wasn’t until my brush with death that I became more interested in life beneath the waves. A beach can seem deserted. Yet underneath the surface there is such an abundance and variety of life that the mind can scarcely comprehend. All but the densest jungle on the surface is barren by comparison.
The Thirroul Beach survey will be my first marine survey and aims to uncover types and numbers of living organisms in the littoral regions. It’s a learning experience for me: six months ago I couldn’t tell a limpet from a barnacle. Exploring the beach has uncovered mysteries I never knew existed, and given me the motivation to live, and live a good life.
First to be surveyed is the supralittoral zone nicknamed Crab Bluff, just south of the pump house. Second will be the eulittoral/ intertidal zone on the northern rock shelf; and lastly forays will be made into the permanently inundated sublittoral zone, likely from the entrance point of the sandy beach.
In all zones, species will be identified and populations counted, water temperature, salinity and quality measured, interactions observed, and sea stars hunted.
Join me in the coming weeks for the hunt for life on Thirroul Beach.