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!

Road tripping – South West WA: part 1

We were back on the road together at last, heading south along the West Australia coastline. There’s no better feeling then eight days of exploring ahead of you! Mitch’s flight arrived around 3pm so it was our goal to go for a snorkel at Coral Bay (about an hour and a half southwest of Exmouth) then sleep at Carnarvon, a bit further down the road. Along the way there were a few spits of rain, and small perenties (goannas) on the road. They were an orange-brown to match the desert sand. More and more termite mounds were popping up in the low scrub as we travelled south. At Coral Bay there was a lot of cloud, the first I’d seen in weeks. It was super humid so we walked down to the bay to see what the water looked like. A legless lizard in the centre of the sandy path gave me a fright, reminding me of the snake the night before. The tide was very low so we decided to give it a miss and keep going to Carnarvon. Two and a half hours later, we arrived just as it was getting dark.

We’d already spent a week seeing the sights along this stretch of coast so had planned a 10-hour driving day to cover some ground. This would get us south of Perth so we could spend our time exploring the south west part of WA. The bush changed along the way, with shrubs getting taller then disappearing to salt flats then turning into trees, finally trees! A few dead roos at the start had wedge tailed eagles feeding on them, surrounded by loitering crows. The eagles are such big birds, with wings spread they are bigger than the roos they’re feeding on. Goats were everywhere in pairs or small groups, some with kids alongside. They came in browns, blacks and whites with multicoloured splotches, small upturned fluffy tails and huge backwards curving horns on their head. The kids were cute to see even though they are a pest. Onwards we drove, podcasts and music helping us concentrate as the hours passed. The goats dropped off, the trees continued getting taller. We left the straight, flat road behind and wound our way towards Perth.

After spending the night at our new base in Rockingham, about an hour south of Perth, we were up early. With snacks and water packed we set off to explore Yalgorup National Park, on the coast about an hour’s drive south. Named the Place of Lakes in the local Indigenous dialect, Yalgorup has 10 lakes in the area. We visited Preston Lake first, the enticing photo showed hundreds of black swans serenely sitting on the water. From October to March the swans arrive here in high numbers to feed on the musk grasses. The sign dashed our hopes of a swim (the lakes are just for birds) but we could still do the 5km walk. It wound through bushland, with 10-metre-tall Tuart trees shading the track. This is a species of eucalypt found only along the coast from here to Jurien Bay (just north of Perth).

We walked along the sandy management track for a long time, not seeing much. At last we came to a 300-metre detour to the bird hide, finally a glimpse of the lake! Disappointingly there were no birds on the water, or in the air, or even near the bird hide for that matter. On the shore over 200 metres away some plovers were running around but not a single swan was present, I guess they decided not to visit this year. Back on the trail we saw wrens flitting around in the bush. We froze, they grew brave enough to land on the path 10 metres away. I took a photo and zoomed in. They were blue all over, splendid fairy wrens! You can’t imagine how excited I was to see a new wren species!!! The male’s entire bodies are a bright, fluorescent blue yet when they flit into the bush they can disappear from sight in seconds.

This face says leave me alone I’m tired

Walking on we found a shingleback sunbaking in the leaflitter on the side of the path. Cicadas hummed in the trees around us while large, orange butterflies floated serenely over our heads. Their wings were backlit by the sun and seemed to glow against the cloudless blue sky. Back at the car we sat at a picnic table surround by bush with only the noise of cicadas and the odd ute leaving the nearby camping spot. It was a really peaceful place for a snack.

A short drive took us the next walk. We went out on a very small boardwalk to view the thrombolites. These were growing in the freshwater of Lake Clifton and looked very similar to the stromatolites we saw at Hamelin Pool on our previous trip. Except these were rounder, almost perfectly circular rocks about 30-50 cm high in shallow water. An interpretive sign showed the internal structures were different, thrombolites existed first and have clumps of photosynthetic cells. Stromatolites evolved later and had a layered structure, like an onion. Thrombolites produce their own food because they host photosynthetic algae which converts sunlight into food energy, similar to a coral. They aren’t much to look at though, so we didn’t spend much time in full sun watching the rocks.

The Thrombolites looked like they went on for ever

We did the Lakeside Loop walk which promised an easy 5km return stroll through scrub where you could spot long-necked turtles in the lake. It turned out to be a 7 kilometre walk mostly in full sun. It was at this point we started to wonder about some of the guidance material. We were walking along a dirt path, not quite wide enough for two people with long grass and spiky bush on either side. Over the path were the webs and bright yellow patterned bodies of small spiders. They were everywhere, Mitch had to keep ducking so he didn’t end up with a spider on his hat. While they were small, around the size of a five cent piece they were numerous. I stopped and counted 36 in one web complex on a tree on the side of the path. Some webs also contained golden orb spiders. These were much bigger and ran very fast if you leaned near one for a look, making you jump back quickly. An interpretive sign on the side of the track identified the little brightly coloured arachnids as Christmas spiders. Their hardened carapaces allow them rest to in the centre of webs in direct sunlight, while tolerating the withering heat. Worryingly, there was no information on whether or not they were venomous.

