Mopping Up Oil

Peter Keyte relates: It was a dark and stormy night (actually it was) on the 10th of March 2009, when the Swire vessel Pacific Adventurer reported losing 31 shipping containers overboard, some 12 miles East of Moreton Island. Cyclone “Hamish” had tracked down the Queensland coast in the preceding days and had dissipated, however the seas were still angry with large swells and waves. 

‘Pacific Adventurer’

I received a fateful phone call at 0405am on the 11th of March being advised that the ship has reported striking the containers when they went over the side, and puncturing the heavy oil fuel tanks on the vessel. This resulted in 250 tonnes of heavy fuel oil being spilled into the ocean and washing ashore. 25kms of beach on Moreton Island were impacted and another 5kms of beach on the Sunshine Coast also spoiled by the oil washing up on the beach.

As a result, the Queensland Government reacted quickly, declaring a state disaster emergency and mobilising all available resources to tackle the worst oil spill ever recorded on the coastline of Australia. Maritime Safety Queensland were the lead agency, under what is known as the “National Plan” to combat oil spills, and Port of Brisbane was tasked with taking the lead in cleaning up Moreton Island.

During the next two months, there were over 2200 people deployed to Moreton Island, with up to 400 staff working on the beaches collecting oil waste from the spill on some days. The logistics on Moreton proved to be extremely difficult, with no sealed roads and heavy vehicles needing to traverse the Island in the sand tracks.  The rotating workforce had a number of obstacles to overcome, including access which was restricted by boat and barge, accommodation on the Island and keeping everyone safe. Other problems included vehicle access / regular boggings, transporting the workforce by 4wd buses seconded from the various resort and other tour operators, and providing communications in what proved to be a harsh environment.

All work was manual, using shovels and rakes to collect the waste and place it into bags and waste bins. The environmental risks were enormous, as we had to make sure than none of the oil was tracked inland where it could be consumed by the wildlife. Vehicles had to be quarantined to areas of operation, and decontamination stations were erected to ensure all persons, equipment and vehicles were washed before moving out of the oiled zones.

Oil spill from the ‘Pacific Adventurer’ stretching for 25 km along the coast of Moreton Island

Despite these hurdles, we were able to clean the 25kms of beach, removing more than 4000 tonnes of oily waste and returning the Island to its natural beauty well ahead of predicted time. The beaches were declared open again on the 11th of May 2009, and no oil has reappeared since.

It is difficult to describe in words some of the challenges, with simple matters such as providing toilets for the workers on the surf beach, but some innovative solutions were found. This included using a helicopter to transport Portaloos, and waste bins from the eastern side to western side of the island, and using small mechanical diggers to move the larger and heavier waste product. We also engaged the Quandamooka rangers and people to assist with the cleanup and provide strategic advice in areas of high heritage value. They proved to be of great value in protecting the island and returning it to its pristine state again.

The lessons learned from this oil spill have been adopted by the National regulators, and the solutions we found on Moreton can be used again if an event of this nature ever occurs again anywhere in the country or indeed the world.

Everyone involved in the clean-up should be proud of their efforts, and I was very proud of being able to lead the teams during this event, as Moreton Island holds a special place in my heart, with roots at Kooringal during my childhood and youth years.

(Extract from The Port of Brisbane, Its People and Its Personalities)

The Cape Moreton Light

During 1856, with vessels now entering Moreton Bay via the northern entrance between Bribie and Moreton Islands, the New South Wales Government erected the Cape Moreton lighthouse, a stone tower 23 metres high and 120 metres above sea-level. This lighthouse, with its original lens, is still in use.

The stone for the lighthouse and the light keepers’ cottages was quarried at first from the immediate neighbourhood of the works, but it was found to be of bad quality underneath the hard top and the remainder was obtained from a nearby hill. The lantern was of iron with 16 sides. The government schooner Spitfire carried the lantern and many of the other items for the lighthouse from Brisbane to Moreton Island, landing them at the pilot station (at Yellow Patch) whence they were transported overland to the site. Such an important and interesting event did the operations of the new light prove to be that pleasure cruises to view the lighthouse were run on the (paddle) steamer Breadalbane, taking about 100 passengers from Ipswich and Brisbane, with music and dancing enjoyed on board while in the river.

Cape Moreton Light early 1900s. To right is Superintendent’s House. The picket fence surrounds the well.

