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Tasmania’s Stories

Ray Martin meets King Island kelpers

Edition 193_DavidBowling

When Ray Martin ventured to King Island in search of Tasmania's Stories to film, he expected a handful – but came back with a ‘swag-full’.

Among them, the colourful King Island race meet – which was ‘up there with the best’ – where Ray even backed a winner; not to mention the ‘melt-in-your-mouth’ beef tartare served up by local farmers Ana Pimenta and Tom Perry, who reveal the secret lies in ‘contented cows’.

However, there was one story that really caught Ray’s imagination: the tale of the local kelpers.

The media icon – and Brand Tasmania ambassador – was instantly drawn to this hardy band of islanders who collect the giant bull kelp cast on to the rugged coastline.

The King Island kelpers are a unique part of island life, and you would be hard pushed to find a tougher lot: pre-dawn starts, howling winds and the ever-present danger of wild seas.

“Glimpsing into the life of a King Island kelper helped me understand why this remote part of the world is so different – and so special,” Ray Martin said.

“This is a small tight-knit community that has always battled against the elements and depended on the sea for survival.

“King Island has its own raw, wild beauty, and the kelpers fit into that landscape - perfectly.”

The star of this tale is David Bowling, a fifth generation King Islander.

His family were among the first settlers of this stunning island at the edge of Bass Strait and has been farming the same stretch of rugged coast for more than a century.

“The island is very isolated with a simple way of life, but these days simplicity is the ultimate luxury,” David explained.

“King Island is the place where everyone will want to live. They just don’t know it yet.”

Fifty-one year old David says to survive on the island you need to be adaptable and try your hand at anything – and everything.

True to his word David is the local real-estate agent, councillor and some-time tour guide.

He is also a King Island kelper.

David first began collecting the enormous kelp as a young child by his father’s side, from the 15km shoreline along his family property.

“Farming at the time was going through a bit of a slump so my dad decided to try his hand at kelp harvesting,” David said.

“He bought a beaten up old army truck and attached a winch with thick steel cables at the front - and suddenly we were in business.”

Continuing this family tradition, David heads off before first light to collect the morning haul washed up by storms. Skipping across rocky boulders, he drags the kelp to steel cables where it is hooked and winched on to his old truck.

It is only on this jagged southern tip of the island - where Bass Strait throws up its roughest seas - that kelping can be found.

“The pristine waters around King Island produce the best kelp in the world - and there is plenty out there. It just needs the rough weather to break it off and bring it into shore,” David explained.

“The wilder the weather, the better the kelping.”

These giants of the ocean can grow an amazing 10cm in one day, and it is not unusual for David to haul kelp twice the length of his truck and weighing 50 kg.

He also collects around 300 plants every morning and admits it's a pretty tough job: “Only a handful of kelpers remain these days. Most of them come and go, they just can’t handle it.”

David however wouldn’t have it any other way.

“It’s the freedom,” he said.

“Not to mention the office with fresh air and kilometres of wild beauty.”

Kelp is big business and it’s getting bigger.

Like all kelpers, David’s haul ends up at the factory in Currie where it is hung out on racks and dried. It is then milled into a granulated product from which valuable alginates are extracted.

Alginates can be found in an endless array of products – from detergents and cosmetics to food. However, it is as an elixir of good health that this industry has really struck gold.

The Kelp Industries factory opened back in 1975 and King Island now supplies 5% of all the world’s alginates, according to General Manager, John Roediger.

“Our kelp is in big demand because it has a very high alginate content. Each year the factory produces around 4,000 tonnes of dried product and 85% of this is exported to Europe,” he said.

“We pump around two million dollars into the local economy every year. This really is a very important industry.”

To understand just how important kelp is to this isolated corner of the world – and the 1,600 people who call King Island home – you only need to head to Currie and witness the acre upon acre of giant seaweed hanging out to dry.

King Island kelper, David Bowling, sums it up perfectly.

“The ocean has always been the life-blood of our small Island,” he said.

“The sea has given us our ships, our fishing and of course, our kelp.”

Image courtesy of Robert Heazlewood

View Ray Martin’s story on The King Island kelpers below:

To learn more about Ray Martin's recent visit to King Island, view the videos below:

11 April 2018, Edition 193

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Facts about Tasmania


Tasmania is the southernmost state of Australia, located at latitude 40° south and longitude 144° east and separated from the continent by Bass Strait. It is a group of 334 islands, with the main island being 315 km (180 miles) from west to east and 286 km (175 miles) north to south.


Tasmanians are resourceful and innovative people, committed to a continually expanding export sector. In 2012–13, international exports from the state totalled $3.04 billion. USA, China, Taiwan, India, Japan and other Asian countries account for the bulk of exports, with goods and services also exported to Europe and many other regions.


Tasmania is similar in size to the Republic of Ireland or Sri Lanka. The Tasmanian islands have a combined coastline of more than 3,000 km.


The main island has a land area of 62,409 sq km (24,096 sq miles) and the minor islands, taken together, total only 6 per cent of the main island’s land area. The biggest islands are Flinders (1,374 sq km/539 sq miles), King, Cape Barren, Bruny and Macquarie Islands.


About 250km (150 miles) separates Tasmania’s main island from continental Australia. The Kent Group of Islands, one of the most northerly parts of the state, is only 55km (34 miles) from the coast of the Australian continent.


Twice named ‘Best Temperate Island in the World’ by international travel magazine Conde Nast Traveler, Tasmania has a mild, temperate maritime climate, with four distinct seasons.