That’s a whole lot of nope…
…especially given every black dot is a spider

We saw filtered glimpses of the lake to our left, about 30 metres away, but never got any closer. After walking for 4 kms we looked at the track notes again and found we’d made a wrong turn. Heading back we quickly found the fork and took the path to the right. It looped us back to the carpark, Mitch still ducking and weaving amongst the hundreds of spiders. I’m not sure where these mysterious turtles were hidden! We saw two young emus and their dad ahead of us on the path. They put their heads down and ran quickly in the opposite direction along the path, bodies shaking like giant feather dusters. I felt sorry for scaring them in the heat. Back at the car we stopped to eat a sandwich. A black spider crawled onto my leg from the picnic table, making lunch after that a hasty affair.

Our second day in Rockingham was spent at Penguin Island, only 700 metres offshore. A ferry putted us across in five minutes. It was a perfectly flat, calm day with not a cloud in the sky. This island is home to the largest population of little penguins in WA. Being daytime though it was highly unlikely we would see one because they would be out fishing. They return to the island at dusk, long after the last ferry leaves for the day. The waters surrounding Penguin Island are part of the Shoalwater Islands Marine Park so we’d packed our snorkelling gear. Penguin Island is tiny, only 12.5 hectares with a boardwalk that loops around the island. You can walk this in about 20 minutes if you don’t stop to look at anything, but there were so many distractions!

At the first beach we saw an odd shape resting in the shallows. We headed off the boardwalk and onto the sand to investigate. A male sea lion had hauled out to rest in the sheltered bay. He had his eyes closed, nose pointed up and was enjoying the sunshine. Soon children were walking in front of me, asking their mum if they could get close. Her advice to the kids showed she was clearly no expert in marine mammals, “oh you can go closer, if you get too close he’ll just do a little growl at you”. Out they waded towards the 100+ kilogram wild animal. We decided to leave them to it (natural selection and all that) and headed back to the boardwalk.

We passed caves in the rocky headland sprawled along the beach. There were limestone arches and an unnaturally squared door frame. An interpretive sign filled us in (we like signs), Paul Seaforth McKenzie squatted on Penguin Island from 1914, living in one of the caves. In 1918 the island was gazetted a reserve, and McKenzie was given a lease on the island. He acted as island caretaker and host, establishing a food store and rooms in the caves and rudimentary houses before welcoming tourists until his lease ended in 1926. We wondered what drove him to this remote place, possible escaping the war (or the wife and five children he’d left behind in New Zealand).

Seems both cosy and uncomfortable all at once

Onwards up the path, you can’t help but notice the bridled terns. These birds are everywhere, wheeling above us in the sky, heading out to sea, sitting sedately on the boardwalk stairs and not caring as you walk past. These birds are smaller than your average magpie, white with grey wings and a black cap that connects to a black band running through each eye. The island has that seabird smell, a mix of guano and fish, but this isn’t overwhelming and most of the time you don’t even notice it. The sound of the terns is fantastic, males were trying to impress females with squeaks and contorted bodies, wings lifted out sideways, neck extended, yellow beak pointing towards the ground. Others were calling their chicks, small grey fluffballs hidden beneath bushes or under the boardwalk.

Mmmm breakfast…. regurgitated squid! my favourite!

At the lookout we could see the pelican colony. Pelicans come here to breed but we couldn’t get close because a pair had decided to nest next to the higher lookout point, closing off the path. We had to appreciate them through our telephoto lenses instead. About 500 pelicans breed on the island, they all seemed to enjoy sitting together in the sun. Occasionally one will glide back in after fishing, throat pouch swollen with food. On the west side of the island we discovered the crested terns returning to feed their chicks. The chicks were scattered over the shore, some sitting in the seaweed, others falling asleep near the water’s edge.

FISH!

Each tern flying in with a fish in its beak made a repetitive cry to summon its chick. Watching them for a while it became apparent this was not a peaceful place to be a seabird. Other half-grown terns surrounded younger chicks, trying to steal food from the incoming parent. This caused the chicks to run and hide, so when the parent flew in to where it had last been there was no chick there. Multiple fly-bys ensued, sometimes with other terns chasing the parent to steal its fish. Eventually when the parent on the ground kept the teenage birds at bay, the chick was seen by the incoming parent and finally had a meal stuffed into its beak, bird parenting teamwork at its best.

