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.
This morning at Five Mile was magical. When I was trying to work out where the first two overlapping tracks went I saw sand spraying into the air. Looked again. Yup, it couldn’t be the wind making it do that. Then I heard the noise, kind of like a dry scraping thump. A turtle was nesting! I gave her plenty of space and saw two more turtles behind her, one on the rock platform between the sand and ocean, another making her way down the beach. We watched the other turtle make its way past the one lying on the platform. As soon as she got to the rockpool nearby she started swimming around, did a loop and swam up to the other one as if to check on it. Then she continued out over the rocks into a deeper pool where she swam around while I continued checking tracks.
The nesting turtle was still flicking sand everywhere but then began making her way out of the hole she was in. She must have been covering her eggs. I watched her make her way down the beach. There was sand across one of her eyes and the salty excretion dripping down her face was also covered in sand. She moved onto the rocks. They were high and jagged so she had to climb up and over them. She crawled slowly up and over. Slowing down on the flat stretch, she seemed to catch her breathe. She went straight towards the ocean and disappeared over the lip of rocks into the sea.
I had my own section to monitor on Monday, from Hunters to Mauritius. It was really nice just walking alone along the beach. There were a few fishermen at the start of my section, yelling to each other and breaking the morning peace. Otherwise I had the beach to myself, only 3 nests and 3 false crawls along the 2.5 kilometre section. This was very quiet as I found out later the next section along had 24 turtle tracks recorded. Reaching the end I was still overwhelmed by flies. They were relentless. Sitting on the sand I tried to bury my head between my knees with my arms over my head, it kept all but one off my face. I went for a swim but they seemed to follow me, even the water wasn’t safe! Back on the beach I watched the water. Everyone who did this stretch knew a loggerhead frequented the shore here. As if on cue she popped up to take a breath. Loggerheads are not as elegant looking as other turtles. They have black around their eyes and a large jaw for crushing their invertebrate prey. This combines to give them a big headed, eye-bulging appearance.
Woodside Energy is the major sponsor for the Ningaloo Turtle Program this year. They have sent two representatives up to learn about the program. This is a good photo opportunity to post about on the NTP pages. There’s no room on the bus so I drove myself out to meet them at the end section. Along the way I saw a pack of five dingoes around a kangaroo carcass on the side of the road. Most of them ran off as I slowed my car down, pulling up on the opposite side of the road. One male continued to feed. Flies were everywhere, it kept stopping to snap at them. Shooting through the window I watched as another dingo joined it. This second dingo was a young female, only half the size of the male. The smaller one pulled at the kangaroo’s tail. They fed side by side for a bit, then the male started pulling out the kangaroo’s leg bones, cracking into its thigh. The smaller one decided to grab the spine and pull it from the body at the same time. Flies were all over it’s face. The male ran off behind my car and into the low scrub. The bush is short but thick, so he quickly disappeared. The smaller one continued feeding then did the same thing. What an incredible start to the morning!
We went up to the lighthouse to watch the last sunset of the year, and the decade. There was a lot of haze on the horizon and otherwise a clear sky. It eventually went golden then the sun turned into an orange ball and drifted into the haze, turning into funny shapes, becoming square then just a smudge. We went down to Hunters beach and walked along it looking for hatchlings but saw none, just got sandy feet. Walking to my room later, I saw a flock of corellas fly over, white bodies contrasting starkly against the black sky.
The start of new year’s day, I could hear the usual corellas moving about as I got up at 5am. Heading out early I didn’t see any wildlife along the way apart from three bustards at the Lakeside turnoff. It was already windy there so I moved on to Turquoise Bay and did a walk around the bay. It was so calm. I saw a shark fin while sitting on the rocks at the northern end, staring at the sea and thinking about how full the last decade had been and how much I’d done that I never thought I would. It didn’t have a black tip, just a silver fin so I wasn’t sure what kind it was. I forced myself into the water at turquoise drift. The wind was coming up stronger, making the surface choppy and there was already a strong current so I didn’t stay in long. A blue spotted lagoon ray was feeding, kicking up clouds of sand with its movements. It allowed me to take a few photos then swam off, flapping its body over the coral.
On the section Jacobsz South to Wobiri I came across a turtle still covering her eggs. In doing so she’d almost completely buried herself in her secondary body pit. There was sand all over her shell and head, you just saw the occasional flick of sand, sometimes a flipper. I waited for over twenty minutes and she was still covering the eggs, I waited some more. Eventually she’d covered them to her liking and dragged herself out of the hole this in itself took some time. Turtles must have extremely strong pectoral muscles because they only use their front flippers to pull themselves along. I’ve seen them heave themselves over rocks, down the beach and where they’ve gone up steep sand dunes I struggled to walk up myself. Turtles constantly amaze me with their strength and stubborn determination to nest and get back to sea.
Sand poured off her but there was still a layer on her shell and head as she began crawling down the beach. Luckily she didn’t have far to go, it was starting to get hot. There were no rocks to cross either so she made her way back into the water quite quickly (for a turtle). Once her flippers were underwater a wave broke over her shell washing off the sand and leaving only patterned shell. She started flapping her flippers wildly to swim away. She poked her head above the water and snorted a jet of water from her nostrils. Walking back up towards the carpark I spotted a shovel nosed ray in the shallows. There can’t be a better start to the day then a walk on the beach at Ningaloo during nesting season.
Since Mitch and his parents arrived only two days ago it feels like a week has passed, we’ve fit so much in. The first afternoon I took them to Bundegi for a snorkel under the boat ramp. There were only a few schools of fish at first, then I saw a giant shovelnose ray. He quickly swam off across the bay though with his entourage of remoras. Looking in the shadows we found our first stonefish. A big reddish brown fellow, with a massive head, its body tapering like a teardrop from the large head and downturned mouth. It has the weirdest way of moving, instead of swimming it hops along the bottom. Knowing how it moved we could follow its strange hopping trail along the sandy bottom, winding its way from the base of a pylon into a discarded concrete cylinder. Somewhere along the way we picked up a juvenile trevally. This little yellow fish was about the size of my pinky, bright yellow with black vertical stripes. It had a large eye so when it slowed down I could clearly see it looking up at me as if to work out what I was. The little fish stayed with us no matter how fast we swam and when we hung around in the shallows would try to swim in the shade we cast.
