Australia Underwater



“Party At The Reef”.(2003).




“Turtle Joins The Dance”. (2002).




“Octopus’ Garden”. (1994).



Stephnie McLaughlin lives and works in a large, light -filled studio in
picturesque Jamberoo Valley, NSW, Australia.


“I have always been interested in colours, shapes and patterns. Apart from doing art as a subject at school, I do not have any formal qualifications.

Have been drawing, doodling and making things since I was a toddler. In my early twenties I taught myself to use pastels and still enjoy using this medium.

My career as an artist began when I started painting silk scarves and cushions, selling these at The Rocks Markets in Sydney. After becoming sensitised to the silk dyes I changed to handpainting with fabric paints onto cotton. The work was made into cushion covers and tablecloths and also sold at the markets.

The fish paintings came about as a transition from painting on textiles to painting on canvas. They also represent the transition period from designer to painter. I began using the fabric paints on unprimed, unstretched canvas to create wall-hangings that followed on from a range of marine-themed cushion covers I had designed. At a country market on the South Coast a customer suggested I paint some of the sea creatures onto a large stretched canvas for their beach house. The brief was to keep it bright and retain the happy humorous mood.  More orders followed as I discovered there were many people passionate about the sea. For me it was a time of learning the qualities of acrylic paint and enjoying the results of using such clear saturated colours up against each other. I used reference books to choose the fish and sketch accurate shapes. Most of the colours are also accurate but artistic license overrules logic at times and I admit to giving several fish a set of party clothes in wildly different colours in order to balance a composition.


I have continued to explore painting and today my work ranges from bright fish to landscapes and abstract pieces.


Balancing creativity with the need to earn a living has always been a challenge.

It requires a mix of persistence passion and imagination. The artworks I create are a visual record of a very personal journey of self-discovery and creative expression.

My goal is to continue painting, following my heart, and see what emerges.”


ABOUT FOUR BILLION YEARS AGO . . .  At the opening of volcanoes in the deep seas of Earth, life was first created. That the miracle of existence finds its roots in the water and not on the land is not just by chance, for water is at the heart of all life. Without water nothing can live. The human body is 73% water, and no living creature has less than 50% water content, with some species of jellyfish being made 98% of water!! To understand the importance of water, think of the planets in our solar system. When we send a rocketship into space on a journey to find other life in the universe, once it arrives at a planet, we don’t start looking for any trace of plant or animal life. We simply look for water, (usually ice) on the surface or under the ground. The reason for this is that if there is some form of water on a planet then there’s a good chance that some sort of life either once existed there, or still exists today.On Earth 27% of the surface is land and 73% is water. It is largely because water is spread all across our world, that life thrives and continues to evolve in all corners of the globe. The thick atmosphere that surrounds the earth traps water on our planet, with none being lost to the vacuum of space. Water provides all plants and animals, fish and birds with the most important element for life, giving all things alive the strength to evolve and adapt to better survive. Water is the heart of the amazing and beautiful world we live in. It will turn a lifeless desert into a fertile paradise, creating life where none previously existed. Scientific experiments have shown that when only water is added to a lifeless desert environment, with the right conditions, there can be over 100,000 species of life appearing within 10 years. As the key to life, water is also a cure for the common sicknesses of most animals and plants. It is a widely accepted treatment for the common cold or flu, infections and cuts to the skin, asthma, diarrhea, fever and muscle strains. The average person can survive without food for about one month, but only 3 to 7 days without water. After 4 days the blood will thicken, (blood is 82% water), the lungs will collapse, (water makes up 90% of your lungs), the skin begins to dry and split apart and the brain will shrink. The human brain was a miracle that evolved in a world of water (it is 78% water). Few animals can survive for over a week without some access to water.


There is around 5,700 trillion litres, (or 5,700,000,000,000,000 litres) of water on earth. Furthermore as water can never disappear, it remains in existence as liquid water, steam or ice, in what is known as the ‘hydrological cycle’, for all eternity. Thus most people have drunk, showered or washed the car with water that was here when the dinosaurs roamed the planet!! So on first impressions it would appear that there is plenty of water for our needs. But this is far from the truth. Of all the world’s water only 1% is both freshwater and fit for human use. From this small amount we must spread its use into commercial needs, general social needs, (such as household and community uses) and for drinking. The pressure on this already limited supply has continued to grow over time not only as world population grows but also as our current farming practices, that include clearing the land of its trees for crops and livestock, the re-routing of natural river courses to irrigate farms and the building of dams across the world have been necessary but then reduced the ability of land to trap and store water. Far more of the water that falls as rain on the land is finding its way to the seas and oceans, (that already hold 97.5% of the world’s water), than would naturally be occurring. But humans need around 100.7 million tonnes of water every year, and our demand for this precious resource has doubled over the past 30 years.


