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Nature, culture and history

Natural environment

Geology and landform

In the past, during periodic ice ages, the seas fell over 100m below present levels. About 18,000 years ago, the area which we now know as the Great Barrier Reef was probably a grassy or forested plain, dotted with hills and mountains. The Barnard islands were the peaks of some of those hills and mountains that became isolated from the mainland as the ice melted and sea levels rose. The North Barnard islands (Bresnahan, Hutchinson, Jessie, Kent and Lindquist) are known as high continental islands; their forested slopes rise steeply from the sea. The two South Barnard islands (Stephens and Sisters) are volcanic tuffs made of layers of ash implanted with volcanic bombs (fragments of Barnard Metamorphics).

The Barnard islands are geologically fascinating. The rocks of the South Barnard islands are relatively young. About one million years ago, explosive volcanic events dumped these rocks onto an ancient landscape. Layers of volcanic tuff (consolidated volcanic ash) can be seen clearly along the coast of Stephens Island, which is considered a well-preserved example of this type of volcanic deposit. Volcanic bombs can be seen embedded in these layers. Containing broken pieces of the more ancient metamorphic rock, these were hurled into the air during volcanic explosions. In places steeply dipping basalt dykes cut through these layers. Running north-south, these rocky ridges are clearly exposed on the south-west and north-east margins of Stephens Island. By contrast to the relatively recent origin of the South Barnard islands, the materials forming the North Barnard islands date back about 420 million years, when sediments were deposited on the sea floor. About 60 million years later strong geological forces compressed, folded and faulted these sediments, creating the metamorphic rocks that we see today.

Plants and animals

The rocky slopes of the Barnard islands are densely cloaked in rainforest, with diversity increasing with the size of the island. Exposure to cyclones has damaged some of the forest and led to extensive 'vine towers', composed largely of the introduced yam, Dioscorea alata. Destruction of the forest canopy, allowing extra light to reach the forest floor, has prompted the growth of these clambering vines that overwhelm the remaining vegetation. Mangrove species, predominately the grey mangrove Avicennia marina, fringe parts of the islands and coastal plants border the shore. Typical are the pandanus Pandanus tectorius, with their prickly leaves, the hair-like coastal she-oak Casuarina equisetifolia, octopus bushes Argusia argentea and sprawling goatsfoot convolvulus Ipomoea pescaprae with its distinctive purple-pink trumpet flowers. A little further up the beach, look for the bright red flowers of the coral tree Erythrina variegata blossoming on bare leafless branches in late winter and the large finely-veined green leaves of the Alexandrian laurel Calophyllum inophllum. A small, glossy-leaved tree, the sea hearse Hernandia nyphaeifolia, has been given its common name because its unusual fruit are thought to resemble a coffin surrounded by a pale shroud.

The South Barnard islands are of regional and possibly Great Barrier Reef wide significance for seabirds, supporting a number of breeding populations including six species of terns. Records indicate population levels of about 10,000 bridled terns (between half and one-sixth of the estimated Australian breeding population of 20,000–60,000 birds), 2000 lesser crested terns (between half and one-quarter of the estimated Australian breeding population of 4000–8000) and 2000 black-naped terns. Smaller numbers of roseate terns and crested terns as well as one pair of the endangered little tern have also been seen nesting on the islands. TOther interesting birds recorded on and around the islands include beach stone-curlews (vulnerable), sooty oystercatchers (near threatened), brown boobys, pied oystercatchers, eastern reef egrets, whimbrels, ospreys, grey-tailed tattlers, lesser frigatebirds and white-faced herons.

Twenty-three species of woodland birds have been recorded on and around the Barnard islands. Among the woodland birds are the migratory pied imperial-pigeon, the rose-crowned fruit-dove and the emerald dove. Orange-footed scrubfowl create nesting mounds by scratching up leaf litter while the azure, forest and mangrove kingfishers contribute bright splashes of colour.

An extensive reef connects Sisters and Stephens islands in the South Barnards and fringing reef surrounds the North Barnard islands. Composed of both coral and rock, these reefs provide habitat for a variety of fish and invertebrates. Turtles and dugongs are seen occasionally.

Culture and history

Indigenous culture and history

The islands are part of the 'sea country' of the Mamu Aboriginal people. The waters and fringing reefs around the islands are still the focus of traditional use of natural resources. There is at least one fish trap—a stone wall designed to trap fish as the tide falls, making them easy to catch.

Non-Indigenous culture and history

The first European to settle in the South Barnard islands was Stephen Illidge who built a house and established a beche-de-mer station opeating up to six vessels in the late 1800s. A large Aboriginal workforce occupied the island until a cyclone in the 1890s destroyed the station and dwellings.

A small lighthouse was established on Kent Island in 1897. The island is named after one of the lighthouse keepers and Sisters and Jessie islands were named after the daughters of this family. Several small grave sites are located in the vicinity of the lighthouse, most probably belonging to the Kent family. In 1918, a cyclone forced the evacuation of the lighthouse and the light was automated. In 1988, it was converted to solar power and in 1998, it was built higher to improve visibility above the trees.

In 1936, the Barnard islands were gazetted as national park. Kent Island is Commonwealth lighthouse reserve and Lindquist Island is a Commonwealth defence reserve.

Last updated
28 November 2016