The next day we were up early to head out into the park. Along the road we saw plenty of bustards. Stopping at Tantabiddi boat ramp to show them the osprey we were rewarded with one in the nest and another soon landing. We saw the parent osprey flying in carrying a surgeonfish and give it to the fledgling on the nest. A squabble of flapping wings and piercing cries quickly broke out over this new morsel, before a flurry of heavy wing beats. One flew off holding a damselfish that must have been delivered earlier. Not bad for a first day with the osprey!
Mitch: Watching this was incredible, but the opportunity to capture it was even better. I was lucky enough to be using a 70-200mm lens with a 1.7x teleconverter on my D850 body. This combination allowed me to fill the frame with the ospreys. It’s safe to say without the teleconverter these images just wouldn’t be as close. I’d be relying on a heavy crop to fill the frame. Not necessarily a problem with the resolution you can get out of the 850 but still potentially limiting. When shooting I used a fast shutter speed to freeze the action. The rest was time, patience and a bit of luck.
Continuing on we saw a dingo, more bustards and even snakes crossing the road, possibly pythons, they were very shiny and black. They also moved like lightning, so a quick glimpse was all we got. A black snake on a black road in 35 degrees makes for a very fast reptile. Yardie Creek is literally the end of the road as you need to go through water to cross it. Here we went for a walk along the top of the gorge overlooking the creek. More osprey were hanging around near the Yardie Creek tour boat. We could see the cliffs on the opposite side of the creek. They were red and perpendicular to the creek. A row of oysters grew straight at the waters edge, kept even by the tide. We saw black flanked rock wallabies in amongst the bushes, fossilised coral imprints were everywhere in the rocks. At a particularly steep downward section we turned back, a swim was calling us.
I took them to the Turquoise drift, it was cold but nice and clear again. We saw some sharks a black tip and a white tip. They always seem to be heading out in the northern section of the reef just before the rip. Mitch’s parents saw a turtle and there were the usual suspects of reef fish. I also saw a nudibranch swimming on the sand as if it had just been knocked off its perch. Next stop was Lakeside. It was very choppy but we had a nice quick swim with a few more sharks. One seemed to be circling its patch of reef. The osprey was on the sanctuary marker and today there were about five blue spot lagoon rays in the shallows where you walk onto the beach. The rays were skittish quickly taking off if you stepped into the water to get a closer look.
Another morning found us back at the ospreys. One fledgling was on the nest, another tried to fly in but the wind was so strong it couldn’t land, settling on a nearby post instead. The parent brought a fish and the one on the nest was all excited, flapping its wings and screeching as she flew closer. Another fledgling sat on a pole head into the wind down by the boat ramp. It was quite fluffed up and looked very unimpressed with the weather. Yet another osprey was sitting on a dead branch on the opposite side of a small lake next to the carpark. That makes five, so the two parents and three fledglings, what a good crop of young!
Lakeside was less choppy than the previous day and definitely worth it. A large grouper was resting next to a coral bommie, blue fish swam above it near the coral. A green turtle about 20-30 years old swam up, she was happy to hang out with us and take a few breaths before swimming on. Further along we saw a black tip. I was filming it when mitch went to duck dive and it suddenly shot up to the surface then away into the distance. I don’t think it had noticed Mitch was there. Out best guess is the shark thought the large shape moving above it was a much bigger predator. Heading off again I failed to film the blue spot stingrays resting in the shallows, they just didn’t want me close to them.
Christmas Eve was spent running around food shopping and preparing bulk salads for the 20 person lunch we were holding on Christmas day. Christmas morning was fairly relaxed, we set up gazebos, organised the tables and chairs and decorated with tinsel and lights. Lunch went down well, even if it was over 40 degrees and very humid. We went for a swim at Bundegi to cool off afterwards. The school of fish under the boat ramp seemed thicker than last time and swirled around the pylons endlessly. We followed a giant shovelnose ray away from the boat ramp across the sandy bay, it had three juvenile trevally with it. I wondered if one was our friend from the other day. We swam out to the white buoy about halfway across the bay and found a yellow sponge and fragments of algae covered coral.
Mitch and I went to watch the sunset at Hunters Beach. It was a nice night, we saw turtles mating near the shore and a few pop up for breath. The sun set to our right instead of over the ocean behind us, confusing my sense of direction. Afterwards we went for a walk along the beach and I showed Mitch turtle tracks in the sand. He loved watching the ghost crabs in the wash. Some would bury themselves under the sand others would be hit by waves and go tumbling. There was a new moon so no turtles were coming up to nest where we were. We headed to Surf Beach to look for more and saw an owlet nightjar on the road. It’s huge eyes fluoresced under the cars headlights before it quickly blasted off into the night. There were no turtles nesting at Surf Beach either.
Boxing Day I was monitoring Five Mile to Five Mile North and took everyone with me. Halfway along we saw a turtle heading back out to sea along the rock platform. It always amazes me how tough and leathery their flippers must be as they drag themselves over the sharp, rocky surface. She didn’t nest just a false crawl. No one was happy to hear that after seeing how much effort she must have put in to drag herself up the dunes, dig a body pit then crawl back across the rock platform. It was a lot of energy expended for no reward.