One successful, if somewhat blood smeared, parent after making a delivery to it’s huddled chick

We spotted a sooty oystercatcher, running around on the rock platform feeding. Pigeons flew past, making a strange addition to an island covered in seabirds. This brought the total to six bird species. Young seagulls looked similar to the tern chicks with brown-flecked grey wings and white tummies. The black crests of half-grown terns were blowing up in the breeze, making them look comical. One flew in with a small fish, as if proud to show the other adolescents it’s catch.

See I can fish!

After many photos and over an hour of bird watching we made it up to the lookout which had 360 degree views. Looking to shore we could see the city of Rockingham, behind us the Indian Ocean stretched into the distance. The water was dark blue, closer to the island it changed to green with patches of seaweed and seagrass beds just below the surface. We set off back to the west side to explore underwater. Walking past the grassy, shaded picnic area we saw a buff banded rail. This small, brown quail like bird was splashing around in a shallow water dish.

We came full circle back to where the sea lion had been resting in the bay, he’d wisely vacated his spot, giving the beach back to the tourists. It was a sheltered spot and looked like the perfect place for a snorkel. There were some rocks jutting out of the water with more birds on them so we headed in that direction. The tide was low leaving less than 30 cm of water between us and the seagrass we were floating over. Small brown fish swam in schools, terns and pelican flew overhead. Reaching the rock, we found two types of cormorants basking in the sun, wings outstretched to dry them. This brought our total up to 10 bird species that we’d seen in one day. There is a discovery centre where orphaned penguins are kept and fed in shows for tourists, we didn’t feel like seeing that after exploring the island ourselves and seeing so much wild bird behaviour. Back on the ferry, the ride home flashed by, we piled off, happy with our day exploring Penguin Island.

We started our last morning in Rockingham with a walk at Cape Peron. Even though it was an overcast day and a bit windy it was nice to be out somewhere new. We started by walking around the headland and down onto the beach. Big brown, jelly like lumps were strewn along the tideline. These were as big as half a cushion. Looking closer we could see small antennae-like pieces poking out near one end. These must be sea hares! The parts sticking out would be the rhinophores. Looking in the rockpools at the end of the beach we saw three more brown sea hares and two small yellow ones that would fit into your palm. Thankfully these were alive, not rolling in the wash on the edge of shore.

Further on we walked through coastal scrub winding into small offshoot paths to look over headlands and out to a funny mushroom shaped rock that seemed to hang over the ocean. Larger rockpools dotted the shore below the cliff we were standing on and we could see the shallower rock platform spreading offshore. It looked like a good snorkelling spot. Walking further around we found old gun emplacements and a lookout with signs that talked about barricades in the water, the remains of which could still be seen today. At the last bunker it started raining so we scurried back to the car. Time to leave Rockingham and see what we could find further south.

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 2

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.

A pair of white osprey fledglings sit in a  nest of sticks, one with it's beak open, tongue out
But I’m hungry now!

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.

Landscape view at lakeside of the seaweed filled rock pools, green ocean in the background

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.

A school of large grunter swim by, brown algae drifts in the front

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.

A rim lit dingo runs past the camera, one paw in the air, looking over his shoulder
Walkies?
Five dingoes run along the main road, we're looking at the tail end

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.

A half grown emu stands in the only shade, beak open in the heat
An emu juvenile looks through the pool fence at the blue water
Dad can we pleeeeease go in the pool?!

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.

Moon wrasse, a racoon butterflyfish and blue damsels swim in and around a brown clam shell

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.

A dolphins fin and back break the blue/green ocean surface

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.

Landscape view from a  boat over the coral reef back to shore. The water is shades of blue and green and the land in yellow and covered in small green shrubs
Two turtle heads and a flipper break the waters surface

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.

A ghost crab sits next to the head of a dead turtle near the wash
I don’t care how big it is, I’ll finish it!
A dead turtle in the wash is hit by a wave, white water is frozen midair by the camera

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!

Exploring Ningaloo – week 1

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.

View of termite mounds and the landscape at sunrise (looking towards the sun). The mounds are orange while the rising sun is turning the cloud undersides gold

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.

Overhead view of a green turtle on sand, flippers extended mid stroke. Sunlight is making wavy patterns on the ocean floor and part of the turtle's shell
Overhead view of a blue spotted lagoon ray swimming over lumps of brown coral

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.

A corella sits by the side of the road, all the grass in the image is golden because the sun was setting

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.

Overhead view of two turtle tracks on the sand, green turtle tracks on the left and loggerhead on the right showing the differences described in the text. A few ghost crab holes are scattered in the frame too
Green track on the left and loggerhead on the right…racing up the beach maybe?

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.

A landscape view of the beach with two turtle tracks, one emerging and the other returning up the beach. The blue water is in the distance and a few clouds are scattered across the sky

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.

A turtle is about to enter the sea at sunset, she's right next to the white foamy wash
Rosie heading out

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.

three fish swim close to the camera with an aqua blue background
A whole reef of fish to my left…and I sit in the shallows with these silver guys instead

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!

a shark fin and tail poke above the water
Can anyone else hear the Jaws theme…?

