Wardang Island, also known as Wauraltee Island, is a low-lying 20 km2 island in the Spencer Gulf close to the western coast of the Yorke Peninsula, South Australia. It acts as a natural breakwater, protecting the former grain port of Port Victoria and providing a sheltered anchorage. Historically it has been used for mining lime sand and in rabbit disease research. The much smaller Goose Island and the other rocks and islets in the Goose Island Conservation Park lie off the northern end.
Little penguin colony
Wardang Island was previously the second largest breeding colony of little penguins in South Australia and the largest colony in the state's gulf waters. In 2004, it was estimated to support approximately 8,000 penguins. In 2005, the Point Pearce Community was involved in feral cat trapping work. This was undertaken to reduce feral cat predation on little penguins. As of 2011, its status is unknown.
Penguins were known to be abundant on the island in 1874. In 1928, 1930, 1931, 1934 and 1937, Wardang Island was described as a home to many penguins. In 1944, the colony was described in the Port Pirie newspaper The Recorder:
"The north and north west coasts of the island consist of precipitous limestone cliffs. Heavy westerlies have undermined these cliffs and large portions of rock have fallen to the sea bed, where waves have pounded them into weird shapes. Up on top, penguins are very numerous and they make their nests in shallow burrows. There are hundreds of such nests."
In 1946, Mr. Pim wrote of Wardang Island:
"On the west coast... colonies of penguins are at home to anyone who cares to call."
The island is part of the traditional lands of the Narungga people of the Yorke Peninsula who camped there regularly to fish, hunt and gather food. With European settlement of South Australia, the first pastoral lease on Wardang Island was issued in the late 19th century to Stephen Goldsworthy for a term of 14 years. The lease gave the Narungga the continued right to travel to and from the island. In 1884 Goldsworthy transferred the lease to the Point Pearce Aboriginal Mission. The island was used to graze sheep. Shearing sheds were built as well as living quarters to cater for the families living there. In 1909 a lighthouse was built on the island to serve the large number of ships visiting nearby Port Victoria, though its effectiveness was limited by low visibility. Several shipwrecks have occurred in the vicinity of the island.
In 1900 mineral leases were issued over parts of the island. These were gradually acquired from 1910 by Broken Hill Associated Smelters (BHAS), and by 1939 they held all of the leases on the island. Until 1968 BHAS quarried lime sand on the island, and shipped it by barge to use as flux in smelters at Port Pirie. Between 1910 and 1968 over a million tons of sand was quarried from the island. As the population of the Island increased, BHAS built homes, a school and other infrastructure to provide for its employees and their families. When BHAS discovered limeshell deposits in Coffin Bay they surrendered their leases and abandoned the island. In 1969, Wardang was made a fauna sanctuary. The lease for Wardang is now held by the Narungga of Point Pearce; those wishing to visit the island must obtain prior permission from the Point Pearce Community Council.
Rabbit disease research
Since the 19th century the island has had an introduced population of wild rabbits. In November 1937, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research began to use Wardang to conduct its first field trials of myxomatosis, establishing the methodology for the first successful release of the myxoma virus throughout the country in the early 1950s. The myxomatosis program was a successful pioneering experiment in the biological control of pest mammals, reducing Australia’s wild rabbit population from 600 million to 100 million in only two years.
In March 1995 trials started on Wardang Island of the rabbit calicivirus causing rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHD). In October that year the virus escaped prematurely from the island to the mainland, believed to have been carried by bushflies on the afternoon sea-breezes, and spread rapidly through the country. It initially caused widespread mortality among the wild rabbit population but, like myxomatosis before it, has not led to extermination of the pest species.
The waters around Wardang Island are popular with recreational divers because of the opportunities for wreck diving. A dive trail showcases eight of nine shipwrecks around the island, which are associated with the trading port of Port Victoria in the early 1900s. Of the wrecks, five are of schooners and coastal steamers – the Monarch, S.S. Australian, S.S. Investigator, MacIntyre and Moorara – that carried wheat and other local cargo, and three – the Aagot, Notre Dame D’Arvor and Songvaar – are larger vessels that transported grain to Europe.
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