Six Days on Thistle Island, South Australia

Thistle Island is a wild, remote and pristine island off the southern tip of the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia.

It took only a short time to consider our answer to an invitation to spend five or six days on Thistle Island to help a friend celebrate his birthday.

So a short time later, Lizzie and I drove from Apollo Bay to Port Lincoln where we were collected by the birthday boy Ian (aka IOJ) in his Cessna 210 and flown to the island.

Lizzie and I lived and worked in Port Lincoln from 1978 to 1980. I had a pilot’s licence and we had access to various light aircraft which we often used to fly ourselves around the area, including to Thistle Island. We often took groups of friends out there for long weekends, and would stay in what was then the only house on the island, the old whalers’ cottage. Over 40 years passed before we revisited the island a couple of weeks ago.

Between 1980 and 1982 we lived in Adelaide where I gained my commercial pilot’s licence. During those two years I flew regular charter flights for tourists (typically diving groups) between Adelaide and Wedge Island. I have many wonderful memories of the islands in Spencer Gulf in particular and the west coast of South Australia generally. This recent trip evoked many memories of a most enjoyable phase of our lives.

Thistle Island

Thistle Island is 28 nautical miles SE of Port Lincoln, at the foot of Spencer Gulf. Its southern coast is exposed to the full force of the Southern Ocean. The lsland is about 17 kilometres long and its width varies between 1 and 4 kms.

The island was named in 1802 by Matthew Flinders, commander of the Investigator, while charting the coastline of South Australia during his circumnavigation of Australia. Flinders was the first person to complete this circumnavigation. The Investigator anchored in the vicinity of what is now known as Thistle Island while eight crew including the ship’s master John Thistle were sent out in a cutter to find a place to anchor to go ashore for fresh water to replenish dwindling supplies on the Investigator. The cutter did not return and a search the next morning found its remains on the mainland shore. Strong currents and sharks were observed by another cutter which almost capsized in the same area. No bodies were found and it was assumed the crewman drowned when their cutter capsized in such conditions. Flinders named Thistle Island after his friend and the ship’s master John Thistle. Seven other islands in the area were given the names of the other lost crewmen. Flinders also named Cape Catastrophe and nearby Memory Cove in honour of his lost crewmen.

Ian purchased this excellent very high resolution photo of Thistle Island for display at his house on the island (wall space permitting). The detail on this aerial photo was remarkable.

Photo taken by Ian from his Cessna 210 on his return to Thistle Island after dropping us back at Port Lincoln. This photo was taken looking approximately south east.

Travelling to and from the Island

Ian is a very experienced instrument rated commercial pilot and owns a comfortable and very well equipped and maintained light aircraft, a single engine Cessna 210. He also has his own air operator’s certificate which entitles him to conduct commercial flights. He flies all over Australia in his business as an aerial photographer. He also uses it for transport to and from his house on the island.

The aircraft has six seats, long range fuel tanks and compartments for cargo. They cannot all be filled up at the same time, but this capacity obviously provides operational flexibility for widely varying missions. For example, on a short distance flight, a big payload of cargo and/or passengers can be carried if minimum allowable fuel is carried. Or on a long distance, requiring full fuel, less cargo/passengers can be carried. The aircraft has a maximum takeoff weight (the sum of the weight of the aircraft, pilot, fuel, passengers and cargo) which cannot be exceeded.

Boarding at Port Lincoln.

General aviation (non-airline) is an interesting industry. Passengers can see and chat to the pilot in flight. On the ground they can watch the pilot refuel and check the aircraft for safety before takeoff if they wish. There are often no departure lounges or even seats to wait on. As often as not the meeting point at an airfield is a gate in a mesh fence marking off the aircraft movement area from the areas open to the public. Wandering around looking for the right gate (which usually has a combination lock with an easy solution eg the code being printed in texta somewhere nearby almost out of sight) can lead you to corners of the airport where there are sights denied QANTAS passengers and the like at major airports. It’s all part of the rich tapestry of transparent and open maintenance and flying operations at general aviation airfields.