Mitch: Taking photos of a turtle dragging itself back into the water was always going to be a new experience. What I wasn’t ready for is realising they manage to lift their upper bodies up off the ground on their front flippers! There was no secret for capturing her hard slog down the beach, it was all about taking the time to watch her and understand how she moved. This includes the moment she found a rockpool deep enough for her head and decided plonking her face in and ignoring the world was a good idea. Not something I’ll forget anytime soon.
We went out for a snorkel at oyster stacks, there weren’t as many fish as other times I’d been and it was quite cold water for 9.30 in the morning! It wasn’t as clear as usual either and there wasn’t as much frenzied fish feeding. We spent most of our time finning hard against a surging current as the waves pushed us towards the sharp coral beneath us. We headed to Lakeside next which offered a little more sanctuary from the surge, but the same roaring current. Seeing a huge grouper under the coral, a turtle happy to have us swim near her made the leg burning swim worthwhile. We still ended up sucked down the length of the beach by the rushing water. On leaving we ran into the NTP group, all standing under their gazebo on the beach applying sunscreen. We told them about the current then were off to say goodbye to the ospreys.
Breakfast on their last day in Exmouth at Social Society was a large affair (the meals that is). I ordered avocado toast and it came piled high with pepitas, feta and a poached egg. After dropping everyone at the airport the car temperature gauge read 50 degrees as if to remind me it definitely gets hot here. I headed back to the office to catch up on a few things and found a book on turtles with lots of pictures, perfect for me and a slow afternoon. After grocery shopping my fridge was full again. I settled down with a mango smoothie to read the turtle book and get used to being by myself once more.
The week passed in a blur, every day I am out with one of the volunteers shadowing them while they do their section of beach. It’s a good chance to take photos and chat. The north west cape is split up into ten sections that are monitored every day for a month and a few weekends every fortnight either side of this peak season. We have a roster to know who is doing what section every day, but as the media intern I only have three monitoring days myself so I am free to go wherever I choose. Luckily, this week, I was tagging along on one of the middle section beaches and we came across a turtle returning to the ocean. She was a large green, with a shell around a metre long. To be nesting she would be at least forty years old. We were on a sandy beach so at least there were no rocks she had to cross. Just dragging herself down the sand looked like a supreme effort. Every couple of minutes she would stop, lift her head as if she were in water and breathe. It was so funny to see but I guess if you spend the majority of your life underwater that habit would be ingrained. Finally, she slipped into the water, job done.
After monitoring, myself and the other team leaders head to the local school to talk to different classes about turtles. We cover every year from kindergarten to year four. The turtle skulls and taxidermied turtle we bring with us are a big hit. We also demonstrate a turtle nesting in the sandpit while trying to get across the turtle watching code of conduct by playing games with the younger kids. They all have plenty of questions or stories about when they’ve seen a turtle. The most challenging class was a group of pre-primary kids (the first compulsory year in WA) that had spent the morning at the school’s Christmas concert. They put their hands up then talked over one another, one boy seemed to like rolling around on the floor. The holidays were just around the corner so attention spans were very short. We got through it though, handing out stickers and surviving our stint of school talks.
After rushing down a peanut butter sandwich we all piled into the bus and headed for oyster stacks. It is gin clear again and full of life. I swim out as far as the waves but get distracted on the way by a school of convict surgeonfish. They are a blur of yellow with black horizontal stripes as a wave pushes them past me. They are feeding on the algae, stopping in groups to nibble at the plant growing on top of the coral. Then more and more come until there is a writhing pile of yellow fish on one small patch of reef. Something happens that I don’t see and one after another they start to swim on and repeat the whole process again. Reading my book on the fish of Ningaloo later I learn this technique of swimming en masse to feed at one patch is a strategy to overcome the territorial damselfish that live on the reef. Each black damselfish is around the size of my hand and patrols a territory of algae which it feeds on itself.
I swim out to where the waves are breaking on the reef, trying to get over the edge and see what is in the deeper water on the other side. The waves push me around, it feels even shallower here and the whole floor is one unbroken mass of coral. If a wave pushes me onto the coral I will shred my uncovered legs. I kick back towards the distant red shore, the occasional wave pushing me in the right direction. About to get out I spot a large school of fish. They are greencheek parrotfish but to me look like swimming rainbows, with patches of every colour on their body. Orange heads and fins, green cheeks, blue tails and fin edges and purple and yellow bodies. They are incredibly gaudy and I love them. How can a rainbow fish not make you happy? I spend time floating around with the school as they scrape algae off the rocks next to shore. The sound of them feeding is like rain falling on a distant tin roof mixed with scrunching aluminium foil. People usually think the reef is a quiet place, underwater is anything but!
The local vet runs a turtle rehabilitation facility in her own backyard. We were lucky enough to check it out. It is comprised of four large tubs between the house and back fence. Seawater is filtered through homemade contraptions and there were four turtles in residence when we arrived. Heather the 100kg green turtle came in as a floater. This is common in rehab turtles who can no longer dive because a bacterial or viral infection has caused a build up of gases in their gut. They float at the surface, slowly starving and growing barnacles. When someone brings the turtle in for treatment it is usually named after the person who called it in. The vet gives it a freshwater bath and the barnacles are picked off. A rehydrating glucose solution is given to the turtle and they may be placed on a course of antibiotics which are injected into their shoulder (without hitting the bone).
They are fed squid but mostly lettuce and seagrass as they are all green turtles (this species is herbivorous as an adult). Catalina was also a floater, she is around 10-15 years old and has a lot of growing to do. Lexi is much older and has scars all over her shell. Heather is missing the tip of her right front flipper and AJ was also found floating and is another small turtle, around the size of Catalina but much lighter in colour. As the place doesn’t have an education permit they cannot do tours of the facility and funding is limited because of this. It also means I can’t share any of the photos I’ve taken. In a few days Mitch arrives, I can’t wait to get my favourite snorkeling buddy back.
