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The effect of tourism on iconic species of the Fleurieu Peninsula


In 2018 tourism on the Fleurieu Peninsula contributed $493 million in visitor expenditure with 771 000 overnight visitors per year, 78 % of which being from South Australia (18% interstate, 4% international). The Fleurieu Peninsula encompasses 4 national parks including Granite Island Recreation Park, Encounter Marine Park, Onkaparinga River national Park/ Recreation Park and Deep Creek Conservation Park. The region is also known for its wine and food industry (Fleurieu Peninsula National parks visitation snapshot 2021). The tourism industry as a whole has been hit hard by the recent Covid19 pandemic. A paper published by Tourism Research Australia outlines the role of domestic travel in Australia’s tourism recovery. (Australian Tourism in 2020 2021).

Tourist are drawn to the Fleurieu coastline for its unique wildlife, the Fleurieu Peninsula webpage highlights wildlife attractions such as whale watching, dolphins & seals, little penguins, leafy sea dragons and birdlife (Fleurieu Peninsula Tourism 2021). It is therefore highly important that tourism growth in the area has a strong focus on protecting iconic species. In order to guide management plans, it is first important to understand the way in which these animals are impacted by tourism on the Fleurieu Peninsula. With growth of tourism comes increased human traffic which can disturb natural animal behaviour and introduce invasive species and biosecurity risks, plastic pollution, land degradation and erosion.

The following article focusses on the effects of tourism on Leafy Sea-dragons at Rapid Bay, Hooded Plovers on the Fleurieu’s sandy beaches and Little Penguins on Granite Island.

 "Leafy Sea Dragon (Phycodurus eques)" by jeffk42 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Leafy Sea-dragons

The Leafy Sea-dragon (Phycodurus eques) is one of two sea-dragon species (members of the pipefish family Sygnathidae) that are found only along Australia’s Southern coast. Its name is drawn from the leaf-like appendages on the animal’s body that enables it to camouflage against its kelp forest habitat, they are also able to change colour to adapt to their surrounding (Parks and Wildlife Service 2015). The Leafy Seadragon is the marine emblem of South Australia and the best place to find them is at Rapid Bay, particularly in the reef surrounding the old jetty.

In April 2020 a report was published summarising the findings of Leafy Seadragon Population Monitoring in the AMLR (Adelaide & Mt Lofty Ranges) NRM (Natural Resource Management) Region- Pilot Study at Rapid Bay. The report opens by stating that the heavy promotion of Rapid Bay as a dive tourism destination has led to increased visitation over the past couple decades, including from diver training operators. The study involved the identification and monitoring of individuals over a decade. Photographic records were collected with the help of SACReD (South Australian Conservation Research Divers), a community-based citizen science group. It was found that some individuals were long-term residents to the area surrounding the jetty, moving no more than 100 metres from their home base. Most of these were males, responsible for carrying broods during the reproductive season. It was assumed that there were more individuals further offshore than surrounding the old jetty but findings also indicated that Leafy Sea-dragons would move further offshore in response to dive group visitation. It is suggested in the report that this is due to disturbance from tour boats and insensitive practices on behalf of ignorant divers. An experienced diver who participated in the research stated “I’ve seen time and time again people who’ll take photos and then as they finish, kick away straight over the Leafy Seadragon or habitat they were seconds ago admiring” (Baker et al 2020).  In response to an email interview, Ron van der Marel, owner of Diving Adelaide states “In terms of protecting the dragons at our local dive sites, we follow the code of conduct for diving with them and ask our divers to do the same…Leafy Sea-dragons are a unique animal, but thankfully they’re not endangered. I’m confident we can keep it that way by following the code of conduct.”. A copy of these guidelines is shown below.

Though the results showed that numbers have continued to decline in correlation with increasing diving activity, this is thought to be due to a combination of factors, including seagrass habitat degradation and rising ocean temperatures.

 "Hooded Plover" by 0ystercatcher is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Hooded Plovers

Hooded plovers (Thinornis rubricollis) are particularly vulnerable to coastal tourism as they are habitat specialists that breed almost exclusively on sandy ocean beaches, whereas other birds with broader habitat range nest in rocky outcrops, vegetated sand dunes and wetlands. A report published by Birdlife in 2019 outlines the success of 2018/2019 breeding season following the introduction of Birdlife Australia’s national recovery plan for Hooded Plovers on the Fleurieu Peninsula ten years earlier. The study identified and monitored 33 breeding pairs and 86 nesting attempts, the highest since the beginning of the recovery program. The recovery program identified the major threats to plovers being humans and dogs, vehicles on beaches, introduced predators and habitat modification (Mead & Maguire 2019). In an email interview, Wendy Phillips, President of the Fleurieu Birders group, stated “Hooded plovers are easily disturbed at their nesting sites as they breed when humans want to be on the beach during Summer."

