Monday, 5 November 2012

Marcoola: Something in the water

I took my wife away recently for a romantic weekend, no kids, it was just the two of us. We stayed the night at Marcoola Beach on Queensland's Sunshine Coast. Now Marcoola is still largely a sleepy beach side hamlet despite becoming an increasingly popular tourist destination for the thousands of visitors who arrive each year to enjoy this superb slice of unspoilt ocean views. But I'm a writer, and I just happened to unearth a story that is more mysterious than the imposing sight of Mount Coolum that towers in the background.

Spring of 1991 and residents of the then quiet village of Marcoola heard a completely terrifying rumble coming from the ocean. There were no storms nearby, no seismological activity to suggest an earthquake and later it was also confirmed that there were no military naval exercises performed in the area. But credible witnesses including a local Justice of the Peace reported a sound similar to a very loud wobble board that was heard over a period of weeks. (Readers who are unfamiliar with the sound that a wobble board makes should best leave the story at this point and better acquaint themselves with the Rolf Harris rendition of Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport). On one occasion however, the sound was also reported from as far away as the Redcliffe Peninsular some 90 km further south along the coastline. Then one day after the sound had been heard again, thousands of fish began rising to the surface. Some locals even reported little white fluffy clouds that slowly began moving low across the water in the opposite direction to the wind, although this cannot actually be confirmed. What we do know however is that thousands of small fish, mostly pilchards and some whiting up to 18cm in length were washed up on shore. Observers described the scene as 'very spooky and frightening'. Then just as strangely, the noise wasn't heard from again.

Wydnham Vacation Resort's Surf Air Marcoola Resort is located right behind the sand dunes on Marcoola Beach, and is perfect if you want to getaway from all the noise of nearby Maroochydore on the Sunshine Coast. Photo 2012.

But this is supposed to be a story about our weekend away, so first let me tell you a bit about where we stayed. If you feel inclined to leave the kids behind for a weekend getaway like we did, then Marcoola Beach offers the peace and tranquility to indulge in long romantic walks along the beach at either sunrise or sunset. A short stroll out of the resort's poolside gardens will find you kicking off your shoes and forgetting the time as you head either north or south along miles of uncrowded beaches. Nearby there are attractions such as the Sunshine Castle, cinemas, shopping centres, a choice of 3 golf courses and quiet and inviting cafes that are no more than 15 minutes by car. The Sunshine Coast Airport and Twin Waters Resort are both close by, and only minutes north of Marcoola on the David Low Way stands the mysterious and imposing sight of Mount Coolum.

You will first notice this towering, circular dome of rock well before you arrive. Standing 208 metres high and covering an area of approximately 1 square kilometre, it is the remains of an isolated volcanic dome. For those who are fit and young at heart, you can pack some drinking water and head off on a two and a half hour return hike to the top for a stunning 360 degree view of the entire Sunshine Coast. Be sure to stick to the track and obey the signs as many brave rock climbers and foolish hikers have had to be winched off the mountain by rescue helicopter. The walking track can be found at the national park entrance on the corner of Tanah Street West and Jarnahill Drive at Mount Coolum.

Now to get back to the strange story I unearthed. Just 1 km offshore lies the tiny and uninhabited island of Mudjimba, otherwise known as Old Woman Island. Like every natural landmark in Australia, there is an aboriginal story for how it came to be there. In this case it was somebody's head that was knocked off by a woomera club following a dispute and rolled into the sea. Now this doesn't really offer an explanation for the strange wobble board sounds heard coming from the sea, but it does illustrate that the area was shrouded in mystery well before the arrival of European settlers. But as new estates and beach-side resorts such as the one we stayed at began to replace the older houses in the area, the one time residents moved out and the story I mentioned before it seems was forgotten. Until 2011 when thousands of small fish inexplicably washed up on the shores of Marcoola Beach once more.

At 4 pm on the afternoon of April 24, 2011, a local woman set off for her daily walk along the beach, only to be met by the sight of thousands of dead fish mysteriously washed up along a 2 km stretch of shoreline. After taking several photos her story makes the pages of the area's major newspaper the Sunshine Coast Daily, and she is quoted as saying "I've never seen anything like it, they weren't sickly or anything." Authorities move quickly to clear commercial fisherman of any hand in the disaster. But as local children are left to try and perform miracles on the fish by collecting them in buckets of water in the hope of bringing them back to life, reports start to emerge from other parts of the world of similar tales just days apart. Ventura Harbor in California on April 19 and Lake Champlain along the shores of New York State and Vermont on April 28. Earlier on April 16, a 5.4 magnitude earthquake had hit North Queensland and was followed up 18 minutes later with a 5.2 magnitude quake in Christchurch, New Zealand only two months after February's devastating earthquake that had destroyed the city.

One plausible explanation is that these shifts in the earth's crust can release poisonous gases capable of starving the water of oxygen and causing such a catastrophe. Perhaps just off the shore of Marcoola Beach there lies a crack in the ocean floor capable of releasing such gases and killing large quantities of fish. Another explanation could simply be that the ocean currents in this area are prone to washing things up on shore, as was the case during my visit in 2012 when my wife and I found a long trail of jellyfish on our walk along the beach. But what of the strange rumbling sound coming from the ocean in the spring of 1991 when no such seismological activity was reported in the area? Perhaps it is something else altogether, something as inexplicable as the mystery of Old Woman Island itself, that drove thousands of small fish onto the beach.

If jellyfish could talk, I wonder what they would have to say about Marcoola Beach's strange phenomena? 2012

What I liked: Surf Air Resort is right on the beach offering miles of relatively secluded beach-combing. The Airport, Maroochydore and Coolum are just minutes by car. Surprisingly I didn't really notice any airport noise despite the shops across the road backing onto the runway.

What I didn't like: The strip of shops opposite the resort does little to entice the average tourist to cross the road. Just your basic strip of bottle shops, a pharmacy and a laundromat.

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