Light aircraft, big jet airliners and everything in between are all maintained to very high standards in Australia. Some say the maintenance and operational regulatory regime is onerous and oppressive in its level of detail and administration by the regulatory authorities. But whether this is so or not, in Australia passengers have every reason to trust their commercial pilot and the aircraft they are flying in.

The controls and instrument panel of VH-BEH.

Maps used to fold when I used to fly.

An aerial photography flight along the southern coast of Thistle Island.

Turning final to land on runway 24 on Thistle Island. This is a very well constructed and regularly maintained gravel strip. While we were on the island a business jet (which I think was a Pilatus PC-24) operated in and out of the strip.

About to touch down.

Thistle Island airfield gate, car park and luggage handling equipment.

Bilbies are elusive. But I did get a quick glimpse of three (after dark) while I was on the island. A bilby is a smallish nocturnal omnivorous marsupial, native to Australia. It is also known as the rabbit-eared bandicoot. They look like a long-nosed big-eared rat.

Lizzie and Ian loading the aircraft for the YTHI-YPLC leg. The tyre from the 4WD had a puncture and was off to Pt Lincoln for repair.

Slide the vertical bar left or right to see all of each photo by holding the cursor on the circular button with the arrows.

Left: Liz in 1978 climbing aboard the Piper Cherokee 180 registered VH-WIL outside the Pt Lincoln Flying Club hangar. I flew many hours in this aircraft, and did my night flying training in it. After I gained my commercial pilot licence and instructor rating, I conducted quite a bit of training in this aircraft.

Right: Liz nearly 43 years later at the same airport about to board Ian’s Cessna 210.

Some light aircraft which operate on sand or soft soil have large low pressure sand tyres. This aircraft had one flat off-road 4WD tyre, as cargo.

The other airstrips

In the late 1970s, there were two airstrips on the island. One was a grass strip where the current graded gravel strip is located (it was a bit rougher than the present airstrip). The other, used mostly by the then owner Theo Modra, was near Whalers Bay. As shown in this late 1970s photo (a print from a 35mm slide) which I took from the Cessna 172 I was flying, terrain beyond the eastern end of the strip dropped away quickly to cliffs and the ocean at the eastern end. It had a shed then rising terrain at the other end. In between it had significant downhill and uphill sections with a short flat bit in the middle. It was an interesting strip to use. I treated it as a one way strip, with all takeoffs and landings towards the shed.

This strip still exists, as shown in the two following photos. But I understand that no aircraft use it now.

Approach and landing involved flying over water towards the cliff top, being aware of rough air in the lee of the cliffs in strong winds. Full flap was used from mid-final. As soon as the aircraft was over the down-sloping start of the runway the power was reduced to idle and the aircraft flown down the hill. The slope was such that the wheels rarely touched the grass on the downhill section, but glided just above it in what pilot’s call ground effect (at a height less than half the wingspan distance above the ground). At the end of the downhill section there is a slight rise then a brief flat section. I used to apply a quick burst of power to momentarily increase the airflow over the elevator which gave positive pitch control to lift the nose up and over the slight rise. Power was then immediately reduced to idle again and the aircraft nose was raised for the upslope section. The combination of idle power and landing in a shallow gradient climb on the upslope with full flap deployed meant that the airspeed reduced quickly and the aircraft landed almost straight away. Once on the ground, the roll out was short as it decelerated rapidly on the grassy upslope. A little more power than usual was required to taxi up the gentle slope at the shed end of the strip.

Takeoff was easy – taxi to the highest part of the strip, one stage of flap then give it full power. The aircraft would accelerate quickly. I always got airborne on the downhill section and was able to climb away on the extended runway centreline with adequate clearance over the hills beyond. If conditions and the weight of the aircraft degraded the climb after takeoff, there was always the option of a gentle low level turn to the right then over the ocean at Whalers Bay.