My first full day off, I was heading out to the Park at 6am. I stopped when I arrived at the sign for Lakeside and climbed out of the car. An osprey was sitting on top of the sign. Grabbing my camera I moved closer slowly taking a few frames. It quickly became used to my presence and started pulling at something between its claws. Looking through my telephoto I realised the bird had half a fish in its oversized dinosaur-like foot. The talons on the bird were huge, black and sharp. The legs looked almost too large. It soon flew off, carrying the fish tail in one foot. I moved on to Lakeside and saw a fin and tail tip of a shark in the shallows, it also quickly disappeared.
I swapped my camera for snorkelling gear and headed out. Lakeside is the closest snorkelling spot to Exmouth along the road into Cape Range National Park. It is one of three main sites, the others being Turquoise Bay and Oyster Stacks. You need a high tide of at least 1.2 metres to snorkel oyster stacks. I’d already seen Turquoise Bay with Mitch and been to Lakeside with the group, discovering its strong current. Heading out today there was barely any current and the visibility was much better, it seemed like a completely different place. The first bommie I came across had a large ray resting under its edge. I spotted two clownfish scaring larger grey damselfish away from their small anemone home on the edge of the coral. Chromis darted around and the odd narrow lined puffer sat on the sand, as if still half asleep. These fish look too heavy to swim at the best of times with their bloated, head heavy shape and tiny fins. I came across a green turtle, it looked young as the edges of its shell were serrated, making me look twice to know if I was confusing it with a hawksbill. Then the current seemed to stir and the turtle gracefully swam off into it.
A school of convict surgeonfish swept my way. Then a large school of grunter arrived, swimming in an arc around me. They began feeding on the algae, each taking turns to move in, grab some and move away. Sometimes one would get it stuck in their mouth and swim away trailing a huge clump. Brown debris filled the water, making it murkier. These fish were large, over half a metre but placid looking with their smooth bodies and large eye, they seemed like underwater cows. I loved being amongst them and swam into the school, they swirled around me then let me stay with them and kept feeding. Around and around they passed me, only a metre or two away. I felt so small but suddenly included as most fish here would swim off on my approach but this school had let me join them.
Sunday was the first day of summer. It’s nice waking up to a hot day, the corellas were back to their antics flying over and screeching. Driving into the park, I came across five dingoes running along the road together. I stopped and started taking photos through the lowered passenger side window. They were very healthy looking and beautifully backlit by the rising sun which turned everything gold. The dingo population in the park has increased, possibly due to campers leaving behind food scraps. There are signs as you enter the park not to feed or approach dingoes. Rangers are keeping an eye on this and will euthanise any with mange as it is a highly transmittable disease. I felt safe enough from my car as the dingoes ran by, I’m not sure how I’d feel out camping alone at night.
There was a pair of bustards beside the road. They are large birds that would reach my mid thigh if I could get close enough to stand next to one. They have a grey body, black capped head and long legs. They look like skinny emus but surprised me by taking flight on large wings, another skittish animal. I spent the morning snorkelling at Lakeside again. A blue spotted stingray frightened me by taking off from the sand, throwing up a cloud of silt as it jetted off. I hadn’t even seen it lying there. Driving home I had to stop and let an adult male emu and his six half grown chicks cross the road. Teaching them bad habits already! They walked around the motel rooms and pecked at the ground around our BBQ. Two chicks couldn’t work out how to follow the rest of the group around the pool fence and ended up running the opposite way making high pitched noises, as if to say “Dad where are you?!” I heard his deep guttural rumble, so did the chicks who soon worked out how to rejoin their family.
After lunch I drove out to Oyster Stacks. Heading down the path you come to a rock platform, the rocks at the edge have natural ledges allowing you to step down into the water. There are four large rocks offshore covered in oysters. About 150 metres out to sea, waves crash on the edge of the aqua lagoon. Dark blue water sits on the far side of the white waves. I read in the tourist booklet this is one of the closest points Ningaloo reef comes to shore, I wonder how that affects the snorkelling? Putting my face under I can see coral as far as the 10-15 metre vis will allow. It’s so much clearer here! There is less than a metre of water between my knees and the coral I’m floating over. It is very different to the other sites, the further out you swim the denser the coral grows, with lots of branching varieties. It reminds me more of a garden with close planted bushes, compared to the more higgledy piggledy planting at Turquoise drift. The fish are very active here, there are more parrotfish and other species I hadn’t yet spotted on Ningaloo. I come across a clam filled with small moon wrasse darting in and out of it. Neon coloured blue damsels dart in as well. I look closer and discover these fish seem to be eating the clam. Another feeding frenzy is happening further on, there seems to be a large fish of every colour involved. This place seems so alive but on a limited timer. I leave as the tide drops and the fish start to disappear.
The turtle watching tour was an interesting experience. We met at the Jurabi turtle centre at sunset. This place has shade sails arranged in a turtle shape and gives tourists enough information to watch turtles without disturbing them. Our guide went through a plethora of turtle information, filling time as the sun set and it grew dark. Finally we headed as a group down to the beach. Turtles could be seen coming up from the water 400 metres away. We were told to sit in the sand and wait until they crawled up into the dunes. While we waited the moon and stars came out. There was only a small sliver of moon but it cast enough light to see by, this was fortunate as we’d been told to leave all lights behind. After half an hour of waiting it was time to move up the beach so we walked 200 metres along the waters edge. Arriving closer we could see there were two turtles busily digging their body pits, sand was flying everywhere so we stayed back. One guide went up to check their progress, radioing through that we could move closer, by crawling in single file along the beach. We continued waiting. One turtle gave up early and headed back to sea, making her way down the beach through the middle of the group. The digging turtle continued, we kept waiting and watched the stars. Finally the turtle began chambering so we commando crawled up the beach in pairs to the guide waiting with a red light. Half an hour later I had my turn, it was a big group with 26 people and 2 guides out for the evening. I peered over into the hole and saw the back end of a turtle. Craning my neck I could see the pile of wet looking eggs below her and the occasional egg plopping out in the glow of the red torch. Less than a minute and I was back down the beach. It was a nice thing to see but I found it difficult to enjoy with such a large group. I arrived home at 10pm, a long day after a 5am wake up, which didn’t end until I’d washed all the sand off.