Coastal tourism and increased human traffic triggers the plovers to abandon nests, research found that “incubating birds remained on the nest if vehicles passed more than 20 m from them, but occasionally left the nest if they came closer than 20m. People on a beach caused incubating birds to leave the nest on 70% of occasions. Birds leave the nest when a person is 150-200 m away early in the incubation period and when they are 50-60 m away just before hatching” (Baker-Gabb & Weston 2006).

In response to increased human threat, groups of volunteers, such as ‘hoodie helpers’, plover lovers’ and friends of the hooded plover’, have been working together to monitor hooded plovers and protect nests throughout the breeding season. Wendy states “people can join volunteers and assist in protecting them by checking on their nesting success regularly.” Chris Willocks, Vice President of Friends of the Hooded Plover describes effort being taken on the Mornington Peninsula, VIC. “Friends of Hooded Plover Mornington Peninsula is a strong network of volunteers that monitor Hooded Plovers and other Beach-nesting Birds and help protect them with signage and fencing”. He goes on to explain how ability to raise funds through community events has been curtailed due to lockdowns.

"Fairy Penguins" by rumpleteaser is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Little Penguins

Iconic to granite island, the Little Penguin is the smallest species of penguin in the world. In the last few decades penguin numbers have been in decline, where there was once 1600 on the island there is now only 40 (2019). This is still an improvement to the estimated 20 penguins in 2012. These numbers reflect increasing threats to penguins from human disturbance and introduced predators (such as cats foxes and rats), but also the successes of the recent programs put in place to protect little penguins (Campbell 2019). These threats are best outlined in a 2011 report titled Conservation management priorities for little penguin populations in Gulf St Vincent. This paper summarises the threats faced by penguins and includes recommended actions for managing threats. It also identifies anthropogenic disturbance as a problem that can be managed by habitat conservation, management of pets, tourism and development planning and education (Wiebkin 2011). A peer-reviewed article on a long-term study of these penguins concurs, stating “regular disturbances by unrestricted tourists can lead to burrow displacement and little penguins generally avoided burrows close to human traffic”. The paper also mentioned that pairs breeding on the north side of the island produced more chicks than breeding pairs on the south side, where there was more tourist activity (Colombelli-Negrel 2015).


What can we do?

As evidenced throughout this text, iconic species on the Fleurieu Peninsula are threatened by human disturbance and habitat degradation. As this issue grows with increasing tourist traffic, it is important that management involves education, protective policies and active conservation. There is also potential for tourism to aid wildlife conservation.

The study on Leafy Seadragons at Rapid Bay not only identified the threats faced by the species, but also highlighted the potential for monitoring the species through photographs taken by citizen scientists. This study outlined methods that could be used to identify individual animals by their body markings in photos, which then allowed these same individuals to be identified and monitored over time. Tourists can contribute to valuable long-term research by reporting sightings of Seadragons to Dragon Search which is now run by Reef Watch, they can also upload photos from which individuals can be identified (Parks and Wildlife Service 2015). However this program could be further improved by the creation of an online database that allows tourists to compare their photos to images of known jetty residents, so they can know individuals by name and experience a more personal connection. For example, there is a Leafy Sea-dragon that is a resident at the Rapid Bay jetty named “wishbone”. Furthermore, there could be potential to organise further monitoring surveys using coordinated groups of experienced divers in a volunteer tourism program in which the divers could pay for the experience and in return contribute to conservation research and fund further conservation efforts.

Dive operators visiting this site should donate a percentage of profit to conservation efforts at this site, to neutralise their impact. Dive operators are also responsible for educating their instructors and groups properly and in accordance with the code of conduct. Currently there is signage at the jetty advising snorkellers and divers to keep their distance from Sea-dragons, however a full copy of the code of conduct should be available at the site, along with a series of interpretive panels that educate visitors on the significance and conservation of the species, and how they can aid conservation.

Another issue that was discussed as a threat to Sea-dragons was the decline of suitable habitat along South Australia’s coastline. Leafy Sea-dragons inhabit seaweed reefs as well as seagrass meadows. There are currently trials in place along the Adelaide metropolitan coast to identify cost effective and time efficient ways of restoring large areas of seagrass habitat. In future there may be potential for volunteers to take part in this process in order to cover large areas quickly.

