Magnetic Island North Queensland
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A young koala's beach adventure

February 17th 2007
From the archives: Keith Bryson - The man behind the White Lady (Part 1)

Keith Bryson of White Lady Bay As the first issue for Magnetic Times recess reading during February and March we have taken the opportunity to republish (now on the web) one of our stories from January 1999 about an amazing man - a savvy and observant pioneer of the Queensland fishing and shellfish industry with a broad and fertile vision who, most might think, was these days, no more than an eccentric, elderly hermit who yells at people when they come too close to his tropical beach paradise.

They'll tell you that Keith Bryson has pointed guns at people he thinks might be intruding onto his broodstock oyster lease. That is a while ago now but anybody thinking of pulling into White Lady Cove had better beware. Keith is very serious about the research and cultivation he undertakes. He doesn't take kindly to intruders who aren't aware of the complex array of underwater oyster long-lines and spat (oyster spawn) cages just beneath the surface.

Most locals are familiar with the "White Lady", the rock along Horseshoe Bay's Eastern promontory which, from a distance, looks like a statue of a small woman in a long white dress. It was apparently white from bird guano years ago then someone took the idea a little further with a tin of white paint. The White Lady stands as a sentinel to Keith's world which, with its Crusoesque authenticty, is the sort of place to send movie location scout into a frenzy.

The 'White Lady' and her bay

Keith too is the real McCoy. A crusty old salt type, with callouses so thick on his feet that, when he inadvertantly jumped onto the head of a lurking death adder he couldn't feel or see that he'd been bitten. It took four hours of walking about before a dislodged fang worked its way through his leathery sole and entered the bloodstream - nearly costing him his leg and his life. Deat adders aside, Keith's hermit-like lifestyle (with attendant "pet" wildlife including Henry the curlew, numerous wallabies and a water rat) in such a truly stunning location, could easily tempt the hardest-boiled city slicker to sell up and come to learn the ways of the ocean at the feet of this 76 year old guru of observation in the marine environment.

When we pulled up on the beach for our afternon appointment we found Keith relaxing beneath a grove of shady figs that he'd planted years ago. Within moments however, Keith had launched into a rapid and intense stream of talk. Clearly, over the last six weeks in which he'd had no company, more than a small reservior of banked up conversation was unleashed.

A few years ago, Keith thought he was about to die. So many of his old mates had dropped off he was sure his time was nearly up. It was then that he decided to hand over his lease at the little bay to James Cook University's Department of Marine Biology. This decision was true to Keith's vision for the north. It is a vision which has, it seems, been surprisingly influential and based on the greater good for both humans and the environment - and in particular the sea and its creatures.

Talking oysters

Keith has been linked to the sea since childhood, albiet through his family's chain of fish 'n' chips shops around Narabeen on Sydney's northern beaches. He was pulled out of school at fourteen to work batter bath and was grateful to escape into the army a few years later, though you might wonder why. Keith was sent to New Guinea, where he was thrown into "The fight for Australia" on the notorious Kokoda trail. His company were assigned to artillery support, flanking the soldiers who stopped the Japanese advance in the mud of that deadly track.

Keith has a disarming habit of breaking into a boyish giggle when he is relating a serious, painful, dangerous or frustrating circumstance. He giggled a lot about the 20 months he spent in and around PNG. He has, however, been surprised that nobody seems to have mentioned that the village of Aitape, destryed by last year's horrendous tsunami was where, according to Keith, the entire Australian Sixth Division was camped during the war. Keith wonders how a tsunami at that time might have affected the overall allied push.

It was at Weewack that Keith suffered a seroius shrapnel wound - oironically, from an Australian booby trap. "I tripped over and heard the 'click' of a hand grenade. I knew I had three seconds to get away. I jumped up, ran and leapt for a ditch but was caught by a piece of shrapnel in the back of the head," said Keith. Flying back to Aitape, Keith mused over the landscape below and the many little cemetries where his mates lay after nine months of fighting their way along the northern coast. The return flight took just twenty minutes.

Convalescing at a nearby hospital, Keith began to take an interest in the profusion of corals and other creature in the nearby sea. He discovered shellfish and, in particular, money cowries which fascinated him. He decided that at war's end he would learn as much as he could about marine creatures.