Road Tripping: Perth to Exmouth – Part 2

Kalbarri to Exmouth

The next day was free to explore Kalbarri National Park. The park is huge, it took us a half hour drive from town to reach the first walk called Nature’s Window. Yellow tailed black cockatoos were eating banksia seeds in the trees on the side of the road. When we tried to approach closer on foot they flew off, making their melancholy echoing call. We were one of the first cars in the carpark, it was only 7am but we were here early to beat the heat. Heading downhill the concrete path soon turned to rock as we followed the rim of a gorge. To our left you could see over the cliffs to the u-shaped bend of the Murchison River. The river far below us traced its way along the bottom of the gorge. Tiny black dots moved around on the sand. Putting my camera to my eye and zooming my telephoto as far as it could go, I found they were goats drinking at the water’s edge.

Pools of water sitting on yellow sand at the bottom of Murchison gorge, a layered red sedimentary wall.
Murchison Gorge in Kalbarri National Park
A blue green river winding through a red walled gorge
An undercut rock in the Murchison River

Following the path around a rock wall, using natural stepping stones carved out of it by wind and water we came to Nature’s Window. The window itself is a sedimentary arch with a hole in the middle of it through which you can see the gorge and the river. There is a small platform of rock on one side where other tourists were standing taking photos of each other. We walked around them and continued down the rock and along the path. We were on the track for the Murchison Gorge loop walk which takes 3-4 hours and loops down into the gorge, along the river and back up. As we are walking along the gorge rim, we have to be mindful of where we step, to either side is an incredible view but also a long drop. We reach a sign that tells us if we haven’t made it to this point before 7.30am do not attempt the Loop walk. We had no plans to spend that long out in the heat, already carrying 2 litres of water each for our short stroll. In the gorge it can be 10 degrees hotter than on the rim, where it was already climbing towards 40 degrees by 9am.

We walked a little further and found a shaded spot to eat our snack. Wrens teased us from nearby pushes with their high-pitched squeaks but we couldn’t spot them. A kestrel soared gracefully overhead, landing on a nearby rock outcrop. From its landing spot it could sit in the shade and look out over the entire gorge.

A small kestrel perched on the edge of a red gorge wall
A Nankeen Kestrel perched on the edge of the Murchison Gorge

I wonder what it thinks of the view? Probably couldn’t care less as it sees it every day! We were impressed though, the river below was a deep green, contrasting with the yellow sand of the riverbed and the orange rocks that form the sides of the gorge. Low green scrub was dotted through the sand, as were the tracks of animals that come in for a drink. From our height we could only make out the three toed emu prints.

Two sets of footprints on yellow sand
Goats and emu tracks

The bushes continue to grow in the rocky gorge country but don’t give much shade giving an empty feeling to the place. We were getting very hot and head back to the car, on our way into the carpark we pass by the ‘intrepid adventurers’ heading to natures window for a photo. Hats and other sun protection seemed like an optional afterthought for most of this group, most carried only their phones for that precious selfie, but no water. Same it was now 48 degrees in the shade. Their driver was finishing off a quick cigarette then hurried after them, presumably to round them up and drive on to the next photo opportunity.

A single long gum tree on the edge of the green Murchison river
Looks so clear and inviting, shame its such a long walk down to the water

We had a quiet afternoon to ourselves, checking out a few more lookouts but it was too hot to brave anymore walks. We thought we’d check out a snorkelling spot but after driving back to town realised a strong wind had picked up. Ever hopeful we headed to the beach to find it was so exposed the wind howling even stronger, and it was low tide so the rockpool snorkelling site the tourist information board recommended had barely any water covering the sharp rocks. Oh well, back in the air conditioning we rested and packed to continue our journey.

As we drove away from Kalbarri early the next day falcons and eagles hovered above the road as if to wish us farewell. Our next stop was a place called shell beach. As a shell lover I was very excited to see a beach completely made of shells. On the drive we’d had glimpses of turquoise blue ocean and were looking forward to a mid-morning swim to cool down. We couldn’t have been more disappointed! As we parked the car the intrepid bus drove off, they were finally ahead of us, a worrying sign. The first interpretive sign stated the water was hypersaline so if you went swimming you would come out with a layer of salt on your skin. No thanks. At least there was still a beach full of shells, I thought to myself. Reaching the beach, I first thought we’d come to the wrong place. It was super windy and the ground was white, the surface was piled into waves from the wind so heading towards the ocean meant walking up and down small slopes. Bending down I found we were in the right place; the shells were there. But they were tiny! The pipi shaped Fragum Cockle shells were the size of my fingernail if I was lucky to find a large looking one. Well that’s not what I imagined! After a few photos we headed back to the carpark, the wind blowing us back the whole way and whipping dust across our legs.

