fish

An Angry Eagle and a Nudist Colony: A Day Surveying Native Fish Species in the Dandenong Ranges

This is a guest article by Cameron Amos.

I am awake well before the sun will appear from the east; it is dark and cold. Eerie silence, street lights and condensed breath greet me at my destination, Lilydale. Why Lilydale? Here I am to meet Paul, an aquatic ecologist, whom I am to assist in conducting fish surveys throughout the Dandenong Ranges. 

I jump into Paul’s four-wheel drive and soon we are hurtling towards the ranges. We pass through the pleasantries and Paul looks at me coyly from the driver’s seat. “Our first site”, he begins slowly – then swallows, hesitates, rubs his forehead – “is at a nudist colony.”

A what! My mind races. What does a nudist colony mean? Surely no nudist in their right mind will be walking around the creek, starkers, in this temperature. But it is Easter Saturday; who knows how people might celebrate or commiserate this day? I respond with a mumbled acknowledgement: “That’s fine.” Well, I have no choice, now that I am travelling with haste, as the sun rises, towards our first site. 

We travel in silence as we drive up the increasing gradient into the hills of the Dandenongs. A couple of sharp turns and we are there, facing a well-built, steel-gated, unmarked driveway in thick, old-growth forest. The call is made to one of the residents and we wait for the gate to be manually opened. Both of us are silent in our wonder – or is that fear? – of what or how the resident could be greeting us. A shadowy figure emerges from the gloom of the greying light. A jumper, some track pants and a cheerful lady in her mid-to-late sixties approaches the gate. We both exhale our relief in too loud a manner as the woman opens the gate. Paul chats to her about our plans and how long we intend to take. 

We drive through. It looks like a school holiday camp. Small one- and two-bedroom shacks are dotted all over. Signs line the road, showing the quaint road names, speed limits, and where the games room is located. We pass an upright volleyball net near the games room. Both of us let out a synchronised immature giggle, like we are schoolchildren.

We arrive at the site and get organised to sample the section of the creek. I prepare myself, putting waders on, pulling out the buckets, bins and fish ruler. My mind is conscious of the knowledge that there may be nude people outside the periphery of my vision. Like some impending zombie attack. I try not to get too hung up on it – just like the impulse to ignore “do not press the red button”, the urge to gawk and stare around the complex is irrepressible. We commit to little chat as we prepare the backpack electrofisher to undertake the survey in the small tributary. 

An unnamed tributary located in the nudist village.  Image: Cameron Amos

An unnamed tributary located in the nudist village. Image: Cameron Amos

The backpack electrofisher uses pulses of electricity to attract fish towards the appliance, and as they are drawn closer, the pulse stuns the fish. Once stunned, fish return to consciousness quickly. My job as assistant to Paul is to act as netter. The job of the netter is to catch the stunned fish before it returns to consciousness or gets washed downstream. At the same time, I am required to carry a bucket with recovering fish, climb over large fallen trees, dodge or climb over slimy, waterlogged snags, power through gumboot-deep mud and try not to trip and fall into the creek. Most important of all: don’t drop the bucket of fish back into the creek. 

We quickly move through the site and collect short-finned eels (Anguilla australis), river blackfish (Gadopsis marmoratus) and mountain galaxias (Galaxias olidius). All the time my eyes are darting around in search of obstructions, trip hazards and stunned fish, whilst the distracting possibility of some goose-bumped flesh (that being a curious resident) interrupts my concentration. 

We finish in an hour. I’m sure there’s a nudist about to appear out of thin air and surprise me, but no. No one. We hop in the car and we’re off. Paul rings the lady to let her know we’ve finished and that we’ll lock the gate behind us. “No, it’s okay, we’re okay, we don’t need a cup of tea, thanks for the offer.” He hangs up and we both look at each other. I imagine calling into their shack for a cup of tea. Is it polite to enter a nudist’s home with clothes on? Would we be asked to de-robe? Fortunately, we didn’t accept the offer; too busy, too many sites to complete, or something like that. 

As though we stole the ute, we burn out of the driveway and the ute fishtails as Paul presses exuberantly on the accelerator. 

The short-finned eel   ( Anguilla australis ) was one of the species observed during the survey.  Image: Edgar R. Waite,  Illustrated Catalogue of the Fishes of South Australia .

The short-finned eel (Anguilla australis) was one of the species observed during the survey. Image: Edgar R. Waite, Illustrated Catalogue of the Fishes of South Australia.

At the next site we are greeted by a driveway full of wood carvings. Paul curls the car around the back of the property and we park. He races to the back door to let the landowner know we’re here, while I stay and wait in the car. I look around the property. Above the ute, glaring at me like the Eye of Mordor, is a timber-carved eagle. Paul jumps in after a few minutes of me locking eyes with the angry wooden raptor. The GPS is fished out of the glovebox and it tells us where to head – that being some random direction where tracks have not been made and cars have never been. We park in the middle of a paddock on a slope that is asking the handbrake big questions. 

