This blog post was originally published as a project update for the Save Our Seas Foundation. You can access the original post here.

Sometimes working with endangered species can be difficult. Personally, I have a lot of respect for my fellow elasmobranch biologists who collect samples and sightings data from fish markets and other locations that bring you close to only body parts of the species you are working so hard to protect.

Last week I received a set of saws that Queensland Fisheries had confiscated. The previous owner of these had received a fine for possession without a permit. It is likely that many of these saws had been taken before sawfish had been protected. But it is also likely that the saws represent a subset of what he collected, the subset that he was not yet able to sell.

The saws will be used for research and education. DNA samples and measurements will be taken, and some of the saws will be used for school visits. But these saws will also guide future sampling efforts. Being an optimist, I am hoping they might lead us to a remnant population of a Pristis species on Queensland’s east coast, in a location where potentially even the populations of Anoxyrpstis cuspidata might still be healthy.

SeaWalls 2018 Welcome

SeaWalls 2018 Welcome

SARA welcomes the Sea Walls artists to Cairns!

Here, at Sharks And Rays Australia we are super excited to have you wonderful people visit Cairns on your inspirational mission to create artwork for marine conservation! My name is Barbara and I am the Director and Principal Scientist of SARA. In the image to the right you can see me doing what I love, which is working with and raising awareness for SAWFISH.

Sawfish used to be quite common here in Far North Queensland, but nowadays they are rare. Globally their chances are even worse and the freshwater sawfish, Pristis pristis, is considered to be amongst the 100 most endangered species in the world. Given that their reduction in numbers has a lot to do with people taking the saws as trophies (I think this makes sawfish our own aquatic rhinos, sadly), raising awareness for sawfish is one of the most important things we can do to ensure these magnificent animals will exist into the future.

I’ve created this page for you to get you excited about sawfish! I hope you enjoy the materials below. I will meet you all at the forum at the Tanks Arts Centre on may 3, for which I return  early from a field trip. if you have any questions about sawfish, please get in touch barbara(at)

Thank you for choosing Cairns as the canvas for your art!



Check out this image above from the State Library of Queensland of a sawfish that was caught at the mouth of the Mulgrave River, just south of Cairns, in 1938. Sawfish generally inhabit shallow waters, but these large animals are hardly encountered anymore. This breaks my heart, just imagine how amazing it would be to see such a creature!


Now let me take you on a journey to Northern Queensland, where we work with sawfish and other sharks and rays!

Below you can watch our video on the saw-less sawfish. People chopping off the saws of live sawfish for trophies seems to become an issue in Queensland. SARA’s data collected over the last 2.5 years indicates that 5-10% of all sawfish we have captured our captures that have been submitted to us are sawless. A study by our collaborators form WA, Team Sawfish indicates that these animals can take up to 3 months to starve to death.

Here is another video by Jeremy Wade’s show RiverMonsters from WA, where he captured a happy little sawfish pup in the Fitzroy River

Here is another educational video from our colleagues at NESP in the NT. Enjoy!

Last but not least you can read some more about Australian sawfish in an article written by my colleague and friend Nicole Phillips (she works on sawfish genetics) and myself. You can access the article here.

Have you heard that a sawfish was found 700km inland in the Northern Territory? Here is a link to the ABC article. It also shows some amazing rock art of sawfish. I recently spoke with an Indigenous Ranger who told me about sawfish rock art in the Laura region, 4 hrs north of Cairns, indicating the cultural importance of these animals to the Great Barrier reef region. Below is an image of a sawfish from Burketown, in the Southern Gulf region.

Outreach, outreach, outreach

Outreach, outreach, outreach

By Barbara Wueringer

Even if your research is extremely meaningful, there is a high chance that most people outside of your field have never heard of it. Even if your study species is extremely endangered, unless it is a cute flagship species (think panda, elephant, rhino), there is a chance that many people including local stakeholders do not know much about it.

The second most important pillar of your work as a scientist, right after producing good quality science, is to communicate your science with those who need to know about it. Social media is important, but in many cases you are ‘preaching to the converted’ as even on twitter someone will have to search #EndangeredSpecies or #Shark in order to find your post within the short period of its lifetime.

Whenever we want to affect a status quo, we have two options: the top down approach and the bottom up approach. Both are equally important! For example, if we want to reduce the number of single use plastic bags in the system, we need to convince companies and governments to ban the bags (top-down), but we also need to work with consumers (bottom-up) who might otherwise unknowingly undermine a ban on bags by asking for single use plastic bags at the supermarket counter, thus creating consumer demand.

One of the most effective, fun and rewarding ways of conducting outreach is to work with local schools. In the last year, which is also our second year of working with volunteers, Sharks And Rays Australia has finally commenced its outreach program in local schools. In an area the size of Germany, that is only inhabited by 28,000 people, a handful of visits in local schools mean that we were able to speak to almost 1% of the population during these school visits, and 4% of all inhabitants under the age of 14.

