Diving


December’s edition of Reader’s Digest – out now – includes my feature article on snorkelling with whale sharks at Ningaloo Reef – click the link for an online version at the Reader’s Digest website.

Ningaloo Reef is not only one of the planet’s most spectacular coral reef systems, it’s one of the few places where these huge, highly unusual sharks can be reliably encountered.

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Whale shark filter feeling just below the surface, Ningaloo Reef, WA. Photo by David Levell.

GBR008.LadyElliotIsland lagoon.LevellLong time, no post. I’m surfacing to say my feature story on the Great Barrier Reef is in the current issue of the wonderful Australian Traveller  magazine (Megan Gale on cover).

The story covers the Capricornia Cays, the Reef’s southern end, a tropical paradise of coral islands brimming with colourful fish, seabirds, pisonia forests, manta rays and green turtles. Heron Island and Lady Elliot Island (left) are the resort islands. Both are coral cays, right on the reef itself. The diving is superb!

 

 

 

 

 

It was Botany Bay’s most surprising arrival since Cook dropped anchor in the Endeavour – on Tuesday, 16 February 1965, the famous Sydney inlet was graced with a thirty foot (9m) whale shark, which washed ashore on Bare Island in the bay’s northeast corner.

whale-shark

Little was known of whale sharks or their haunts back then. Hardly anyone had ever seen one; it would be over 20 years before the Ningaloo Reef population was discovered. The first documented sighting of a whale shark in Australian waters was by fishermen near Jervis Bay, NSW, in April 1938, sparking headlines nationwide. With only a handful of sightings since then, the arrival of one of these mysterious spotted sea beasts in the waters of Australia’s biggest city caused a sensation.

Sad to say, its stranding was no freak whim of Mother Nature. The poor creature was hounded ashore by an electrical repair vessel, the Warratah, which chased it around Botany Bay for about an hour. Numerous small fishing boats joined in; at one point the harassed shark surfaced under a dinghy containing two fishermen and almost capsized them. After heading towards the open sea, the whale shark turned for Bare Island, where it became stranded on rocks amidst heavy pounding waves.

About 50 onlookers approached for a closer look (a footbridge links the island to shore) but the wild waters forced them back. The Warratah crew tried to tow the five-ton animal back into the bay, but their efforts ended in a snapped line.

Skindiver Eric Buchanan then tied a two-inch nylon rope from the launch Temora around the tail. But again the line broke, and Buchanan had a narrow escape when a big surge almost rolled the shark on top of him. As he scurried to safety the shark washed another 20 feet, coming to rest on a flat rock platform above the tide line, where it spent the day slowly dying.

Over the day, an estimated 10,000 people jammed nearby roads, wanting to see the beached giant. Some brought hacksaws and other tools to carve out a souvenir. The whale shark’s mouth – five feet across – was forced open with an iron bar, and over the next day or so its eyes were gouged out and its dorsal fin and tail sawn off.

The Australian Museum announced it would either take the corpse or cast a replica, but it was already too late. Little or no attempt was made to secure the site and by the next day, with hundreds of people still visiting, it was reported that ‘only half the monster remains and knife-happy tourists and fishermen have cut off huge chunks of flesh’. Too mutilated to tow, the shark was left stinking in the sun, much to the displeasure of Mrs Moore, the wife of Bare Island’s caretaker, who called it ‘an overpowering and unwelcome visitor’.

Before the remains were finally disposed of, the Australian Museum took some skin and teeth samples (item IB.7314 in its collection). To this day, no-one has ever reported another whale shark in Botany Bay – and who can blame them for steering clear after such a savage reception?

whaleofasharkPS: By pure coincidence, just five days after the Bare Island stranding, Ben Cropp and George Meyer obtained spectacular footage of two whale sharks near Montague Island off the NSW south coast. They had spent several days looking for a whale shark which Meyer had seen while diving there, and at first worried that the Bare Island shark was that animal. This was only the second time a whale shark had been filmed underwater, and the first time in colour. Hans Hass shot some black-and-white footage in 1950, which appears in his movie Under The Red Sea (aka Diving In The Red Sea).

