Underwater encounters – Can you make friends with fish?

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.

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.

Exploring Ningaloo – week 4

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.

The back view of a turtle as it makes its way down the sand. You can see the tracks its flippers have made.
Side view of a green turtle, resting as it makes its way down the beach. Behind it a lone seagull looks out to sea in the background.
A wave breaks over the turtles head and front half of her shell as she enters the wash

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.

Over twenty  yellow convict surgeonfish feed in a mass on algae, black horizontal stripes are everywhere!

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!

View of a wave coming towards me over the reef. The white water is in the distance and a surge of water fills the top third of the frame
The wave breaks on me, half the frame is white wash and bubbles. The lower half you can see the coral through the blue water, unmoving.

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.