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Great Sandy World Heritage Area

Date of Submission: 04/01/2010
Criteria: (vii)(viii)(ix)
Category: Natural
Submitted by:
Australian Government
State, Province or Region:
Coordinates: S25 39 E153 00
Ref.: 5480

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Property names are listed in the language in which they have been submitted by the State Party


It is proposed that the extension to the Fraser Island World Heritage Area will include the Cooloola section of the Great Sandy National Park, the Breaksea Spit to the north of Fraser Island, Platypus Bay, the Great Sandy Strait/Tin Can Bay Ramsar Area and the Wide Bay Military Reserve. The nominated area falls between latitudes 24º33'S and 26º 39'S, and longitudes 152º 48' E and 153º 11'E. A tentative name, Great Sandy World Heritage Area, has been inserted, but this is subject to consultation.

The proposed extension shares many of the values of the existing Fraser Island World Heritage Area. Its fascinating landscape showcases superlative natural phenomena and areas of natural beauty through long beaches backed by high dunes, open heath splashed with colourful wildflowers, mangroves, woodlands of banksia and scribbly gum, shady blackbutt forests, rainforests with towering trees, and tranquil lakes and waterways.

The proposed extension presents the world's oldest coastal dune formation story. Here, eight overlapping layers of dunes represent a history spanning more than 700,000 years. As one of the most complete coastal dune systems in the world, the proposed extension is an outstanding example representing the major stages of Earth's history.

It is also an outstanding example of significant ongoing ecological and biological processes. Within the ecosystems that have evolved on its sandy substrate, life continues to evolve in a low nutrient, acidic environment, providing a haven for large numbers of different life forms, including many rare and endangered species.

A surprising variety of vegetation types grow in the area, ranging from coastal heath to subtropical rainforests. The low heaths, known by the Aboriginal name 'wallum', along the Cooloola section of the proposed extension are of particular evolutionary and ecological significance, having numerous species specifically adapted to this ecosystem. These heaths also have magnificent wildflower displays in spring and summer.

Birds are the most abundant form of vertebrate animal life in the proposed extension, with more than 350 species recorded. It is a particularly important site for migratory wading birds, which are present during the southern summer and use the area as a staging place during their long flight between southern Australia and their breeding grounds in Siberia. A species of particular interest is the vulnerable ground parrot, which is found in the wallum heathlands. The ground parrot is one of only three ground-dwelling parrots in the world.

The proposed extension has more than one third of the Noosa River catchment within its boundary; a wild area that includes tidal, brackish and freshwater lakes, with surrounding wetlands that are a nursery for juvenile fish. The Noosa River's inclusion within Great Sandy National Park has ensured its excellent water quality will be maintained.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

The proposed extension possesses natural values that are equal to and enhance the significance of those represented within the existing Fraser Island World Heritage Area. Many of the attributes for which Fraser Island was listed are represented as well, or better, in the proposed extension. Fraser and the proposed extension complement each other in as much as they are part of a continuum and in combination tell the whole story of the development and evolution of this part of Australia's east coast. The proposed extension meets three criteria for the inclusion of natural properties on the World Heritage List. An extension to the current World Heritage Area will complement, protect and enhance the integrity of the existing World Heritage Area.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

The proposed addition is an extension of Fraser Island's coastal sand system and the natural values associated with this landscape and contains some distinctive faunal assemblages. Whilst key species in these assemblages may be widespread outside of the nominated area, they can be generally subject to threat in other areas and their populations in the Cooloola section are considered secure. The nominated area is a dynamic entity with sufficient scale, diversity and integrity to maintain ecological processes and landforms and to ensure self-perpetuation of all species.

The Cooloola sand mass environment is large enough to include and preserve the diversity of landscape elements that contribute to the outstanding aesthetic value as defined by criterion (vii). The incorporation of the nominated areas together with Fraser Island, and the inclusion of adjacent sand passages, estuaries and islands would serve to both enhance and reinforce the integrity of an expanded World Heritage Area. The overall scenic beauty of the site is not considered to be compromised by current human activities.

All of the dune chronosequence and most of the Noosa River system are contained within the boundaries of the Cooloola Section of Great Sandy National Park. The extent and size of the attributes contributing to criterion (viii) are such that it is robust and not threatened as a whole, provided that the stabilising vegetation is not removed. Including the nominated areas in the existing World Heritage property would capture the extent and integrity of all the attributes shared with Fraser Island. The Noosa River catchment would incorporate additional attributes which do not occur on Fraser Island.

