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!

 

 

 

 

 

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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

 

 

 

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.

Just received a copy of Rodney Fox’s action-packed memoir Sharks, The Sea & Me (Wakefield Press). Rodney, you may know, famously survived a major shark attack in 1963, fifty years ago this month.

sharksseameHe went on to pioneer abalone diving in South Australia and, in 1965, the filming of great white sharks from custom-built cages. Having obtained the first-ever underwater footage of great whites, Rodney began filming sharks for many productions, including Blue Water White Death and Jaws – the latter providing some of the book’s best anecdotes.

In February 1976 Rodney ran the world’s first shark-cage dive tourism trip, and today Rodney Fox Shark Expeditions is the major Australian player in what is now a global industry. He’s also a leading shark conservation advocate, with the Fox Shark Research Foundation a key enabler of cutting-edge shark science. Of course I’m biased because I was one of the book’s editors, but it’s a great story and unputdownable for anyone interested in sharks, diving, adventure or true-life Australian stories. For more info see the Wakefield Press website.

 

For a few weeks every southern winter, the Great Barrier Reef hosts one of the planet’s most amazing wildlife experiences. Recently I had the privilege of joining Eye to Eye Marine Encounters on a trip to hang out (literally) with dwarf minke whales in Reef waters off Cape York. Here’s a link to my article in this month’s Qantas inflight magazine about this unique animal encounter.

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