Clair Craig (daughter of early 1900’s keeper, George P. Byrne):

When shipping approached from south or north the Watch House at Cape Moreton would signal (with flags during the day, Morse at night) “Do you want a pilot?”  If the ship required a pilot to guide it into port, we then notified them on board the pilot boat which was anchored near us at the Yellow Patch in the shelter of the island, and they went out to meet the approaching ship. The pilot would then board the ship and guide it up to Brisbane, the entrance being rather hazardous due to sand banks.  After berthing he might stay in Brisbane for a few days break before re-joining the pilot boat.  The pilots lived aboard, so they were always glad to visit us for a break on dry land.  We used to watch them coming up the narrow track to the Cape.  We always knew Captain Scott by his attire of white duck pants and a black coat.  He would stay with us for a few days.  We had an upright piano in our house which my father imported from America in 1900.  Both my mother and Captain Scott were good pianists, and they loved playing duets together. 

Cape Moreton Lighthouse 1854

Kevin Mohr (relief keeper):

Cape Moreton is the worst lighthouse I’ve ever been on because it has a spiral staircase and when you get to the top, there is no flooring and you have to step out onto a vertical ladder with nothing between you and the ground floor far below. I never liked that – especially in the middle of the night when you’re half asleep.

I went up to Cape Moreton Lighthouse a couple of times. After the American Liberty ship Rufus King mistook Point Lookout for Cape Moreton during the war and went aground, it was decided (in 1942) to paint two red bands on the Cape Moreton Lighthouse to prevent any further repetition of this mistake.

Cape Moreton Lighthouse today (Photo Rebecca Heard)

Pioneer Horticulturist of Moreton Bay

Jocelyn McLaren writes…

My Great Grandfather, William Soutter, was born at Eiht in County Aberdeen in 1850 where all his family appear to have been farmers.  He went to Hull in England as a young man where he married and where their three children were born.  They migrated to Australia in 1882.  He acted as schoolmaster on the voyage until an epidemic of measles closed the school, when he and his wife assisted the medical superintendent in caring for the sick.  He went to work at Garsbrook station for the McConnell’s as a gardener on his arrival in the colony and in 1885 he was appointed overseer at the Queensland Acclimatisation Society’s gardens opposite the General (Royal Brisbane) Hospital. 

(From its inception in 1862 at the instigation of the Governor of Queensland, Sir George Bowen, the Queensland Acclimatisation Society focussed on contributing to the development of Queensland’s fledgling agricultural industry. It imported plants that had commercial potential and conducted experiments to determine if they could be adapted to Queensland’s tropical and sub-tropical climate. Plants researched included sugar cane, bananas, cotton, apples, pineapples, pasture grasses, maize, olives, mangoes, pecan nuts and macadamia nuts. Many of these became important agricultural crops in Queensland.)

Aviary and Acclimatisation Gardens at Bowen Park, Brisbane, ca.1889 (Photo State Library of Queensland)

William Soutter was associated with this Society – later as Secretary-manager, in some form or another until their closure at that site.  There was quite a big court case over the lease before they were forced to surrender it.  I have followed his movements over the years through the Post Office directories of Queensland.  He was State Inspector of Farms for a number of years – a job he left to become overseer at Peel Island.  

This farm was situated on Peel’s Bluff and was run by the inmates of the Dunwich Benevolent Asylum in 1905/6. References  in the state archives refer to his time there:

  1. On 2nd February 1906 W.Soutter of Peel Island had written complaining that quantities of corn requisitioned for had not yet been forwarded.

3017    On 5th March he had written again complaining of a delay in forwarding seed requisitioned for 16th February.

  • on 14th Feb Mr Soutter had reported on improvements at Peel Island and had indicated that he was willing to rent the farm from the Department under certain conditions.

5084 – 4979 – 5573 re his services being dispensed with.

5709 – 4993 – 6054 1st May. Offering for sale pigs, poultry etc for use at the Benevolent Asylum

6057 – 5709 – 6201 further re sale of pigs etc to Dunwich

The Bluff, Peel Island

William Soutter was associated with the Queensland Ambulance Transport Brigade.  He was editor of an agricultural journal for several years.  He was a well-known Horticultural Judge for the RNA (before it had the ‘Royal’ added to its name).  My mother has a copy of an Illuminated Address awarded to him for his work in this field.  

His family always expected him to receive a knighthood but after he left the Society, one of his farming ventures at his property at Sunnybank resulted in him being declared bankrupt, I think it may have been to do with him growing tobacco at Sunnybank.  A couple of years ago all the family gathered at Sunnybank celebrate the naming of a park there after his property “Coolibah”.

We know he sent aboriginal artefacts back to the Aberdeen University but although I went to the University Museum when I was in Aberdeen in 1993, their records of donors to the museum don’t start til the early 1900s.