A link to my story on LIZARD ISLAND RESEARCH STATION, one of only four marine biology outposts on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

Crown-of-thorns starfish at Lizard Island Research Station. This natural reef predator is favoured by manmade changes to water chemistry

Crown-of-thorns starfish at Lizard Island Research Station. This natural reef predator is favoured by manmade changes to water chemistry. Photograph: David Levell

 

 

 

OLD FOURLEGS: THE STORY OF THE COELACANTH – JLB Smith (1956)

One of my most constant and peculiar obsessions had always been a conviction that I was destined to discover some quite outrageous creature – JLB Smith.

And he did, too. The discovery of the coelacanth in 1938 is well known in thumbnail-version – supposedly long-extinct fish turns up in fishing net – but the full story of the one that got away for 65 million years is quite a fisherman’s tale.

It involves a sharp-eyed museum curator named Miss Latimer and JLB Smith, South Africa’s foremost ichthyologist. Much of the drama comes from Smith’s 14-year quest to find a second specimen, which finally turned up off the Comoros Islands in 1952.

Ironically after 65 million years time was short. Battles against red tape, suspicious officials, South African politicians, Christmas holiday ennui and the tyranny of distance make this book quite a cliffhanger, with the careworn Smith forever racing to reach specimens before they putrify beyond usefulness.

At the time of publication, Smith thought he had found two species, but later it became apparent they were the same. Of course they were nothing new to Comoro fishermen, who knew them as the very oily and far from tasty gombessa. A second species finally showed up in 1998 off Indonesia.

JLB Smith and long-lost friend

Googling for more info, I was shocked to find the curmudgeonly but likeable JLB Smith killed himself with cyanide barely a decade later, beset by terminal illness. And the intrepid Captain Hunt died in a shipwreck almost as soon as the book came out.

Meanwhile, we’re still pulling those weird blue fish out of the deeps and wondering what other surprises the sea has in store.

PS: FISH & CHIPS
A sadly true news story from 2012, underlining the disturbingly far reach of ocean pollution, reported a coelacanth found with plastic garbage in its stomach. A packet of chips, apparently. This is a poor reflection on the human race any way you look at it.

THE SEA AROUND US – Rachel Carson

I’d never heard of this famous classic of natural history when I found a copy washed up on the footpath several years ago. As literary flotsam of the street it proved a real find, a magnificently written ‘biography’ of three-quarters of the planet.

SeaaroundusSome outdated science is immediately obvious – it was published in 1951, before plate tectonics confirmed continental drift – but this diminishes the authority and poetry not a drop. The prehistoric ocean-forming rain that lasted millions of years is wonderfully described, as are tides and currents. In sediments, Carson sees “a sort of epic poem of the earth. When we are wise enough, perhaps we can read in them all of past history”. The book overflows with this sort of visionary power, strengthening and sweetening the purely informative aspects.

In recent years, Miss Carson’s words about the possibility of submarine tidal activity causing global warming has kept The Sea Around Us surfacing in climate-change debates.  She is also among the most maligned authors of the last 50 years due to her Silent Spring, a famously powerful and influential polemic against the overuse of DDT and other pesticides.

 Some people blame her for every malaria death in the world since she wrote it. But she didn’t call for an outright ban on DDT, much less enforce one herself, and DDT was never banned in countries where malaria is most prevalent. If she had such global power, we should have asked her to rid us of landmines and jet-skis.

Some more dwarf minke clips from my recent expedition to the Great Barrier Reef with Eye to Eye – because too much minke business is never enough! The story can be viewed online at Travel Insider

A minke makes a fairly close approach under the trailing snorkellers’ line, though this isn’t a ‘close approach’ as defined by the scientific surveyors – they come much nearer than this.

Whale takes a breather – listen for their peculiar metallic vocalisations at the beginning and end of the video.

Two minkes swimming together. Scientists speculate that these Reef gatherings, which usually consist of adolescent whales, may have a courtship purpose. As onboard marine biologist Dean Miller said, ‘It’s their blue-light disco’.

The dwarf minke is the most patterned baleen whale. Patterns are unique to each individual, and always assymetrical.

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