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The salt lake at Westgate Park

Is the lake at Westgate Park pink at the moment?

No, not this year. In this La Nina year, the combination of factors that cause the lake to turn pink are not present. The lake turns pink when there is prolonged very hot weather and dry conditions.

The lake is said to turn pink because of the action of purple sulphur bacteria, probably Chromatium species, the cells of which are packed with sulphur granules. Purple sulphur bacteria are natural photosynthetic microorganisms1.

Saltmarsh plants such as Austral seablite and Beaded glasswort grow around the margins of the salt lake, particularly on the Westgate Bridge side of the lake.

Last year, on 16 December 2021, Len Robinson died. He was 88. Len was just in his teens when he saw an Orange-bellied Parrot for the first time in the area now known as Westgate Park. It was 25 April 1949. We know because bird observers keep meticulous records. From that first sighting, he developed a deep and life long commitment to these birds. He only retired from joining Orange-bellied Parrot surveys in his seventies. His close observations over such a long period were highly valued by the teams working on the recovery plans for this now critically endangered parrot. Following his dictum of observing rather than just looking, he could give advice on the type of habitat where he had seen the parrots, and what plants they grazed on. He was the last living person to have observed an Orange-bellied parrot in Fishermans Bend, and now we can no longer make that claim.

I used this image last week showing site preparation for the General Motors Holden factory in 1936. It contrasts with the well known post-war 1945 aerial photograph below. The industrialisation of Fishermans Bend in the decade from 1936 is at once impressive and troubling for the impact it had on the landscape. It is hard to believe that any Orange-bellied Parrots survived this scarring of the environment.

And yet it is still, but only just, within living memory of some Port people to recall playing in the swamps of Fishermans Bend and collecting tadpoles.

A pink pond has been installed at the National Gallery of Victoria, designed by Taylor Knights architects and artist James Carey. A focal point in the pond is Henry Moore’s Draped Woman. She has never had the company of so many children. Paddling in the pond is encouraged and families are responding in droves to this delightful attraction. When visitors leave she resumes her solitary presence and is seen to best advantage against the backdrop of the pink pond. The work also invites us to ponder the fragility of the Australian environment and the state of our Rivers, but also the beauty of our local ecologies.

The critically endangered Orange-bellied Parrots have had a bumper 2021/2022 breeding season, their best in recent times. Seventy birds returned to Melaleuca in Tasmania to breed (34 male: 36 female). It contrasts with the gloom of five years ago, when only 17 Orange-bellied parrots returned and only three were females.

This is a legacy for Len Robinson.

Stimulated by my experience of pond[er], I returned to the salt lake at Westgate Park which is not pink at all.

In Westgate Park under the Bridge, Black-winged Stilts with their crazy thin tall legs were feeding around the margins of the salt lake. Their warning calls foregrounded the dull noise of the traffic. In flight across the lake, the birds are especially beautiful. Birdlife advises that the status of these birds is secure.

Black-winged Stilt i mage David Paul Museums Victoria

The only surviving saltmarsh on the Port Phillip side of the River is at Westgate Park, but it is scanty. The largest remaining area of saltmarsh on the Port Phillip side of the River was removed to make way for Webb Dock.

There is so much landscape restitution and repair to be done in Fishermans Bend, work begun with the revegetation of Westgate Park.

I imagine a boardwalk on the city side of the salt lake, which would be celebrated as a pink lake, (rather than diluted with stormwater), where park visitors could look across the lake towards the Bridge, and marvel at the wetland birds attracted to the restored and abundant salt marsh plants. And where the voices of children, rarely present at Westgate Park, would foreground the traffic noise. This would fulfill artist James Carey’s intention for Pond[er] “to highlight the beauty of our local ecologies, becoming a space for connection, contemplation, and play.”


1 Pink lake explained Westgate Biodiversity: Bili Nursery & Landcare

Vale Len Robinson, 1933 – 2021 Bird Life Australia

Look at some fantastic photographs of pond[er] at Dr James Carey’s website.

Taylor Knights & Carey’s pond[er] is at the NGV from 10 am to 5 pm until 28 August.

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