Day in the Life of a Marine Park Ranger

There are 13 marine parks in Western Australia that are looked after by marine park rangers. What is a marine park ranger though and what does a marine park ranger do during their day? We met up with Steve Goodlich, Department of Parks and Wildife Marine Park Ranger, at Penguin Island, in the Shoalwater Islands Marine Park, close to Rockingham, south of Perth, to find out.

Shoalwater Islands Marine Park
Shoalwater Islands Marine Park

How does a marine park ranger spend their day?

Every day is doing something different. We had a work experience kid and one day we were doing maintenance on a board walk, the next minute we had to go pick up a seal that had to be relocated down near Mandurah. The next day we were doing some nest box monitoring of the penguins around the island. We’re actually monitoring the breeding success of the animals. Talking to tourists, we pulled some illegal fishing gear out of one of the sanctuary zones in the park. At any one time you might have a plan to do something and sure enough there’ll be something else you’ve got to do that overrides that.

We love to talk to people, because when someone goes to a marine park or a national park, one of the things they talk about is when the ranger came up to them and said “hello” and started talking about the park. You can get a bit blasé about it at the time because you don’t realise it when you’re in the job, you just think you’re doing your job, but when you’re at another place you realise how important that interaction was and how much that inside knowledge was. People don’t necessarily know what they can and can’t do but if you help them out they will and it’s not because there’s anything malicious about some of the stuff people are doing but if someone comes and tells them what they CAN do, they probably will. People aren’t bad natured.

Boardwalks around Penguin Island
Boardwalks around Penguin Island

How do you find out what you need to do?

Some of it’s reactive, and some of it is part of a works plan. Stuff like incidents, like wildlife, or perhaps a pollution incident, or a compliance incident you can’t plan for those, they just happen. We’ve got a jobs list just for things like maintenance, and so on that we just try and get done whenever we can. On an ideal day you just go get stuck in and do those things. Other days, you might have a planned patrol so you go around the park and talk to people, maybe do a bit of compliance, most of it is educating people.

How big is the Shoalwater Island marine park?

It stretches from as far as the eye can see to that island over there (Garden island and Point Peron and covers an area of approximately 6658 hectares).

Penguin Island map
Penguin Island map

How long have you been a marine park ranger?

5 years. My dad was a ranger for 25 odd years and when I was a kid, I spent time on this island.  I was born down in Denmark (Western Australia) and he was at Walpole where he was a national park ranger and then he came up and got a position in the Marmion Marine Park. He was actually the second marine ranger in the state. So Marmion is our first Marine Park and he was based there and also Penguin Island had been operating and had been set up just alongside that because before it was privately owned and managed. There were shops and houses and you could come and stay here but the island was severely degraded and the penguin population was in pretty bad shape.

Back in the late 80’s. They took over the island and removed all the asbestos shacks and facilities and in 1995 they built this facility (the Penguin Island Discovery Centre). One of the major issues was that people came along to Penguin Island and expected to see penguins. Penguins are timid by nature particularly during the day so if there’s vegetation they’ll be under it and more often than not, if they’re not breeding or moulting, they’ll be out fishing during the day and they come back at night. So people were going and stomping around in the vegetation looking for penguins. Now we have a captive population of rehabilitated penguins  at the Discovery Centre and that has mitigated some of the issues of people going off looking for penguins. The other strategy on the island is boardwalks. You’ll see most places, like natural areas there’s always something like a boardwalk because they can control where people go and help preserve the vegetation, which is habitat for the native animals. Penguin Island is a conservation park, 97% is a sanctuary, and boardwalks or the beach are pretty much the only places to go, but even some of the outer extremities of the island, the North and South points are quite rocky and there are lots of potential for rockfall risks so they don’t go there.

Penguin Island Rocky points
Penguin Island Rocky points

What qualifications did you need to become a marine park ranger?

There’s a big emphasis on boating and diving. Mainly because that’s what we primarily do but also some kind of tertiary, either TAFE or university, qualification such as Conservation and Land Management, marine studies or even biomedical science. I’ve got a commercial boating certificate and I’m a scientific diver, which is a commercial diving qualification.  How deep do you dive? It’s up to 40 metres and our department is very strict on diving so we only generally go to about 20 – 25 metres at most instances. Diving is a really risky activity so we’ll do research and monitoring and those deeper depths will get approved as and when they need to be.

Most of our work is monitoring sea grass, algae and fish populations, doing some maintenance,  such as the maintaining the markers around our sanctuary zone, which involves a bit of grunt work. I’ve got a marine science degree and I did a commerce degree because I didn’t think I would get a job so I did that as a backup.

penguin island bird sanctuary
penguin island bird sanctuary

It’s a very competitive industry. I wouldn’t want to discourage people from trying because that’s the only way you’re going to get anything but for me, I grew up with dad and being out in the boat pretty much every day he would bring us to work and we’d be just mucking around on the island and he would get on with his job. I worked on commercial boats when I was in high school and when I was in uni so I have always been around boats. When you’re in this industry there’s a lot of people that probably have the same sort of story and had similar experiences so it’s great when you’re going for those extra qualifications and do those things with a little bit extra that look great on your cv.

