It’s cold and windy so I’m quietly thrilled that Rakali Watch has been cancelled tonight. I should have been at Albert Park Lake at sundown with Bob Tammik from St Kilda Earthcare, attracting stares from early diners at The Point while he searched by torchlight for toothy water critters I’d not heard of until a few weeks ago.
Rakali are native Australian water rats, and the Lake is one of their homes. Bob is on their tail, so to speak, on a regular basis. For the past year Bob and his partner Alyson have headed Earthcare’s Rakali Watch, leading groups of up to ten dedicated volunteers out at night to document the movements of the rats.
Unless you’re a local resident in the know (and it seems not many of us are) you won’t have heard about Rakali.
They are carnivorous rodents – fish, crabs, mussels, tubeworms and eels make up the bulk of their diet – whose colour can range from almost black to slate grey but are most commonly brown with a white or orange belly. They have thick, soft, water-repellent fur with a long tail tipped in white. Partial webbing between their hind toes helps propel them through the water at surprising speeds. (According to Parks Victoria, Rakali can swim at up to 2.4km an hour, a brisk walking pace.) They move with their heads sticking out of the water and leave a distinctive v-shape in their wake.
Linda McKenzie, author of The Marvellous Rakali, says the males are usually about 31cm long (head and body combined) and the females a touch smaller at 29cm. Add on a tail length of 27.5cm and 27cm respectively. The lads weigh in anywhere from 400 to 1300 grams, the girls from 300 grams to a kilogram – about the same size as a platypus.
Rakali have cat-like whiskers, small ears and slightly flattened noses. They are mostly nocturnal, but unlike other Australian rodents they will forage for food during the day. They usually eat on land, sitting up on their hind legs and grasping the food with their small front paws, though they have been spotted eating while swimming on their backs. If you didn’t know they were rats, you’d probably find them quite appealing.
But clearly the rat moniker works against them. A rose is a rose unless it’s a rat. The dozen or so local residents I quizzed had never heard of Rakali. And when told they had native water rats on their doorstep most were unimpressed. From disinterest to revulsion via polite curiosity there was no hint of awe, no thrill at the fact that this unusual animal calls our area home. The only person who showed any excitement had confused them with the Portuguese water rat of urban myth.
The Australian Native Conservation Agency (now called Environment Australia) recognised the rats needed a PR overhaul when they took the step of renaming them Rakali, one of over 50 Aboriginal words for them. The scientific name, Hydromys chrysogaster, translates fairly lyrically as water mouse with golden belly. Still, ‘Rakali’ is a little too close to rat for comfort.
The fact is, we have an amazing native creature almost on our doorsteps. And they are really quite special: the water rat, platypus and seals are the only amphibious Australian mammals in existence. And since Rakali were hunted to the point of extinction for their fur in the first half of this century (particularly the 1930s and 40s), they are now a protected species.
In addition, they are recognised as a locally significant species because they are one of only four native mammals found in Bayside (bats, ringtail and brushtail possums are the others).
Earthcare volunteers watch for Rakali in St Kilda, Elwood and Albert Park.
The rats preferred marine environment is the St Kilda breakwater, between the large rocks that are home to the fairy penguin community. They have been spotted on St Kilda beach and boarding boats harboured near the pier. In a 1999 paper, Earthcare estimated there were about 20 Rakali living in this area, but Parks Victoria suggest there may be up to 33. At the very minimum, an Earthcare 2003-2004 study says, there are nine.
It’s difficult to find a population estimate that everyone will agree upon. Tiana Preston, who was the co-ordinator of Rakali Watch prior to Bob, says: ‘It’s really hard to determine if the populations are fluctuating as different weather conditions and numbers of volunteers can effect how many we see.’
Neil Blake was a park ranger with the City of St Kilda when he co-founded Earthcare in 1989. He has visited the breakwater on more than 1500 occasions to observe Rakali and penguins. ‘Well, it was about 1200 times when I counted in 1998 so I think it’d be about that now,’ he laughs. But he tells me that even a seasoned watcher can find it difficult to estimate Rakali numbers. ‘There were periods of up to six months where I wouldn’t see any at all,’ he says. ‘I don’t know why. Some years I would think, well that’s it. They’re gone.’
In Elwood, Rakali are found in and around the canal, not the best home since the water level can vary dramatically and is often brackish and polluted. Around here they make their homes in concrete tunnels, hollow logs and dug out holes in the dirt banks. Bob Tammik thinks there are only about five Rakali in this area with two of his regulars sadly missing since the last bout of heavy rain. (He fears they may have been caught in a flooded drain.)
Bob admits to finding it bewildering that Rakali are found in Albert Park Lake, but they are both abundant and tame here. ‘One evening I was sitting with Alyson on the concrete jetty outside The Point. We were trying to imagine how Rakali ever got to the Lake. We thought maybe they hitched a ride from St Kilda,’ he laughs. ‘And just as we were talking, a Rakali popped up onto the jetty with us and sat there eating a yabby. Just joining in…’ Rakali are often seen swimming near the rowing clubs and clambering onto moored boats. It’s thought that at least ten live around the Lake.
The people who keep an eye on the Rakali are a committed and diverse bunch from all accounts. They range from retired local citizens to enthusiastic twenty-something university students. This mix is good for both the Rakali (the next generation does care) and for the community, as Bob explains. ‘The young members are passionate and knowledgeable, and the amount of time they put in is terrific. And we get to see that it’s not all ecstacy and parties!’
Some young members can be just a little too enthusiastic at times, he adds. ‘Last winter we were following a Rakali in Albert Park Lake when it disappeared into a drain. One young man dived in to follow it, clothes and all. The water must have been freezing. I don’t think he realised how cold it was until he got out!’
Bayside City Council environment staff also observe Rakali, primarily around the Sandringham and Brighton breakwaters, particularly on the rock walls along the Brighton foreshore from Martin Street to the Middle Brighton Baths. They are often seen swimming at sunset around the breakwaters. Council staff have documented sightings at Quiet Corner in Black Rock and the Beaumaris Sea Scouts area near Table Rock.
The Council has done three surveys of numbers (in 1998, 2000 and 2003), with the help of the Bayside Friends of Native Wildlife groups and Dr Alan Sherlock from Central Veterinary Hospital in Sandringham.
The surveys looked at Rakali communities along the Brighton and Sandringham foreshore. The 1998 survey was the first to involve trapping Rakali in Port Phillip Bay (previous information was based on visual observations). Thirty-seven Rakali have been trapped in total since 1998 and out of those, 17 animals were tagged with microchips, enabling them to be identified if re-captured. The Rakali do have local threats – snakes, dogs, cats, pollutants in the water – but their numbers have been steady in the Bayside area since the first survey.
Should the plan to deepen the Bay’s shipping channels go ahead, observers suspect the Rakali will fare better than the fairy penguins. While no environmental studies have yet been done to see what the impact will be on Rakali, Bob Tammik says that they are much more adaptable creatures than the 500-plus penguins, and they have alternative homes. Neil Blake suggests that their diet may also help them. ‘The penguins’ prey is mobile and they need at least four metres water visibility to see the fish. Stirring up the water will make it hard for them. Rakali can keep feeding on mussels and crabs as they do now. Provided their food sources remain they may be ok.’
Regardless, it’s important to keep an eye on these unusual rats. As Bob explains: ‘I was asked recently whether it gives me a thrill to know we’re protecting the Rakali. But that’s not how I see it at all. We’re watching them, learning about them. I don’t think they need our protection right now. If we do have to protect them there’s trouble. Something will have gone seriously wrong.’