The millions of white fragum cockle shells
It truly is a beach of shells

Driving on along the unchanging road we reached our next stop, the Hamelin Pool stromatolites. The stromatolites may be the oldest living organism but boy they aren’t much to look at! After walking down the beach we could see an exposed area from the low tide which looked like a field of rocks. We struck unlucky again, learning you couldn’t swim near the stromatolites, there was just a short boardwalk that took you on a loop out to see them. Even on the furthest point seaward the stromatolites below us were barely in ankle deep water. And oh the flies! We still spent the best part of an hour having a look and appreciating the ancient structures below us. Small fish swam from the shade of one stromatolite to another then stopped still. Under the boardwalk swallows flew when we walked over top, moving to another area in the shade. The area looked empty as all signs of life (apart from the stromatolites) sought shelter from the harsh midday sun.

Black stromatolite pillars surrounded by blue water
The Hamelin Pool stromatolites, formed from mats of bacteria slowly constructing self supporting pillars

Our stop that night was at Carnarvon, after arriving late we cooked up pasta and made an impressive salad, we’d been missing vegies on this roadtrip! When it was time for bed I became fascinated with the bedside lamps which turned on and off if you lightly tapped the base with a fingertip. Maybe I’d spent too long in the sun.

The next day we were very excited to reach Coral Bay and spend some time in the water. We’d read about a nursery area for reef sharks at skeleton beach so headed there first. To get there you have to park the car then walk for thirty minutes along the beach. Trudging in the sand, the sun beating down and heading against the wind our spirits were still up to see sharks. We reached the point we’d aimed for and headed into the water to find…nothing. The odd bit of algae covered coral, barely a fish and definitely no sharks. We investigated thoroughly, but found nothing. There was hardly any coral to speak of so we couldn’t work out why this place had been called Coral Bay either. Defeated we stopped by the bakery for a snack and to re-plan.

The other snorkelling spot was the bay itself (Bill’s bay) so we headed there, covered in a new layer of sunscreen. The bay was protected from the wind and very still. An arc of white sand curved around to meet the turquoise water, below it we could see dark shapes. Diving in we found the reef at last! As far as you could see, then once you’d swum there and looked even further – was coral. It covered the ocean floor like a carpet, you couldn’t see any sandy patches. It was like a layered garden with branching coral growing over horizontal plate corals and around large boulder like Porites coral that grow only a centimetre or less per year and would be hundreds of years old. Now we understood why this place got its name. There was about half a metre of water between us and the coral carpet below. It was mostly brown in colour with the occasional fluoro blue staghorn coral breaking up the single colour palette. There were very few reef fish living among the coral, the odd school of blue green Chromis here and there and a wrasse occasionally. We soon had our fill of looking at coral and headed on to our final destination – Exmouth.

First impressions of Exmouth were typical of every town we’d recently been in. Very hot, one main street and barely any trees with only low bushes on the roadside. Similar to most other places the first two options we tried for dinner were closed, which isn’t surprising as this is the quiet season when no whalesharks and their accompanying tourists are around. Up early on our second last day we heard short beaked corellas calling as we drove towards Cape Range National Park. A dingo slunk along the side of the road.

a red dust path down the side of a grey walled gorge
Mandu Mandu Gorge, looking back over the scramble we’d just descended

Over 40 kilometres in we came to our first stop, Mandu Mandu gorge walk. The trail loops along the top of a gorge with views to the ocean, then cuts back through the dry creek bed. We saw our first black-flanked rock wallaby, a bit mummified, and dead in the middle of the path in the baking sun. All was going well heading uphill but as a grade four walk it was so incredibly steep going downhill I was terrified. I ended up scooting on my bum for most of it, which was made even more embarrassing when a pair of French girls with no water or backpacks came from the opposite direction.

A male figure standing at the top of a grey wall of rock
Mitch at the top of on side of Mandu Mandu Gorge

“How is the trail?” They asked,

“A bit steep and slippery in places” Mitch replied.

They were off on their way again. We didn’t tell them about the decomposing wallaby, best save that as a surprise.

A male figure picking his way down the path of a gorge wall
Making our way down

My legs were shaking and I was swearing off ever doing this walk again by the time we’d reached halfway. Hitting the creek bed the heat washed over us but luckily the breeze returned occasionally. Walking over the large white pebbles was tough, every second step the whole ground would move beneath your foot. Halfway along the creek bed Mitch pointed up at the cliffs towering above us. In the shade, on a ledge less than a metre wide sat a black-flanked rock wallaby. There was no clear way for it to get up there but in the only cool place it sat, sleeping. It blinked blearily at us once as we passed fifteen metres below it then went back to its slumber. Further on we made like the wallaby and found a shady overhang to eat our snacks.

