Skulls caves, waterfalls, bioluminescent birdwatching. Sometimes the most amazing diving is not the most memorable part of an adventure. A trip to Tawali Dive Resort in Papua New Guinea helped me discover one of my favourite dive sites in the world but it was everything else I found there that made this place unforgettable. Let’s dive in one last time.
Just getting to Tawali is an adventure. First you fly from PNG’s capital Port Morseby to a remote town in PNG’s south east, called Alotau. From there a rambling mini bus drive takes you past villages and through jungle. You spot farms, villages and plane wrecks nestled in the bush. Two hours later you are unloaded at a small wooden dock. Suitcases are passed through the mini bus window and piled onto a boat. We head out as the last fishermen head in from the day on wooden canoes. A mass of green looms above a wooden jetty as dusk falls. This is Tawali, we’ve made it.
Soft corals and jungle skies
Over the coming days we left our mountainous new home to explore the nearby reefs. Motoring out on the dive boat we’d see flying fish leap out of the water and dart across the surface. One day we came upon a site called Deacon’s Reef. Looking up at the jungle I stepped off the boat and descended. Coral reef greeted me in every direction, colourful and alive with a rainbow of fish. Swimming along I followed our guide, so far nothing unusual here. We weaved between rocks covered in sponges and encrusting coral. I found myself in a gully, a rock wall on one side rose from the sea floor to the surface.
Looking up took my breath away. It wasn’t a wall it was the edge of the land. Above me the sunlight shimmered through the jungle, creating a sparkling green ceiling. The gully grew shallower, I was swimming upwards towards the jungle. Looking away from the land I saw a mass of vibrant colours. Soft corals in the most delicate shades of pink, yellow and orange grew in clumps. I floated at the bottom of the gully. Looking up at the soft corals, fish swam above me like birds among the reflections of the jungle. It was a disorienting, beautiful world.
Soft corals don’t grow calcium carbonate skeletons, they’re not reef builders like hard corals. Every soft coral polyp has eight tentacles instead of six, placing soft corals and sea fans in in a group called Octocorals. Some octocorals have algae in their tissues called zooxanthellae. This algae converts sunlight into food through photosynthesis, similar to terrestrial plants. Other soft corals don’t contain any zooxanthellae. They rely on underwater currents to bring their plankton food to them. These algae-free soft corals are easy to spot as they are bright shades of red, orange, pink and purple.
Surfacing from the dive, the surreal feeling persisted as we went on a shopping trip in the ocean. Local villagers had paddled out in their canoes to sell jewellery and shells. Mitch picked a necklace for me while bobbing beside the canoe.
Waterfalls and skull caves
Back at the resort that afternoon we kept exploring. A local guide, Gilbert, took us to see some caves. It was overcast but muggy in the jungle, the air felt heavy with water. Descending into the first cave we felt the temperature drop. Cool relief! As our eyes adjusted to the darkness, we followed a short path deeper, down into the earth. Rounding a bend, we came upon a strange formation.
White stalactites hung from the cave ceiling. When the torch beam hit them, they sparkled as if covered in glitter. My eyes slid down to a pile of white rocks stacked up at their base. But they weren’t rocks. They were skulls. Piles and piles of human skulls filled the cave. Empty eye sockets stared blankly up at us. Some skulls had begun crystallising and also glittered. It was eerie, but beautiful. A natural tribute to ancestors. Or a hiding place of murdered enemies? Like everything in PNG you can never be quite sure.
Back in the daylight and the heat we ventured on. The sun had begun to go down and the dusk was creeping in. Following a path through the jungle we arrived at a waterfall. The forest was quiet except for the splash of water. A calming end to an action filled day. We were all silent on the boat back to the resort.
Bioluminescent bird watching
For our last day on the island we set our alarms for 3am. We were going bird watching. By 4am we were on a boat heading into the dark sea. Stars twinkled above, fading as the dawn approached. It was pitch black except for a strange light trailing the boat. Water splashing along the boat and in our wake flashed blue, like electric sparks in the black ocean. The neon blue light spread along the sides as we sped up. Bioluminescence.
Many marine organisms can produce light from a chemical reaction within their bodies. This is called bioluminescence. They do this when being attacked, trying to attract a mate or when physically disturbed, such as when a boat makes waves. Lots of animals can produce bioluminescence, including plankton, jellyfish, sea stars, fish and sharks. The one thing these species all contain is a molecule called luciferin that creates light when it reacts with oxygen.
In the predawn light we began scrambling uphill. The muddy path wound up the side of a mountain. Bugs landed on us, the mud sucked at out sandals. Our guide sped ahead, nimble in his thongs, hacking errant branches off the path with his bush knife. We trekked onwards, upwards, the day grew lighter. Finally we stopped in a small clearing at the top. Our guide looked up. We did too, not quite sure what to look for.
Finally, he pointed up. I couldn’t see anything. I stared at the green, hoping a shape would materialise. He pulled me closer and pointed again with his arm next to my head. There it was, a brown, bedraggled shape amongst the leaves. A bird of paradise. It had arrived at its morning roost to sing its mating call. But today it was silent. We all looked up, waiting. But he flew from one tree to another then left in silence to get on with his day. It was an incredible end to our trip. We headed back to the island to pack and say our goodbyes. A week of underwater and topside encounters had left us with a lifetime of memories and a vow to return.
This was the final post in the Underwater Encounters series! I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about some of my favourite marine memories and this has inspired you to get out and make your own. This series was produced as part of an assignment for my Masters in Science Communication. If you have any tips, tricks or other feedback to help me improve my science communication please comment or message me. It’s time for me to abandon ship. Until next time may you have fair winds and calm seas.
“It was winter and the water was a chilly 14 degrees. I inhaled sharply as it soaked through my wetsuit, 7 millimetres of neoprene doesn’t stop you getting goose bumps. Ignoring the cold, we kept swimming out. There was something offshore we’d come to see and it only happened once a year…”
We have another guest post for this series! Marine biologist and keen macro photographer Mitch joined us to chat about his favourite underwater encounters. Let’s dive in!
