Southern Seas & Shores - Excerpts

Chapter 1 Penguin Landings

Slim, crystalline columns rise up like skyscrapers out of a foaming sea – dolerite rock towers reducing us to dwarfs riding a cockleshell. Water rumbles close in deep subterranean caverns seeking blowholes to escape... released, it roars like falling buildings, and fierce spray explodes vertically through shattered fissures. Whirlpools and races accelerate hard towards land cliffs, monumental walls rising sheer. At their bases, rock shelves jut out defying the waves – space for crowds of Australian Fur Seals, confident and oblivious of the confrontation of wind, water and geology going on around them, creatures beautifully adapted. Waves thwack the hull with the resonating vibration of impact as our boat rises up on wave crests to immediately plummet down again into the next deep trough.

We are off the southern shore of an island isolated by wild seas and high swells. South of Australia’s mainland, Tasmania lies in the Roaring Forties – strong westerly winds encircling the globe and unimpeded by any major windbreaks of land. This was the power behind the Age of Sail. Epic voyages passed by here: the Beagle in 1836 bearing Charles Darwin homeward; Captain Cook on his third voyage in 1777; Captain Phillip and the First Fleet which settled Australia in 1788; and the extraordinary ordinary people that followed – resourceful optimists sharing tiny ships with their cows, sheep, pigs and chickens, in search of a new life. It is a passage of gales and violent seas. Those naìˆve to the sea were confronted with the violence of the biggest environment on the planet.

It is sea on the scale of whales. But out of these tempestuous waters diminutive birds emerge, seemingly too small and vulnerable to be here.

Penguins are part of this place, foraging in deep, cold seas – survivors of the ‘Southern Ocean’. They surface, shake their feathers and stoically tramp out of the sea across sandy beaches and up steep, rocky shores to feed their young...

 

Chapter 5 Rarities - Seals, Birds, a plant, dolphins great and small

The estuary winds wide as it approaches the east side of the scooped bay; there is a difficult entrance point through a rocky reef and the sea turns choppy. Shafts of white spray erupt into the sky from the outer wall of jagged rocks, descending as white water spilling over rock platforms. A group of Spotted Shags in elegant breeding plumage stand tall, haughtily, amidst swirling sea, firmly anchored by large, yellow feet. Out in the big expanse of the bay its creatures suddenly seem very small...

Suddenly they are there, out of nowhere, shapes dipping and bouncing under our small boat, little Hector’s Dolphins like excited toddlers going for a treat. These miniatures, less than 1.5m (4ft 9in) and the smallest of dolphins, almost vibrate with joyful exuberance. Pale torpedo bodies, black-smudged and -streaked, career through the water... speed blurs their beautiful intricate markings. Most clearly visible to our slow human eyes are the rounded dorsal fins specific to their kind, a contrast to the usual dolphin sickle shape.

We had not been expecting them. Their sense of freedom and play in the sea is infectious; these animals are surfers. Any swimmer or surfer could not fail to share something of their experience by proxy: the thrill of splashing water and surge of wave power from behind turning into wild acceleration.

Two of them are cruising towards the beach, porpoising gently, slowly undulating their slim, long tail flukes. The others join in, having lost interest in the arrival of a boat and we three peering humans – this is their way...

In the quiet of the bay we can hear their steady swimming, a rhythmic swish of water as their arching backs break through the surface. Now and then there are little gasping sighs as they briefly open their blowholes for a breath of air. These are the wonderful evocative sounds of dolphins being dolphins... dolphins and humans coexisting.

Chapter 10 Connections - Coral Reefs and Wilderness Shores

Shoals of Striped Goatfish, yellow and blue, almost skim the bottom where a flick of sand reveals a buried flounder. Half-buried backs and tails give away more lurking presence – rays, large and small. Their mobile projecting eyes follow our progress. Clusters of black and white stripes swim through: Humbug Dascyllus, Scissortail Sergeants, and more subtly marked, Bridled Monocle Bream.

A sudden writhing of a large, slithering body emerges, luridly striped in psychedelic shifting stripes of black and white, an optical illusion like a Bridget Riley Op art painting. Our hearts miss a beat with an impulsive and audible gasp of apprehension and surprise. It weaves a contorted course hugging the sandy bottom, undulating over and round obstacles, almost like a theatrical cloak being swept along. Closer inspection of its changing surface pattern reveals a close huddle of a hundred or more small fish. These are juvenile Striped Catfish – making good communal progress by safety in numbers. They move as one in a stunning spectacle, like a fish version of a starling murmuration in an evening sky...

