Underwater encounters – shallow water secrets

I’d like to share a little secret. One of my favourite encounters occurred in water that didn’t even reach my knees. Let me explain. I was on holiday last year at Lissenung Island, a speck of paradise to the north of mainland Papua New Guinea. Every day we’d hop on a boat and head to dive sites, speeding through mangrove lined shallows to get to coral walls that dropped off into deep water. Now don’t get me wrong, these sites were amazing. Fish swarm the walls in constant, colourful motion. Turning around you’re faced with an expanse of deep blue ocean. Also alive, with schools of large silver trevally that shimmer past. Occasionally a turtle lazily flapped by. Hanging in mid water staring into the abyss you could watch a reef shark curiously circle above divers staring obliviously at the coral wall.

Between dives at sites like this the crew would take us to sheltered spots for the dive interval. This gives us an hour topside to let the nitrogen levels in our blood drop so we could stay down longer on the next dive. On one of these breaks the boys took us to a sandbar. I munched on fresh coconut and soaked up the tropical sun while staring absently at the green mangroves. Someone brought me back to reality saying, “I think there’s a clownfish next to the boat”. The dive snacks were forgotten. We donned our masks and slipped over the side to float in the shallows. The ocean was as warm as bath water, like those shallow rockpools you come across that have been soaking in all the sun’s heat. Beneath the surface seagrasses waved lazily. Small coral patches and anemones littered the sand.

In every crevice there was something alive, a crab darted into a crack in the coral. Small yellow fish schooled amongst the seagrass. But the clownfish were amazing. In such shallow water we saw three different types. My favourite was the Clown Anemonefish (Amphiprion percula). It was my first time seeing these cuties, shaped like a typical Disney Nemo but with more black colouring. A cool thing about these clownfish, the amount of black pigmentation changes depending on which species of anemone they live with. You see, anemones are happy to host lots of different anemonefish species. Clown Anemonefish are picky, they’re only happy to call three anemone species home. If a Clown Anemonefish doesn’t find a magnificent, gigantic or leathery sea anemone to live in it will perish quickly. This relationship is called a symbiosis. The fish are protected from predators by the anemone’s stinging tentacles (like living in a jellyfish). In return the fish bring snacks to bed, dropping food offerings into their anemone host in return for this safe haven.

“Come look at this!” Robert, one of the crew called us into even shallower water. He pointed at a brownish blob well camouflaged in the sand. “Devil scorpionfish, very dangerous, don’t step on him” Robert warned. We all peered at the scraggily brown blob that blended perfectly with its sandy surroundings. This ambush predator waits for a meal to come to it. While seemingly lazy, they speedily lunge and inhale smaller fish when they swim too close. When feeling threatened Devil Scorpionfish (Scorpaenopsis diabolus) lifts the venomous spines along their back, revealing why it is one of the world’s most venomous fish. If you step on a scorpionfish you can be in severe pain for up to 12 hours. Luckily it can be treated with hot water, which can be found even in the most remote locations. Naturally my dive buddy and macro enthusiast boyfriend, Mitch, had to get a shot. We all laughed at him lying in the shallows.

With so much to see the dive interval was over before we knew it. The dive crew grinned as we suggested we do the next dive at the sand bar. A little reluctantly we all hopped back on the boat to go to the next ‘real’ dive site. With so much to see in shallow water, I’d learnt to check out any puddle, rockpool or barely flowing river I came across from then on. Let me be the first to tell you, you don’t need much water to have a cool aquatic encounter!

Exploring Ningaloo – week 5

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.

A stonefish sits on the sandy bottom under the boat ramp. he looks unimpressed with his large, downturned mouth.
The little yellow trevally hovers beneath my hands, held together out in front as I snorkel. The water looks green.

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.