Today we’re taking you to Huskisson, a small coastal town on the south coast of NSW. Husky, as the locals call it, sits in the Jervis Bay Marine Park. This makes exploring temperate reefs really accessible if you pop on a tank and swim straight out from the beach. Mitch and his buddy had come to dive a site called Dent Rock.
“Dent rock is a small rocky reef sitting 150 metres offshore from Orion beach. It’s marked by a buoy on the surface because the reef can be only 2-5 metres below the surface depending on the tide. This makes it perfect for diving because boats avoid it. We hauled our gear down a steep set of stairs and walked out through the shallow breakers. Picking our way over rocks we began to swim out, the water was only about three metres deep over the weed banks.”
Swimming out over the seaweed Mitch and his buddy kept an eye out for interesting critters to photograph.
“As you move along you find patches in the weed, surrounded by shells. Empty shells from clams, scallops, mussels, pipis, every kind of mollusc that usually buries itself in the sand were piled up in circular clumps. In the centre of the shell piles was a hole that seemed to drop down to nowhere, but if you’re lucky it drops down to an orange, brown and cream speckled octopus.”
These strange homes are called octopus gardens (we know you just started humming the Beatles song). A lot of creatures like the taste of octopus so to avoid being eaten they hide in dens. The octopus camouflages its home by building gardens of shells and rocks around it, some even have a rock ‘door’ they pull over the opening to seal themselves safely inside.
“It’s clear these creatures are full of personality. Some can’t keep their eyes off you, they pop as far out of their hole as they can when you approach. If you float down to the weed bank they float higher to keep an eye on you. Others want absolutely nothing to do with you and sink deep into their holes, pulling shells over their heads for cover.”
“All that and we hadn’t even hit the reef yet! Jervis Bay is a pretty special spot because it serves as a breeding aggregation site for Port Jackson sharks. Breeding aggregation, that doesn’t sound particularly special but you end up with hundreds of sharks piling on top of each other, all with no concept of personal space.”
Port Jackson Sharks
Each year between winter to early spring, Port Jackson sharks migrate to shallow reefs to mate. Here they congregate in small groups, in caves, under overhangs, and in gutters along the rocky bottom.
“So what psychopath is getting in the water with hundreds of sharks? Well that’s the other bonus, Port Jackson’s or PJ’s as we call them, are the puppy dogs of the ocean. These bottom feeders eat sea urchins, crabs and molluscs (invertebrates with shells), anything they can root out of the sandy bottom. They’re really not interested in you unless you give them a hard time.”
“PJ’s for anyone that hasn’t seen one, don’t look like your stereotypical shark. They’re a square headed fish reaching a maximum length of 1.65 metres. Their skin is brown with black lines that make it look like they’re wearing a harness. They have rounded fins with small spines just in front of their dorsal fins. Even their teeth are unusual. They have flattened plates perfect for crushing and grinding up their food, very different to the pointed teeth you normally associate with sharks.”
The divers had finally arrived at Dent Rock. But could they find the sharks?
“It wasn’t hard, they were scattered everywhere over the bottom. Heads and tails were going in every direction, no one was fussed that they were being lain on or were laying on someone else. The great thing is these sharks just don’t care. We spent a lot of the dive just hovering above the sand watching them, face to face. They watch you back. There are honestly few encounters with sharks where you can feel this comfortable.”
It never ceases to amaze me what you can find by simply swimming off the beach and having a look around. Mitch had researched the timing of the shark aggregation but didn’t expect to see the octopus gardens. He can’t wait to explore more underwater in his own backyard once it’s possible to travel again.
Images are a mix of my own photographs and those provided by Mitch.
To some people, fish seem completely devoid of personality. You’ve seen one fish you’ve seen them all. In my experience this hasn’t been true. A few years ago, I volunteered at the research station on Lizard Island. This island is a picturesque tropical paradise, named for the goannas traipsing around the beaches. The island is also home to a resort and the Australian Museum’s research station. Coral reefs surround the island and are used as an underwater lab by researchers and students.
A turtle and its hangers on
One morning before my volunteer work began for the day I snuck down to the beach for a snorkel. Heading offshore I passed beds of seagrass growing out of the sand. Then I came across a green sea turtle having breakfast. This herbivore was feeding on seagrass, which turns the fat in its body green – hence its name.
I watched the turtle as it swam and grazed. There was something weird about this one. Finally, the turtle swam up to take a breath and I could see two large fish firmly attached to the bottom of its shell.
These fish were remoras, more commonly called suckerfish. Their name means delay or hinder, which is an accurate description. Their dorsal (top) fin has evolved into a flat plate on the top of their heads. This suction disc contains collagen fibres to maximise the remoras contact with its host. Collagen comes from the Greek word for glue. You might be familiar with collagen because it is the most abundant protein in your body and gives your skin that plump look. The suction disc also contains thousands of tiny spines that increase friction, helping the fish ‘stick’. This allows remoras to suction themselves onto larger, moving animals. The bond is so strong a remora can stay attached to a dolphin even when it leaps out of the water!
So, what was the remora doing on the turtle? Well it depends on the species. Some remoras just opportunistically feed on their host’s food scraps and get a free ride. They spend little energy when another animal transports them so don’t have to eat much. Other remora species help their host by removing parasites. When both animals benefit this relationship is called commensalism. So, it seems fish can get along with other sea creatures.
Remoras can also have commensal relationships with people. In some parts of the world remoras are used in fishing. How you ask? Well a fisherman attaches a line to a remora, sends it off into the ocean and the remora attaches itself to a turtle or larger fish. The fisherman can then carefully reel in the remora and the animal it is stuck to. The fisherman catches something and the remora is fed scraps for its job.
Snorkel side kicks
I had a hanger on myself once. One afternoon during an internship in Exmouth, Western Australia I went for an afternoon snorkel. My boyfriend and his parents were visiting so I took them to the nearby Bundegi Boat ramp to see what was living underneath. We saw the usual stonefish sitting grumpily in its PVC pipe, the schools of baitfish and the occasional angelfish that had drifted in from the nearby Ningaloo Reef.
