The Tasmanian Tiger’s Trail, Pt I: Recreation

Last March I visited Tasmania, a long-awaited voyage to the home of my favorite childhood animal, the thylacine. Since the trip occurred before I rebooted this blog, I didn’t post about it in real-time. This month I’ll take you on an anniversary tour, posting a highlight from my ecological adventure every Sunday. Hit that follow button so you don’t miss a moment!

Silver raindrops streaked the window as the prop plane descended into Hobart. Compared to the last aircraft I’d boarded, a deserted Dreamliner that brought me to Australia early in the COVID-19 pandemic, this puddle-jumper seemed almost as primitive as the WWII Lockheed Hudson Mark IV bomber displayed in the airport lobby. Still, it delivered a far better experience than the vessels that bore other Anglo-Celtic immigrants to Van Diemen’s Land nearly two hundred years ago. After serving my sentence in a dismal Sydney quarantine hotel, the former prison colonies of Tasmania represented an ironic freedom: my first major excursion since arriving Down Under and fulfillment of a dream I’d cherished for twenty-five years.

As a kid devoted to the wild world, I’d developed an obsession with the thylacine, a striped dog-like marsupial. Persecuted to extinction in the 1930s, reported sightings of the “Tasmanian tiger” persisted. The idea of a secretly surviving species captivated my young mind. I’d stuffed a binder with every scrap of information my local library offered on thylacines, chasing their ghostly images across decades of microfilm newspapers. Now I chased them up coastal route A3, a stylized emblem on every car license plate. And I was the one at risk of. The single-lane highway, which undulated over steep hills and whipped around hairpin turns at one hundred kilometers an hour, gave me a taste of imminent extinction. Camper vans and boat trailers emerged on narrow bridges or cliff edges. I uttered more comments than the GPS:

“Hey, ‘Cruisin’, stay on your side! Whoa, mate, that’s a blind turn!”

“Maybe you should focus on staying in your lane and let the others worry about staying in theirs,” said my Laddie, glancing at my pale knuckles clenched around the wheel.

“Are you kidding? I was taught to drive by New Yorkers, and there’s one road rule I absorbed from the car seat: always assume the other guy is a distracted jerk.”

This panicky roller coaster course wended through ironically serene landscapes: sheep pastures, vineyards, and glimpses of bright blue ocean that led us to Freycinet National Park. 

Everyone has seen the iconic postcard image of Wineglass Bay in Tasmania’s Freycinet National Park, but I thought a cloudy day better emphasized its unique colors.

Tourism websites frequently describe it as the “jewel” of Tasmania’s east coast, but on the day we visited, misty grey weather dimmed the gemstone colors of sea and sky. Zipping up our raincoats, we walked the circuit around Hazards Beach.

“Not exactly the postcard version,” I remarked as we clambered over rock outcrops, wind whipping at our sleeves.

“No, but this feels more authentic,” said my Laddie.

There was a certain blustery charm in the seething surf, the rain-spattered sand, the silver gulls wheeling against clouds that matched their wings. Maybe it was just the solitude, which vanished when we crossed the wooded isthmus to Wineglass Bay. Families in flip-flops paraded down the one thousand steps from the parking lot, ignoring the sign that recommended sturdy footwear for the return climb. Stripes flashed in the corner of my eye. A thylacine? No, just a woman clutching her tiger-print duster sweater against the wind. People crammed the steel overlook platform, grinning into their phones, backs to the view. Selfie-snapping throngs seem convinced that wilderness as an opportunity to feel bigger—Look at me! I went to this place, I conquered this peak!—rather than smaller amid the vast complexity of Earth’s ecosystems.

A view toward Diamond Island near Bicheno, Tasmania.

The next day we avoided Freycinet’s Instragrammers in the laid-back beach town of Bicheno. Low tide reveals a shining causeway of sand to tiny Diamond Island. Although the outcrop’s grassy heart is off-limits as a seabird sanctuary, large rocks around its shore create a geological maze. Vibrant orange lichen makes the boulders look like abstract art, a natural sculpture garden.

The sandbar teemed with jellylike jewels. Some drifted in small clusters. Others strung together in chains. Blue specks shone at their core. At first I mistook these for egg nuclei, but in fact they were stomachs. These organisms were tunicates (marine invertebrates) called salps. Singular in the asexual stage, salps form chain- or wheel-shaped colonies then they reproduce. Despite their resemblance to jellyfish, they’re taxonomically closer to humans! Strange to think that we’re related creatures that they seem so alien, yet they’re as much Earthlings as I am.

As I studied the salps, my Laddie called me from down the sandbar. I recognized the flicker of excitement in his normally level voice: he’d encountered a cool animal. But I didn’t expect the miniature marvel at his feet.

“An octopus!” I squealed in delight. About the size of my hand, it camouflaged against the tawny ground. Eight sinuous legs pulled it toward the surf. Recalling that some species in Australia can give a venomous bite, I used my sandal to scoop up the little cephalopod and carry it into the water. It quickly washed back.

“I think it’s a pacific sand octopus,” said my Laddie, reading off search results from his phone. “It burrows into the sand. Maybe we should leave it there.”

“And let it end up like that?” I nodded to a large pacific gull, gulping down an unfortunate cousin.

Since research indicated this species was harmless, I lifted the octopus in my hand. Sleek tentacles coiled around my fingers. The tactile sensation reminded me of the cornstarch-and-water concoctions I’d made in childhood science experiments, oozing smoothy over my skin. I waded beyond the shallow breakers and released the creature. Syrupy movements became quick, elegant undulations. Shimmering currents beckoned me to follow. 

Stashing my backpack, clothes, and husband under a shady tree, I sprinted with a whoop into the Tasman Sea. I gasped when I hit the water, not only at the chill, but at the astonishing clarity. It seemed like I was looking at my toes through turquoise-tinted glass. A large wave crested in front of me; I plunged beneath and bobbed up on the other side. My intrepid childhood spirit resurfaced, too, the long-awaited pilgrimage consecrated with a briny baptism. Swimming in these surreal sub-Antarctic seas, it’s easy to forget the troubles beneath the surface. In the past 50 years, an estimated 95% of Tasmania’s giant kelp forests have disappeared, victims of industrial harvesting for chemicals and an influx of nutrient-poor warm currents driven by climate change. Scientists are attempting to grow new forests from more tolerant remnants. It won’t be exactly the same—new strains are selectively bred to withstand the altered conditions—but may save a threatened ecosystem.

Sunrise on Redbill Beach in Bicheno, Tasmania.

Could we do the same for thylacines? Tasmania’s erstwhile apex predators are popular candidate for “de-extinction”, extracting DNA from preserved remains to breed genetically similar animals. Some argue that resurrected creatures can never be true examples of their kind, because they have no parents from whom to learn: the species’ behavioral culture is irretrievable. But meeting a live thylacine, even an engineered simulacrum, would thrill me nonetheless. Until technology advances, my best chance lay westward, where a few survivors are rumored to hide in the dense Tarkine rainforest 

(In March 2022, a year after my adventure, a $5 million gift enabled the University of Melbourne to establish the Thylacine Integrated Genetic Restoration Research (TIGRR) Lab, which will develop technologies for restoring and conserving the species.)

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