Australia is a land where all living things have evolved around the challenge of accessing the water for life. As the driest continent on earth, we face not just a lack of rain but also great uncertainty over when it will come. Rainwater is the only naturally occurring freshwater, (or ‘soft water’) fit for immediate consumption by people, but as Australia is also the flattest continent on earth, rain is the single biggest hurdle for all life on this land – whether humans, animals or plants. It is because our planet spins from west to east that most weather systems travel across Australia from left to right, as you look at the map. Without any large mountain ranges, particularly along the west coast of Australia, to push the rain clouds upwards into the cooler air, most of the big rain clouds pass right over our land. Rain starts falling at the mountain ranges running along the east coastline, but the main water load falls once the clouds reach the big mountains and cold climate of New Zealand. The Great Water Challenge goes on despite Australia being surrounded by endless oceans of water and having the greatest single body of underground water, or “artesian well” on earth. At 1,7 million square kilometres, “The Great Artesian Basin” covers 20% of Australia and holds around 64,900 million megalitres of water. A megalitre is 1 million litres, and represents about half the water in an Olympic size swimming pool.But the artesian water is full of minerals and salts, (or ‘hard water’), and is unfit for consumption by humans or for use in agriculture. The key to the survival of life on the land is the system of rivers and streams that spread thinly across Australia. Rivers require mountains to draw rainwater into a single flowing path, that over time carves a path into the land and finally becomes a river. Most of the rivers are on the east coast of Australia , with the intricate river system around Australia’s ‘top end’, a result of the tropical climate, (heavy rainfall). There are 57 major river systems in Australia, the Murray River, (2,520 kilometres) is the longest individual river, although the Upper Darling, Darling and Murray rivers join to form a continuous river system of 3,370 kilometres, (this is around half the distance of the Amazon River – the world’s longest river). Due to the lack of any geological activity, (volcanoes, earthquakes), it is generally agreed that Australia has the world’s oldest river, the Finke River in central Australia. Geologists believe this river has followed the same path for over 350 million years!! The natural environment of Australia had adapted well to the great water challenge.


Rainbow Fish

The presence of fish in the Australian desert is not surprising given that our desert interior was an inland sea for over 150 million years!! It was the collision of the Australian continental plate with the Asian continental plate, (the impact created the Himalayan Mountains and the famous Mount Everest), 15 million years ago that caused Australia’s great inland sea to drain. But not all the fish disappeared with the sea. Prior to the arrival of humans, the fossil record shows that the land was covered in vegetation, including the harshest areas of central Australia, supporting many varied animal species. The ancient environment was built on systems of wetlands that covered the vast, flat interior. The wetlands allowed many fish species to survive and flourish in a freshwater environment, as plants and soil worked together to trap moisture and hold it within the top soil. The result was an ecosystem that could support both animal and fish fauna. There are currently 33 native species of desert fish, including hardyheads, rainbow fish, glassperches, catfish, grunters and perch.

Bony Bream
Dalhousie Catfish
Welch’s Grunter

These fish are highly adapted to the climate, being able toto tolerate water temperatures upwards of 35oC, (95oFahrenheit), and understanding the vital role of flood periods for breeding. Today you will find around 80% of the desert fish populations in waterholes, around which more plant life survives, improving water quality and providing a better source of food. The waterholes are the single greatest factor in the survival of the desert fish over the centuries, as it generally very rare for all the waterholes in a particular river system to go dry at the same time. But due to the significant flooding that hits the desert regions occasionally, there are only a few waterholes large enough to remain in permanent existence. Most waterholes will disappear with floods and develop in a different place when the river course dries again. Therefore desert fish are very adaptable in their diet and living conditions, and they are able to migrate very long distances to breed and continue life.


