A 45-metre mural has been unveiled in Unanderra in hopes of raising awareness of sponge colonies lying five metres off Wollongong’s coastline.

Western Suburbs Pool has donned a new splash of colour, the walls of the entrance lined with fish, eels and sponges alike, an artwork depicting the ecologies that call the Great Southern Reef their home.

Artist, graphic designer and illustrator, Karla Hayes, has a personal history of surfing, diving, marine biology, citizen science, and mapping reefs, which has propelled her interest in this project.

“I said yes to the project because I am a huge blue planet fan,” Karla said.

“I dig the ocean, it’s a great place.”

The mural, which was funded as part of the NSW Ports Community Grants Program, reflects the work of the University of Wollongong’s Allison Broad. Allison is researching the human influence on marine ecologies, focusing on port and shipping activities and their impacts on sponge colonies in the Great Southern Reef.

NSW Ports General Manager, Strategy and Corporate Affairs, Jon Stewart, said in a press release that the business was proud to support the major public art project.

“This project demonstrates the positive things we can achieve when we work together to support strong, sustainable neighbourhoods,” Mr Stewart said.

“We hope it inspires people across the Illawarra to learn more about the Great Southern Reef and the broader marine ecosystem in their own backyard.”

Karla grappled with the weird features of the sponges that she was painting, ensuring her artwork was understandable and accessible for all who walk by.

“People don’t really understand sponges, they can filter feed, they have all kinds of potential for human medicine,” Karla said.

“It took a few goes to represent the sponges and the reef.

“I have a duty to make something that isn’t completely confusing.”

While the Great Southern Reef isn’t as well-known as the Great Barrier Reef, it boasts a diverse ecosystem of sponges, sea fans, and golden kelp, that spans across 8000km of Australia’s southern coast. A natural environment that has been threatened by human activity.

“There’s a real drive from the maritime community to do what they can,” Karla said.

“Otherwise, it’ll be gone before we fully understand it.”