A little yellow fish decided to swim with us for most of our snorkel. It was about the size of my pinky, yellow with a few black vertical stripes. It looked a little cartoonish thanks to its large eyes that looked up at me. It would swim along with me for a while, hiding in my shadow then if I duck dived it would abandon me for my partner nearby. Back and forth it swam between us, happily joining our snorkel.
This fish was a juvenile golden trevally. Juveniles of this species often form groups and follow larger fish like groupers, sharks and even SCUBA divers. They do this because the large fish protects them from being eaten by other predators. The large fish doesn’t eat the juvenile trevally because they are fast moving and can out manoeuvre their host.
It is clear to me that individual fish have personalities and science is starting to back this up. In one study of guppies individual fish reacted differently to stressful situations indicating different personality types. Research continues with another study about to begin which examines how much butterfly fish personality varies between individuals living on different reefs. But can fish be your friend? Well this little yellow fish found something to like about us and tolerated the rest. Not that different from any human friend really. These encounters taught me that whenever you get in the water there’s a chance to interact with marine life. Make sure these are positive for all involved.
For the second post in this series I interviewed a special guest. Let me introduce Paul Baskys, a dive instructor who lived and dived in Papua New Guinea for three years. I sat down with Paul and asked about his most memorable underwater encounters. Here’s what he told me…
Paul’s first story takes us to the Pai 2, a wreck dive south east of Port Moresby, PNG. This old Japanese fishing boat was purposely sunk in 1982 to form an artificial reef dive site. It’s a great dive, you slowly swim around the boat, which is bursting with life. Schools of glassfish smother the wreck. Colourful sponges and soft corals decorate the rusted steel hull.
While Paul was exploring Pai 2 his dive buddy swam up to him and began gesturing. In strange underwater sign language his buddy, Mitch, pointed at the stern then crossed his arms in a big X shape. Paul nodded, don’t go near the stern, got it! He looked over but couldn’t see what Mitch was so worried about and continued exploring the wreck.
Everyone was running low on air so it was time to head back to the boat. Paul swum back over the wreck, past the stern, heading towards the reef where the boat was waiting. Something caught his eye. A titan triggerfish! These large fish have a sharp beak for crunching through coral and sea urchins. Their eyes are enormous and independently rotate to follow your every move. They’re one of Paul’s favourite species and he hadn’t seen them on the Pai 2 before.
The triggerfish looked like it was feeding. Its snout nudged around in the algae growing on the wreck. Paul swam closer to shoot some video. The fish tensed its body like an athlete at the start of a 100 metre sprint. It turned away, then suddenly spun and swam straight at Paul. He quickly retreated. The triggerfish snapped at the camera, spun around, and lunged at the camera again. Satisfied the human was far enough away the triggerfish went back to its business.
Paul finally understood what Mitch was warning him about. Mitch had seen the nest of triggerfish eggs, a pink gelatinous mass, early in the dive. Both male and female triggerfish will aggressively defend their nests. On a dive a few months later Paul saw a nesting triggerfish under a boat mooring. Having learnt his lesson, he was able to steer a group of divers away from a similar attack.
Grey Reef Shark
The second story also took place in PNG when Paul was leading a dive off Fishermen’s Island (aka Daugo Island in the local language). The dive is on a coral wall near the edge of the continental shelf, where the ocean floor drops down to 600 metres. Divers jump in and drift along the wall, meeting the boat at a rendezvous point.
Looking away from the wall Paul spotted a shark. It was an adult grey reef shark, about two metres long. Normally sharks propel themselves forward using their tail (caudal fin) which makes their head slowly wiggle from left to right. This shark’s movements were exaggerated. It was bending its head almost 90 degrees to each side. Paul looked back at the divers obliviously staring at the wall and decided to keep an eye on shark that was still about 40 metres away.
The divers continued to drift along the wall. The shark arched its back and dropped its front (pectoral) fins. Paul decided it was time to move the divers on. He got the group’s attention and signalled it was time to head to the rendezvous point. One diver got excited, waving at everyone, and pointing behind Paul. All nine divers swam past Paul straight towards the shark. This was bad as dive leader it would be his fault if something happened, but also good because there were now nine other people between him and the shark.
The shark continued its threat display and swam closer. It was now 15 metres away. Paul herded the group back towards the boat. Out of the water everyone was excited about the shark encounter. One diver remarked, “Wasn’t that an awesome dance the shark was doing?!”. Paul dived the site again over the coming months and saw many grey reef sharks but luckily none were ‘dancing’.
Paul’s stories highlight the incredible natural behaviours we can witness up close underwater. These stories also serve as a warning to learn a little about the creatures you may encounter so you know what they’re really trying to tell you.
Our last two days in WA were full of exploring and food – what’s not to love! Waking up early we headed to Busselton Jetty for a stroll. Only locals were going for their morning exercise when we arrived. Plaques and poems accompany you along the full 1,841 metre length of the southern hemispheres longest jetty. Walking back we spotted dolphins surfacing. They were about ten metres away but the sounds of them blowing air out of their blowholes carried across to us. We made it back to shore before the crowds arrived to pay for a train ride up the jetty.
We’ve been looking forward to today for some time. You see we’d grabbed a map of all the foodie places in Margaret River and planned to spend the day collecting yummy things for a picnic. Each place we stopped seemed to be logistically spaced apart far enough so you always had enough room for tastings. We followed our map crossing off a woodfired bakery, two dairy’s (cheesemakers), two chocolatiers, a coffee roaster, multiple providores stocking locally made goodies, olive oil producers, locally made soft drinks and even a nougat shop.
A highlight of our exploration was spending time in Cowaramup, the self-declared ‘cow town’. Here life size cow statues abound and there are plenty of quirky shops and beautiful murals which make wandering the main street a delight. By the time we arrived back at the motel the weather and darkness made our picnic an indoors affair, albeit a very tasty one!