The next day I was lucky enough to join one of the marine rangers, a fisheries officer and a lady from the Department of Environment. They were heading out on the boat Mayabula to retrieve acoustic loggers used to monitor vessel activity. We headed almost 60 nautical miles to the logger in a rough down the coast-and-out-a-bit direction. The skipper had to slow down to dodge coral bommies. In the clear turquoise water we saw a large female green turtle swimming just below the surface. We moved out of the bommies and picked up speed, bouncing along but making very good time. Then we saw a group of dolphins snubbing, which means sticking their heads out of the water to look at us then quickly ducking underneath. They were very curious. As they moved on we took off, intent on getting through the journey now. The red rock gorges and white sandy dunes of the Ningaloo coast on our left contrasted beautifully with the turquoise coloured water. We soon moved further out, into the darker blue, disturbing flying fish along the way. We were approaching the logger and in very deep blue coloured ocean. A marlin splashed on my left. Sadly technology was not on our side today and the logger was not retrieved.
On the trip back there was less wildlife, then we moved in closer to the reef. The gorgeous green water was back and the dunes were in sight again. We spotted another pod of dolphins, more turtles and two turtles mating close to where surf was breaking on the reef edge. They seemed to be belly to belly which is not typical with flippers flying around all over the place, we soon left them to it. The skipper pointed out a manta ray.
“There she is, you can see her white underside, all mantas are female until proven otherwise, not quite sure why that is”. It just looked like a black shape slightly below the surface but was wonderful to see. Arriving back at the boat ramp I was recharged after spending a day on the water taking photos.
The highlight of Thursday was seeing a dead turtle that had been found on one of the beaches. We headed off to take some measurements, shovels at the ready. A 300 metre walk down the beach we approached a black lump sitting below the high tide mark. Waves washed around it. This was our turtle. I’m not sure how long it had been dead but both eyes were bulging out of its head. A ghost crab hovered around its dinner. It was a green turtle, an adult male as evident by the large tail. The sun had dried its shell out so it looked black. Parts of the shell were peeling off. After checking for flipper tags and getting our measurements, we stood around unsure of any words to say. We started to ponder if he’d died doing what he loved, it was mating season after all. We double checked the tide chart. It was on the way in and not even halfway to high tide. Picking up the shovels we walked back along the beach leaving the turtle to be disposed of by the ocean.
My first day of recording tracks alone went quite smoothly. As I took a photo of the beach a surfer ran through my frame down into the water. Along my 3.5 kilometre stretch there were only half a dozen turtle tracks, all from green turtles. Most were false crawls though, where a turtle would drag herself up the beach, go on a hole digging spree, decide she didn’t like any of the spots and crawl back out to sea. There was one nest, and a lot of pink fist-sized sea urchin tests all over the beach. There were so many intact that someone had made a love heart shape out of them. Arriving at the carpark I found the ute keys left for me and drove to the next beach along, Mauritius. This is a nudist beach but luckily I was alone. I radioed the girls and they still had another kilometre to go. I looked up the beach but couldn’t see anyone coming around the point so sat watching the ocean. Turtles bobbed up in the shallows coming up for breath. I watched a tern fishing. As it dived an old, roundish man walked fully naked out through the wash. Not as alone as I thought! I was luckier than the ladies I was waiting for, they copped the full frontal view when they walked up to me. Apparently they don’t usually get anyone there this early in the morning, I must have a special kind of luck. I’d survived my first day of monitoring, bring on the new volunteers!
As I drove alone along Yardie Creek Road I took in the landscape. There were no trees, just low scrub punctuated by taller, red termite mounds. Approaching the turnoff to Cape Range National Park I saw 13 very tall white poles, pinned to the ground by taut wire ropes. The largest of these was over 300 metres high. They are part of the naval communications station and produce very low frequency radio transmissions to ships and submarines. Rounding the corner of the cape I passed a lighthouse on my left opposite deep blue ocean on my right. I drove past numerous access roads with strange names like Mauritius, Hunters and Jacobsz. Some were barely more than sandy tracks. After forty minutes I saw the Turquoise Bay sign and slowed to turn off.
Walking down to the drift snorkel the white sand contrasted blindingly with the turquoise coloured water. Swimming out it was murkier than the day before. All the same fish were there, bright yellow bluespot butterflyfish hovered elegantly over coral heads. Picasso triggerfish looked up at me from small depressions in the sand. Swimming further out I floated over an area of branching coral. A black tip reef shark about a metre long emerged from the distance and lazily swam around me. I turned to keep watching it. It circled me once, then again and swam off back out to deeper water. I let the current take me away over the small coral patches, eventually leaving so I was on time to meet the Ningaloo Turtle Program (NTP) coordinator and other team leaders arriving today.
I moved into a two bedroom apartment at the Potshot Hotel with the other female team leader. We had our own washer, dryer, cooktop and were near the pool, what luxury! Walking to the shops I came across an emu standing on the nature strip in the middle of the road. It was like a giant scruffy feather duster with long legs and huge clawed feet that made me think of a dinosaur. It pecked at something in the rocks, beak open in the 40 degree heat. As darkness fell the world cooled slightly. Corellas flew overhead, calling loudly and slightly mournfully, my first day alone in Exmouth was coming to an end. Heading to bed the mozzies kept me up with their piercing whine in my ear. I turned the aircon back on, it roared directly over my head and gave off a funny yellow glow. I didn’t get much sleep on my first night.
