Blog

Cyclone Ita: Part 5 – Getting back to normal

By: Dr Anne Hoggett, Category: Science, Date: 28 Apr 2014

A blog series about our Lizard Island Research Station's recovery from the cyclone that hit it on Friday 11 April, 2014.

Life at Lizard: Cyclone Ita #5 – Getting back to normal #1

Anne Hoggett © Australian Museum

Saturday 26 April, Lizard Island.

I returned to Lizard Island on 22 April, 11 days after the cyclone. Many trees with dark trunks remain standing and most have been stripped of leaves. But they are already resprouting and it won’t be long before new-found sea views are again filtered though vegetation.

The island sounds different too, partly because the wind is moving through sparser vegetation but also because the mix of birds is different. The dawn chorus normally comprises the calls of Bar-Shouldered Doves and Sunbirds with a few Pheasant Coucals thrown in. There are many fewer doves and sunbirds now so it is much quieter and the dominant call is the whirring of Rainbow Bee Eaters that visit the island seasonally. Goannas appear fat and happy – two have been observed eating dead birds.

Walking around the station soon after my return, the phrase “we’ve dodged a bullet” kept coming to mind. The communications tower toppled and missed the aquarium roof by less than half a metre. Several trees missed other roofs by similarly small distances and damage from flying debris was minimal.

However, photos definitely do not do justice to the enormous clean-up job ahead. Large branches have snapped off high in many Casuarina trees and are still dangling there. There is sand and leaf gunge everywhere and many surfaces will require repainting because of the sandblasting effect. Every wall, window and insect screen is filthy – and the Research Station has more than 4,000 louvres! The cleanup team has made a fantastic start with chainsaws and water blasters as the tools of choice, but there is a long way to go.

Internet access has been restored from the mainland end. There is also a satellite phone connected to the Station’s main number (+61 7 4060 3977). Email is the preferred method of communication because the sat phone drops out frequently. It will take some time before normal phone communications are re-established.

We have had to cancel almost all planned research visits until mid June 2014 while Lizard Island Research Station is made safe and functional again. 

Reef report

Lyle, Cassy and I made our first dive since the cyclone at North Point (Mermaid Cove) on 25 April 2014 where we expected to see some damage - and unfortunately we did. The entire reef flat is largely devoid of living corals except for small compact colonies.

The weekend before the cyclone, we had snorkelled in this area and noted good coral cover in the shallows. On the reef slopes, coral cover was already low prior to the cyclone due to Crown-of-Thorns Starfish predation. The base of the reef slope is now littered with broken corals, mostly dead, that have fallen from the shallows.

Even though the cyclone was only two weeks ago, the corals broken by it already look as if they’ve been dead for a long time. At the base of the reef slope, recently-dead corals look like normal coral rubble – they’re covered in a thin brownish film. The shallow reef flat is markedly different. There, bright green scuzzy algae covers the newly-smashed coral fragments, some of which have been ground very small by smashing waves and rolling, dislodged corals.

There was a notable lack of fishes on the reef flat. We were there at low tide – just enough water for a snorkeler to get through – which may explain that. But the algae was most dense in the shallows suggesting that herbivores are no longer keeping algae in check there. Sediment stirred up by the cyclone and flood plumes may also have increased nutrient levels and accelerated algal growth.

Spot checks in other areas around the island confirm earlier impressions that damage is greatest on the northern and eastern sides. The lagoon seems to have escaped any noticeable damage and the patch reefs between Palfrey Island and Lizard Island Research Station are in reasonable shape except on their exposed sides.