We discovered an unexpected local in the gardens of our motel – the Western Ringtail Possum! Around town there are yellow street signs with a black silhouette of these critters warning people to watch out for them. These shy creatures are listed as critically endangered on the IUCN red list so we never expected to see one. After spotting one walk along a gutter, hop onto a branch then shimmy down it to the next tree we decided to do a bit of spotlighting. Grabbing a camera and headlamp we set off on the main motel footpath which loops around the buildings. Once we slowed down and knew they were around we spotted these possums everywhere! Just in the gardens here we saw 3 possums, happily munching leaves unnoticed as other guests walked past below. It’s amazing what you find when you look.
Our last day of holidays was spent seeing trees. Not just any trees but the famous karri forests and tingle trees. To get there we had a few hours of driving. It was a grey morning, rain fell on and off as we wound our way inland. Finally we arrived at the Valley of the Giants. A light rain fell as we braved the tree top walk – a metal path suspended 40 metres high amid the tingle tree canopy. Now is the time to confess I’m a little scared of heights. But I thought I’d be fine.
I was very wrong.
You see, as soon as someone steps onto the path
For the whole walk I was very aware that I was no longer on solid ground. The rain fell harder as we progressed, Mitch taking photos of the giant trees around us, me staring at his backpack and taking one slow step at a time. Sliding my hands off the wet railings we made it back to solid ground, my legs were shakey and I vowed never to do anything so silly again!
The forest walk below was much nicer. Water dripped from leaves, wrens flitted through the bush and 400 year old tingle trees towered over us. My favourite kind was the red tingle which grows up to 70 metres tall and has buttressed roots so large you can walk underneath them. But this isn’t advised as trampling the soil around the roots slowly kills the trees. Boardwalks let us safely peek inside. It feels like you’re in a cave, sounds from the world outside are dulled and if you look up you see nothing but the inside of a tree stretching upwards. I scanned for microbats roosting in the trunk but couldn’t spot any. Driving back the way we’d come up a muddy mountain road led us to the Giant Tingle Tree. Fire has hollowed out its base leaving a cavernous gap big enough to park a car in. And that’s exactly what people did, with photo’s of families with their car inside the trunk, including an old Combi. This spot has been a tourist attraction since the 1920’s but is better managed now to protect the ancient trees.
Back in the car the rain fell heavier again as we moved on. Next stop was the Gloucester tree. You pass through the back streets of Pemberton to get there, by the High School and houses then back into the bush. It was a huge Karri tree that had been used as a fire lookout tree before spotter planes existed. 153 metal pegs have been driven into it, curving around the trunk and up to the lookout platform 53 metres above the ground. A wire mesh encircled the tree around the pegs, providing a false sense of security for those that chose to climb it. Up they went yelling at each other from the base, posing for photos 5 to 10 metres off the ground then climbing back down. Some went all the way to the top, letting their children climb with them despite the warning sign. It was terrifying to watch, there was nothing to catch you if you fell. We quickly left the crowd and followed one of the paths into the bush. Purple crowned lorikeets were feeding in the karri flowers at the top of the trees. ‘Zit zit zit’ they’d call before zooming between branches. We saw part of the Bibbulmun track before heading back to the car for our final stop.
Beedelup Falls – ‘partly closed for maintenance’ greeted us at the carpark. Unfortunately the hand rail was being upgraded but we still managed to walk over the creek and have a look at the falls. Heading back up the path felt a bit sad, this was our last day in WA. I’d spent 11 weeks away from home and now that adventure was coming to an end. But WA had one more highlight for me – a red-winged fairywren! If you’ve read our blog before you’ll notice my obsession with wrens and here was a species I hadn’t seen before! A male popped out of the bushes and hopped along a fallen log. His blue head and bright reddish brown wing feathers glinted in the mid-afternoon sunlight. Further along we heard squeaks coming from the underbrush. A male red-winged fairywren was being closely followed by a juvenile begging for food. Around the bush they flew, the male hopping up the sides of trees and along branches to catch bugs, the young one following it and noisily begging for food. A female also had a young one following her, I loved hearing them and trying to keep track of where they were as they moved through the scrub. The wrens had come to say goodbye!
The next day we were back in Perth. I handed over the keys to the hire car (goodbye Rotty!) and we were flying back across the country. We had the most incredible time getting off the beaten track and finding our own places to love in Western Australia. We saw so many animal species we never expected to come across, ate amazing things in beautiful places and are already vowing to return and keep exploring this state which is so far away but full of surprises.
We were back on the road together at last, heading south along the West Australia coastline. There’s no better feeling then eight days of exploring ahead of you! Mitch’s flight arrived around 3pm so it was our goal to go for a snorkel at Coral Bay (about an hour and a half southwest of Exmouth) then sleep at Carnarvon, a bit further down the road. Along the way there were a few spits of rain, and small perenties (goannas) on the road. They were an orange-brown to match the desert sand. More and more termite mounds were popping up in the low scrub as we travelled south. At Coral Bay there was a lot of cloud, the first I’d seen in weeks. It was super humid so we walked down to the bay to see what the water looked like. A legless lizard in the centre of the sandy path gave me a fright, reminding me of the snake the night before. The tide was very low so we decided to give it a miss and keep going to Carnarvon. Two and a half hours later, we arrived just as it was getting dark.
We’d already spent a week seeing the sights along this stretch of coast so had planned a 10-hour driving day to cover some ground. This would get us south of Perth so we could spend our time exploring the south west part of WA. The bush changed along the way, with shrubs getting taller then disappearing to salt flats then turning into trees, finally trees! A few dead roos at the start had wedge tailed eagles feeding on them, surrounded by loitering crows. The eagles are such big birds, with wings spread they are bigger than the roos they’re feeding on. Goats were everywhere in pairs or small groups, some with kids alongside. They came in browns, blacks and whites with multicoloured splotches, small upturned fluffy tails and huge backwards curving horns on their head. The kids were cute to see even though they are a pest. Onwards we drove, podcasts and music helping us concentrate as the hours passed. The goats dropped off, the trees continued getting taller. We left the straight, flat road behind and wound our way towards Perth.
