In photos: The Great Australian Bight, a pristine environment threatened by oil drilling

Photographer Michaela Skovranova travelled to the coast of southern Australia to capture the animals that call this unique marine ecosystem home


Unearthed reporters

Point Labatt is the only place on the mainland where Australian sea lion pups can be seen learning to swim, play and rest on the beach, and one of the few places in and around Australia where the pups are protected from land predators. Photo: Michaela Skovranova

Over 85% of species found in the Great Australian Bight are unique to this one stretch of ocean along the southern coast of Australia. The vast area is home to 36 different whale and dolphin species, and its waters contain more endemic marine diversity than the Great Barrier Reef, according to groups like the Wilderness Society.

But as well as being a wildlife hotspot, the Bight has also been targeted by the oil industry.

A curious sea lion checks out the camera near Hopkins Island. There are less than 10,000 Australian sea lions, and over 80% of them live in the Bight. Photo: Michaela Skovranova
The Australian sea lion is a pinniped, which is a carnivorous aquatic mammal. Males can grow to more than two metres long and weigh up to 300 kilograms. Photo: Michaela Skovranova

Norwegian state-owned energy giant Statoil, now Equinor, intends to drill for oil in the area in October next year.

At its AGM today in Stavanger, the company will be renamed ‘Equinor’ – a name that supports the firm’s “always safe, high value and low carbon strategy”, according to its website. Despite the rebrand, concerns persist around Equinor’s plans in the Bight.

Cormorants take flight over crashing waves at Smooth Pool, Streaky Bay in South Australia. Photo: Michaela Skovranova

Equinor insists that by the time it starts drilling, it will have spent over two years planning the project and consulting with regulators to ensure it is safe.

But many green groups and local politicians fear that oil activity in the region could harm wildlife and cause environmental destruction that would affect local industries, including fishing, oyster farming and tourism.

Looking across Sceale Bay to Cape Blanche. The Great Australian Bight is known for its rough waters. Photo: Michaela Skovranova
A few metres below the surface, a leafy sea dragon hides among the sea grass. The perfectly camouflaged cousin of the seahorse grows to around 20cm long. Photo: Michaela Skovranova
Known locally as 'leafies', leafy sea dragons have been protected under Australian law since the 1990s due to threats posed by pollution and the aquarium trade. Photo: Michaela Skovranova

In December 2016, BP abandoned plans to drill in the Great Australian Bight, which is famous for harsh winds and strong currents. At the time, Australian regulators said that the company had failed to provide information on oil spill response plans and the risks drilling posed to nearby marine reserves.

US firm Chevron gave up on a drilling bid in October last year.

Documents obtained by ClimateHome last month showed BP’s plan to drill in the Bight could have exposed more than 450 miles of coastline to risk of contamination from a possible oil spill.

Statoil/Equinor became the operator and 100% equity owner of two of the four permit zones it had previously shared with BP in July 2017.

An oyster farm in Coffin Bay. South Australia looms large in the global Pacific Oyster industry due to its clean waters that can support disease-free breeding stock. Photo: Michaela Skovranova
A fishing vessel heads out to sea at dawn. South Australia's fishing industry is worth more than A$500 million a year. Photo: Michaela Skovranova
Hungry pelicans wait on shore for the fishing boats to return. Photo: Michaela Skovranova