Our first day at the Parks and Wildlife depot was filled with signing forms, being introduced to people, a PowerPoint presentation and GPS and tablet training. I liked learning about the different turtle tracks. In the photos and drawings they seemed easy enough to tell apart. The green turtles move their front flippers simultaneously as if doing butterfly up the beach. This creates a tractor tyre mark with a flattened centre made by the plastron (turtle tummy) dragging along the sand. Green turtles poke their tail into the sand as they move. If you point your finger into a tail hole you’d find the turtle is moving in the opposite direction. The loggerhead and hawksbill turtles drag themselves with alternating flippers in a very sandy version of freestyle. Their front flippers leave a curved impression, with the top part of the J pointing to their travel direction, this is much more pronounced on the hawksbill track which is also a lot narrower than the loggerhead. The other main way to tell these two apart is the loggerhead doesn’t leave a tail mark whereas the hawksbill tail leaves a squiggly line in the middle of its track. The flatback turtle rarely nests on the Ningaloo Coast but can move its front flippers either simultaneously or one at a time adding to the confusion of track identification.
The next day we met at the depot at 5.30am. Backpacks of gear were passed out, we were given training notepads and assigned to cars. The sun came up fully as we took the long road out to the cape. Our trainer patiently led us along Five Mile Beach, stopping at every turtle track to quiz us on what species had made it, the direction it was travelling (emerge or return) and if a nest had been made. Following a discussion we all entered the data on our tablets then moved on down the beach, drawing a line across the track and between the nest and secondary body pit so the next day’s tracker would not double count. We only saw green turtle tracks that day. Our trainer also pointed out tracks of other species, the t-shaped rabbit patterns were everywhere, so were the dotted ghost grab marks. Bird tracks were not as common but some were quite large, making you look twice in case it was a fox. Pink sea urchin tests as large as my hand were scattered along the tideline, some crushed, others still in perfect condition. All too soon the track training was over and we headed back to the office.
That night we met at Hunters beach to watch the local vet release a turtle. The turtle was called Rosie, she’d come in with float syndrome. This is where bacteria or a viral infection develops in a turtle’s gut, releasing gases that stop the turtle from being able to control its buoyancy. The turtle floats at the surface and can’t feed, quickly losing condition and growing a covering of barnacles. The vet takes in turtles like this and with many helping hands attempts to return them to full health. Rosie was the ninth turtle released and seemed very happy to be heading back out to sea.
After another training session we went snorkeling at Lakeside. On arriving at the beach you walk half a kilometre until you come to two yellow poles sticking out of the dunes. These correspond to a buoy in the water. Further up the beach is another set of poles, the area enclosed by these markers is the sanctuary zone where the snorkel is. The current was ripping past so we walked past the first poles, complete with osprey perched on top. Jumping in there was a long swim out to the buoy. My heart sank along the way. In every direction as far as I could see the sand was covered in brown algae. Where was the reef? We fought the current, kicking furiously until we reached the buoy then drifted across the sanctuary zone. Nothing. Disappointed we started swimming back to shore and finally found the coral bommies. A green turtle had wedged itself between the coral and another rock to take a break from the rushing current. A white and mottled brown octopus clung to the coral. Kicking hard I could dive closer. It didn’t like that, instantly turning an angry shade of red. Groups of blue green chromis were scattered like confetti above the branching coral and a large, rainbow coloured parrotfish loudly chomped algae off coral as I swam past. This was an incredible diversion from our training.
I decided to clean my office, there was a layer of red dust on everything. Two taxidermied turtles, a stuffed fox, seagull and numerous turtle skulls and bones are piled around the room. Tubs of old shirts take up space while the shelves are filled with folders of paper, records from monitoring since the program began in 2002. After wiping the dust off everything and rearranging all the critters and tubs the office seemed a lot larger. I even managed to tuck the blue, shell-shaped kiddies pool into a back corner. I line up the hatchlings preserved in jars on a shelf above my computer. Two are barely swimming in preserving liquid, one is completely high and dry. I think they’ll make nice office companions along with the adult taxidermied turtles sitting on the desk behind me, ready to greet people as soon as they walk through the door. I wonder if they’ll get names after two months alone in this room with me.
We were taken out to Bungelup to become familiar with the remote camp we would stay at during the program. The camp is very basic, an awning covers the dining table which sits outside two rooms, one for storage the other a washroom. This area is one of the most significant mainland loggerhead turtle rookeries in the Eastern Indian Ocean basin. Walking along the beach to hammer in the totem signs we saw at least 15 turtles close to shore. They were mostly greens, very skittish, roughly 20 years old based on their salad bowl size. When they took a breath and saw us on the beach they took off as fast as possible. We saw plenty of loggerhead tracks and nests. Walking back along the beach our trainer pointed out a shark in the shallows. “There’s no black tip on its fin, it might be a nervous shark” she stated. “A what?” I asked disbelieving. “It’s a type of shark we get here that likes to swim close to shore”. On the drive back to town I had to check if she was making it up, to go with the drop bears and hoop snakes but no, sure enough there is a nervous shark.
Another 5.30am start for our assessment day. The pattern was generally like our training where we walked along the high tide mark, following return tracks and trying to determine if a nest had been made. Along the way our assessor drew dingo tracks and a turtle in the sand to practice other scenarios then at the end had us describe the differences in tracks for each species. We all finished the morning as fully fledged turtle trackers!
One Friday afternoon in mid-February we snuck out of Canberra, driving 2 hours and 40ish minutes to reach Huskisson, a coastal town in Jervis Bay, N.S.W. Husky, as everyone calls it, is our favourite close spot for a dose of ocean (for those tropical creatures that go into withdrawal) and some diving. It is part of the Jervis Bay Marine Park and has some really accessible temperate reefs, just a short fin from the shore. Nearby is also the magnificent Boderee National Park. Although more effort to shore dive, Murray’s beach makes a great snorkelling spot at the right time (and tide).
As soon as we’d arrived and unpacked we headed to the water.