After spending the night at our new base in Rockingham, about an hour south of Perth, we were up early. With snacks and water packed we set off to explore Yalgorup National Park, on the coast about an hour’s drive south. Named the Place of Lakes in the local Indigenous dialect, Yalgorup has 10 lakes in the area. We visited Preston Lake first, the enticing photo showed hundreds of black swans serenely sitting on the water. From October to March the swans arrive here in high numbers to feed on the musk grasses. The sign dashed our hopes of a swim (the lakes are just for birds) but we could still do the 5km walk. It wound through bushland, with 10-metre-tall Tuart trees shading the track. This is a species of eucalypt found only along the coast from here to Jurien Bay (just north of Perth).
We walked along the sandy management track for a long time, not seeing much. At last we came to a 300-metre detour to the bird hide, finally a glimpse of the lake! Disappointingly there were no birds on the water, or in the air, or even near the bird hide for that matter. On the shore over 200 metres away some plovers were running around but not a single swan was present, I guess they decided not to visit this year. Back on the trail we saw wrens flitting around in the bush. We froze, they grew brave enough to land on the path 10 metres away. I took a photo and zoomed in. They were blue all over, splendid fairy wrens! You can’t imagine how excited I was to see a new wren species!!! The male’s entire bodies are a bright, fluorescent blue yet when they flit into the bush they can disappear from sight in seconds.
Walking on we found a shingleback sunbaking in the leaflitter on the side of the path. Cicadas hummed in the trees around us while large, orange butterflies floated serenely over our heads. Their wings were backlit by the sun and seemed to glow against the cloudless blue sky. Back at the car we sat at a picnic table surround by bush with only the noise of cicadas and the odd ute leaving the nearby camping spot. It was a really peaceful place for a snack.
A short drive took us the next walk. We went out on a very small boardwalk to view the thrombolites. These were growing in the freshwater of Lake Clifton and looked very similar to the stromatolites we saw at Hamelin Pool on our previous trip. Except these were rounder, almost perfectly circular rocks about 30-50 cm high in shallow water. An interpretive sign showed the internal structures were different, thrombolites existed first and have clumps of photosynthetic cells. Stromatolites evolved later and had a layered structure, like an onion. Thrombolites produce their own food because they host photosynthetic algae which converts sunlight into food energy, similar to a coral. They aren’t much to look at though, so we didn’t spend much time in full sun watching the rocks.
We did the Lakeside Loop walk which promised an easy 5km return stroll through scrub where you could spot long-necked turtles in the lake. It turned out to be a 7 kilometre walk mostly in full sun. It was at this point we started to wonder about some of the guidance material. We were walking along a dirt path, not quite wide enough for two people with long grass and spiky bush on either side. Over the path were the webs and bright yellow patterned bodies of small spiders. They were everywhere, Mitch had to keep ducking so he didn’t end up with a spider on his hat. While they were small, around the size of a five cent piece they were numerous. I stopped and counted 36 in one web complex on a tree on the side of the path. Some webs also contained golden orb spiders. These were much bigger and ran very fast if you leaned near one for a look, making you jump back quickly. An interpretive sign on the side of the track identified the little brightly coloured arachnids as Christmas spiders. Their hardened carapaces allow them rest to in the centre of webs in direct sunlight, while tolerating the withering heat. Worryingly, there was no information on whether or not they were venomous.
We saw filtered glimpses of the lake to our left, about 30 metres away, but never got any closer. After walking for 4 kms we looked at the track notes again and found we’d made a wrong turn. Heading back we quickly found the fork and took the path to the right. It looped us back to the carpark, Mitch still ducking and weaving amongst the hundreds of spiders. I’m not sure where these mysterious turtles were hidden! We saw two young emus and their dad ahead of us on the path. They put their heads down and ran quickly in the opposite direction along the path, bodies shaking like giant feather dusters. I felt sorry for scaring them in the heat. Back at the car we stopped to eat a sandwich. A black spider crawled onto my leg from the picnic table, making lunch after that a hasty affair.
Our second day in Rockingham was spent at Penguin Island, only 700 metres offshore. A ferry putted us across in five minutes. It was a perfectly flat, calm day with not a cloud in the sky. This island is home to the largest population of little penguins in WA. Being daytime though it was highly unlikely we would see one because they would be out fishing. They return to the island at dusk, long after the last ferry leaves for the day. The waters surrounding Penguin Island are part of the Shoalwater Islands Marine Park so we’d packed our snorkelling gear. Penguin Island is tiny, only 12.5 hectares with a boardwalk that loops around the island. You can walk this in about 20 minutes if you don’t stop to look at anything, but there were so many distractions!
At the first beach we saw an odd shape resting in the shallows. We headed off the boardwalk and onto the sand to investigate. A male sea lion had hauled out to rest in the sheltered bay. He had his eyes closed, nose pointed up and was enjoying the sunshine. Soon children were walking in front of me, asking their mum if they could get close. Her advice to the kids showed she was clearly no expert in marine mammals, “oh you can go closer, if you get too close he’ll just do a little growl at you”. Out they waded towards the 100+ kilogram wild animal. We decided to leave them to it (natural selection and all that) and headed back to the boardwalk.
We passed caves in the rocky headland sprawled along the beach. There were limestone arches and an unnaturally squared door frame. An interpretive sign filled us in (we like signs), Paul Seaforth McKenzie squatted on Penguin Island from 1914, living in one of the caves. In 1918 the island was gazetted a reserve, and McKenzie was given a lease on the island. He acted as island caretaker and host, establishing a food store and rooms in the caves and rudimentary houses before welcoming tourists until his lease ended in 1926. We wondered what drove him to this remote place, possible escaping the war (or the wife and five children he’d left behind in New Zealand).
Onwards up the path, you can’t help but notice the bridled terns. These birds are everywhere, wheeling above us in the sky, heading out to sea, sitting sedately on the boardwalk stairs and not caring as you walk past. These birds are smaller than your average magpie, white with grey wings and a black cap that connects to a black band running through each eye. The island has that seabird smell, a mix of guano and fish, but this isn’t overwhelming and most of the time you don’t even notice it. The sound of the terns is fantastic, males were trying to impress females with squeaks and contorted bodies, wings lifted out sideways, neck extended, yellow beak pointing towards the ground. Others were calling their chicks, small grey fluffballs hidden beneath bushes or under the boardwalk.