Recent events such as the Boxing Day Tsunami across Asia and the flooding of New Orleans, and the south-east USA, puts the power of the mighty oceans in perspective and highlights our need to understand them. With 73% of the earth’s surface covered by water, it is through the ocean that nature reveals its great strength. Over 1.3 Billion kms3 of water is held in the oceans, with the deepest spot at the “Mariana Trench” at 11.7 kms deep, making the deepest point below sea level 3kms larger than the highest point above sea level – Mt Everest at 8.9kms high. During the ice age, (15,000 years ago), colder temperatures swept all over the world and more water became ice. The ocean levels dropped 120 metres and in Australia both Tasmania and New Guinea were part of one big continent. You could walk from Melbourne to Hobart, or from Cape York to Port Moresby. The drop in the sea level allowed the huge migration of animal and plant life to Australia. That is the power of the oceans, it can build or destroy life. It also explains why the health of the oceans impacts on the health of all life. In the years since the end of the ice age, the sea level has consistently risen at a historic average rate of 0.01cm per year, and growing rapidly over the last 40 years. While rising water levels after an ice age would be expected, scientists disagree on whether the current pattern of water level rises are part of the same natural environmental cycle that creates ice ages, or reflect the intrusion of humans in the natural flow of the global marine environment. But there is no disagreement on the need to understand and prepare for the impact of the mighty oceans on human society. The most recent IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climatic Change) projections are that water levels will rise 88cm from current levels by 2100. The impact on all humans is immediately put into perspective by the fact that currently over 150 million people live within one metre or less of the current sea level. Over time, coastal landforms will change as exposed land becomes the new seabed, harbours change shape and the daily climate we experience alters. Other challenges we face from our mighty oceans – 1. An increase in evaporation of water from the sea to the sky will increase both the frequency and intensity of storms. 2. As a result of these storms land erosion will increase, as will damage to crops. Droughts will be more severe as you move inland. 3. Wetlands and mangroves critical to the health of the Australian land will be fundamentally impacted on, (although the result is not clear). 4.Our current coral reef systems would be threatened, and the coastal marine ecosystem will forever change.


Australia has the longest coastline of any single nation on earth (34,600kms), and one of the largest ocean territories at 16.1 million square kilometres, (or 4.4% of the world’s oceans). Also Australia is lucky to have one of the cleanest marine environments, a result of our geographic isolation from the more densely populated northern hemisphere. So is not surprising that Australia is considered the most populous and diverse marine environment on the planet. Australian waters are home to over 4,000 different species of fish, including 166 species of sharks and over 110 species of seahorses. Eight species of balleen whales and 35 species of toothed whales regulerly inhabit Australian waters. Of the 7 known species of turtle, 6 are found in Australia, with the “Flatback” species native to our country. Australian waters hold the largest area and greatest diversity of seagrass in the world. Of the world’s 58 species of seagrass 30 species are in abundance on our ocean floor. Seagrasses are a vital nursery for marine biodiversity, improving water quality, and providing the critical basis from which to create an ideal feeding habitat and breeding ground for marine life to flourish. Our seas are also famous for the coral reefs. The most famous being The Great Barrier Reef, a continuous chain of coral running for over 2000kms along the eastern coastline of Australia’s north. This massive reef is recognised as one of “Great Wonders of the Natural World”. The Great Barrier Reef covers a total of 344,000km2, and is the largest complex of coral reefs in the world. It has a population of over 500 individual coral species, and is home to over 2,000 different species of fish.


“The global village” is a term that has become a part of everyone’s understanding of our world in the 21st Century. As modern technology brings all people of the world closer together, and distances become more irrelevant, people who cover all racial, religious and cultural divides now mix together within every nation of the world. A less publicised element of globalisation is the roll-on effect to the world underwater. With every passing year our oceans are increasing reflecting our own human experience, where both the increasing volume of shipping traffic, and the growing spread of regions conducting sea-trade together, has brought a type of intervention in the natural marine ecosystem that the seas have never dealt with in their 4 billion year history. At the heart of this globalisation is the water ballast method of ship construction. For hundreds of years ships have been built to use water as the “ballast”, or ‘heavy material’ needed by boats to provide stability, and prevent capsizing in heavy seas or winds. Sea water is the cheapest and most obvious form of ballast to use. But there is a catch. In order to dock in a harbour, ships must empty their ballast. This must be done primarily for safety reasons, as the ships is more manoeuvrable, stops quicker, and can be easily towed by tugs. As ballast must be constantly emptied, it must also be refilled. Each ship picks up enormous amounts of seawater, including sea life, into enormous ‘bilge tanks’ at the base of the ship at a port, and then releases it all at the next port of call. Thus the international shipping trade acts as a washing machine in the oceans, spreading marine life to all corners of the world. In Australia alone it is important to realise that 97% of our trade is via the sea, and over 200 million tonnes of ballast water is dumped in Australian waters each year. Global ballast discharge is a staggering 100 trillion cubic metres. The National Introduced Marine Pests Co-Ordination Group, (NIMPCG), estimates that 250 marine ‘pests’ have been introduced to Australian waters via ballast water, and although our track record in eradicating damaging introduced species is good, there are big hurdles in the future. In the past, the majority of our global trade was with the cold water regions of the Northern Hemisphere, (USA & Europe), but as Asia becomes a growing regional trading partner, the potential damage of ship ballast increases. The warmer Asian seas are far more likely to hold marine species that would survive and thrive in Australian waters. The issue needs awareness and understanding. Groups including the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the International Maritime Organisation, (IMO) have called for a global review of shipping ballast.


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