Help marine scientists count the Coffs Coast’s colourful sea slugs this weekend

Published 16 January 2019
Sea slug Hypselodoris whitei credit Steve Smith Sea slug Hypselodoris whitei (credit Steve Smith).

An underwater treasure hunt where volunteers help in the search for the flamboyant marine creatures known as sea slugs is coming to the Coffs Coast for the first time this weekend.

The inaugural Coffs Coast Sea Slug Census will cover the entire Solitary Islands Marine Park as well as coastal waters to Brooms Head in the north and Sawtell in the south.  

“Because we have a great working knowledge of the sea slug diversity in the Solitary Islands Marine Park and adjacent coasts, documenting more than 300 species to date, this has not been a priority area for additional data collection,” said Professor Steve Smith, Director of the Southern Cross University National Marine Science Centre. 

“However, we are increasingly finding more and more tropical species in the region and so it is timely to work with locals and visitors to do a ‘stocktake’ of the diversity in our own backyard.”

The inaugural Coffs Coast Sea Slug Census kicks off with an introductory talk at the National Marine Science Centre on Thursday 17 January at 6:30pm and runs over three subsequent days (18 to 20 January). The community-based research project is led by Southern Cross University with the support of local organisers, the Solitary Islands Underwater Research Group (SURG).

“Participants simply need to find and photograph as many species of sea slug as possible,” Professor Smith said.

“You don’t have to be a diver to get involved. Many species of sea slug can be found in rocky shore habitats or in shallow water which is accessible on snorkel. Participation in the Coffs Coast Sea Slug Census is made a little easier than at some other locations due to the large number of headlands with accessible rock pools.

“We anticipate that the census will generate new species records for the region as has been found in most other events to date.”

The Sea Slug Census program aims to document the diversity and distribution of the charismatic invertebrates. Starting almost six years ago at Nelson Bay in the Port Stephens area, the program has now expanded to 40 censuses spread over 10 locations along Australia’s east coast. At each location, the count is delivered through a collaboration between Southern Cross marine scientists and a local organising group.

“During this time, more than 1200 participants have photographed around 450 sea slug species including species that are new to science. They have also helped to map changing distribution patterns for many species - most likely related to climate change,” said Professor Smith.

“The Sea Slug Census provides passionate photographers and naturalists with the opportunity to help document the diversity and distribution of the often flamboyant and highly photogenic sea slugs, which include the nudibranchs.”

The first international event, also organised by Professor Smith, was held at Ambon, Indonesia in November 2018.

Professor Smith said citizen science programs like the Sea Slug Census were very effective in increasing our knowledge about the natural world, especially in areas that have been under-sampled by scientists.

“We believe sea slugs are an excellent choice for a citizen science program because they are likely to respond rapidly to changing environmental conditions due to their relatively short lives (<1 year) and very specific feeding habits.”

To register or find out more information, go the Solitary Islands Underwater Research Group Facebook and Solitary Islands Underwater Research Group website

Thursday January 17

  • Marine Discovery Talk about sea slugs
  • National Marine Science Centre
  • 6pm – 8pm

Friday January 18 – Sunday January 20

  • Coffs Coast Sea Slug Census
  • Brooms Head to Sawtell, including the Solitary Islands Marine Park
  • All day

Media contact: Sharlene King 0429 661 349 or scumedia@scu.edu.au