Low Head and the entrance to the
Tamar River (State Library of Tasmania)
The Low Head lightstation in the
early 1880s (State Library of Tasmania)
Pilots Row at the Low Head
Pilot Station (Parks and Wildlife Service)
The Low Head Light Station was established in 1833 - the third light station to be established in Australia. The Light Station has been developed over a period of 170 years and includes a suite of buildings including the light house, various residential quarters, a fog horn building, former stables, workshops, a meteorological recording station and garages.
The lighthouse is owned and operated by the Australian Marine Safety Authority, while the remainder of the Light Station is managed by the Parks and Wildlife Service. In 2000, the Low Head Light Station reserve was gazetted as an Historic Site under the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Act, 1975. The whole of the site is listed on the Register of the National Estate and on the Tasmanian Heritage Register.
Low Head is associated with the earliest phases of European exploration and settlement in northern Tasmania. The first recorded Europeans to enter the Tamar River were Bass and Flinders in 1798. Flinders noted that 'the entrance is certainly a dangerous one'.
In 1804 Lieutenant-Colonel William Paterson established the first proper settlement in the region, relocating settlers and convicts from Norfolk Island and soon intermittent pilot services were established. By 1806, there were a total of 276 people around Port Dalrymple. The community was dependent for its very survival upon the safe passage of vessels from Bass Strait into the mouth of the river.
In 1808, he difficulty of navigation in the area was highlighted when the Hebe, bound to Sydney from Madras was wrecked on the reef at the entrance to the river. The reef is today known as Hebe Reef.
LowHead has played a fundamental role in the navigation of shipping in the Tamar River since these times, when the first navigational beacons were positioned in the channels at the mouth of the Tamar and a flagstaff was erected on the headland at Low Head. Soon afterward, a pilotage service was established for ships entering the Heads.
Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the strategic role of Low Head in guiding shipping in the Tamar continued, and an extensive network of buildings and structures relating to navigation and communications was developed on and near the peninsula. These included the Low Head Lighthouse and Pilot Station complexes, both of which were developed from the early 1830s.
The construction of the first Low Head Lighthouse commenced in 1833.Built predominantly of locally quarried stone, the tower incorporated two rooms at the base for keepers' accommodation and was surmounted by a fixed light comprising a number of small oil lamps with reflectors. These were replaced in 1835 by a new revolving catoptric lantern.
The Lighthouse was demolished in 1888-1890 and replaced by a completely new lighthouse just adjacent to the original. The new lighthouse improved visibility to 15 nautical miles. In 1916 the current catadioptric light was installed in Lighthouse. It was originally powered by vaporised kerosene, but was converted to mains electric operation in 1941.
In 1929, the fog signal building was constructed. Uniquely, its signal apparatus remains substantially intact and in working order.
The Pilot Station
Although a pilot service had been established near the entrance to Port Dalrymple as early as 1805 there is little documentary evidence about its early operations. It is known that a flagstaff was located on the headland where the lighthouse now stands and this was used for signalling to Pilots Bay, where longboats and crews were stationed.
By 1835 the piloting operations numbered at least 36 men, many of whom were housed at Low Head, probably in a timber barracks. In 1835 the current Pilots Row building was constructed to replace and existing weather-board building that was no longer adequate for the pilots and their families. The Coxswains Cottage was constructed in 1847 and six paired cottages for the boat crews were added between 1859 and 1861. A weatherboard school house was built at the Pilot Station in 1861 for the children of the families stationed at Low Head.
Navigation beacons inside the port entrance were progressively replaced with stone towers and in 1852 the existing semaphore signalling system for the Tamar River was extended from George Town out to Low Head. In 1857 the newly established Launceston Marine Board took control of the piloting operations and two years later the Pilot Station was used to house the first submarine telegraphic cable across Bass Strait.
The Low Head Pilot Station was transferred to the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service in 1998. The Tasmanian Ports Corporation still operates a pilot service out of Low Head but no staff reside at the Pilot Station.
Entrance to the Tamar River, 1857 (State Library of New South Wales)
The Iron Baron
In July 1995 the Iron Baron, a 37,000 tonne bulk carrier, struck the Hebe reef in heavy seas. Its ruptured fuel tanks caused a spillage of 325 tonnes of fuel oil which had a significant impact on wildlife, particularly little penguins. A large wildlife collection, treatment and rehabilitation program was established at the pilot station complex at Low Head.
Parks and Wildlife Service officers, veterinarians, experts from around Australia and overseas, and over 150 volunteers were involved in the effort to save affected wildlife. Oiled animals were treated by washing off the oil with detergent, then keeping them in captivity until their physical condition had recovered and their natural oil coat had been restored.
Over 97% of the 2,100-odd animals treated were little penguins, of which 95% survived to be released. However, unrecorded deaths were estimated to be in the tens of thousands, with up to one-third of the Low Head and Ninth Island penguin colonies wiped out.
Cormorants, pelicans and swans were more difficult to rehabilitate, and suffered substantial mortality. Some marine mammals were affected by the oil, but none were captured for treatment.