The combination of Fraser Island and the Cooloola sandmass in a single expanded World Heritage Area would extend the value of the chronosequence over what appears to be a longer period of formation and denudation of the dunes above sea level than is available elsewhere. The soil profiles and ongoing pedological evolution remain essentially undisturbed on all but mined areas, which occur on the northern and southern edges of the sandmass. Disjunct and relict populations of flora and fauna, including those associated with lakes; creeks and acid habitats have remained intact and will continue to be important for ongoing speciation. Weeds, plant diseases and feral animals are present but in low numbers and are subject to active management and are being controlled. The low fertility of the sands provides a measure of protection against such disturbance.

All of the nominated areas are situated in either a national park, marine park, reserve or conservation area, thereby providing statutory protection and ensuring that the integrity of the area is protected and conserved. Some localized degradation of amenity has resulted from threatening processes. These include the physical and social impacts associated with increasing visitor numbers, continuing and potential urban development on adjacent tenures, existing fire regimes, introduction of weeds and pathogens and development of management infrastructure and visitor restrictions. However all of the identified threats are currently being, or have the potential to be, ameliorated through proactive and effective management. The site has a current and effective management plan and receives institutional protection through State nature conservation legislation and, if listed, it will also be protected under national legislation.

Comparison with other similar properties

This comparative analysis is based on a combination of the existing Fraser Island WHA and the proposed extension.

Stretching over 120 kilometres along the southern coast of Queensland and covering 1,840 km2, Fraser Island is the largest sand island in the world. A place of exceptional beauty, both Fraser Island and the additional nominated areas are characterised by their long uninterrupted white beaches flanked by strikingly coloured sand cliffs, majestic tall rainforests and numerous freshwater lakes of crystal clear waters. The massive sand deposits that make up the proposed extension contain a continuous record of climatic and sea level changes over the past 700,000 years.

The dunes of the nominated area are coastal dunes that extend inland from the coastline, in places for many kilometres. They are largely vegetated, and differ from the desert dunes that extend to some coasts in arid and semi-arid regions where they meet and mix with dunes that formed along the shore.

Comparisons have been made with about sixty major dune areas on the world's coasts. In making these comparisons, emphasis is given to the most important features: the dune landforms and lakes, the soil and vegetation chronosequences and the unusual patterned fens. The nominated area extends from just north of Sandy Cape (24º 39' S) down to the mouth of the Noosa River (26º 25' S) on Australia's east coast. In the following text comparisons with sectors in latitude 24º S to 27º S on the eastern coasts of continents, where climatic conditions are likely to be similar, have been made.

The Brazilian coast between 24º S and 27º S is mainly steep and mountainous, with a narrow coastal lowland that includes some sandy barrier islands, which have parallel foredunes and some blowouts but no large parabolic dunes. Large sandmasses of this kind seen in south-east Queensland are not present here, but further south, between latitudes 30º -34º S, there is a 10 km wide fringe of Holocene dunes rising 20-25 m above sea level. This dune fringe is disrupted by numerous blowouts trending from north-east to south-west; and is backed by segments of older dune ridges, but these dune formations are on a smaller scale, less transgressive, and in a cooler environment than those in the nominated area.

The East African coast from Mozambique (24º S) to the South African border (27º S) is bordered by coastal dunes rising to 150 metres, which are generally forested, and include parabolic dunes and blowouts. The beach sands are calcareous, in contrast to the quartzose beach sands of south-east Queensland. The derived coastal dune sands are also calcareous, and there are extensive outcrops of dune calcarenite in cliffs and shore platforms, particularly on the Inhaca Peninsula, which rises more than 100 m above sea level. This contrasts with the nominated area, where dune calcarenite occurs only in a small outcrop near Double Island Point.

The calcareous coastal dunes of southern Mozambique contain several dune lakes fed by blackwater streams draining from swamp forests and reed and sedge marshes. They are perched at least 20 m above sea level over impermeable lateritic clays. Some contain fen vegetation, but there are no reports of patterned fens. The dune formations and associated lakes have some similarities to those in the nominated area, but there are important differences. The Mozambique dunes are not as large and diverse as those in the nominated area, the soil and vegetation associations are quite different, without podzolic chronosequences, and the associated dune lakes are river-fed.