Rooftops of some of the houses now overlooking Whalers Bay can be seen in the trees on the upper right of this shot.

Theo Modra’s dirt strip on the north western tip of Thistle Island, where he lands his Cessna 170 VH-AMO. I had a bit to do with Theo when I lived in Pt Lincoln, mainly in relation to Thistle Island. I have also flown with him in his C170 for some night takeoffs and landings on his farm in the hills behind Pt Lincoln. I understand that Theo is now over 80 years old and still flying. I’m not surprised.

Whalers Bay

There are about 25 houses on the the cliffs overlooking Whalers Bay. In the late 1970s there was only the whalers’ cottage. The nine photos below were taken from the front deck of Ian’s house.

Sunrise. Only two flying operations under way that I could see (plus faint evidence of an earlier high level operation).

The dawn sun lighting up the cliffs on Whalers Bay beach and Nautilus beach.

After sunset.

Almost sunny as the thin layer of morning cloud starts to break up.

Lizzie social distancing on a walk to the end of Whalers Bay beach. (Victoria was in COVID-19 lockdown while we were on Thistle Island).

Light offshore winds put this end of Whalers Bay in the lee of the rising terrain of the island. Hence the beautiful glassy seas in this corner.

This photo was taken by Ian just after we left the Island. We didn’t need it to make us wish we were still there. Note the school of salmon in the shallows at lower right, just above the dark green bush. A school such as this was seen several times in this location. I hoped to see them during the couple of swims I had at that location but it was not to be.

Ian took out his one man inflatable dinghy and as promised, after a couple of hours brought in a huge haul of beautiful fresh squid which fed us all for days. He caught them about 150m offshore in front of his house.

The mysterious circle beyond the dinghy is possibly the splash circle from a breaching big fish that Ian didn’t catch, or that he caught and released given he was on a squid mission. Ian doesn’t like to brag about such exploits – it seems what happens in the dinghy stays in the dinghy. But he couldn’t have fitted a fish that big in the dinghy anyway and was also probably unenthusiastic about being towed to Kangaroo Island. I emphasise that this is just surmise on my part.

Quiet evening at Whalers Bay in the late 1970s

The view of the rising moon over Whalers Bay, taken from the front porch of the whalers’ cottage. (Colour and definition once again courtesy of a faded 40+ year old print from a 35mm slide).

When we visited Thistle Island, we usually had a fire on the beach. Rosemary and Lizzie warming up on a very calm evening.

This photo and the experience of revisiting Thistle Island after 40+ years and writing about it, have brought back many memories and made me quite nostalgic. Rosemary at the time of this photo was visiting Port Lincoln and the Eyre Peninsula with her partner Philip Rogers (both from Melbourne). I flew them out to Thistle. I had known Philip for many years through the acoustic music scene in Melbourne and a popular venue he ran called One C One. He was a very good friend, as indeed Rosemary became. Liz, one year old Jessie and I lived with Philip in Brunswick for a year in 1983 when we first moved to Melbourne. I played some gigs at One C One during the mid 1970s, mostly as a duo with a friend at the time Bob Crickett. I attended the acoustic music concerts in the upstairs backstreet venue in Princes Hill regularly. Life at Philip’s house and with him as a friend involved a lot of musicians and a lot of music being played in lounge rooms and kitchens. It also involved open fires, eating well and often (hot spanakopita from Sydney Road was very popular), a lot of tea and coffee and many late nights.

Rosemary died of cancer in 2011 and Philip died of cancer 15 years earlier.

The lyrics of Dylan’s song ‘Bob Dylan’s Dream’ express my feelings in this regard.