During our school visits in Aboriginal communities, we do not ask children about the traditional uses of sawfish. Under Native Title law, Indigenous Australians are allowed to capture and eat sawfish for personal consumption only. Many Indigenous Australians are protective of their customs and we respect that. But already the simple question of “Hands up if you’ve ever seen a sawfish!” can provide quantitative insights into current abundances of these animals. In one of the schools, around 90% of the kids had seen a live sawfish before!

After we have explained to the kids what sharks, stingrays and sawfish are and why they are in trouble around the world, we play a game with them, the Food Web Game (download it for free here The game uses local food webs of species that the children know. While the kids colour in the sheets, we explain some of the cool facts about each species to them. Afterwards the big question is who eats whom and once that is established, we pick an animal out of our food chain and ask the kids what happens if this species is overfished, thus teaching them about the importance of maintaining a natural balance.

So far, the feedback has been incredible. The volunteers are stoked to meet the locals, the kids love it, and so do the teachers, as our visits provide the kids with a real world insight into the classroom science they are taught. I personally hope that the presence of female scientists in their classroom will also help some of the girls to realize that STEM science is not for boys only.

This blog post was written for the Save Our Seas Foundation. Access the original post here

It was also published in ‘Inside Ecology’ magazine, which can be found here

Delta Downs Expedition (Part Two) by Liz Xanthopoulos

Delta Downs Expedition (Part Two) by Liz Xanthopoulos

by Liz Xanthopolous, A visitor to this time


Home became the banks of the river, which had a 3 metre steep elevation from the water, so we were completely safe from said Jurassic creatures creeping up and snatching one of us while we slept. We found a large patch of dirt to set up camp next to a little pond, surrounded by long green grass, tall brown termite mounds as far as the eye could see, and some trees and bushes. To add to the ambiance were dried up piles of cow poop all over the place that we shoveled out of the way. Our new little home was known as Snake Creek, which lived up to its name when Barbara nearly stepped on a Brown Snake one night while checking the tide, and after we came across a few more around camp I was very quickly forced to overcome my fear of snakes. The scenery around us was vast, open and never-ending. It was nature in all its glory. Wild and beautiful, and so silent. Every sunrise and every sunset we were treated to the most beautiful shades of pink and orange in our sky, and every night the brightest stars I’ve ever seen would come out and put on a show.

         Our tagging shifts were twice a day, in three person teams. The morning shift, my shift, usually started at about 5 am, until about 11 am. It was still dark when we’d get out on the water, so we had to use our headlamps and the boat’s spotlight to get our work done. Crocs are most active at night, it’s their favourite time to hunt so they’re out and about. We made sure we used the boats spotlight to scan the banks of the river, for navigating of course but also to make sure we were constantly monitoring our surroundings. Their eyes reflect light so we would often see tiny little red eyes looking at us in the dark. To be honest, even though croc safety was emphasised and mentioned in all the paperwork, I had no idea how big a factor they would actually be, but after arriving at Snake Creek, talking to the rangers and taking into account of course Barbara’s previous experiences in these areas, I knew we would have to take procedure seriously and stay focused to make sure everyone on board was as safe as possible at all times.

We would begin our sessions by setting up four drum lines and two gill nets, and routinely checked and moved them to different spots along the river to better our chances of catching something. It did get easier to work after the sun came up and we had more light, and it was still early enough so the heat wasn’t as scorching as it would be later in the day, but nevertheless the shifts were still physically demanding. Lifting and throwing anchors, reeling in and then releasing the nets, pulling out and releasing any bycatch over and over and over again, all the while making sure we weren’t hanging over the side of the boat or sticking our hands in the water to avoid tempting the crocs stalking us from beneath the surface. I think even Barbara was surprised at the huge number of jellyfish that were in the river system. Pulling up these 50-metre-long nets that essentially became a wall of jellyfish because there were so many were drifting into the nets became really challenging. I’ve been stung by jellyfish a couple times before while up on the Gold Coast, so their sting wasn’t anything new to me, but it just meant that we had one more thing that we had to be cautious of.

After getting back to camp once our sessions were over, I would usually run straight to our kitchen and shovel down as much food in me as I could to replenish all the energy we’d lost in the morning. I also had a couple of Hydralyte’s a day to make sure I was properly hydrated. After breakfast/lunch we would wash as much mud/sunscreen/fish guts (from the bait) and sweat off us as we could – using nothing more than a quarter bucket of water and a washcloth (hey, it did the job!), change our clothes, and try to stay in the shade to conserve our energy. Walking from our “shower tent” to my swag was an adventure of its own if I dared make the trip barefoot. The path to get to there forced me to walk past the biggest termite mound, and if the ants around there were quick enough to jump on my feet as I crossed through I was in for a hell of a sting.