Excerpt from ‘Moreton Bay Letters’ by Peter Ludlow (now out of print)

 A Note of Discord at the Lazaret

The Aboriginal patients on Peel had long since been ‘Westernised’ in that they had all ceased to observe the tribal customs and traditions of their forebears. They dressed in white man’s clothes, spoke his language, and, on Peel at least, shared his diseases. Nevertheless, they did manage to retain a few of their indigenous skills, one of which was their interest in making ‘traditional’ Aboriginal weapons such as nulla nullas, spears, and boomerangs, which they used, not for hunting, but as rhythm sticks to accompany their dances at their many impromptu corroborees. Some of the men also made bows and arrows to shoot the many Lorikeets that frequented the trees around the lazaret. They prized the birds’ green feathers and used them as body ornamentation in their corroborees. The old tribal rituals and meaning had long since been lost in these dances, and the only purpose of the Corroborees on Peel was for entertainment. 

They were held in the Aborigines’ mess hut and were usually of a spontaneous nature. A large pine table pushed close to the wall served as a stage on which the Aborigines danced and sang to the rhythmic accompaniment of wooden boomerangs being struck together. The noise would have been deafening inside the corrugated iron building. 

The white men also had a recreation hut in their compound and among other items, it contained an old upright piano on which the more musical patients would amuse themselves and anyone else who cared to listen. One day, a Brisbane Radio station generously donated a new piano, which the whites quickly claimed for themselves. The old upright (previously donated by the Freemasons) was moved to the Aborigines’ mess hut where it quickly became an important part of their corroboree ceremonies.

However, it didn’t take the whites long to realise that the tone of their new piano was not a patch on the one they had given away to the Aborigines, so they took it upon themselves to arrange a swap. The Aborigines, however, were not fools and, realising that they had the better piano of the two, refused to come into the deal. To emphasise their determination, the Aborigines even produced spears, at which the whites backed off and let them keep their old upright. 

Post Script 1:

On January 8th, 1940 an army landing barge arrived at Peel Island, and all the Aboriginal patients, along with their goods, chattels, and pet dogs were loaded aboard. They were then taken to Brisbane from where they were taken by rail to Cardwell, and then by another barge to Fantome Island. It was a sad leave-taking because, over the years, the members of the Peel Island community – both white and black – had grown to have much more in common than the mere disease which had originally brought them all together. One of the patient’s last memory of them is of their waving black arms, barking dogs, and a hotch potch of their belongings in the open barge, including their most prized possession – the old upright piano which they had managed to keep from the white patients’ grasp! 

Post Script 2:

Later in the 1940s, a further indignity occurred to the whites when their own recreation hut mysteriously caught fire after some rowdy Christmas revelries. Their new piano was also consumed in the flames!

Post Script 3:

When a new recreation hall was built in 1947, another piano was procured (picture). After the lazaret was closed in 1959, the piano went missing. Its fate is still unknown.

The last piano in the rec hall at the lazaret (photo courtesy Terry Gwynn Jones – John Oxley Library)

(Extract from ‘Peel Island History, a Personal Quest‘ by Peter Ludlow)

The Dunwich Benevolent Asylum

Dunwich Benevolent Asylum early 1900s (photo Antony Love)

The asylum’s function was not to help the weak and crippled but to hide them, the outcasts of society “whom nobody owned”. There were other asylums in Moreton Bay: the prison at St Helena, and the quarantine station and later the leprosarium at Peel Island.

The Dunwich Benevolent Asylum operated from 1865 until 1946 to provide support for those who could not look after themselves, particularly the aged but also epileptics, alcoholics, and those suffering from TB. By the 1920s there were 22 wards with 800 beds for male inmates and 7 wards with 150 beds for females. Another 150 men were in tents. A total of 21,000 inmates were housed there over the period of the institution.

The Queensland Government supply steamer ‘Otter’ visited Dunwich twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays with supplies and visitors for the institution. As well as Dunwich, the ‘Otter’ also serviced the prison at St Helena and the leprosarium at Peel while they were in operation.

Visitors to the Benevolent Asylum paid a shilling (10 cents) for the round trip, leaving at 7am from Brisbane at William Street, just near the Victoria Bridge, down the Brisbane River and calling in at St Helena and then Peel Island. Then the boat sailed on to Dunwich where it stayed for about two hours.  This gave relatives time to visit residents or walk around the area.  Then the Otter returned to Brisbane at North Quay, arriving at 6 pm.

The Otter at Dunwich Jetty (Photo courtesy Ossie Fischer)

As well as providing accommodation for the inmates, the asylum provided employment for many of the Aboriginal population of Stradbroke, and when the institution was closed and shifted to what was to become Eventide at Sandgate, many of the island’s former employees were left without work.