While riding on a train goin’ west
I fell asleep for to take my rest
I dreamed a dream that made me sad
Concerning myself and the first few friends I had

With half-damp eyes I stared to the room
Where my friends and I spent many an afternoon
Where we together weathered many a storm
Laughin’ and singin’ till the early hours of the morn

By the old wooden stove where our hats was hung
Our words were told, our songs were sung
Where we longed for nothin’ and were quite satisfied
Talkin’ and a-jokin’ about the world outside

With haunted hearts through the heat and cold
We never thought we could ever get old
We thought we could sit forever in fun
But our chances really was a million to one

As easy it was to tell black from white
It was all that easy to tell wrong from right
And our choices were few and the thought never hit
That the one road we traveled would ever shatter and split

How many a year has passed and gone
And many a gamble has been lost and won
And many a road taken by many a friend
And each one I’ve never seen again

I wish, I wish, I wish in vain
That we could sit simply in that room again
Ten thousand dollars at the drop of a hat
I’d give it all gladly if our lives could be like that

Swimming in Whalers Bay

I took my wetsuit and goggles to Thistle Island and had a couple of 1000m swims in Whalers Bay. IOJ joined me on one morning swim, bravely tackling the Southern Ocean winter water in only board shorts. His swim was short but vigorous, and for the record, he followed it up with a run along the beach.

The ocean in Whalers Bay was warmer than the ocean at Apollo Bay at the moment. (The latitude of Thistle Island is just over 60 nautical miles south of the parallel of latitude that passes through Sydney). I also took my iPhone underwater-camera housing and had a swim around the seaweed beds and rocks near the boat ramp. The rest of the bay had clear sand for about 200m before the weed line.

A school of salmon in close in front of Ian’s house. It continually changed shape but the fish remained close together such that the school always looked like one biggish thing rather than thousands of little things.

Southern end of Whalers Bay beach as seen during a swim offshore. That’s IOJ (Ian) on the beach waving (and taking a few photos I think).

While I was doing my 1000m swim, I noticed that juvenile and mature Pacific gulls were showing great interest in me, and followed me as I progressed slowly towards the end of the beach. I got this snap while swimming a short distance offshore. I wondered if they thought I was a sizeable predator hunting for food, with scraps for Pacific gulls likely to follow. I also wondered if they thought I was potential food, and having observed my undolphin-like swimming style, assumed I was in my last hours and that it wouldn’t be long before their meal would be ready. The Pacific gulls at Apollo Bay do not exhibit this behaviour.

IOJ took this shot of me swimming in Whalers Bay with the gulls wheeling above.

Flashback to the late 1970s. This is the whalers’ cottage as seen from a short distance offshore. There were no other dwellings on the island at that time. I recall that a friend and I swam about 200m offshore here in the late 1970s as we had seen dolphins out there. They didn’t disappear when we arrived, and swam quite close to us. (This is an iPhone photo of a colour print made from a 35mm slide over 40 years ago).

Above and below (thanks to the 6″ dome port on my AxisGo iPhone camera housing).

Ian loves a gadget and, for my swim, kindly lent me one of two shark deterrent devices he owns. I have always had doubts about the efficacy of such gadgets, but on this occasion I thought why not? After all, Thistle Island is located on a direct line between Dangerous Reef (where the live shark sequences for the film Jaws were filmed all those years ago) and Neptune Island (where I did a shark cage dive with great white sharks not many years ago). It can safely be said that the ocean in this area is more sharky than most areas where I swim. One of the other house owners on Thistle told me he had been scuba diving for cray on the southern side of the island when a large great white cruised past him and hung around. He stayed pressed against some rocks until his air was low, then surfaced without the shark showing any further interest.

What can I say about the success of this device? Well, 100% so far? Two successive swims, not eaten on either occasion. Most of the gadgets I use are fact based. It was a novelty to try a mixed fact and faith device.

Lizzie at the north western end of Whalers Bay beach looking for me as I swam towards her in the light chop brought on by a north easterly breeze.

The southern end of Whalers Bay beach.

Two shots comparing the shark proof swimming enclosure at Port Lincoln in the late 1970s and 2021. I’m not in either shot. I swam here regularly in 1978-80 and always thought that shark net was dodgy. I’m not sure whether or not the swimmers shown in the old enclosure were being chased or taken by a shark at the time.

