OF SEAWEED AND SAND By Hannah Lewis

I started coming to Balnarring Beach for holidays when I was 6 years old and moved permanently to Balnarring 36 years ago. This is my story.

My earliest memories of Balnarring are the mountains of seaweed that we clambered through as children and threw handfuls at each other, watching my grandfather cook large periwinkles in a saucepan and being awestruck by the rockpools full of Neptune’s Necklace and sea lettuce out on the rocky shelf.

When my parents built a house in 1972, their block, covered in pigface was planted out over 4 decades with eucalypts and other trees that provided perches for sulphur crested cockatoos and koalas. It became a thriving habitat.

My memories of being a teenager are of catching flounder and garfish by spotlight at night with a spear and net, eating whiting and leatherjacket caught out on the bay by my dad and riding bikes around the streets of the Balnarring and Merricks foreshore, clambering up to the cave in Merricks (now filled with plastic foam) and imagining who might have sat there 100 years before me. Days of hot pink sunburnt skin and peeling noses and slathering ourselves with coconut oil and ‘bronze’ tanning lotion.

I remember the quaint dark green fibro and weatherboard post office and milk bar, now Tulum café, and the old store in a gravel carpark with iced over freezer chests, where the shopping centre now is.

A decade later and we were settled in Balnarring with three kids, buying icy poles for them on 38-degree Summer days and taking them for swims at Balnarring Beach and Merricks Beach after school. Summer brought Nippers at Point Leo, followed by surfing lessons with local legend Prue Latchford at the East Coast surf school. At 36 and 35, the boys still come back here to surf as often as they can and my daughter comes to share the beach of her childhood with her 5 and 2 year old.

My nostalgic memories of the bay and beaches were replaced by a different level of understanding when I had the privilege to work as an educator for over 25 years at Western Port Secondary College in Hastings. I worked with CERES Environment Park and Mornington Peninsula Shire Council to get our school accredited as a sustainable school. This started my journey into informed environmental awareness. I was involved in a range of arts based and environmental projects with Peninsula Health, Warringine Park and the shire.

I learnt from rangers Sean Wilmore and Gerard Cooke what a unique and special place Warringine Park is, from its ephemeral creeks and wetlands through to the southernmost coastal mangroves. As part of the school’s year 9 program, VCE biology and environmental science curriculum we walked its trails, boardwalks and beaches with 100s of students learning about its rich history and its incredible environmental value as a Ramsar wetland. We were incredibly lucky to have this as a local living, breathing resource.

I watched a year 8 boy gut and fillet a fish, like an expert, on a fishing expedition and fished off the Crib Point jetty with year 9s. Some of the boys would bring fresh fish to school, in an esky, for their favourite teachers after a weekend’s fishing. I travelled by ferry with the year 7s for over a decade, to get to their annual camp at Phillip Island, marvelling at the dolphins and whales we were lucky enough to spot, just out from Crib Point.

I was invited to take a group of students into the squelching mud of the marine park mangroves to observe and film a senior marine biologist from The Melbourne Museum and university students, carry out a core drilling exercise, the first one to take place since the 1970s.

The work I did at the school gave me a new lens on Western Port Bay and privileged experiences. This was my education into the deeper beauty, value and fragility of this landscape and place.

While I had visited Warringine Park, Jacks Beach and the area around the Crib Point jetty numerous times, I hadn’t been to the site of the AGL proposal till 2 years ago when I went there to take photos at Woolley’s Beach and get a grasp of where it was in relation to the marine park and wetlands. The coastal reserve has healthy remnant indigenous habitat: coastal tea, tree, orchids and healthy grasses. It has been, until more recent times, a quiet, unspoilt place where people walk their dogs and have a picnic.

The FSRU development would be in horrifyingly close proximity to the wetlands, mangroves and shoreline habitat and the fragile ecosystems within.

So how do I feel about AGL, their tactics and their proposal?
I feel a simmering, relentless anger. I feel anguish, fear for our bay and, at times, despair.

My story only skims the story of my connection to this place. I live it, breath it, walk it every day. When I pull the blind up in my bedroom in the morning, I glimpse its blue.

My roots are here. Its salty spray, Winter winds and bird cries are in my veins. It uplifts me, cleanses me and holds me close. Sometimes, when the wind is right, I can even hear its soothing waves at night.

I want this bay to be pristine and unspoilt for my grandchildren and future generations of children. Future generations don’t deserve to lose the joy and memories that this place offers. I want its mangroves, mudflats, shoreline and blue waters to remain healthy and the marine life and migratory birds to be put before profit and corporate greed. I don’t want its gentle landscape to be adulterated by an FSRU nearly twice the size of the MCG and 17 stories high.