Sailor’s beach was just a short walk from the holiday house we stayed in. At
the southern end of the beach is a rock platform, snorkelling around the edge
was a real treat. Close to shore in the seagrass we saw rays resting on the
sand as a few salps floated past us. Heading out further and exploring along
the edge of the rock platform we saw a wrasse resting under a rock ledge. It
didn’t look like a particularly comfortable spot with the black spines of sea
urchins poking out. Not sure if anyone else feels the same, but when a group of
large fish swim super fast from behind you and the water’s a bit murky do you
start to wonder what was chasing them? Popping our heads up we noticed a dark
mass of storm clouds covering the horizon. They were headed our way so it was
time to fin back to shore. We made it home before the storm hit. It rained so
hard parts of the roof started leaking, seeing water drip from the bathroom
light made using the toilet at night a thrilling (dark) experience!
Waking up to a beautiful calm day on Saturday we had our
choice of dive spots. The forecast and prevailing swell made Dent Rock our
chosen site. We could’ve gone to Murrays and attempted to dive from the boat
ramp. But the day before Sue from Crest Diving showed us the best dive route and
where boats usually head out from the boat ramp, it was a shame the two
coincided. To dive Dent Rock we drove about five minutes to Orion beach.
Dragging all the gear out of the car we set up on the grass then took numerous
trips down the wooden stairs to the beach. Chris kept getting distracted by
wrens in the bush on either side of the stairs but its more likely this was a
ploy to get out of carrying heavy things. Once everything was down on the beach
we geared up and headed in, fully kitted out in 5 and 7mm wetsuits. Ahhh the
snorkel yesterday was so easy just jumping in wearing a sharkskin and boardies
with no camera!
But it was worth the struggle, as Jervis Bay is home to 230
species of algae! Just joking, although the swim out to Dent Rock is about 200
metres over a seagrass bed so you think there’s nothing but weed then all of a
sudden you’re at a reef with Port Jackson sharks everywhere. Not at this time
of year though, yet there was still plenty to keep us photographing. Swimming
out we noticed these large piles of shells. Heading closer to check it out we
discovered they were octopus gardens! Some were living very close to
neighbours, with two only about 30 centimetres apart. They all had different
personalities, some didn’t mind having their photo taken and came out of their
holes further for a look. While others retreated as far as they could into
their holes while still keeping an eye on the camera laden sea monsters. Check
out Blue Planet 2 for some awesome occy filming, the guy in episode 5 also
reckons octopus have very different personality types.
Swimming on we came to the rock which is sparsely covered in sponges and coralline algae but has plenty of fish life. I was quickly obsessed with a school of Old Wives while Mitch stuck to the smaller subjects with his macro rig. Schools of baitfish came and went during the dive, we also came across a Red Morwong. He had a great look with his spines up and mouth open.
Also at the rock was one of the scariest fish I’ve come across. Forget scalloped hammerheads and sea snakes there was one particularly terrifying male Senator wrasse here. I could be over reacting but when something comes out of nowhere and swims straight at you it is a little unnerving…until you realise it’s a pretty little rainbow coloured fish that’s just checking out your strobes. He also really liked playing in the bubbles we breathed out but clumsily swam into most of our heads while he was doing it. Senator wrasse are protogynous hermaphrodites, all starting life as females and changing to males when they reach 2-5 years of age. Maybe this particular fish had just changed or was grumpy because we were in his territory and it was breeding season. We like to think he was just playful.
This time of year none of us were getting cold so we could take our time on the swim back. It’s not like we had a choice, we came across more occy’s that liked having their photo taken and Mitch discovered a number of critters in the seagrass. I’m not sure how he spots such tiny things in the mass of green but check out these shrimp. On the slightly larger side there was also a sea hare (slugs which eat nothing but algae – must be spoilt for choice in Jervis!). Mitch also found a couple of pipefish hiding out in the seagrass.
They real trick I’ve found for underwater macro photography (which is different, but no less challenging than the dry land type) is to take your time. Take your time looking, take your time composing and take your time before moving one. A lot of the macro subjects I’ve come across like sea hares, shrimps, pipefish etc are cryptic species. This means they use camouflage to avoid predators or catch prey. What does this mean for photography? They can be hard to find, but don’t move much once found. This pipefish is a great example, it matches the length, colour and movement of the seagrass it was in. I spotted this one because it moved slightly out of sync with the grass so it could keep an eye on me. Slow swimming and getting easily distracted means I actually spot more underwater (at least that’s what I tell Chris). Don’t rush, there’s millions of animals hiding in very different places underwater.
Husky, while full of tourists at times, always has a laid
back vibe. We love being able to stroll into town along the path next to the
water and check out the shops. Although, Mitch has recently been banned from
buying any more pairs of novelty socks from the bamboo shop, it’s still a
favourite to browse in. After a day of diving it’s nice to walk into town and
get a cold drink or piece of cake from Nutmeg Cafe before heading off for an
afternoon snorkel. But for dinner there’s really only one choice – Mexican!!!
Pilgrim’s, a vegetarian place, has Mexican nights on Friday and Saturday. Just
go and order anything, it’s that good. Finishing off our little weekend escape
here was perfect. Sunday morning the wind had changed bringing in a cloud of
dust. Heading home and back to work didn’t seem so bad when you’ve got photos
of occy’s to edit and memories of a terrifying wrasse.
Welcome to Scratchings, the Swimming Wombat Photographics Blog!
That’s us, Christine (Chris) Fernance and Mitchell (Mitch) Baskys. We’re photographers, explorers and wildlife lovers, currently based in Canberra, Australia.
We share a passion for photography and have 18 years of combined experience. This by no means makes us experts, but our passion drives us to capture images that best represent us, what we love doing and the world around us. We love working in all photographic genres, and try to push ourselves to try new techniques and experiences to grow our style and what we capture.