We would spend the rest of the day listening to music, or the ‘Serial’ podcast one of the marine biologists brought and then discuss it, we’d talk about life or different birds that we’d spot, and collect wood for our fire. After getting dinner ready, having a chat around campfire while eating, and washing up, the evening shift would head out just before sunset for their session, and usually wouldn’t make it back until after midnight. Those of us on the morning shift would try to get to bed early and get a good night’s sleep to be fresh for the morning after. Oh yeah! I forgot to mention – late in the evening it was crucial to put on long sleeves and spray heaps of insect repellent on. I’m not a person that ever gets bit by mosquitoes, but out there, I got mauled. Mozzies and midges everywhere. You could never escape it, and it was bloody frustrating as hell.

I’ll never forget the ray we caught on one of our drum lines. While I was pulling the line up I could feel it getting heavy and I knew we had something, and suddenly a long black slimy tail broke the surface of the water. The first thing I thought was (don’t laugh at me) “oh my god, it’s a snake!” but once I saw the rest of its body I realised it was actually a big ray. We kept the line in its mouth and towed it to the little bank in front of our camp because it was too big and too heavy to lift onto the boat like we normally would’ve. There we checked the gender (it’s a boy!), measured him, took some photos and tagged him. His body was about 1.5 metres wide, so he was a big boy. I had to put my hands in his gills to lift him up so Barbara could get the hook out of his mouth, so I ended up with essentially ray snot on my gloves. I even found myself patting him like a dog, I guess I thought that if he felt my hand he might feel comfort, and he’d know that he’d be OK, because I can only imagine how scared he was. Barbara later identified him as a Freshwater Whip Ray. We caught another one a few days later but he was much smaller.

Despite all our hard work, planning, and best efforts, it wasn’t in our fate to encounter the incredible sawfish. All the data we collected will still contribute to SARA’s research, maybe not in the way we hoped but I’m sure we collected more pieces to the puzzle. I remember Barbara telling me that most people become completely captivated by sawfish when they first set their eyes on them because of their strange appearance, and although I missed out on that moment, I did not feel disappointed with my experiences during the expedition. Having the privilege of witnessing the beauty of one of the most untouched locations in the country that only a handful of people have visited, and having the opportunity to participate in an important scientific research expedition with a great group of people far exceeded any expectations I had. And so, after the most amazing 10 days at Snake Creek, it was time to pack up camp and start the two-day trek back to Cairns. We made it all the way to Croydon when we decided to stop for the night at a caravan park and treat ourselves to dinner and a couple of drinks at the local pub. We all walked in and stopped in our tracks when something caught our eye on the wall behind the bar. Two sawfish rostra. Two sawfish rostra hanging on the wall in a pub. Yeah, heartbreaking. But it did bring us back to reality and confirmed to us that everything we just went through won’t be for nothing. There’s still a lot of hard work that needs to be done and the biggest challenge will be changing people’s perceptions and attitudes toward animals, but it can and will be done.

Just like that, after all that time in the middle of nowhere, with no communication with the rest of the world and only the six of us for company, just us vs the wild, we were back in Cairns. It just seemed so loud to me. So loud and so busy, and it took me a couple of days to get used to being surrounded by so many people. I spent a few more days in Cairns exploring, drove down to Mission Beach and Etty Bay to find some Cassowaries, and went over to my beloved Great Barrier Reef for a few dives (I will talk about my love for the Reef in many posts to come), and then it was time to head home. Actual home. Melbourne home. The same night I arrived I was sitting on the couch watching TV when my mum asked me how it felt being home. It felt strange. I caught myself looking over my shoulder and looking around me to make sure nothing was trying to sting me or bite me. It felt strange feeling safe. The Delta Downs expedition was my first real call of the wild, and I’ll hold onto the experiences I had there forever. Without a doubt, there will always be a part of me that’s constantly seeking it out. Even when walking my dog, certain smells or sensations make me feel like if I close my eyes I’m back in Snake Creek sitting around the campfire having a laugh over dinner watching the sun set. Whenever life starts getting a little overwhelming and I get that urge to run away, my mind drifts back to the simpler times of Snake Creek where the only thing I really had to worry about was eating and not being eaten! Just the way nature intended.


Delta Downs Expedition 2016 (Part One) by Liz Xanthopoulos

Delta Downs Expedition 2016 (Part One) by Liz Xanthopoulos

by Liz Xanthopoulos, A visitor to this time 


“Don’t think about, just go!” was the last thing Hannah said to me before I took a deep breath and flung myself over the side of the boat landing in shin deep, crocodile infested waters. What happened next is kind of a blur. I ran as fast as I could to get to our anchor which was now buried about half a metre deep in mud on the river bank and all I could hear was Hannah’s voice shouting at me “it’s ok, there’s nothing there, just grab the anchor and run back!”. I was watching the long grass a few metres away from me to make sure there was nothing lurking in there waiting for the perfect moment to run out and maul me, when I finally got the anchor free and bolted back to the boat, anchor in hand. I jumped back onto the boat and started shaking with adrenaline! 


