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In from the tide – seaweed art on show in Albany

Updated: Aug 16, 2022

Nicola Thomas captures the delicate beauty and diversity of Western Australia’s seaweeds with an exhibition in Albany from 2–17 July 2022

By Catherine Norwood

Young marine biologist Nicola Thomas has turned to art to showcase the beauty of Australia’s many seaweeds and the seemingly endless variety of shapes, textures and colours they offer.

Pressed seaweeds have been used to preserve specimens for science and art in Australia for more than a century. Nicola has been pressing seaweeds over the past 18 months, in an attempt to capture their ephemeral beauty, initially for herself, and now to share with others.

She says she first tried botanical drawing as her mother is a scientific illustrator, but sadly, she didn’t inherit her mother’s genes for drawing.

She did, however, inherit an eye for detail and a fascination with nature, both of which have led her to the beach and seaweeds since she was a child.

Ocean life

Nicola grew up in Perth, with an active coastal lifestyle that included everything from beachcombing to surf lifesaving.

Marine science was always on her agenda, and after high school studied a Bachelor of Marine Science and Conservation Biology at the University of Western Australia. This included fieldwork mapping seagrasses and seaweeds in Albany, and she found herself hooked, both on Albany, and on seaweeds.

“People think of seaweeds as gross and smelly. But I love being able to show how pretty and interesting they are.” Nicola says. And the Albany region is the perfect place to be for seaweed spotting. “It’s a biodiversity hotspot here, and the coast is so raw; it seems to face the ocean in every direction at some point.”

Her favourite seaweed is the bright pink species Plocamium mertensii which has incredibly detailed foliage, or blades. “It is one of the more beautiful species to frame up and really draws people's attention. I find it the most useful species to show just how gorgeous and interesting seaweed can be!”

Despite her studies identifying seaweeds, she says she often finds unfamiliar species she needs to track down. ‘Marine Plants of Australia’ by John Huisman is her go-to guide, and occasionally she reaches out to the author himself for help with some of the trickier identifications.

“There are some species you really can’t identify unless you have a cross-section under a microscope,” Nicola says. “Or you need the whole organism to distinguish one species from another.” Australia has more than 2000 known species of seaweed with many others still to be fully identified and described.

Nicola is planning to use her marine science degree in the seaweed farming industry, where she sees many exciting opportunities for new uses.

Seaweed can be used for so many different things. It can be turned into multiple materials, such as leather and plastic alternatives, and it is already used in many pharmaceutical products on the shelves today," Nicola Thomas says.

"Seaweed can be used as a natural water filtration system. It is also an incredibly healthy food supplement. Albany would be able a prime spot to start a seaweed farm,” she adds.

A pressing hobby

In the meantime, Nicola works with Albany’s Australian Wildlife Park at Discovery Bay, and the seaweed collecting and pressing remain a hobby. She takes only beach cast seaweed and finds the most difficult part of the process is laying out the seaweed onto cards.

“They can be a tangled mess when you collect them, so it takes time to lay them out in order to press them. Then it can take one or two weeks for them to dry. The framing itself is probably the fastest part of the process.”

She has a collection of 30 pieces ready for the exhibition, for show and sale, with a few more in reserve if needed. Most have been collected from Western Australia’s southern coast, although there are a few tropical specimens collected during a recent trip around Australia.

She’s excited to be sharing her work, and also to take part in the 'Meet the Marine Biologist' session on 9 July as part of the exhibition. She’ll be available to talk about all things marine, but seaweeds in particular.

There will also be a seaweed pressing workshop, run by her co-exhibitor Alex Gerrard on Saturday 2 July, 10am to 2pm.

More information:

Historic Whaling Centre, Albany, WA

Nicola Thomas @southwestseaweeds

Alex Gerrard @shell.collective

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