Digest>Archives> May/Jun 2019

The Koalas of Cape Otway Lighthouse

By Nathan Smith


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The loveable Koala Bear.
Photo by: Nathan Smith

The Great Ocean Road caps Australia’s southern coast. Curves hug the edge of the sandstone cliffs – cliffs that are still being chiseled away by the ocean. You weave across precarious ledges, drive past raging seas, and dodge kangaroos.

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Looking into the Cape Otway Lighthouse lens.
Photo by: Nathan Smith

Built by soldiers returning from WWI, this scenic road stretches for 150 miles, and it is stunning. However, the most interesting stop is at the Cape Otway Light Station.

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Cape Otway Lighthouse
Photo by: Nathan Smith

The lighthouse was erected in 1848 and is the oldest operating lighthouse in Australia. When the government decided to build it, there was no Great Ocean Road; Cape Otway was deep in the bush.

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Frolicking kangaroos near Cape Otway Lighthouse.
Photo by: Nathan Smith

The site was too dangerous to reach by sea, hence the need for the road to the lighthouse. So, the workers hacked through the wilderness. Instead of carting in materials, they built Cape Otway Light Station out of stones quarried from Parker River. Despite the newly constructed lighthouse, eight ships met their death under its watch.

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A Koala Bear deep in sleep.
Photo by: Nathan Smith

Cape Otway took on new importance during WWII. In 1940, a German sea-mine sunk the SS City of Rayville—the first American ship so struck in WWII. In response, the Americans built a radar bunker near the lighthouse. The operators were known as“Eyes of the Fighter Sector.” Their goal was to detect further German vessels and to ensure safe passage for Allied craft along Australia’s southern coast.

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The Great Ocean Road.
Photo by: Nathan Smith

The radar station is now open to the public, and it is a must-see part of the lighthouse tour.

According to a local guide, “Cape Otway was the perfect location for the radar station because of the unobstructed cliffside.” The view is indeed “unobstructed.”

From the sea cliff, you have a beautiful view of the ocean. Between May and October, several species of whales— Southern Right Whales, Humpback Whales, Blue Whales and Orcas—migrate past the lighthouse. Many people climb to the gallery, lean against the rail, and await the whales.

Cape Otway Light Station was decommissioned in 1994 after nearly 150 years of service. However, passing ships still needed guidance. The lighthouse was replaced by a solar-powered light directly in front of the original lighthouse. The light flashes three times every 18 seconds.

The Koalas

Today, most tourists who visit Cape Otway Lighthouse aren’t looking at the lighthouse—they’re watching the trees. They’re looking for Australia’s favorite critter; the Koala Bears. A large population of koalas surround Cape Otway, and to find them, you just need to be silent as you scan the trees.

Even by Australian standards—the home of the strangest creatures on the planet—Koalas are an oddball. They are the only species of their genus. Their closest living relatives are wombats, and even that’s a stretch.

Because the koala’s diet of Eucalyptus leaves isn’t chocked with calories, they do very little. Like some teenagers, koalas sleep a whopping 20 hours a day, which makes the koalas easy to find. They usually nap in the crook of tree branches.

They spook easily, but don’t run away. A kid at Cape Otway saw a koala and shouted, “It’s a koala!” The koala was startled and had an expression like “What? Where?” Instead of running off—which I doubt they physically can do — this koala stretched, yawned, and then cuddled back into his branch.

Later, I had the opportunity to pet a koala at a zoo. They are as soft as you imagine. And they are so sleepy. When the zoo keeper places the koala in your arms, it instantly falls asleep on your shoulder.

How to Find a Koala

Despite being a vulnerable species, the koalas of Cape Otway are as common as squirrels, but they are far less pesky. You only have to search a few branches to find your quarry. When asked how to find a koala, the gift shop cashier said, “Look for a lump on a tree. It’s usually a koala.”

However, there’s a bit more to it than that. The koalas are most numerous along the road leading to Cape Otway. After exploring the lighthouse and telegraph station, head out the way you came. The road connecting back to the Great Ocean Road traverses a grove of Eucalyptus trees.

Once in the grove, pull over, kill the engine, and walk. Like squirrels, hunters well know, when spooked, koalas will climb to the rear of a tree, away from dangerous sounds. As you walk, keep your eyes fixed on the leafy canopy and pay special note to the crook of branches; koalas love to hunker there. Chances are, you will find plenty of koalas as you are driving by, but walking provides a longer, more intimate look.

At first glance, koalas look like large tree knots, and they’re just as immobile. You must look closely to avoid glancing over a potential koala. When you locate one, don’t expect it to do any tricks. It’ll probably continue sleeping. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you can watch them pluck and eat Eucalyptus leaves.

Tracking koalas around Cape Otway is rewarding. It’s like living in a nature show like the ones you watched as a kid. Only now, you’re Jeff Corwin of television’s “Ocean Treks.”

Dangers to the Lighthouse and Koalas

Cape Otway Lighthouse receives many visitors and is well-funded. The ground beneath it is solid so the lighthouse should stand for hundreds of years. The koalas, however, are in danger.

Everything in Australia—whether its squats in the mud or flies overhead—wants to kill you. Great white sharks patrol the coast, death adders slither underfoot, and funnel-web spiders live in your shoes. This is the home of the cuddly koala. Ironically though, they have no natural predators. It’s not crocodiles or box jellyfish threatening koalas; it’s cats.

Yes, the greatest danger to koalas, are common house cats. Because koalas have no natural predators, they evolved with few defense mechanisms. Their main survival tactic is climbing a tree and sleeping. This does little to deter a determined cat.

Climate change also threatens koalas. Historically, koalas have gotten their water from Eucalyptus leaves. Today, they’re climbing down in search of hydration, which also increases their chances of cat attack.

Despite the grim threats koalas face, their future is hopeful. With education, people are keeping their cats indoors. And watering stations are being built for koalas and other wildlife. Hopefully, as long as Cape Otway stands, it will be surrounded by friendly marsupials. Visit soon, and, as the signs say, “Don’t feed the kangaroos.”

This story appeared in the May/Jun 2019 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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