Before he was made the Commanding Officer of HMAS Stirling, the Navy’s base on Garden Island, south of Perth, Captain Ainsley Morthorpe confesses he thought the island was “a bit of a dump”.
“Particularly if you get off at the airport, you drive down through the industrial areas — it’s a port and you don’t see anything outside of here,” Captain Morthorpe said of his previous visits.
But since taking over as Commanding Officer in February 2019, he has had a chance to explore beyond the red brick and concrete buildings of the base and discovered that “it’s actually beautiful, there’s amazing stuff here”.
The Navy has control of the entire island but only uses about 30 per cent of the land — the remaining land is covered in natural bushland and the odd relic from World War II.
The Henderson shipyards at what was Careening Bay. Five frigates and all six submarines are based out of Garden Island. (Supplied: Royal Australian Navy)
A keen photographer, Captain Morthorpe regularly goes out to the remote corners of the island, taking pictures of the environment and hoping to spot one of the three pairs of Ospreys that live there.
The island became separated from the mainland about 6,000 years ago and despite the impact of colonialism and the naval base, remains a protected ecosystem.
The remains of the WWII coastal defences are slowly being reclaimed by nature. (ABC Radio Perth: Emma Wynne)
Protected island leads to ‘fitter penguins’
It is joined by a bridge to the mainland, but visitors can only come by private boat during daylight hours, and are required to observe strict rules, including not bringing any plants or animals onto the island.
The island is now a Class-A nature reserve and a haven for birds and the rare tammar wallaby, as well as quite a few carpet pythons.
It also has healthy growing Rottnest cypress and Rottnest tea trees, all but wiped out on the mainland.
“One of the reasons why this is such an amazing place is because there was no one out here chopping trees down so we still kept it all and they all still exist — it’s an ark,” Captain Morthorpe said.
The healthy and protected conditions have also inspired the little penguins of nearby Penguin Island to move.
“I don’t know exactly when they came across here but I know that when we built the navy base we also provided them with perfect breeding habitat,” the Captain explained.
“They now live here and they’ve been studied and they’ve been tagged.
“We have a fitter Penguin, we provide them with a better habitat — in fact they’re probably genetically better than the ones on Penguin Island.”
An ill-fated island garden
The island was spotted by Dutch sailors and marked on maps as early as 1658 and again by French sailors in the early 1800s, but it was Captain James Stirling of the Royal Navy who gave it the name Garden Island when he landed in 1827.
Stirling had recognised the island as an ideal base from which to explore the Swan River, which he was prevented from sailing into because of the sand bar across the river mouth.
“This is why this island was so important, because when Stirling turned up because there was a bar across here, it was really difficult for them to get anything into the river,” Captain Morthorpe said.
“They had to actually unload the boats and then drag them across the bar and it was very dangerous so he was here for about the months.”
The beach at Sulpher Town, WA’s first colonial settlement on Garden Island, July 24, 2019. (ABC Radio Perth: Emma Wynne)
Leaving with plans to return and start a colony, Stirling planted a vegetable garden and left behind cow and several sheep and goats for his return, but had no idea how harsh the summer would be.
“When he came back in 1829 of course it was all dead,” the Captain said.
“The soil is poor and there is no real water.”
Sulphur Town settlement
When Stirling returned with 450 soldiers, sailors and free settlers, they made their first homes on Garden Island, naming it Sulphur Town after the transport ship HMS Sulphur that brought them.
“He set this up as his safe and secure site whilst he finished his exploration off of what is now Perth,” Captain Morthorpe explained.
Most of the settlers only stayed for a few months and by 1834, what was left of Sulphur Town was destroyed by fire.
“By that stage he basically gave up on the place but he still owned the island, and that he didn’t allow anybody else to do anything on here that he didn’t control,” the Captain said.
Later, Careening Bay, on the eastern shore, was used to repair boats — it has now been developed into the ship yards, but then there was little infrastructure.
A ship lying beached in Careening Bay, a platform is used for repairs, 1880s. (Supplied: State Library of Western Australia)
“At nice big shallow beaches like that you can bring a sailing boat in, put it up on the beach and at low tide it falls over and you can get access to the hull and you can repair it,” Captain Morthorpe said.
“Careening is the term for that and that’s what they would do up in Careening Bay.”
After World War I Garden Island became place for holidays, picnics and fishing.
Land was sold off for shacks and a jetty built.
Garden Island, 1936. Between the wars, shacks and ferries served holiday makers. (Supplied: State Library of Western Australia)
During World War II, batteries were built as part of Perth and Fremantle’s coastal defences and Careening Bay was used to train members of the secretive special boat section in using vessels including the ‘Motorised Submersible Canoe’.
Construction of the Naval base, HMAS Stirling, began in 1971 and completed in 1978, along with a bridge and causeway that allows personnel to drive onto the island.
It is now Australia’s largest naval facility and home to five frigates as well as the entire submarine service.
When all the ships are in port, there can be up to 4,500 personnel living on the island.
ABC Radio Perth will broadcast live from Garden Island on August 2.