At the lookout we could see the pelican colony. Pelicans come here to breed but we couldn’t get close because a pair had decided to nest next to the higher lookout point, closing off the path. We had to appreciate them through our telephoto lenses instead. About 500 pelicans breed on the island, they all seemed to enjoy sitting together in the sun. Occasionally one will glide back in after fishing, throat pouch swollen with food. On the west side of the island we discovered the crested terns returning to feed their chicks. The chicks were scattered over the shore, some sitting in the seaweed, others falling asleep near the water’s edge.
Each tern flying in with a fish in its beak made a repetitive cry to summon its chick. Watching them for a while it became apparent this was not a peaceful place to be a seabird. Other half-grown terns surrounded younger chicks, trying to steal food from the incoming parent. This caused the chicks to run and hide, so when the parent flew in to where it had last been there was no chick there. Multiple fly-bys ensued, sometimes with other terns chasing the parent to steal its fish. Eventually when the parent on the ground kept the teenage birds at bay, the chick was seen by the incoming parent and finally had a meal stuffed into its beak, bird parenting teamwork at its best.
We spotted a sooty oystercatcher, running around on the rock platform feeding. Pigeons flew past, making a strange addition to an island covered in seabirds. This brought the total to six bird species. Young seagulls looked similar to the tern chicks with brown-flecked grey wings and white tummies. The black crests of half-grown terns were blowing up in the breeze, making them look comical. One flew in with a small fish, as if proud to show the other adolescents it’s catch.
After many photos and over an hour of bird watching we made it up to the lookout which had 360 degree views. Looking to shore we could see the city of Rockingham, behind us the Indian Ocean stretched into the distance. The water was dark blue, closer to the island it changed to green with patches of seaweed and seagrass beds just below the surface. We set off back to the west side to explore underwater. Walking past the grassy, shaded picnic area we saw a buff banded rail. This small, brown quail like bird was splashing around in a shallow water dish.
We came full circle back to where the sea lion had been resting in the bay, he’d wisely vacated his spot, giving the beach back to the tourists. It was a sheltered spot and looked like the perfect place for a snorkel. There were some rocks jutting out of the water with more birds on them so we headed in that direction. The tide was low leaving less than 30 cm of water between us and the seagrass we were floating over. Small brown fish swam in schools, terns and pelican flew overhead. Reaching the rock, we found two types of cormorants basking in the sun, wings outstretched to dry them. This brought our total up to 10 bird species that we’d seen in one day. There is a discovery centre where orphaned penguins are kept and fed in shows for tourists, we didn’t feel like seeing that after exploring the island ourselves and seeing so much wild bird behaviour. Back on the ferry, the ride home flashed by, we piled off, happy with our day exploring Penguin Island.
We started our last morning in Rockingham with a walk at Cape Peron. Even though it was an overcast day and a bit windy it was nice to be out somewhere new. We started by walking around the headland and down onto the beach. Big brown, jelly like lumps were strewn along the tideline. These were as big as half a cushion. Looking closer we could see small antennae-like pieces poking out near one end. These must be sea hares! The parts sticking out would be the rhinophores. Looking in the rockpools at the end of the beach we saw three more brown sea hares and two small yellow ones that would fit into your palm. Thankfully these were alive, not rolling in the wash on the edge of shore.
Further on we walked through coastal scrub winding into small offshoot paths to look over headlands and out to a funny mushroom shaped rock that seemed to hang over the ocean. Larger rockpools dotted the shore below the cliff we were standing on and we could see the shallower rock platform spreading offshore. It looked like a good snorkelling spot. Walking further around we found old gun emplacements and a lookout with signs that talked about barricades in the water, the remains of which could still be seen today. At the last bunker it started raining so we scurried back to the car. Time to leave Rockingham and see what we could find further south.
Today marks the start of the last week of my internship. I was up at 5am to go look for turtles at Five Mile, hoping to see some hatchlings. A cyclone was building further to the north, it wasn’t expected to hit Exmouth but was driving increased humidity here. Just getting out of the car left me covered in sweat. There was only one turtle in my favourite rockpool, doing its best rock impersonation. I walked all the way to the totem which marks the end of the section, but saw no signs of a hatchling emergence other than old tracks. A Rufous fieldwren was hopping around in the dunes, from one clump of grass to the next. I walked back down the beach, past the carpark and continued towards Trisel hoping to see something. I didn’t see any turtle tracks or turtles but there was a blue and white kingfisher flying from rock to rock. Looking it up in my bird books later, we identified it as a juvenile sacred kingfisher because of its brown tufted belly and brown-white brow colouring. It found a crab and seemed to struggle to swallow it whole, banging the crab on a rock as if to squash it down. It’s surprising seeing these two birds on the beach after only ever seeing seagulls here before.
The day only got hotter and sweatier from there. We dropped the volunteers off at the airport then spent the rest of the day cleaning the Turtle Bus. After vacuuming, pressure washing, wiping down every surface and window it looked better but I don’t think all of the sand will ever come out. The next day was also focused on maintenance. We unrolled all 16 swags, to check for any repairs needed or missing parts. We moved on to washing all the backpacks taken monitoring every day. So much sand came out when I shook them, but also rubbish and bits of fishing line as the volunteers like to clean up the beaches they work on. Washing them turned the water brown very quickly, at least it was so hot they should dry fast.
I was up and out on the beach again on Wednesday. It was really muggy and the sea mist was so thick it looked like a layer of fog over the landscape, turning the world grey. There were no turtles on the rock platform at Five Mile which was a real surprise, the first time this season. There were barely any tracks either. Further along the beach I noticed a group of seagulls down near the water. There was seaweed and debris everywhere, shells, broken urchins, bits of sponges, even a lobster antenna. Then I noticed one seagull had something white in its beak and was being chased by the other gulls. Walking closer I noticed there were white things scattered everywhere among the seaweed. They were broken turtle eggs! They were all fresh, there were no signs of yolk or blood, no yellow aging on them from being in the sun. My best guess is a turtle released eggs into the water and they’ve washed up so the seagulls have had a party. I counted 36 shell fragments (the larger pieces that looked like most of an egg) before stopping. There were 50 seagulls around looking content and well fed.