Hang gliders soaring the bowl at Nautilus Beach in the late 1970s

I mentioned to a couple of hang gliding friends that the north-facing bowl behind Nautilus Beach at Thistle Island looked ideal for hang gliding. They were keen to give it a go, so I spoke to Theo about it. I anticipated he might take the gliders over on his sizeable barge. But he offered to take them over on his aeroplane! The following photos of mine tell the rest of the story.

Theo Modra tying hang gliders on to the side of his Cessna 170. Chris Cowley and Larry Jones, hang glider pilots, were assisting.

Perfectly secure. Who needs roof racks or a trailer?

Theo flew the hang gliders to the island, and I flew the two pilots there in a Cessna 172. We both landed on the interesting airstrip directly behind Whalers Bay beach. I remember asking Theo how old AMO flew with the hang gliders strapped on. He replied that it pulled a bit to the left, but flew fine.

This photo was taken from the Cessna 172 I was flying when I took the hang glider pilots to the island. On the horizon is Wedge Island. In the foreground is Nautilus Beach and the symmetrical and smooth sloping bowl of the island rising from it. The relatively light wind this day was blowing directly on to this beach and the bowl, creating rising air in which the hang gliders could easily soar and stay aloft at will.

On another occasion when a strong wind was blowing straight on to this bowl, I flew a lightly loaded Cessna 172 directly over the bowl into the rising air, and was able to maintain good airspeed (75knots or so, but sometimes more) and height (well above the height of the island at the bowl) with the engine set to idle RPM. I could do a gentle turn at either end of the bowl in a large figure eight pattern without needing to use power, just as a hang glider or a wedge-tailed eagle would do. I bought my first hang glider while in Port Lincoln and learned to fly it on the west coast at places such as Coffin Bay sand dunes, Silly Point, Mt Greenly, Mt Greenly coastal cliffs and Mt Dutton. I never got to soar Thistle Island bowl in my hang glider, but doing it in an aeroplane weighing around 800kgs wasn’t a bad second.

Larry soaring over the bowl at Nautilus Beach. Chris did the same in his hang glider. The surface of the sea indicates that the winds were light. But the lift over the bowl was smooth and more than enough to maintain good height in a hang glider. As far as I know this was the first occasion a hang glider flew this site. It is possible that no hang glider has flown there since. I’d be interested to know if this is the case.

The wild Southern Ocean coast of the Island

I believe this remarkable feature is called Heart Rock. Phil (another guest on the island helping Ian celebrate his birthday) and Ian, being the adventurous souls they are, were discussing doing a lap of this rock in a boat to see if there were many fish there, in the right conditions of course.

Below

In the cliffs below Fossil Point is a large cave. The round honeycomb rock is the result of erosion and the action of water in the limestone cave. It used to be firmly connected to a narrow stand of rock on the cave floor but appears to have been dislodged somehow.

Next stop Antarctica!

Phil providing a scale reference for the size of this large sea-eroded cave. This is the ‘big ocean’ side of the island (the Southern Ocean).

The southern shores of Thistle Island are geologically interesting in that there is a layer of hard black rock rising from the sea upon which sits the softer-looking limestone (sedimentary) cliffs. The two distinct layers are quite marked. (I have already exceeded the limits of my near zero knowledge of geology so will leave it at that).

Elephant Rock.

L: Lizzie in June 2021. R: Lizzie in the late 1970s.

IOJ taking photos of the rocky inlet beside Elephant Rock. There was a bit of swell about, even though it was sunny without much wind.

The amount and rate of flow of white water surging in and over the channels between the rocks with every large set of waves was an awesome sight up close.

Water flowed into this almost completely enclosed pool through a narrow crevasse resulting in dramatically rising and falling water levels.

The crevasse.

It would be a wild swim.

Sunset on the southern side of the island in calmer conditions.