In summer (December to February) the average maximum temperature is 21° Celsius (70° Fahrenheit). In winter (June to August) the average maximum is 12° C (52° F) and the average minimum is 4° C (40° F). Snow often falls in the highlands, but is rarely experienced in more settled areas.

Annual Rainfall

Tasmania’s west coast is one of the wettest places in the world, but the eastern part of the State lives in a rain-shadow. Hobart, the second-driest capital city in Australia, receives about half as much rain as Sydney.

Annual Rainfall

Annual rainfall in the west is 2,400 mm (95 inches), but hardy locals insist there is no such thing as bad weather, only inadequate clothing. If you travel 120 km east to Hobart, you experience a much drier average of 626 mm (24 inches) a year.


The 512,875-strong community spreads itself across the land; less urbanised than the population of any other Australian state. Hobart, the capital city, is home to more than 212,000 people.

Capital City

Hobart nestles at the foot of kunanyi / Mount Wellington (1,270 m / 4,000 ft) and overlooks the Derwent Estuary, where pods of dolphins and migrating whales are sometimes seen from nearby beaches. Surrounded by thickly forested rolling hills, the city is home to the state parliament and the main campus of the University of Tasmania.

Capital City

Its historic centre features Georgian and Regency buildings from colonial times. Hobart is home port for coastal fishing boats, Antarctic expeditions and vessels that fish the Southern Ocean.

Land Formation

Mountain ranges in the south-west date back 1,000 million years. Ancient sediments were deeply buried, folded and heated under enormous pressure to form schists and glistening white quartzites.

Land Formation

In the south-west and central highlands, dolerite caps many mountains, including Precipitous Bluff and Tasmania’s highest peak, Mt Ossa (1617 m / 5300 ft). More than 42 per cent of Tasmania is World Heritage Area, national park and marine or forest reserves.


Vegetation is diverse, from alpine heathlands and tall open eucalypt forests to areas of temperate rainforests and moorlands, known as buttongrass plains. Many plants are unique to Tasmania and the ancestors of some species grew on the ancient super-continent, Gondwana, before it broke up 50 million years ago.


Unique native conifers include slow-growing Huon pines, with one specimen on Mt Read estimated to be up to 10,000 years old. Lomatia tasmanica, commonly known as King’s holly, is a self-cloning shrub that may well be the oldest living organism on earth. It was discovered in 1937.


Tasmania is the last refuge of several mammals that once roamed the Australian continent. It is the only place to see a Tasmanian devil or eastern quoll (native cat) in the wild and is the best place to see the spotted-tailed quoll (tiger cat), all carnivorous marsupials.


The eastern bettong and the Tasmanian pademelon, both now extinct on the Australian continent, may also be observed.


The Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, was Australia’s largest surviving carnivorous marsupial and is a modern day mystery. The last documented thylacine died in captivity in 1936 and although the animal is considered extinct, unsubstantiated sightings persist.

History and Heritage

Aboriginal people have lived in Tasmania for about 35,000 years, since well before the last Ice Age. They were isolated from the Australian continent about 12,000 years ago, when the seas rose to flood low coastal plains and form Bass Strait.

History and Heritage

Descendants of the original people are part of modern Tasmania’s predominantly Anglo-Celtic population.

History and Heritage

Tasmania was originally named Van Dieman’s Land by the Dutch explorer Abel Janszoon Tasman in 1642. The island was settled by the British as a penal colony in 1803 and the original name was associated with the convict era. It was changed to Tasmania when convict transportation stopped in 1853.


A resourceful island culture has generated leading-edge niche industries, from production of high-speed catamaran ferries and marine equipment to lightning-protection technology.


Tasmanians produce winches and windlasses for some of the world’s biggest ocean-going pleasure craft; large-scale inflatable evacuation systems and provide specialist outfit-accommodation services to the marine industry.


The Wooden Boat Centre at Shipwrights Point has re-established the skills and traditions of another age and attracts students from around the world.


Tasmania is a world leader in natural turf systems for major sporting arenas and in areas of mining technology and environmental management. Its aquaculture industry has developed ground-breaking fish-feeding technology and new packaging.


Tasmanians sell communications equipment to many navies and their world-class fine timber designers and craftsmen take orders internationally for furniture made from distinctive local timber.


The state is a natural larder with clean air, unpolluted water and rich soils inviting the production of 100 varieties of specialty cheeses, as well as other dairy products, mouth-watering rock lobsters, oysters, scallops and abalone, Atlantic salmon, beef, premium beers, leatherwood honey, mineral waters, fine chocolates, fresh berry fruits, apples and crisp vegetables.


Tasmania is a producer of award-winning cool-climate wines, beers, ciders and whiskies. Other export products include essential oils such as lavender, pharmaceutical products and premium wool sought after in Europe and Asia. Hobart is a vital gateway to the Antarctic and a centre for Southern Ocean and polar research.


The industries in Tasmania which made the greatest contribution to the State’s gross product in 2010–11 in volume terms were: Manufacturing (9.4%), Health care and social assistance (8.2%), Financial and insurance services (7.2%), Ownership of dwellings and Agriculture, forestry and fishing (each 7.1%).

Getting to Tasmania

Travel is easy, whether by air from Sydney or Melbourne, or by sea, with daily sailings of the twin ferries Spirit of Tasmania 1 and 2 each way between Melbourne and Devonport throughout the year.

This site has been produced by the Brand Tasmania Council © 2014

Brand Tasmania

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