The changing face of Killarney coast in Victoria’s south-west

by Jenny Williams Fawcett.    29th August 2014.

The passage of irregular tidal sweep tracked along Killarney's coast.
The passage of irregular tidal sweep tracked along Killarney’s coast in south-west Victoria. picture by Jenny Fawcett 28 Aug 2014.

With the onset of the annual spring tides Killarney’s coast has taken its usual battering, but again this year there is evidence of irregular tidal wave surges along this part of the coast that sweep up and over the summit of dunes in ways not usually seen.

These waves gather pace out of Port Fairy’s bay and roar eastward through Mills’ Point at the Three Mile Reef, before sweeping through Finnigan’s beach to The Sink, along to a small bay at Fishermans’ Point before rounding a seaweed covered beach that curves around to Stingray Bay and Killarney’s main beach.

Resistance at rocky points fail to stop the sweep of irregular tidal waves at Killarney. picture by J. Fawcett 28 Aug 2014
Resistance at rocky points fail to stop the sweep of irregular tidal waves at Killarney. picture by J. Fawcett 28 Aug 2014

Killarney beach was named for its proximity southward of the private township of Killarney created in the 1850’s.
Like the ‘Koroit Beach’ south of Tower Hill both were where the new settlers and labourers made their way for summer relief.
Eons before this they had long been the hunting and feeding grounds of the indigenous inhabitants, who also used parts of the coast between Mill’s Point and The Basin as burial grounds.

Wave's passage over dune summit at Killarney. picture by Jenny Fawcett 28 Aug 2014
Wave’s passage over dune summit at Killarney. picture by Jenny Fawcett 28 Aug 2014

These irregular tidal waves continue careering along the dunes sweeping from Killarney Beach through to the ‘boat launch’ near one of the dunes known as The Sisters, before rounding a southern point and hammering along to ‘The Basin’ which adjoins the ‘Koroit Beach’ or as it is called today – ‘Gorman’s Lane’.
All these landmarks fall within Armstrong’s Bay which continues from Port Fairy on to Lady Bay at Warrnambool.

Erosion along Fisherman's Point Bay at Killarney. picture by Jenny Fawcett 28 Aug 2014
Erosion along Fishermans’ Point at Killarney. picture by Jenny Fawcett 28 Aug 2014

When these particular waves take off they slice their way along the coast.

Aided by high seas a ‘washing-machine’ affect is created and the waves and seas sweep away built-up beach sand that has accumulated over the previous 12 months.

Fisherman's Point swept clean by tidal erosion. Usually there is a sand mountain on the left which stretches to the rocks on the right. picture by Jenny Fawcett 28 Aug.2014
Fishermans’ Point swept clean by tidal erosion. Usually there is a sand mountain on the left which stretches to the rocks on the right. picture by Jenny Fawcett 28 Aug.2014

Last year I had a conversation on the beach with a man who has been fishing at Killarney for over fifty years.
He started off fishing with my uncle Jim Willis, a professional fisherman and fourth-generation Killarney raised.
I asked did he think the tides were changing, and he did not even hesitate in agreeing.
He told me all his life he had fished at night but in particular an experience he had with a rogue tidal sweep in recent years really alarmed him.

He said he came over the sand dunes with his usual gear, and was just stepping down onto the beach when he heard a strange roar. He turned on his torch and saw an immense wave running sideways along the coast straight at him, the likes of which he had never seen before. He told me he had never clambered back up a sandhill so quick in his life, and it was not an experience he cared to repeat.”

Typical rubbish dump after the tides at Killarney. picture by Jenny Fawcett 28 Aug.2014
Typical rubbish dump after the tides at Killarney. picture by Jenny Fawcett 28 Aug.2014

Nature has annual clean-ups of the coast but it is these irregular tidal sweeps that particularly shape the coastal dunes.
Verdue and marram grass are left hanging over newly-created sand cliffs, and rubbish swept along with the wave is left in particular dumpsites, usually the meeting points of cross-seas and which remain fairly consistent over the years.