 

As we approach our boat, the hull is sheltering a milling crowd of fish, large and small. They observe us at close quarters and each other, and then get on with fish life, continuing looking for passing morsels, interacting. Our presence is irrelevant... which is the excitement of just hanging about, unobtrusive, underwater with the unexpected transforming to the possible.

It is a moment to reflect on our all too fleeting glimpses of this large reef community packed into a small sea space protected by life-giving coral. Its continuing spectacular diversity and complexity hinge on the efficiency of its ‘waste not, want not’ economy of recycling and connections between species – an elegant, self-balancing network of relationships and activities. Ongoing life and signs had been visible in the coral ‘islands’, fast-flowing water, cleaning stations, sheltered pools, sandy bottoms and ‘bommies’.

We leave this dazzling array and tail the Herculean merman through more dizzying sandy alleys. He has one more trump card...

Chapter 8 Whale Journeys

The Southern Right Whales arrive in Antarctic waters to gorge on the zooplankton in the warm months of bounty in the southern spring... These diminutive beings are worth whale attention and such long migration effort as they drift in vast, tempting quantities. Timing is critical... All have a time slot and a part to play in this delicately coordinated and most extravagant living gathering on the planet.

Copepods, favoured by the Southern Rights, are near the size of a rice grain, and look to be obscure creatures, even insignificant to all but researchers and sea fanatics. They have the space alien attributes of one large red eye, wavy, long antennae and feet like oars. But their universal importance should not be underestimated: they are contenders for the biggest biomass on the planet and now providing significant information on the changing ocean environment... Copepods feed animals on the scale of whales to seahorses and larger zooplankton.

A POSTSCRIPT ON THE INVISIBLE

Plankton, alien and beautiful in its diversity and intricate relationships, ultimately underpins the existence of the whales, the oceans, and us. The Earth’s atmosphere would be very different without their growth, death and decay. Even the obscure contribute to the balance of the planet’s oxygen, carbon and climate.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide dissolved in sea water and then incorporated into their bodies, shells and skeletons becomes sinking carbon, some ultimately accumulating in deep reservoirs. By virtue of their huge numbers such tiny transparent structures are significant in the great scheme of things through the global carbon cycle and a vital link with climate... The magnitude of their remains in ocean-floor reservoirs is illustrated by their decay having created oil and gas reserves. It is this ancient carbon which is being abruptly released back into the atmosphere by industrialisation and man’s activities.

The carbon-containing shells themselves are subject to change. Sea acidity is rising with increasing carbon dioxide levels, resulting in skeletons and shells of larvae, Copepods and other plankton becoming thinner, more fragile and vulnerable... Adaptation to new conditions has happened before - but over a long, long timescale.

Chapter 2 Dolphin Places

The dog was sitting on the jetty with an air of expectancy, basking in adulation from the waiting passengers. Excitement and tail oscillation increased as the boat drew close alongside and we all stepped on deck. The dog knew the routine – peruse the people, lie down, conserve energy, wait for the scudding through water, a breeze through the hair, the whiff of waves and open sea...

Then his attention became riveted on the sea ahead. Admiring pats from passers-by were irrelevant – he now ignored us all. He scrabbled as high up the prow as he could. He lay low, belly tight to solid deck with paws extended – spread and tense – and craned his neck as far forward as he dared to hang his head down over the edge to get that little bit more view of the sea below. We were well away from land outside Wineglass Bay, which was our landscape destination. As sea blue darkened, albatrosses wheeled overhead. They swooped across the surface and up and beyond. The dog scanned the sea ahead and around the boat, his ears pricked and tail tense.

We saw nothing out there, but the twitch which had started at the tip of his tail crept up to its base and was rapidly transformed into a significant force of wild, wagging energy. He was aware of the presence of dolphins long before the skipper or the crew: he barked frantically and suddenly galloped up the port side of the boat barking. (Fortunately the skipper had given us a very particular briefing beyond the safety procedures: ‘Stand with your legs apart and knees slightly bent to brace yourself, so Rastus can rush from one end of the boat to the other...’). Rastus reared up to support himself on the gunwale and poked his head out below the handrail, barking continually. And there they were – beautiful, sliding and arching through the surface – fifteen or more pale greyish, velvet-skinned Common Dolphins. Breaking clean out of the water, porpoising, leaving jet streams of spray, they skirted fast around the boat.