Back home I put in a full day behind the computer. Editing photos, writing a new Standard Operating Procedure with recommendations for next season’s intern, preparing all my photos for the articles I’d written and finishing off interview captions, before sending it all on to the NTP coordinator. I ended the day back at Five Mile hoping to see some hatchlings around sunset. I walked up the beach and found a seat near a clump of spinifex where I could watch over the whole beach. The other direction was a blaze of light from the setting sun. It was slightly cooler, a turtle head popped up to breathe just offshore. It was a nice place to watch the sun go down. I read my friends blog on a handicraft market she’d visited in Pakistan, feeling even more remote on my beach. It was almost dark as I headed back to the car, no hatchlings tonight.
Thursday. My last full day here, so I was out at Five Mile. Again, there wasn’t much turtle action to see. The high tide had seeped most of the way up the beach to the edge of the dunes so only tracks above that hadn’t been washed away. No turtles on the rock platform or beach. I walked to the totem then beyond, looking at urchins, one had its Aristotle’s lantern clearly intact. Wet chocolate cowries the size of 10 cent pieces littered the shoreline, glistening in the early morning sun. Pied oystercatchers hurried off when I approached. Seagulls pecked at urchins and stood quietly.
I went to say goodbye to the osprey at Tantabiddi. For the first time there were none on the nest. A single bird out of the family of five stood on a pole in the carpark. It stretched its wings upward then sat calling as I took some photos. It eventually flew off, much smoother than any flights I’d seen around Christmas. The fledglings had grown up during my time here. Making the most of my last day I went to Lakeside for a snorkel. There was an osprey perched on the sanctuary post, just like the first time I’d come. In the water it was hard swimming out, I kept getting pushed sideways by the current. Grey drummer were everywhere, feeding near the surface on clumps of floating algae. They were moving much faster than I’d seen them do before. Even though it was a bit murky I saw two species of clownfish, some angelfish, wrasse and a school of different surgeonfish species.
Onwards I drove for one last snorkel at Turquoise Drift. The Rufous fieldwren (I think!) I’d seen many times in the carpark flew under my car as I opened the door, new bugs! The water was its normal vivid turquoise colour and so inviting. A bit murky again in the water yet the fish seemed active. I saw a few new fish species I still couldn’t name, that list seems endless even after nine weeks! Driving the long road back into town I reflected on how much I wouldn’t miss this long drive…just all the places hidden along it.
The farewell dinner was at a local restaurant. While the food was okay the real highlight was a brown snake moving around the outside seating area. A bamboo fence was stopping it from easily escaping so it just kept slithering along the fence. A chef came out to shoo it off with a broom but five minutes later it was back on the opposite side of the courtyard. One of the rangers at dinner with us called it a Gwardar, identifying it as the poisonous western brown snake. I wonder if he was here for the chicken with seasonal veg too? We all kept still and lifted our feet up until it had been shooed even further away. Before dessert we were given thank you presents and cards, it was finally sinking in that our time here was ending.
Friday was a whirlwind of busy-ness for me. I cleaned the dirt and sand off my hire car in the morning before scheduling all the NTP posts for the next month and entering a photo competition. It was sad handing in my key to the office and saying goodbyes. This took much longer than you might think, leaving me scurrying into the apartment at 12:30 to eat and pack everything in an hour and a half. This included the fun Tetris game of getting it all to fit into the car while leaving room for Mitch’s bags. At last I was packed, said goodbye to the other team leaders and had dropped my key at reception. I was off to the airport at last! Mitch’s plane touched the runway but was being pushed by a westerly crosswind so it took off again. Everyone in the terminal was left wondering what happened. Almost ten minutes later we heard the plane approaching again. We crowded around the windows to see it land safely, but on two wheels. Watching the people file off the plane and down the stairs I spotted Mitch’s Akubra bobbing along. I finally got the hug I’d been waiting three weeks for! After picking up his bag and bundling him into the car we were off. Goodbye Ningaloo you were incredible, now it’s time for the next adventure!!!
Since finishing the program I’ve heard some interesting figures from the NTP coordinator. In total during the peak season (four weeks) we counted 1,227 turtle nests across the three different species (green, loggerhead and hawksbill). This reflects a quiet season as the average total number of nests since 2002 is usually around 1,913. I’m not sure how many false crawls were recorded but it was always much higher than the number of successful nests. As usual the majority of nests were made by green turtles (71%) followed by loggerheads (25%) and hawksbills (4%). This puts into context just how special it was for me to see a hawksbill laying!
The opportunity to spend over two months as a Multimedia and Communications Intern was an experience I won’t forget for many reasons. Every day I had the chance to walk along a beach taking photos and collecting stories to promote the program. This taste of another field has left me wanting more and will keep me motivated to forge a career in science communication so maybe one day I will be getting paid to do something I love. This is the only internship of its kind in Australia where someone can practice their science communication skills in a real-world setting. It was definitely pivotal in making up my mind about a career change so I can only hope more opportunities like this will be created. The autonomy I had to learn about the program then communicate it with the public is a unique freedom I won’t get anywhere else. It left me feeling like I had contributed something significant to turtle conservation at Ningaloo.