So if you can, do things that make you stand out and be a bit more unique. This is a people job as well so you need to be comfortable around people.

How many marine park rangers are on penguin island?

There’s 6 in Perth working for Parks and Wildlife.

How many in the state?

There’s generally about 2 or 3 [per park] and Exmouth (Ningaloo Marine Park) has a lot more because it’s a fairly big park and it’s a lot more tourist intensive up there in the season. You probably get about 2 or 3 in every park and there’s probably about 20 to 25 in Western Australia. And when you add national park rangers, there’s probably about 100 of us. There’s also rangers’ assistants and WA has about 3 or 4,000 volunteers and about 1500 staff so we have a lot of people who care.

Australian Pelicans on Penguin Island
Australian Pelicans on Penguin Island

Is there much demand for people to be volunteers?

Yes. We have a group that we rotate through the islands for a month or 2 at a time. We used to have a ranger and there was always someone who could live on the island but that was tough to be doing that 24/7.  Just being on an island it becomes fairly isolated.

Some people do it with their families but everything is harder on an island. You can’t just go to the shop and get what you need. You have to be prepared and when there’s storms you have to be able to pack up all your stuff quickly. We had one guy who ended up staying at his parents’ house. He had his own house but it was often rented out, so he had to go and stay with his mum and dad during large storms, which got a bit awkward.

People can contact the department about volunteering opportunities: https://www.dpaw.wa.gov.au/get-involved/volunteering-opportunities

Rehabilitated Penguins on Penguin Island
Rehabilitated Penguins on Penguin Island

What do you love most about your job? Is there one thing or lots and lots of different things?

There’s good and not-so-good things like some of the animal interactions we do.  Like the research and monitoring, when we work closely with the seals and penguins. Some of the wildlife rescues are something really good to be involved with. Like rescuing stranded dolphins and whales. That’s also the bad part of the job because it shouldn’t have happened in the first place. But when it does, we step in and It’s a great experience and we’ve got a great team to work with and it’s generally pretty successful. Sometimes not so. One of the best ones we did was in Black Lake. There were 2 adult male dolphins trapped in about a foot of water and they couldn’t get out.

They went up there chasing fish and they’d been up there for a while. Because they’d been partially submerged they’d eventually gotten themselves into a really bad shape. Our job is to get them out and because they were still fairly mobile they were tiring and you could see the effects of the sun. With a dolphin it’s a bit of a rodeo type thing and we are trained in wildlife  rescue of dolphins and whales. It’s a really specific thing and if you’re talking about things you don’t do at home, there’s some really bad stuff that can happen, particularly with whales and things and people can die when they try to help. It’s a really risky activity but that’s why we are trained for it, so don’t try this at home.

Black lake dolphin rescue
Black lake dolphin rescue

If you see an animal entangled out to sea then of course keep your eyes on it. The best thing to do when you see injured wildlife is observe as much as you can and call the relevant wildlife authority about it as they’re the people that know best. You might think “oh I’ll just go and free that animal” but what they need to do is make an assessment at the same time.

The animal interaction is probably what most people, when they think of this kind of work, they think it’s just about the animals?

There’s probably a healthy respect for what we do and people forget almost about the monitoring. These last couple of weeks we’ve been chasing sub-Antarctic fur seals up and down the coast. They’re a small seal that get to about half the size of Australian sea lions. They come up from the sub-Antarctic islands following food sources and they end up getting displaced by storms further up the coast and people start freaking out because they see these seals on beaches. In WA it’s not necessarily common to see seals on the beach and so they come along and start to pour water on it and seals don’t need water as they can chill out on the beach. It shows people are caring and we don’t want people to stop caring when they approach that situation. We would prefer people to not disturb seals and to call the Wildcare Helpline on 9474 9055 if they have concerns.

Sometimes we’ll just monitor them and we’ll put up signs. Some of the seals people try to feed them and in that instance because we don’t want the animals to become dependent upon food we ask that people don’t feed the animals.

With seals, it’s bad because they are really food motivated and once they start, they just don’t stop.

Seals on Seal Island, Shoalwater Island Marine Park
Seals on Seal Island, Shoalwater Island Marine Park

When visiting any of the 13 marine parks in Western Australia the marine park rangers will be able to assist you with any queries you may have. There is a new app available on iTunes that will provide detailed information, including maps about each of the marine park’s in Western Australia. You can read about it here.

You can find out more about Penguin Island and other places to do more in Western Australia in the Places section of the website.

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