Similarly, volunteer tourism could be used in conservation efforts for hooded plovers and other vulnerable bird species. Whilst members of the community are able to join the group and regularly participate in conservation activities that include constructing signage and fences to protect nesting sites, monitoring breeding and revegetating sand dunes, there is currently no opportunities for this kind of work that is directed at tourists. It may be possible to develop a shorter program that provides a wildlife experience on the Fleurieu coastline that targets nature lovers and educates visitors whilst giving them the opportunity to get close to the action. There also should be stricter policies put into place to restrict dogs and cars from beaches that are known nesting sites.

Lastly, greater care needs to be taken in the design and development of Granite Island to protect the Little Penguin colony. Penguin ecologist, Dr Colombelli-Negrel describes the lack of consideration and consultancy regarding the penguin colony in the planning of the causeway renovations that are currently underway. Upon visiting the site, there was no mention of the penguins in the development plan that was on display for the public. Another concern is the lack of clarity on signage informing visitors of the sensitive habitat they are entering. Colombelli-Negrel suggests the island should be closed off to the public at night, and Stephen Hedges, a penguin tour guide agrees that the colony is not as protected as others across Australia as “the access is totally open”. He suggests that a ranger should be present full time to protect the colony (Campbell 2019).

An alternative to reduce the impact of human traffic on the island during breeding season would be to close off the island and instead install hidden cameras in known burrows that allow penguins to be observed virtually. A live feed could be displayed online and perhaps at the whale centre to encourage people to educate themselves about these animals and get behind conservation efforts.

Virtual tourism could also be used for the other species discussed in this paper. Earlier this year AusOcean set up a camera under Rapid Bay Jetty that offered live feed throughout daylight hours (AusOcean 2021). A similar approach could be taken at hooded plover nesting sites.



In summary, tourism will continue to grow and with it, negative impacts of increased human presence on iconic species will be inevitable. However further research into species ecology and the effect of human impacts will be valuable in guiding management plans to minimise threats to wildlife. Volunteer tourism could benefit research through the adoption of citizen science programs. Volunteer tourists could also play an important role in active conservation and habitat restoration projects whilst being educated on conservation issues. Further development of interpretive signage at nature sites could better educate the public and make them aware of their potential impact. Lastly, fragile habitats can benefit from virtual tourism, which can help raise awareness about the species whilst encouraging tourists to watch from a safe distance.




Fleurieu Peninsula National parks visitation snapshot 2021, National Parks and Wildlife Service South Australia, Government of South Australia

Australian Tourism in 2020 2021, Tourism Research Australia, Australian Trade and Investment Commission

Felurieu Peninsula Tourism 2021, Wildlife on the Fleurieu, Fleurieu Peninsula Toursim

Parks and Wildlife Service 2015, Leafy sea dragon, Department of Biodiversity Conservation and Attractions, Western Australia

Baker, J., Macdonald, J., Macdoinald, P., Baade, L., Aston, D., Rath, R., Charter, C., Beacon, J., Newton, K., McLean, L., Rapson, C., Battersby, B., Sutcliffe, S., Bishop, D., Fernie, D., Kinasz, D., Savelberg, M., Malkowska, A., Brown, T., Nazimi, L., Andrew, G., Manna, J. 2020, Leafy Seadragon Population Monitoring In The AMLR NRM Region - Pilot Study At Rapid Bay, Adelaide & Mt Lofty Ranges Natural Resources Management Board

Mead, R., Maguire, G. 2019, Monitoring Hooded Plovers on the Fleurieu Peninsula: A summary of breeding success for the 2018/2019 season, BirdLife Australia

Campbell, C. 2019, ‘SA's Granite Island access should be limited to protect little penguin colonies, experts say’, ABC News, 15 July

Baker-Gabb, D., Weston, M. 2006, ‘South Australian Recovery Plan for the Hooded Plover’, Southern Fleurieu Coastal Action Plan and Conservation Priority Study 2007, pp.474

Wiebkin, A. 2011, Conservation management priorities for little penguin populations in Gulf St Vincent, Adelaide and Mount Lofty Ranges Natural Resources Management Board

Colombelli-Negrel, D. 2015, ‘Low survival rather than breeding success explains little penguin population decline on Granite Island’, Marine and Freshwater Research, vol. 66, no. 11, pp. 1057-1065

AusOcean 2021, Rapid Bay Live, May 2021

Article written by Mary Gordon