Cleopatra’s Pool

Not far from Fossil Point and the coastal cave shown in earlier photos is a narrow but quite lengthy enclosed pool in the rock shelf which holds about 2m of clear water. On low tides and low swell the level of the surface of the water in this pool is higher than the water level in the ocean and in the nearby channel which is fully open to the sea. They are the conditions in which it is a good spot for a swim.

This pool is known as Cleopatra’s Pool.

Cleopatra’s Pool is the narrow channel of aqua water with a bit of foam on the surface, between the higher rocks on the left and the dark lower rock ledge in centre frame. Even though the white water in the channel to the right is flowing in and out freely, this photo was taken between sets of waves, which gave the water in Cleopatra’s Pool time to settle and become perfectly clear.

A close up of the southern end of Cleopatra’s Pool, suitable for swimming in the right conditions.

A wider shot of the deep end of Cleopatra’s Pool.

Flashback to the late 1970s: me having a dip in Cleopatra’s pool. My friend Kym Harris swam with me on this day, and Kym’s wife and Liz were sitting on the higher rocks beside the pool. Not long after this photo was taken a solitary and unexpected big wave arrived and completely covered the pool and surrounding rocks with a lot of fast flowing white water. Kym and I dived at the last moment and grabbed hold of rocks on the bottom of the pool. We were swirled around a bit in the current then the white water retreated, we surfaced and the water in the pool quickly returned to its calm state. I recall vividly my concern at the time that we would be flushed out of Cleopatra’s Pool into the fast flowing water in the adjacent crevasse then into the ocean. Even though we weren’t, we left the pool and joined our partners who had scrambled up to higher ground when they saw the wave coming. Not sure what was going through my mind when I decided to swim at that location on that day – clearly not enough.

These comparative shots were taken (only moments apart) from slightly different angles but both show the location of Cleopatra’s Pool. The dark rock shelf immediately to the right of the pool (visible in the left hand photo) is completely under fast flowing white water in the other photo. In such conditions, clearly not a good spot for a swim.

Video of Cleopatra’s Pool disappearing under white water from sizeable breaking waves.

The Pearson wallaby, a goanna, a blue-ringed octopus, an unusual crab & seals

The Pearson Island rock-wallaby (a sub-species of the black-footed rock-wallaby) was separated from its mainland ancestors on Pearson Island (in the Great Australian Bight off the west coast of Eyre Peninsula) by sea-level rise around 10,500 years ago. In 1974 and 1975 groups of Pearson Island rock-wallabies were transferred to Thistle Island and Wedge Island respectively. Current populations number in the hundreds on both islands. Pearson Island was named by Matthew Flinders during his circumnavigation of Australia in 1802. Wikipedia was the source of this information: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pearson_Island

We saw more than a few wallaby carcasses providing food for various birds (including raptors) on Thistle Island during our stay.

Goanna feeding on a wallaby carcass. On two separate occasions we saw two very large adult wedge-tailed eagles feeding on this carcass. Seems that in the carrion dining pecking order the goanna was next in line.

Late 1970s photo which I took during a stay on Thistle Island. This is the small (that is a thong sole it’s lying on) but deadly blue-ringed octopus, which I found on Whalers Bay beach. They have a beak and their venom is created in their salivary glands. Death of an adult human victim can result from a bite within 30 minutes. While the bite can be deadly, such bites are very rare.

A crab species I have never seen before (and cannot identify) on a rock shelf in the intertidal zone. This one came out when Ian was cleaning his catch of squid nearby.

Seals on the rocky point at the eastern end of Whalers Bay. This shot was taken from the cliffs above in very low light with a telephoto lens. The seal photos below were taken on another day from the rock shelf, in much closer proximity to the seals.

Raptors on Thistle Island

Eastern Osprey

I will repeat what I wrote about the osprey in the immediately preceding blog post, ‘Flinders Ranges and the Eyre Peninsula, South Australia’ for those who have not read that blog post.