I also had the chance to immerse myself in a new and very different place. Exmouth is a fantastic town to call home, even for a short time. The locals are friendly and welcoming. If you ever get the chance be sure to say hello to Jess at Ningaloo Bulk Foods who set up her shop to give people the opportunity to reduce waste, especially single use plastics (she also makes the world’s best peanut butter, a tasty souvenir). I had a blast exploring the area, above and below water and meeting all the creatures that call Ningaloo home. While I’ll probably never be able to name all the fish it has been fun to try! My brain is still overwhelmed by the experience and processing everything I’ve taken in as I write these posts weeks later. If you are considering joining the Ningaloo Turtle Program or doing some other science-based volunteer work all I can do is encourage you. This program relies on volunteers to function, while funding from sponsors provides a rental bus and accommodation and food allowances for team leaders there is no money to pay for people to do the actual work. Although getting paid to spend a few hours walking up the beach each morning is a marine scientist’s dream that just isn’t going to happen unless funding for science increases exponentially (hey, a girl can dream!). I’d encourage everyone to make the most of volunteer opportunities to do things they never otherwise would, how else would I get to spend two months at Ningaloo taking photos?! Finally, I’d like to thank the Ningaloo Turtle Program and all the staff at Exmouth Parks and Wildlife for an incredible summer!
It’s the external volunteer’s last week with the program. For weeks I’d been heading out with each one to take their portraits and have a chat for an interview series. I’d finished the series so could choose any beach to tag along on, of course I picked Five Mile. With its huge rocky platform and stretch of dunes there was always something to see here. Today I wasn’t disappointed. There were three turtles along the first half of this 800-metre stretch. As soon as I stepped out of the car park, I saw tracks in the sand moving parallel to the rock platform. Instead of heading out to sea a turtle had gone for a 100 metre walk along the beach. She was still doing circles in the sand as I approached. She was quite large and clearly exhausted from her wandering. I squatted down and remained still. She took so long to crawl five metres onto the rock platform I wasn’t sure if she had the energy to make it. She found a pool of water deep enough to fit her head in and drooped it into the water. Falling asleep instantly in this uncomfortable looking position. Turtles often rest with their heads underwater. The first time I saw this I was worried, would the turtle drown?! Then I felt silly, of course not, these animals are used to sleeping underwater. It probably helps them cool down and feels familiar when they’re out of their natural environment. Green turtles can hold their breath for around 6 hours when resting.
The tide was coming in so I left her to snooze and continued along the beach. Soon I arrived at my favourite spot, a rockpool about knee deep and five metres squared. There were two shell shaped rocks submerged in the rockpool. One of the rocks started swimming around and on getting closer the other was clearly turtle shell patterned where it was wet at the edges. This turtle was motionless and clearly asleep. She didn’t move the entire time I was there, instead she waited for the tide to come in and swam off once fully submerged. A lot of turtles use this tactic to avoid dragging themselves over the rocks, instead calmly resting in any water they can find. I’m not sure how they know the tide is coming in. I watched the water move in over the rocks near my feet, almost as fast as I could walk. The other turtle was swimming around, looking to be enjoying itself. She moved into a deeper part of the platform closer to the ocean and kept swimming around. Eventually she slipped over the edge and was gone. It’s always nice to watch them return to where they belong.
This week we also had a behind the scenes tour of the local aquarium. One of the aquarists was training to become a local volunteer for the Ningaloo Turtle Program and had offered to show us around. The aquarium was very new and only had one main display tank. It stretched from the floor to the top of the second storey and was about three metres in diameter. It contained live corals, over 80 reef fish species and a painted crayfish. Most of the fish and corals are collected from the west coast by collectors with permits. The fish were constantly moving. Even clownfish and humbugs which in the wild stick around an anemone were swimming freely because they realised they had no predators. With so many species it was a flurry of colour and shapes. Some were hard to spot, like the yellow boxfish, and the tiny toby. Others, like rabbit and butterflyfish moved near the glass, picking algae off the window sills. The aquarist clearly loved his charges and told us stories about the fish. Like the cheeky wrasse that moves rocks and small corals when he adds them to the tank. And the crayfish stealing tools when he dives in the tank to clean the glass, dragging them under the rocky outcrop.
We went out the back to see the quarantine tank. This is necessary as fish are collected from the wild and are kept separate for observation or treatment before release in the main tank. There were two wobbegongs the size of my forearm and a blue spot stingray out the back, waiting for their lagoon style tank to be built. The ray kept surfacing, swimming straight up out of the water. Having people standing over the tank is what happens during its feeding time, shame I didn’t have a snack for him. We saw the coral tank where new fragments were being separated. For every piece of coral collected for the display tank a fragment is kept to produce more. There are fish in here which don’t get on with others or are good at eating algae or copepods, keeping the coral healthy. They were also trying to grow fragments suspended from fishing wire. This allows the water to move around them and they grow better from each side, instead of sitting on a plastic plug. They had already grown over the fishing line so you couldn’t see how they’d been attached, this is based on overseas experiments and are doing really well. It was great to have a peek behind the scenes but hard to justify the expense of this controversial new aquarium. Why look at these fish in one small tank when you were within driving distance of Ningaloo, a world heritage listed coral reef?!
Another day at Five Mile began similar to the last with three turtles resting on the rock platform. When I was photographing one, I heard two seagulls squawking behind me. One had something in its beak the other was trying to get. Taking a photo and zooming in on the screen I could see it was a turtle hatchling. It was flopped unnaturally upside down with its flippers dangling limply. It was dead, this was my first glimpse of a hatchling at Ningaloo. I followed the volunteer I was with up into the dunes. She showed me a nest that hatchlings had emerged from the day before. It was just a small funnel-like depression in the sand, no larger than a saucer in diameter. It was hard to imagine over a hundred baby turtles had come through this tiny area. Around the depression hatchling tracks spilled in every direction. Seagull footprints covered the sand, not many hatchlings could have escaped. There were three dead hatchlings near the nest depression. They were all smaller than my palm in length and looked so fragile. Little broken bodies scattered on the sand. The white edge on their flippers helped me identify them as green turtle hatchlings. They were starting to smell, I wonder if we’d just missed them hatching. Burying them I flipped one over and saw a hole in the top of its head. Probably where a seagull had pecked it. These birds are so wasteful not eating every hatchling they kill. It’s no wonder all the volunteers dislike seagulls so much, even though they are a natural predator.
We began the volunteer’s farewell by heading to town beach for nibbles, drinks and a swim. It looked like it was about to storm, we heard thunder on the horizon. Back on shore we formed teams and did another trivia session before heading to a local brewery for pizza and farewells. Five weeks had passed by so fast, I only had one week left here myself!