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Snapshots capture Rottnest Island’s happy quokkas

Justin Lees, December 6, 2020 2:30PM News Corp Australia Network

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This photograph is matched in the book with this quote from Russian writer Maxim Gorky: “Happiness always looks small while you hold it in your hands, but let it go, and you learn at once how big and precious it is.” Picture: Alex Cearns media_cameraThis photograph is matched in the book with this quote from Russian writer Maxim Gorky: “Happiness always looks small while you hold it in your hands, but let it go, and you learn at once how big and precious it is.” Picture: Alex Cearns


Reading level: orange

Quokkas are the happiest creatures on Earth, according to animal photographer Alex Cearns.

She should know — she spent months getting up close with the cuddly critters for her new book, The Quokka’s Guide To Happiness.

The former police officer and crime analyst* has matched cute and funny photos of the marsupials in their natural habitat on Rottnest Island, off the WA coast, with stirring* quotes from great thinkers and writers from human history.

media_cameraThis photo is paired with the following quote from mathematician and physicist Albert Einstein: “Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving.” Picture: Alex Cearns
media_camera“The better part of one’s life consists of his friendships.” This quote from former US president Abraham Lincoln is matched with this photograph of two quokkas. Picture: Alex Cearns

Cearns’ picture book, released this month by HarperCollins and ABC Books, also contains plenty of facts about quokkas, including:

  • their unusual-sounding name comes from the Aboriginal Nyungar language word “gwaga”
  • their happy facial expression is the result of the curve of their snout and the doglike way they “smile” by opening their mouths to cool off
media_cameraThis photo is accompanied by this quote from French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “Experience tells us that love does not exist in gazing at each other but in looking together in the same direction.” Picture: Alex Cearns

Perth-based Cearns is a passionate campaigner* for wildlife and abandoned animals. She has received a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for her charitable work and numerous photography awards.

“Quokkas are adorably cute, remarkably unique and very photogenic*, with their cheeky grins and loveable personalities,” she said of her furry subjects on Rottnest Island, 19km off the coast of Perth.

media_camera“If it’s sanity you’re after, there’s no recipe like laughter. Laugh it off.” This quote from US writer Henry Rutherford Elliot accompanies the shot of this happy quokka. Picture: Alex Cearns.
media_cameraFrench poet Victor Hugo’s quote “Even the darkest night will end, and the sun will rise” is matched with this photograph. Picture: Alex Cearns.

“What an absolute joy it was to photograph quokkas while they (mostly) ate, played and interacted* with each other.

“Some were very friendly and would run towards me at full speed, as if we were long-lost friends.

“Others were more cautious in their approach, but as soon as I sat still, their curious natures would get the better of them and they would slowly come closer and then act like I wasn’t even there — which generally meant they got on with eating.

“It was a great privilege* to stop and sit quietly with hundreds of quokkas for hours on end and to get to know them better than I would have if I’d just taken a brief selfie with a mobile phone.”

media_cameraAnimal photographer Alex Cearns gets up close with a quokka on Rottnest Island.


Description: Quokkas are one of the smallest wallaby species in Australia. They have thick, coarse, grey-brown fur; short, rounded fluffy ears; and a 24-31cm long tail. They grow to 40-54cm long and weigh 2.7-4.2kg.

Diet: Quokkas are herbivores* and eat native grasses and the leaves, stems and bark of a variety of plants. They prefer browsing* on new, young growth.

In the wild: On Rottnest Island, quokkas appear to live in territories with the areas defended by dominant* males. In other areas, quokkas live in larger, overlapping territories in groups of 25-150 adults. Quokkas shelter in dense* vegetation during the day and create their own pathways for feeding or escaping predators.

Threats: Quokkas were once abundant* on the Australian mainland but with the arrival of dingoes about 3500 years ago and then foxes in the late 1800s (neither of which reached Rottnest Island) their numbers were drastically reduced. Today they are showing signs of recovery on the mainland thanks to efforts to protect them from predators like foxes and feral cats.

Source: Perth Zoo

media_cameraThe Quokka’s Guide to Happiness by Alex Cearns.


  • analyst: person who studies something in detail
  • stirring: inspirational, moving
  • campaigner: person who works towards a particular goal
  • photogenic: looks good in photographs
  • interacted: communicated and reacted to each other
  • privilege: special benefit enjoyed by only some people
  • herbivores: plant eaters
  • browsing: nibbling
  • dominant: most powerful
  • dense: thick
  • abundant: in large numbers


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  1. On which island do the quokkas live?
  2. What causes the quokkas’ happy facial expression?
  3. What is the name of the photographer?
  4. Photos of the quokkas appear in the book with what?
  5. How big do quokkas grow?


1. Book proposal
Wouldn’t you love to spend time taking photographs of amazing animals and then turning it into a book? Create a proposal for your own animal photography book. Your proposal should include:

  • what your book will be called
  • what the book will be about – e.g. will it include famous quotes like The Quokka’s Guide to Happiness or will it be an information book, a story, or something else?
  • what types of animals you will feature in your book
  • where the photographs will be taken
  • who the target audience of your book is – i.e. who do you think will buy it?
  • a “mock up” of a page from your book

Time: allow 30 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English; Visual Arts

2. Extension
Create a “fact profile” like the one at the end of this news story, for the animal (or one of the animals) in your book proposal.

Time: allow 15 minutes to complete this activity 
Curriculum Links: English; Science

Up-level it
Scan through the article and see if you can locate three words that you consider to be basic, or low level. These are words we use all the time and that can be replaced by more sophisticated words. Words like “good” and “said” are examples of overused words.

Once you have found them, see if you can up-level them. Think of synonyms you could use instead of these basic words, but make sure they still fit into the context of the article.

Re-read the article with your new words. Did it make it better? Why/why not?

Extra Reading in animals