A grey and black wallaby resting in the shade of an orange and red gorge wall
A dozing black flanked wallaby

Next stop, Ningaloo Reef. Turquoise Bay drift snorkel was where we ended up. Stepping over hot sand full of coral pieces we made our way up the beach. Into the water where there was…nothing. Just sand for the first twenty metres or so. It was quite stirred up so you had the feeling of needing to clean your glasses the entire time. Unlike coral bay there was no mass of coral, it was dotted everywhere in patches and small bommies. There were many more reef fish though which prompted me to buy a book and work out what they were at the visitor centre later that day. We disturbed a stingray feeding on the bottom, Mitch spotted another octopus tucked into a coral head. I still have no idea how he sees something so camouflaged.

Getting out we made a few stops on the long drive back, we had to slow down for emus and completely stop for Bustards along the road. The visitors centre was full of skulls, taxidermy specimen’s sea urchin tests and birds’ nests complete with eggs. It did give me a strong idea of how many animal species were in the area, you definitely couldn’t tell if there was much alive by being outside! We ended up back at the Potshot Hotel restaurant for dinner, just in time for cheap parmy night. We didn’t make the same mistake as last night in sitting outside with the flies, instead choosing a table in the dark, cool of inside.

Our last day together was slow, we had a long breakfast at a vegetarian & vegan café that seemed to attract everyone with a child under three. Dropping Mitch off and finally walking out of the airport I crumbled a little inside, this was our first time apart in over a year and a half. Would I survive in Exmouth on my own? Who would open jars for me? And more importantly could I even do this? 

To be continued…

Road Tripping: Perth to Exmouth

Western Australia Adventure Part 1

We left Canberra in the dark on a chilly morning, arriving in Perth 6 hours later in jeans and jackets. That was the first mistake. Perth was experiencing a heatwave, four consecutive days over 35 degrees, the second time this has ever happened in November. Our taxi driver seemed to be economising and preferred to have the windows down instead of turning on the aircon for the half hour drive out of the airport. Day dreaming about shorts and cold drinks was practically mandatory.

The rear portion of the Batavia ship wreck sitting on a plinth of bricks it was carrying as ballast.
The Batavia at rest

After picking up the rental car we were off exploring Fremantle. We stumbled on the WA Shipwrecks Museum and had to go inside. Silver coins and tales of destruction abounded, we also got to see part of the Batavia which wrecked as it ran aground on reefs off the Abrolhos islands in 1629. If you haven’t heard of this ship Peter Fitzsimmons has written a brilliant book, telling the tragic story of mutiny and murder following the wreck. It’s hard to fathom, but is backed up by journals form the captain, and even the chief mutineer Jeronimus Cornelisz. It’s a tale filled with death, destruction, hardship and evil. The museum speaks to the harsh coastline on this side of the country. That Jeronimus still journaled his actions and justified every outcome as just and needed is a fascinating thought.

Treasures, shipments and salvage from multiple wrecks fill the museum. Each with a story of loss and all holding secrets that were slowly uncovered through careful examination and conservation.

A pile or silver coins pulled from shipwrecks on WAs coast, including one with the head of a monarch and its date of stamping clearly visible.
I’m sure they wouldn’t miss one or two of these…

Heading back out into the heat we had our choice of fish and chip shops along the waterfront. We made the mistake of choosing one with an aquarium tank inside, a discovery made well after we’d ordered. It was brimming with large snapper and sharks all wedged into a 50cm wide rectangle that stretched down the length of the floor space. This is always a sad sight, made more so by the group of school children that crowded around to ‘ohh’ and ‘ahh’ at the trapped creatures.

The next morning, we were set to go to Rottnest Island, but missed our ferry by moments. Our run from the car over to the marina was sound tracked by horn blasts as our boat left the dock. Luckily, we were moved to the next one, and passed the hour and a half wait by drinking juices in the shade. The Island was named by Dutch traders, who mistook the resident marsupial quokkas for rats naming it in Dutch to a very literal translation of Rat’s Nest Island. Around 10,000 of the small, happy looking marsupials live on the island. The strange half hop and run they move with makes them an easy if slightly large animal to confuse with a rat. We can only guess at how the population fared as a source of food for hungry sailors.

A turquoise and aqua coloured ocean bay on the southern edge of Rottnest Island WA, fringed by cliffs, green scrub bush and white sand.
Our unnamed cove

Once at the island we picked up bikes and headed off. Our plan was to cycle to the end of the island and choose somewhere to snorkel on the way back. Ten minutes in we saw our first quokka but it already had a lady shoving a phone in its face so we pedalled on. It was clearly very curious stretching forward to sniff at the outstretched phone, but swiftly lost interest as it decided Samsung wasn’t quite the same as leaves.