The eastern osprey is a strong and confident flyer. This raptor is a hawk which frequents coastal areas and large bodies of water. The osprey can be found right around the Australian coast, but is scarce in certain southern areas. It feeds mostly on fish which it catches by first soaring or hovering to locate its prey, then diving on a shallow trajectory hitting the water feet first to take the fish in its powerful talons. It does not dive underwater for fish like a cormorant or Australasian gannet. The osprey is smaller than the white-bellied sea-eagle, with some similarities but also notable differences (such as the speckled brown on its breast, and its marked dark brown eye-stripe).

Pizzey and Knight in the ninth edition of ‘The Field Guide to the Birds of Australia’ (published in 2012) state (at p.150): “…now rare or absent far s. NSW, Vic, Tas, Bass Strait and far se SE, though breeds Yorke and Eyre Pens and Kangaroo Is (SA)….” (emphasis added). Ospreys are classified as uncommon and endangered in South Australia. There are only 40-50 surviving osprey breeding pairs in South Australia.

This osprey nest is on the eastern end of Thistle Island. There is an interesting article on this nest in an ABC News article dated 11 May 2020: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-05-12/wild-osprey-raptor-eagle-breeding-island-video-surveillance-nest/12235164

The tripod has a camera providing live video feed of the nest. To my uneducated eye it appears entirely intrusive, but I’m no ornithologist. I saw individual osprey as well as pairs flying to and from this nest, and appearing to tolerate it well. As a pilot, it seems to me the tripod obstructs a direct approach to the nest from at least one direction.

Osprey breed in previously built nests, and return to them year after year and generation after generation. This nest is about 1.5ms tall, and sits on a rocky outcrop. Theo Modra who ran sheep on the island from 1962 to the late 1980s has been quoted as expressing the view that this nest could predate the exploration of the area by Matthew Flinders in 1802. (See the ABC article referred to above). By implication that statement confirms that the nest is at least 60 years old. It also raises the possibility that it could be over 200 years old.

This complex nest structure is near Heart Rock on a steep cliff on the eastern side of the island. It appears that this could well be an osprey nest, but I have not been able to confirm this.

White-bellied sea-eagle

I had never seen a sea-eagle before my recent visit to Thistle Island. I saw them every day while on the island.

A favourite photo of mine. It’s a juvenile white-bellied sea-eagle soaring coastal lift in the golden light of the setting sun. The wedge-tailed eagle is the only Australian raptor larger than the white-bellied sea-eagle.

Adult white-bellied sea-eagle soaring over the ocean near Thistle Island coast.

Soaring in its element with the blue sky and clouds above and the ocean below. Those are big wings.

White-bellied sea-eagle hunting over the ocean close to shore in Whalers Bay. They catch fish by descending in a shallow dive and hitting the water feet first to grab the fish in their strong talons.

This dead tree is in the middle of the dunes on the Whalers Bay beach. This photo was taken from the front yard of the house a couple of blocks west of of Ian’s house (with a telephoto lens) after a bit of slow and quiet stalking. Ian and other locals on the island told me eagles frequently sit in this tree. A resident on the island told me she has seen an adult sea-eagle land there carrying a small dead wallaby, which it placed on a branch of the tree.

Wedge-tailed eagle

As if I hadn’t had my fill of raptors with the sea-eagle and the osprey! Sightings of juvenile and adult wedge-tailed eagles on the island were common. Whenever Ian and I went looking for interesting birds to photograph we found some! What a privilege to be on this island.

I hope to return some time for more patient and protracted stalking and photographing of these wonderful wild birds in their element.

Juvenile wedge-tailed eagle

Adult wedge-tailed eagle

Adult wedge-tailed eagles soaring the ridge lift in very strong northerly winds over the cliffs on Whalers Bay. The bird on the left is looking down straight at my lens pointing straight up.

Wedge-tailed eagle soaring in moderate late afternoon winds over the eastern end of the island. Wedge island on the horizon, about 25kms east of Thistle Island.

Other Birds sighted on Thistle Island

L: Three Cape Barren geese in tight formation. Photo taken late afternoon.

