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Dragons & Sea Lions

 
The reefs of South Australia provide a wonderful world of contrast, from sea lion rookeries to coastal muck diving

I had a little bit of the shakes and a nervous cough when I grabbed my camera and swung my legs over the side of the boat. Sitting there, I made the final equipment check, turned the strobes on and adjusted my extra-heavy weight belt.

I guess my trepidation was understandable. After all, I was about to do a solo dive right in front of a sea lion rookery in Hopkins Island, South Australia. I was smack in the middle of great white shark territory, and surrounded by landmarks with ominous names – Dangerous Reef, Coffin Bay and Encounter Bay. I mean, who wouldn’t be nervous?

I put the regulator in my mouth, mask on my face, and rolled back into the water. My heart beat wildly as I settled on the sandy bottom 5m below the boat.

Okay, not bad. The sea bottom looked a lot less threatening than it did in my dreams the previous night. In fact, it was rather inviting. Although a chilly 17ºC, the water was Caribbean-clear, and the sun’s rays danced along the powdery substrate, rocks and sea grass. More importantly, the countless great whites that made my sleep so restless had yet to materialise.

I then remembered a joke a friend had made about my new wetsuit being so thick that even if I were attacked, the shark’s teeth wouldn’t go all the way through. Ha, ha, very funny. Okay, I relaxed… sort of.

A minute later, the first pup showed up. 

It looked like a little angel with outstretched wings as it broke through the curtain of sunlight. Then a second and third. Finally, there were six, accompanied by two supervising aunties. A big dark bull, at least twice the size of the females, made a flyby to see what the fuss was all about. As they played in front of my fish-eye lens, I went to work, aware that they would eventually lose interest and return to the beach and hot sun.

The fun lasted two hours, and the precious time with these lovable creatures cost me dearly. I had travelled 11,000 miles to get here from my home in Florida, and the opportunity to photograph them was supposed to be the icing on the cake after a stellar three-week adventure diving and photographing the Mornington, Yorke and Eyre Peninsulas in Victoria and South Australia.

But the sea lion dives almost didn’t happen. The final leg – Port Lincoln, gateway to Hopkins Island – was plagued by ugly weather, until a front finally cleared the clouds and flattened the seas. I changed my travel plans at the very last minute and hired a local fisherman to take me to the island. I wondered if my pricey gamble would pay off.

It did… handsomely. We launched from a paradisiacal beach in Port Lincoln National Park and motored roughly nine miles to the colony. While all pinnipeds (seals and sea lions) in Australia have been protected for the last 30 or so years, and most species are on the mend, the Australian sea lion remains at risk. Only 10,000 to 12,000 are left. They are very sensitive to man-made disturbances and often drown in nets. Other factors limiting their rebound include a possible scarcity of food and the high mortality rate of those adorable pups.

While I waited on the weather, I photographed southern blue fin tuna, another endangered animal, in the sheltered waters of Boston Bay. In the early 1990s, Port Lincoln fishermen pioneered the practice of catching tuna in the Great Australian Bight and then towing their catch back to port alive in huge circular pens. The fish are kept in nets for a six-month period and double in weight thanks to a steady diet of sardines. Then, at the end of the season, they harvest the tuna and sell it primarily to Japanese and European buyers. The most valuable fish on Earth, individual blue fins in prime condition sell for astronomical sums. Chinese and Japanese buyers paid a record US$409,000 for a single 342kg northern blue fin caught in January 2011.

While in town, I made plans with a local company, Adventure Bay Charters, to photograph its captive tuna. Although the fish live in an enclosure, they are not easy to photograph, take my word for it. Once the staff starts lobbing sardines into the pen, all hell breaks loose. Hydrodynamic perfection, the blue-fin is made for speed. Its warm blood works like rocket fuel and helps to propel it at 70km per hour. A drizzle of sardine parts soon reduces the visibility, making underwater photography even more difficult. With the weather keeping me within the confines of the bay, I made multiple trips to the pen until I succeeded in capturing adequate images.

Edithburgh and Port Hughes, two small towns in opposite coasts of the Yorke Peninsula, offer spectacular muck diving, and the species found there are as interesting as those in tropical destinations. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb and say I enjoyed diving here more than in many places in Papua New Guinea and Indonesia because the subject matter to me was a novelty, less overdone and less photographed. The cast of characters in these temperate waters is completely different. It’s fresh, it’s weird and it’s unbelievably photogenic.

Favourites found beneath these ancient piers included three varieties of anglerfish, pot-belly seahorses, stargazers, giant cuttlefish, fiddler rays, pyjama squid and cooperative yellowtail scad that constantly swirled in formation around the pilings, all encrusted with colourful sponges and corals. During a marathon day at Port Hughes, I even managed photos of a mated pair of warty prowfish, a member of the scorpionfish family.

It was in Edithburgh that I had my first encounter with the leafy sea dragon.

The leafy is one of the ocean’s greatest disappearing acts, on par with the most cryptic of frogfish. Lose sight of it for one minute and it vanishes into thin air. Fleshy appendages covering the body mimic the fronds of kelp, and the animal’s colour comes from the same fabric as the underwater vegetation. What to look for – the giveaway – in this impenetrable forest of greenish, yellow kelp is the rocking motion of the leafy as it gently pecks at small shrimp with its tubular mouth.

When my guide, Carey Harmer of Leafy Sea Dragon Tours, pointed out the first of three leafies, I was in awe, realising why the locals call its less glamorous cousin, the weedy sea dragon, the ‘poor man’s dragon’. I crossed paths with the weedies the previous week underneath the Flinders Jetty, about a two-hour drive from Melbourne, literally at the end of the road in the Mornington Peninsula. The day I dived the jetty these peculiar fish were everywhere, and ‘poor man’s dragon’ or not, it’s still a very special animal. I timed my visit when the males, some more than 15 inches in length, were heavy with eggs. During mating, the female sea dragon transfers her clutch of eggs to her mate, who carries them until the babies hatch two months later. Flinders and the other jetties in the Mornington Peninsula are all very shallow, and with the luxury of time I was able to ease into the weedies. Soon enough, these surreal fish were so comfortable they were touching the dome of the camera, pecking at their reflection.

Diving this part of Australia is no holiday. It’s logistically demanding, and in retrospect, I might have bitten off more than I could chew. I drove more than 2,000km, injured my back shore diving to the point I could barely walk, suffered numerous and pricey equipment malfunctions and experienced quite a few migraines due to ridiculous airline baggage fees. But going the extra mile to photograph a wide array of unusual marine life in a new environment made it absolutely worthwhile.

 

Need to know

Get in shape! Diving the jetties in the Mornington and Edithburgh Peninsulas more often than not involves long walks fully kitted up. Some of the access points require crossing wide sandy beaches and even climbing and descending dirt trails under the hot sun. It can be exhausting, and proper hydration is a must. 

In Mornington Peninsula, I used a dive shop called the Scuba Doctor (www.scubadoctor.com.au) located in Rye for tank rentals and fills, as well as for advice on where and when to dive.

In the Yorke Peninsula, I relied on the expertise and logistical support of Carey Harmer of Leafy Sea Dragon Tours (www.leafyseadragontours.com.au).

In Port Lincoln, I worked with Adventure Bay Charters (www.adventurebaycharters.com.au) to photograph the southern blue fin tuna and sea lions.

 

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