Debris from Port Fairy's coast litter Killarney's coast after the irregular tidal sweep. picture by Jenny Fawcett Aug 28.2014
Debris from Port Fairy’s coast litter Killarney’s coast after the irregular tidal sweep. picture by Jenny Fawcett Aug 28.2014

We can measure that the sea is making inroads into old dunes by aboriginal middens that become exposed in the wake of these increasing irregular tidal surges.
These middens were places the indigenous inhabitants used for cooking and feasting and were usually situated out of the wind, behind dunes that had built up along adjoining rocky points where food was gathered.
And what is becoming evident is that certain wave actions are slicing through the dunes and exposing the middens.

Newly exposed midden at Killarney. picture by Jenny Fawcett 28 Aug.2014
Newly exposed midden at Killarney. picture by Jenny Fawcett 28 Aug.2014

In the recent erosion yet another midden has been opened up near Stingray Bay at Killarney, which I haven’t seen in five decades of walking this beach.

Midden remnants spilling out on to Killarney's beach will quickly be covered by sand. picture by Jenny Fawcett 28 Aug.2014
Midden remnants spilling out on to Killarney’s beach will quickly be covered by sand. picture by Jenny Fawcett 28 Aug.2014

There are parts of the Killarney coast that have grown entire new rows of dunes, since the 1970’s at least.
And other parts that are subject to annual, regular erosion, especially where the seas are driven in by high tides sustained by gale-force winds.

Previous erosion scar behind new tidal inroad at The Sink, Killarney, Vic. picture by Jenny Fawcett 28 Aug.2014
Previous erosion scar behind new tidal inroad at The Sink, Killarney, Vic. picture by Jenny Fawcett 28 Aug.2014

Old scars in the dune faces from previous decades’ erosion are evident, but it is rogue tidal-sweeps like in the last few days that make the greatest inroads, cutting along the dunes back to old erosion scars.

It seems to be the east faces of dunes that stretch along this coast that is bearing the brunt of these particular tides.

Mill's Point 3 miles from Port Fairy is another eastern face of Killarney's coast subject to harsh erosion. picture by Jenny Fawcett 28 Aug.2014
Mill’s Point east of Port Fairy is another eastern face of Killarney’s coast subject to harsh erosion. picture by Jenny Fawcett 28 Aug.2014

Erosion of Port Fairy’s east beach has been reported in the local papers since at least the 1860’s, but in the last couple of years the sea has clawed the town’s old tip out of the dunes and continued to erode the remaining narrow strip of dunes.
A solution is being trialled with rock barriers along this part of the coast, but eastward towards Killarney and Warrnambool erosion is left to the elements.
The curious question is how long will this particular form of erosion continue, and how far can it make its inroads?

Sheedy's Swamp at Killarney is one of a chain of swamp in a natural flood plain that puts Killarney's coast under constant pressure. picture by Jenny Fawcett 28 Aug. 2014
Sheedy’s Swamp at Killarney is one of a chain of swamps in a natural flood plain that puts Killarney’s coast under constant pressure. To the east is Gallaghers, to the right is Hennessy’s swamp. picture by Jenny Fawcett 28 Aug. 2014

In the infamous 1946 flood, an opening in the dunes near the old Port Fairy tip was created by flood waters seeking to drain out into the sea, showing how vulnerable the coast is under pressure.

And sand dunes, or in this particular coast’s instance – the sand spit – is constantly under pressure with the ocean on one side, and natural swamps and artesian basins on the other as well as landfall rain, annual flooding and human settlement.
These push-and-pull factors place the sand mountains under constant stress.
European settlement also made its inroads into the dunes with many sections of the coast from Port Fairy to Warrnambool used as formal and informal tip sites, or as sand quarries, further weakening the sand’s defences against wind and rain.

Long buried fence marker exposed by yesterday's tide. picture by Jenny Fawcett 28 Aug.2014
Long buried fence marker exposed by yesterday’s tide. picture by Jenny Fawcett 28 Aug.2014

From the 1870’s marram grass has been used to stabilise the dunes but in itself has created a means for the dunes to grow more mountainous, creating cliff-top hazards when annual erosion occurs.

It is only the beginning of spring, and yet severe erosion has left fresh cliffs along Killarney’s coast so it might pay to check high tide measurements before you head off too far along the beaches.

Some Killarney residents remain unfazed by rising waters. picture by Jenny Fawcett 28 Aug.2014
Some Killarney residents remain unfazed by rising waters. picture by Jenny Fawcett 28 Aug.2014

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