We have a soft spot for underwater and wildlife images. This evolved from our backgrounds in marine biology and science. While learning about the underwater world we developed a strong desire to share what we found. We are both keen SCUBA divers and have expanded our skills into underwater photography. This lets us share the environments and animals we encounter with anyone we can.
We’ve spent time living and travelling along the east coast of Australia, in Coffs Harbour, Townsville, Cairns and Huskisson to name a few places.
We were also lucky enough to make multiple trips to Papua New Guinea over the past couple of years, living for a month or two in Port Moresby with Mitch’s Dad. It was during this first trip that we really began to consider writing about our experiences. This led to our first published article “Diving on your Doorstep: Bootless Bay”, in Niugini Blu a national water sports and diving magazine. We’re extremely proud of this article, sharing our images and the story with all of Papua. Since then, we’ve travelled to Tawali Leisure and Dive Resort to capture images above and below the waves for the resort. Its true to say New Guinea has a way of capturing you and we continue to plan return trips as often as possible.
It’s a little-known fact that wombats can swim (if you count walking across the bottom of a river as swimming). When rivers dare to get in their way, wombats take the direct route. This stubborn, dogged attitude inspired our name and reflects our own determination to capture images without letting things (like rivers) get in our way. A swimming wombat also links to our interest in the aquatic world and Australia’s unique animals, some of the many things we love photographing.
It’s our brand new blog! Somewhere for us to share more of our images and the stories behind them. Over time we hope this becomes an amazing collection of our adventures that are shared with everyone.
It’s our aim to tell the stories of the places, animals and people we meet, visit or trip over (the trip over is mostly wombats). Whether it’s the story of Abel Peter, the Papuan New Guinean security guard from Tawali, or Ridge the first wombat Mitch rescued we want to tell these stories and share the images they produced. We also want to share how we took these images, why we love them, and what we learnt from each shoot.
Oh, you meant the name? Well wombats spend most of their time scratching. Scratching on trees, the ground, their left leg, their right leg, their back, their nose….. you get the idea.
It’s our collected writings, musings, or scratchings, if you will, that we want to share with you and the world.
So, we called it Scratchings. Welcome to our blog!
Chris: My name is Chris and I’m from Coffs Harbour but moved to Canberra for work in 2016. I’ve been taking photos on and off for about nine years, starting about the same time I began uni, because studying and working full time wasn’t enough to keep me busy. I also did as much volunteering as possible and went on field trips to some amazing places during my degree in Marine Science and Management, so having my camera with me was always my highest priority. It was my goal to visit all the islands on the Great Barrier Reef with the best diving and I’ve done ok so far going to Heron Island three times, Orpheus, Pelorus, Lady Musgrave, spending two months on Lizard and going to Lady Elliot Island twice, most recently for two months as an activities intern.
Two months straight on Lady Elliot was one of the most amazing experiences of my life but I’d already signed up to do an honours project so had to come home. My honours research involved looking after 30 clownfish and fifty sea anemones. From that year I learnt you can stick anemones to their aquariums like post it notes and all fish have different personalities (and need appropriate names to go with these – I miss you Cheech and Chong!).
Loving both photography and the ocean it still took me awhile to take a camera underwater. I’ve been diving for almost 12 years but only started taking underwater photos with a DSLR in 2015. I finally upgraded my camera and emptied my bank account to get all the gear to take it underwater in time for my first trip overseas – Papua New Guinea! It was totally worth it, we both fell in love with the place, it’s people and every time we leave we know we’ll be back soon. I love shooting wide angle underwater because I can capture more of the amazing aquatic world. Over unders are also a favourite to show what’s happening both above and below water at the same time.
Last year I finally signed up to do a Certificate IV in Photography and Photo Imaging, something I’d wanted to do since first picking up a camera! Two months into the course we went on a two week trip of Tasmania. It was during this trip I spent a lot of time confined in a van with five other people, all our camera gear and a wearable panda head. Luckily these people were incredible company and became my three best photography friends (I’ll link their work below, check it out, I think they’re all doing some amazing stuff!).
As well as travelling, I also love hiking and animals so try to incorporate taking photos of these as often as possible. Last year we began working with ACT Wildlife and Mulligan’s Flat Woodland Sanctuary so got to spend a lot of time learning how to shoot animals (in the good way). We also got to hold baby wombats, possums and quolls – it’s a tough job.
Mitch and I have had some incredible experiences through our business and love of photography. By starting a blog we hope to share some of these while practicing our writing so we can work towards being published in more magazines, and maybe one day even write a book!
Mitch: I’ve been taking photos semi professionally for about 8 years. I started on an interesting path, it wasn’t on land, but underwater that I wanted to capture images. Shortly after completing my PADI Advanced Open Water course I received a Canon point-and-shoot and Ikelite housing for Christmas. It was this camera and housing that pushed me to expand on my skills both as a diver and photographer, and to this day I’ve taken some of my favourite images with it. I’ve upgraded slightly along the way and now love capturing all the tiny critters that call the ocean home. In particular I’ve become taken by Nudibranchs and sea slugs, a collection of strange molluscs that seem determined to have the best colours and patterns on the reef.
I studied Marine Biology at University and graduated with Honours in 2016. My science background really pushes me to learn about the animals and places I see and take pictures of. I really enjoy learning the stories and love sharing this information. Hopefully I manage to do so in a fun and engaging way.
Chris pushed me to improve my skills as we both explored old WWII bunkers around Townsville together, discovering microbat colonies and snakes hunting. I love watching us both come away from each trip or shoot with a variety of different images, both of us not even aware we aren’t focusing on the same subject until we get home and show each other what we’ve taken. When I’m not taking photos, or working as a VALS (Voice Activated Light Stand – Chris loves Strobist!) for Chris, I like painting and building wargaming miniatures, and playing boardgames.
Thank you for taking the time to read about us and what we want to share with you.