Even though we finally got our anchor free and back on the boat, we were still heavily stuck in the mud. After an hour of trying everything we could to get out, there was only one solution. Get back in that bloody water and push. We had already been revving our engine for a while so once we rechecked the depth of the water around the boat and made sure we had a clear coastline, Barbara – our expedition leader, and I hopped back in the water and pushed our boat as far away from the bank and out of the mud as possible. If you don’t know the “urban rule” about crocs, it goes something like this: For every croc you can see, there are about 10 under the water that you can’t see. I call it an “urban rule” because the number seems to change from region to region. In Darwin they say 10 crocs, in Queensland they say 20. Either way, out here, in the middle of nowhere, I wasn’t in any way willing to test the rule.

This act of stupid bravery, however, did earn me the nickname “Jesus” back at camp, since I ran through the water so fast it was like I ran on the water. And being among a group of biologists on a scientific tagging expedition when you’re just a business school drop-out…well let’s just say it gave me some “street cred”. The reality of the situation was that if we hadn’t gotten our boat free when we did, we would have had a veeeeery loooong day and night ahead of us, waiting for the pretty unpredictable tide to flood back in and free us. And this was only session one, of a ten-day expedition!

We started the two-day drive to Normanton, Queensland on the 19th of June, last year, starting from Cairns, where Sharks and Rays Australia (SARA) is based. SARA was founded by Dr Barbara Wueringer, to “conduct scientific research to contribute to conservation efforts of endangered species”. Barbara has spent the last 12 years of her career capturing, tagging, and releasing lemon sharks, tiger sharks, and her favourite – sawfish, all over the world. She has had her research featured in publications including National Geographic, New York Times, Science Magazine, and Discovery Magazine. In 2015 SARA started measuring the “current distributions and abundance patterns of four species of sawfishes in Far North Queensland and the Cape York Peninsula”.

Sawfish are a family of Rays, and have a characteristic long, flat, and narrow rostrum, lined with sharp teeth in a way that resembles a saw. They’re a pretty fascinating animal! Their rostra are covered with electrosensitive pores that they use to detect even the slightest movements of prey hiding in the muddy sea floors. They also use their rostra as a digging tool, and to slash prey as it swims by. If you haven’t already, make sure you YouTube a video of it – it’s amazing. Unfortunately, it’s because of their incredibly distinctive feature that they are now listed as critically endangered and at risk of extinction.

It’s estimated that their population numbers are at less than 5% (to maybe as low as 1%) of their historic levels. Not only are they caught as bycatch in fishing nets because their rostra are easily entangled, they are also exploited for it, with fishermen butchering it off as a prize or to sell in some markets. Their fins are also taken to supply the distorted, delusional, and dangerous Asian market. Northern Australia is the last global stronghold for the four species of sawfish, as stated in on the SARA website. It’s believed that the coastline and river systems of the Cape York Peninsula most likely hold the highest densities of sawfish. In Queensland waters, sawfish have been declared a no-take species, but since the last assessment of their numbers ended in 2008, it’s unclear if the ban has had an effect on population numbers. And so… here we are.

Our small team consisted of three marine biologists including Barbara, an animal scientist, our hilarious camp supervisor Andrew – who was essentially our very own Bear Grylls, and me – with my passion for marine conservation and my superhuman ability to run on water when I’m scared of being eaten alive by Jurassic creatures. Since my marine biology degree is non-existent, I have to do the best I can with what I’ve got.

We set up camp for most of the duration of the expedition at a place called Delta Downs, which is an Aboriginal-owned cattle station about 70km outside of Normanton. Normanton itself is a very small cattle town in the Shire of Carpentaria, with a population of about 1,400. Getting to Delta Downs literally means 4×4 driving down a dirt track for most of that 70km, but you understand why when you realise that its one million acres makes it one of the largest Aboriginal-owned cattle properties in Australia. Delta Downs is also known as Morr Morr, and is operated by the Kurtijar People. Up until recently, Delta Downs completely forbid entry to the public, but in going back and researching for this post, I’ve seen that they now have a website where you can apply for permits to camp there. For our expedition, we had to get permission from the traditional owners to stay and conduct our research, which wasn’t a big issue since Barbara had put in the work to build a good relationship with them before we even got there. So, once we had their final ok, we went off to set up our camp on the Gilbert River, only a few kilometres away from the Gulf of Carpentaria, and got ready to do some work…