West-facing coasts in latitudes 24º to 27º S on the southern continents are drier than south-east Queensland, and do not have large forested sandmasses. The Chilean coast between c.24º S and c.27º S is characterised by cliffs, and fringed by coral reef islands. Rivers supply sand to beaches but the coastal sands are mainly calcareous and there are scattered sectors of sparsely vegetated parabolic and transverse dunes. In south-west Africa the coast between Walvis Bay (23º S) and Luderitz (c.27º S) borders the Namibian desert and has areas of sparsely-vegetated and bare drifting dunes which are quite unlike those in the nominated area.

Northern hemisphere coasts in latitudes 24º to 27º N have no large coastal dune areas. There is no other coastal dune system with dunes similar to those of the nominated area in these geographically comparable areas, the most closely related sector being in southern Mozambique, which differs because the beach and coastal dune sands are more calcareous.

Comparisons with other properties on the World Heritage List

The Lord Howe Island Group World Heritage Area (WHA) has some low stabilised calcareous dunes on the isthmus east of a coral reef fringed lagoon, but they are on a small scale compared with the nominated area, with quite different soils and vegetation.

The Wet Tropics of Queensland WHA extends along 450 km of the Queensland coast between Townsville and Cooktown, but this is a sector in which dunes are very poorly developed.

On the west coast of Australia the Shark Bay WHA is a semi-arid area dominated by spits and islands of dune calcarenite with some calcareous beach and dune sands, but there are no large sandmasses or parabolic dune sequences and the soils and vegetation are quite unlike those of the nominated area.

In other parts of the world there are only six WHAs containing substantial coastal dune systems;

  • the Peninsula Valdes WHA in Argentina is listed under criterion (x), and has only minor dunes;
  • the Curonian Spit (Kursiu Nerija) WHA on the Baltic coast of Lithuania is not listed for natural values, and has no resemblance to the subtropical vegetated parabolic dune systems of the Fraser Island/proposed extension. .
  • the Whale Sanctuary of El Vizcaino WHA in Mexico, listed under criterion (x), has two coastal lagoons that are backed by bare or sparsely vegetated unstable dunes and fringed by mangroves, which are here at their northern limit on the Pacific coastline. There is no resemblance to the nominated area.
  • the Banc d'Arguin National Park WHA, listed for criteria (ix) and (x), lies on the arid coast of Mauritania where the Sahara Desert comes to the Atlantic shore. It has tidal mudflats and a low-lying hinterland (up to 15 m above sea level) with dunes including barchans and sand ridges, but these have little or no vegetation and are in no way comparable with the features of the nominated area.
  • the Island of Saint-Louis WHA in Senegal, is a sand island, which is in an arid tropical coast with sparsely vegetated calcareous sand dunes. It is not listed for its natural values, and it does not have landform, soil and vegetation associations like those of the nominated area. .
  • the Doñana National Park WHA in Spain, listed for criteria (vii), (ix) and (x), contains foredunes on the coastal fringe, widening south of Matalascañas to transgressive dunes near its south-east end. The outer dunes are backed by subdued older dune topography with blowouts and some parabolic dunes, and the vegetation is generally sparse. The main feature of this WHA is in the extensive low-lying area of lagoons and wetlands behind the coastal dunes, which provide habitat for migratory bird populations. The climate is warm temperate oceanic, and the dune formations are quite different from the forested sandmasses of the nominated area.

Two other WHAs mentioned in the IUCN draft technical evaluation of the nominated area are inland areas of desert dunes at Tassili n'Ajjer in Algeria (listed for criteria (i), (iii), (vii) and (viii)) and Air and Tenere Nature Reserves (listed for criteria (vii), (ix) and (x)) in Niger, both in association with desiccated mountains and plateaux. Neither is remotely similar to the coastal features of the nominated area.

The 2004 study concludes that none of the other existing WHAs has landforms, soils and vegetation features of the kind seen on the nominated area.

Bird, Eric, 2004. A Comparative Analysis of the Fraser Island/Cooloola property with other similar properties on the world's coasts.
Fraser Island Scientific Advisory Committee 2004. Cooloola: Assessment of potential Outstanding Universal Value.
IUCN Draft Technical Evaluation