Forty minutes later we were only about halfway, it was much hillier than Google Maps lead us to believe. It was hot, the flies were relentless and the incredible aqua colour on our left beckoned. The asphalt stretching in front of us definitely didn’t. We took a quick left onto an offshoot, parked our bikes at a headland overlooking Mary Cove and scurried down a scarcely used trail. Taking a sand track down along the cliff edge skirting precarious undercut sandstone we arrived at the beach in a unnamed bay west of Mary Cove. We had it all to ourselves. Dumping our bags in the only shade of an overhanging rock we quickly darted into the water. We were shocked to feel how cold the water was, almost painfully cutting through our overheated skin.

A turquoise and aqua coloured ocean bay on the southern edge of Rottnest Island WA, fringed by cliffs, green scrub bush and white sand. A male figure is walking along a white sand track above the bay.

Diving under I got my first glimpse of an Indian Ocean temperate reef. Seaweed covered rocks were littered across the sand, some forming larger bommies. Pink branching coral grew sparsely from the larger rocks. Silver fish darted everywhere, with larger grunter lazily circling.

Pink branching coral scattered amongst green and yellow algae.
Macro algae and coral, seems strange to see together

After an hour we headed out to have lunch. The problem was something else had decided it was a perfect time for a snack too. Two large skinks had dragged themselves onto my backpack filling the space between the bag and it’s backplate. They must have followed the smell of our ham and salad rolls! Shooing them away I retreated to eat lunch while the skinks kept watch from the shade. Every now and then they’d slink a little closer, eyes fixed on our rolls. Warily we headed back into the water, unsure if the backpacks were safe from intruders.

A snorkeler watching a squid as it flashes brown and yellow bands.
Friendly neighbourhood squid

We came across an octopus in its garden of shells in the sand and a small orange nudibranch slowly working his way up a boulder to a small patch of encrusting sponge. While waiting for Mitch to take a photo I noticed a very small silver flash circling his legs. He’d picked up an incredibly small juvenile tuna, who’d obviously decided this large slow moving creature was the perfect thing to shelter under.

We cycled faster on the way back, less distracted by panoramic views of cliffs against aqua and deep blue ocean and pushed in places along the road by the strong wind. We stopped once when Mitch saw a quokka with a joey trailing behind it, dart into the bushes on the edge of the road. Nestled in the shade were a few skittish quokkas that moved quickly away as they heard us approach.

A cormorant sitting on a rock surrounded by water, wings raised about to take flight.
Maybe not the sneakiest of photographers… definitely spotted by the cormorant

We stopped for another snorkel at Little Salmon Bay. Tourists lounged on the sand and took photos of each other posing, ignoring the beckoning water and outcrops of rock jutting upwards. We jumped in and saw a squid right away, it flashed waves of brown and white across its mantle before quickly jetting away over the weed. Swimming out to a rock I was within centimetres of a cormorant as it sunned itself on the rock poking out of the water above me. I drifted too close, scaring it off its perch.

Back in town we finally found the quokkas in numbers the island was known for. These town quokkas were very different to the wild ones we’d seen. They were poking around for scraps, dozing next to the road or staring with their happy smiles up at people as they snacked in the square. We watched tourists go from one quokka to the next taking photos and selfies of the animals which didn’t seem to care anymore. It somehow wasn’t as exciting as the wild skittish animals we knew were hidden further away from the tourist centre. We wandered down the jetty, boarding our ferry to be shipped back to the mainland.

Hundreds of natural yellow rock pillars, framed by white sand dunes in the background and a crystal clear blue sky.
Yellow desert, white dunes and clear blue sky

Our first stop out of Perth was the Pinnacles desert park in Nambung National Park. Following a very short detour off the highway and even shorter trek from the carpark you find yourself in a yellow sand desert. Thousands of limestone rock pillars are dotted randomly around you, stretching out to the horizon. We saw tourists walk to the nearest rock, pose for a photo in little more than running gear then head back to the car. Definitely not why we’d come. We set off away from the loop road that winds among the rocks. Out where there were less human footprints. We saw animal tracks abound in the sand, perenties (goannas), red kangaroos, echidnas and two footed marsupials we couldn’t recognise. It was about 38 degrees, so after an hour in full sun under one of the clearest, bluest skies we’ve seen, we headed back to the air con. Rewarded for stepping away from the well-trodden path.

A close up of a brown limestone pillar with hundreds more visible in the background scattered amongst the yellow desert sand.
One of the thousands of limestone pinnacles

A large white tour bus pulled out of the carpark in front of us, ‘intrepid adventures’ it claimed on the back. Little did we know this bus would remain a constant feature of our road trip. Continuing our drive, the road never really changed. There aren’t really large trees in Western Australia along the coastal route. Low shrubs line the highway which makes way to sand or red dirt depending on how far north you are. Eagles and kestrels soar over the road on updrafts or sit by the side when it is early morning and still too cool. Towns seem to appear out of the heat haze, sometimes the only sign of civilization is the mobile reception towers that hover above the road cut by the heat shimmer.