Keith suffered considerably during his service in PNG and it wasn't only his head injury. He caught scrub typhus, dengue fever, developed boils and even acute appenicitis. At war's end, Keith was discharged and for a while went trochus diving in the Whitsundays where he would fashion a face mask out of the sawn-off base of a quart bottle of beer and some old inner tube. He then went fruit picking, and tried his hand at cane cutting but, soon after, enrolled in the newly-opened fishery school at Cronulla. There he was taught preservation techniques which would prove very useful later on. He also gained an apprenticeship on a steam trawler out of Sydney and witnessed first hand the waste of a great resource: tons of edible fish and crustaceans including Woolloomooloo bugs were simply shovelled overboard.

In 1947, Keith got work ona mackerel boat out of Yepoon. It followed the fish up the coast to Townsville, where Keith discovered the Palmer Street Fish Shop in South Townsville. It was on the site next to the present Australian Hotel and Keith couldn't understand why the shop, which was very close to five pubs with 900 wharfies just down the road, wasn't doing very well. The owner wanted to sell, so Keith offered him 200 pounds. The deal was done.

Keith was also surprised that the delicious mackerel he'd eaten on board the trawler tasted like cotton wool in all the local shops. Recalling his classes in preservation, Keith knew that the freezing process for fish had to be done in a particular way to avoid loss of flavour and texture. The best resultz were only obtained when the fish was dropped to between 22 and 28 degrees Farenheit within two hours. He applied this knowledge and soon had a thriving business. With his old army contacts he picked up the lucrative defence force contracts but found himself working to the point of exhaustion and, after 18 months, on doctor;s advice Keith sld the business for two thousand pounds. Soon after he bought his own boat, The By Golly, and with some nifty makeshift gearing he fitted her out to handle her by himself.

Keith was keen to test the northern waters for prawns. Having found only a handful here and there in northern waters he was travelling with a friend off Rollingstone Bay on Magnetic Island's west coast when he thought his mate was pulling his leg, calling out that the net was chockers with banana prawns! But it was true and, Keith believes that was the first commercial quantity sized catch taken north of Bunderberg.

As a pioneer of the fishing industry, and as an individual with excellent skills of observation, Keith was quick to notice the interconnectedness of the fishing industry with the oceanenvironment from which it drew its profits. He realised that any number of interferences to that environment by humans could upset the whole cahin of natural replenishment. Here was potential for all sorts of industries to be developed from such a rich environmental resource, but that ignorant mistakes could lead to disaster. He therefore decided that what was neede more than any other commodity wa sknowledge.

Keith was also fast gaining respect for his contributions to the industry and, in 1955, he was voted in as Secretary to the Professional Fisherman's Association. It was high time, he thought, to start lobbying for the sorts of institutions which provide knowledge, such as universities and research institutes.

In Part 2 we learn of Keith's talent for securing funding for a university and for what became the Australian Institute of Marine Science, his role in the end of atomic testing on Christmas Island, his arguments for the banning of oil drilling on the Great Barrier Reef and his amazing oyster research which could provide the basis for environmentally sustainable aquaculture in local waters.

Story: George Hirst

To make a comment see below

From the archives: Keith Bryson - The man behind the White Lady (Part 1)
jan phillips
April 5th 2011
having known keith i am amazed that some sort of award has not been allocated to this amazing now 88 year old man who is at the moment in townsville hospital with a broken collarbone..still doing what he loves best looking after his patch and the enviroment..please consider help for his special white lady bay to become a sanctuary in his name regards jan
Patricia MacQueen
July 8th 2013
Thank you George -- great to read about this wonderful man and his contribution to society,I agree with Jans comments,but sadly no one gets to hear about the great role people like Keith play until after they pass on .....

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Readers comments
Syl Hayes In reply to Fair raises $15,000 for school
What a wonderful outcome for the school! I had a great time face-painting with Luke and Sasha, met lots of kids and parents,scored some great books at the Trash n Treasure stall, and even remembered to vote. Everywhere you looked people were enjoying themselves...such a tribute to the organisers. Well done!
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