R: A lone pelican and an attentive audience of pied cormorants. I don’t know if it was a union meeting, a political rally or just a charismatic and articulate pelican giving a speech on a topic of his choice.

Cape Barren geese in perfect formation flying at low level late in the golden hour. They look so laid back and relaxed.

Friends on Thistle Island

L to R: Gill, me, Liz, Phil and Louise, near Cleopatra’s pool. Ian took the photo.

L to R: Louise, Gill and Liz in the back of the 4WD. Photo by Ian in the front seat facing forward with the camera over his shoulder facing backwards.

IOJ doing what he does so well. That’s a (long and heavy) Nikkor 800mm prime telephoto lens without a tripod or monopod which Ian is wielding with sufficient ease to capture beautiful shots of birds in flight in the fading light.

Something else IOJ does well – improvisation. No roof racks? No trailer? No problem. This was the start of the very successful squid mission. The drive to the beach and back was also without incident.

Visiting Thistle Island with friends in the late 1970s

L to R: Chris, Scottie, Wendy, Jeanette, Kym and Zoe, Crispian and Jan. Faithful Cherokee Six VH-PBG doing the job yet again.

Postscript

At the foot of this post are three links to related blog posts of mine. One is titled ‘Bush Flying in South Australia in the 1970s’. After some general reminiscing about a few of my bush flying experiences there is a sub-heading: ‘The 11 June 1978 Flight – a Memorable Flying Lesson’. Under that heading is my account of a flight from Victor Harbour to Pt Lincoln in a four seater light aircraft with Liz beside me, and two friends in the back seats nursing their babe in arms. The sector from overhead Thistle Island to Pt Lincoln was the memorable part. Contrary to my plan for the flight, the Thistle Island to Pt Lincoln leg was conducted at very low level over the sea after dark in a heavy thunderstorm, gale force winds and driving rain. Visibility was very poor. The search and rescue authority had declared an ‘uncertainty phase’ on our flight (the first of the three ICAO emergency phases: uncertainty, alert and distress). We eventually landed safely. Flying this same 28 nautical mile leg on our recent two ferry flights between Thistle Island and Pt Lincoln, in perfect weather, brought back strong memories of that memorable flight of almost 43 years ago.

4 thoughts on “Six Days on Thistle Island, South Australia

  1. Wonderful John and how fantastic for you and Liz to be able to recapture those memories from the 70s. Where do 50 years go? Clearly you were a “risk taker” and probably not much has changed , just done with more thought processes! The worst motion sickness I have ever experienced was in a light plane and therefore I have had to forgo many exceptional experiences so I do envy you and Liz but then again I am so happy for you both to have these fabulous times and I do love reading about them. Take good care . Cheers Sue

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    1. Thanks for your comments Sue. The nostalgic part of the visit to the island was certainly an enjoyable part of it for us. Sorry to hear your light aircraft experience involved airsickness. But you and Tommy have certainly made the most of large aircraft with all your trips. I gather you travel better in big passenger jets.

      I have never sought out an activity because it is risky. But inevitably, some few things I have been attracted to over the years have entailed an element of risk. I like to think of myself as a risk manager rather than a risk taker. If I can’t eliminate the risk, I certainly always like to take all reasonable steps to reduce it to an acceptable level. Hopefully my judgment in this regard has improved over the years.

      I am delighted to hear that you enjoy reading these blog posts Sue.

      Cheers,
      John.

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  2. Amazing photos John! & a great blog( took me 3 days to read it🤣) So glad we could spend a few days enjoying your company & exploring Thistle with you & Liz! Hope to meet up again in the not to distant future !
    Cheers Louise , and the old fella !!!

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    1. Thanks for those comments Louise. Lizzie and I loved our time on the island and thoroughly enjoyed meeting you and Phil and visiting all those wonderful locations with you, IOJ and Gill. Sighting wedge-tailed eagles and white-bellied sea-eagles around every corner, along with the occasional osprey, was a real treat too. Hope Liz and I can catch up with you both again soon.
      Cheers John.

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