A stone block remnant building form the Lynton convict depot.

Our next stop was at a convict ruin on the side of the road. It was called the Lynton Convict Depot. We hadn’t expected any convict history in WA, only knowing the stories of Tasmania from our recent travels there. No other cars pulled off, leaving the place to us. We wandered alone among the three buildings, looking at the graffiti carved into the stone, and wondering if it was an owl or a falcon that roosted in the main building, with feathers and droppings lining the floor at the darker end. There were carved dates from 1930 but the ruins themselves were much older. Obviously, everyone for a very long time has wanted to simply mark the fact they were here.

The inside walls of the Lynton convict depot lockup. Render is crumbling of of the stone block walls. were the renders left people have carved names and dates into the wall from as early as 1930.
So many carved names and dates
The outside of the Lynton convict depot lockup with piles of broken stone blocks in the foreground. the remains of the lockup sit under a cloudy blue sky.

Onwards, I missed the turnoff and we came across Hutt Lagoon by mistake, fortunate really as it’s what we were aiming for. This lake is pink, due to the amount of algae growing in it. Apparently, after rain it turns pinker as the algae is disturbed and flushed around. Not that you could tell, as there were no interpretive signs, just a lookout where the tour bus we kept running into had parked, unloading its ‘adventurers’ for a selfie in front of the pink, salty water.

The pink water and salt of Hut Lagoon. A small rock pokes out form the water encrusted in salt.
Pink and salty, probably not the best for swimming

Back on the right road we made it to Kalbarri where we were set to stay for two nights. In the soon-to-be-typical Western Australian style this remote town was full of restaurants on its main street, yet only the fish and chip shop and the tavern were open for dinner.

To be continued…

A white tailed black cockatoo eating a Banksia cone while string in the same bush.
RWARK!

News on Ningaloo

I am super excited to share some news – I’m going to Ningaloo!!! I’m incredibly lucky to be offered a team leader role on the Ningaloo Turtle Program. This two month internship will see me acting as a Communications and Media Team Leader. I’ll spend eight weeks with the other three leaders, 12 external volunteers and local volunteers patrolling the beaches near Exmouth from 5am each morning. We’ll be looking at turtle tracks and trying to identify nests. When all this data is compiled it gives the WA Parks and Wildlife Service a lot of information for managing the local turtle population. Over time this dataset combines to paint a picture of how turtles use the Ningaloo Coast, which informs conservation actions.

I’ll be staying in Exmouth, which is quite far up the West Australian coast. If you drew a line across the country you’d end up halfway between Rockhampton and Mackay in Queensland! Exmouth is on the eastern side of the North West Cape, so from town you look across the Exmouth Gulf back at the Australian mainland. A road runs north from Exmouth, around the tip of the cape and back south down to Yardie Creek. Along the way you enter Cape Range National Park and just off the beach is the fringing, nearshore Ningaloo Reef. This means to go snorkelling I can just drive to the beach, hop in the water and swim offshore.

Now when you say Ningaloo everyone thinks whale sharks. Every year 300-500 of these massive creatures congregate at Ningaloo following the annual mass coral spawning and seasonal nutrient upwelling which drive increased production of their food – plankton. Unfortunately, I won’t be at Ningaloo during the whale shark season (March – August) but there is still plenty to see.

The area is also known for its cave systems, with the highest cave fauna diversity in Australia, including rare aquatic species in flooded caves. If that wasn’t enough, the Cape Range Peninsula is recognised as an area rich in bird and reptile species and home to 630 flowering plant species. The Cape Range National Park is a rugged landscape of gorges, sheer cliffs and is home to emus, perenties (goannas) and the threatened black-footed rock wallaby. Then, there’s the nearby Muiron Islands known for incredible diving with potato cod, nurse sharks and swim throughs. Maybe two months isn’t enough time to see it all!

Looking at the Ningaloo Visitor Centre Wildlife Calendar, I’ll be there during the peak turtle nesting season (surprise surprise), the end of the Humpback whale migration and peak manta ray period. On the downside, Exmouth will be extremely hot when I’m there (over 40 degrees Celsius most days!) and in the middle of the tropical cyclone season. But what’s an adventure without some challenges. I can’t wait to explore the Ningaloo Coast and meet the critters that call it home. But first join us both as we go on a road trip from Perth to Exmouth. We can’t wait to share what we discover along the way!

Weekends away – shore diving photography

Dent rock and the octopus garden

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!

We like it under our urchin

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.

I think I’m being watched

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.

He’s not posing, Chris’ strobes have just stunned him

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.

Don’t be fooled, this is an evil (but pretty) fish

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.

Probably not as fast as land hares

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.

You have to be careful not to spook the wild macro photographer
I’m sea grass!

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.