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Life in the air

“We thought nothing was worth saving” and then he added, looking at what surrounded us, I regret that now.”

Peter and Andrea Hylands

October 7, 2022

Since the time of our first visit nearly half a century ago the Coorong has struggled and bears testimony to the political maelstrom surrounding what has become an enduring fight between states for the water that flows in the River Murray and its associated systems, taking in four states, Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and finally, South Australia, at the end of the river’s long journey.


This Coorong story is included in our sky section because of its importance to birdlife.

What the current state of the Coorong describes is the ill-conceived notions of what could be done to this vast Murray Darling river system. Unpicking what has been done when so many rely on its increasingly limited water resource is of course going to be incredibly difficult as it will destroy people’s livelihoods, that will be destroyed anyway because of where the entire situation is heading. That is the conundrum. There is anger and there is environmental catastrophe.

I guess it is now about ten years ago that a colleague and I wrote a sizeable report for two of these four state governments looking at the economic possibilities and futures for the towns and communities surrounding the great river. This involved me making two extensive journeys, on water and land along the river. Friendships are made on these trips, one old timer at Robinvale invited me to spend an evening with him on his boat, recounting the old stories of settlers and the characters of the region as we navigated the river.

As we travelled through a place where there were dead and dying River Red Gums, the grandest of ancient trees, he repeated back to me a line that I use often in Australia.

From memory this had been a particularly bad period on the river, long droughts had left yet another set of damaging impacts on the long-suffering river system. As for the report, launched in Sydney, it appeared to vanish in the maelstrom of politics that surround these matters. As I write this a different set of state water ministers have agreed, on what, we shall see. But let’s hope it is progress for both people and nature. And that of course means the Coorong.


Drought has added to the impact of land clearing in the Murray Darling Basin. Clearing of native vegetation still continues and is likely to create further severe salinity impacts when combined with low river flows and drainage from irrigation that raises the level of the already salty water aquifers. This process kills all but the most salt resistant plants.

An increase in environmental flows as a result of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, which seeks to improve the health of the river systems, have had a more positive impact on the wetlands, there are however dangers ahead, particularly how the states manage their relationships with each other and their responsibilities to the Basin.

If the system continues to deteriorate there will be little left for anyone. Politics here plays a part with the climate change deniers who are among the extremists of right wing politics continuing to seek reductions in environmental flows. The situation relating to environmental flows has been dogged by controversy and confusion over its management and outcomes.

Duty of care

What we also notice, and we have travelled various bits of the Murray this year is that some things have not changed, numerous aerial sprinklers rotating in the heat of the midday sun, water wasted, the rising tide of salinity destroying large areas of land. We should know better but we are entitled, it is our right to do these things. Just bad.


“Here the ancient shell middens of the Ngarrindjeri people tell us that there were stories from thousands of years past. How beautiful it must have all been.”

Established in 1966, the Coorong National Park extends 145 kilometers along its coastal strip covering some 50,000 hectares. Sand dunes separate the sea from the shallow lagoons and salt lakes that compose the park.



The twisting wind swept vegetation, the delicate flowers, mammals, reptiles, birds and plants are just some of the living things that make the park a joy to visit. If you look carefully at the plant life you will find many surprises.

The Coorong National Park and the coastal strip of lakes and dunes still have a good cover of native vegetation. 

The hinterland of the coastal strip and National Park has been substantially cleared of its native vegetation so in the regional sense the park and coastal surrounds are where most of the biodiversity of the region survives. The coastline is extensive and wild and the South Australian Government still permits the annoying habit of allowing people to drive their cars on the beach, there are some restrictions during nesting times.

Birdlife is attracted to the Coorong during migration, breeding and climatic conditions in other parts of Australia. Typically bird species that can be seen in the national park and surrounding coastal and wetland areas include the Royal Spoonbill, Yellow-billed Spoonbill, BandedStilt, Curlew Sandpiper, Red- necked Avocet, Red-necked Stint, Pacific BlackDuck, Black Swan, Australian Pelican, Great Egret, Common Greenshank, Australian Wood Duck, Dusky Moorhen, Purple Swamphen, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper and the Pink-eared Duck.

Nowhere is safe

Activities on areas on and surrounding Ramsar sites including major scale hunting of a range of duck species and Quail and in Queensland for example, attempts at large scale coastal development, which now looks increasingly likely and is a very significant concern, particularly given the dwindling birdlife in Australia and the extreme climatic conditions that are further endangering bird populations. We feel particularly sorry for the long distance commuters such as the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper and the now critically endangered Eastern Curlew, which travel all the way to and back from Siberia or Alaska each year, each of their feeding and resting places on these vast journeys at ever-greater risk.

Ramsar Convention and beyond

The Coorong and the lower lakes were added to the list of Wetlands of International Importance in 1985.

“The Convention on Wetlands, called the Ramsar Convention, is an intergovernmental treaty that provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources.” Commonwealth Government of Australia

We need to remind ourselves that as well as its obligations to the Ramsar Convention, there are other international agreements in place and to which Australia is a signatory. These include JAMBA, Japan Australia Migratory Bird Agreement (66 species covered by the agreement) / CAMBA, China Australia Migratory Bird Agreement (81 species) / ROKAMBA, Republic of Korea Australia Migratory Bird Agreement (59 species).

Andrea Hylands filming