We bash our way through a mangled, gnarled, old and seemingly impenetrable tea-tree stand. With a few more scratches than we had before, we get to the stream and begin the electrofishing. After two hours of grunting, groaning and pushing through overgrown vegetation, we’re done and we head back to the car. It’s late in the day and I’m grateful that we're finished. My body aches with the climbing and vegetation bulldozing, and I look forward to a shower. When we have parked in front of the angry eagle, Paul goes inside again. The eagle glares at me. I shy away this time, unable to hold the staring competition. 

Paul’s back in. “Right,” he says, “one more site.” Eh?! Another surprise. We race off, trying to beat the setting sun, which is now just a sliver of light to the west, penetrating through the tree giants, leaving perpendicular orange slots along the road. 

The next site is accessed from a landowner’s home that sits on the ridge of a valley. We turn the headlights on and start the trip through the paddocks towards the creek. It’s darker than dusk but lighter than night. In this light, there’s no dodging the small mounds and gutters and the car heaves and bounces like an angry rodeo bull at each change in elevation, pushing us up and down against our seat belts. Eventually, battered, shaken and thankfully not stirred, we make it to the bottom. Under the moon, squinting in the hope of light, we finish the site. 

It’s late in the evening. I am back in my own car, starving, heading for home, smelling of fish and sweat and feeling a whole-body exhaustion, both mentally and physically. This has been the strangest day of my life as an aquatic ecologist. I will never forget it.


Cameron Amos is an aquatic ecologist of 17 years who currently works for a consultancy. When he's not chasing fish with an electrofisher, you may find him locking eyes with macroinvertebrates.


Banner image courtesy of Uzman Naleer (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Melbourne's Best Kept Secret

… up to 82% of the marine life [in Port Phillip Bay] is found nowhere else in the world, so it’s completely unique. You compare that to the Great Barrier Reef, where only 10% of the marine life is unique to the area.
— Sheree Marris, author of Melbourne Down Under

Port Phillip Bay is one of the most unique areas in the world.  Let that sink in for a moment. On our doorstep lies one of the most impressive, species-rich and colourful marine habitats in the entire world - yet how many people are even aware of its magnificence?

If it’s so impressive and we live right next door, then surely Melburnians would know about it, right? After all, we know when the latest café or restaurant opens - yet we are unaware of the beauties that live in our own oceans. This may come down to the misconception that colourful fish and corals are only found in warm tropical waters like the Great Barrier Reef. Contrary to that idea, temperate and even polar waters are home to a wealth of colourful fish, sponges and corals. Another reason might be that our knowledge concerning oceans is relatively limited. More than 90% of our oceans remain completely unexplored and considering 12 people have been sent to the moon since 1969, less than a handful of people have reached the deepest part of our ocean, the Mariana Trench.

Wandering sea anemone.  Image: Cathy Cavallo

Wandering sea anemone. Image: Cathy Cavallo

For a seemingly small area, Port Phillip Bay is home to an abundance of marine life.  Over 12,000 different marine species call Victoria home, whilst up to 1,300 different plant and animal species are completely unique to Port Phillip Bay. In fact, the Bay is even home to approximately 100 individuals of our very own species of bottlenose dolphin known as the Burrunan, which some studies suggest may be a distinct species.

The Bay itself covers nearly 2,000 square kilometres and averages just 13 metres in depth, making it a particularly shallow bay given the extensive commercial use that occurs here. It consists of a variety of habitats including sandy seafloors, tall kelp forests, thriving seagrass beds and colourful rocky reefs and sponge gardens. However, most of the seafloor is sand and silt where diverse groups of invertebrates play a crucial role in filtering nutrients and pollutants.

Due to the large expanses of sandy floor and relative shallowness, dense seagrass meadows have made their home here, covering much of the western coast from Queenscliff to Werribee as well as some pockets on the east coast from Sorrento to Mordialloc. While some may not appreciate the beauty of seagrass meadows, I am certainly one who can testify to it. When I conducted my Master’s research project, I looked at the impact that burial and erosion had on these majestic and often under-appreciated habitats. Many times while snorkelling, I found myself completely transfixed by the peaceful swaying of seagrass blades and how fish used the meadows like a garden, darting in and out playfully.

In fact, seagrass meadows aren’t anywhere near as boring as they may look. They are integral to the functionality of the Bay and provide a home for a plethora of animal life including King George whiting (Sillaginodes punctatus), spotted pipe fish (Stigmatopora argus), the eleven-armed sea star (Coscinasterias calamaria), Maori octopus (Macroctopus maorum), banjo sharks (Trygonorrhina sp.), a threatened snapping shrimp and many more. Seagrass meadows also play a critical role in reducing sand erosion from beaches, are a food source for marine life, provide a home for many commercially important fish species, and help cycle nutrients throughout the Bay.  

Shaw's Cowfish.  Image: Cathy Cavallo

Shaw's Cowfish. Image: Cathy Cavallo

A vividly coloured sea urchin.  Image: Cathy Cavallo

A vividly coloured sea urchin. Image: Cathy Cavallo

Verco's nudibranch.  Image: Cathy Cavallo

Verco's nudibranch. Image: Cathy Cavallo

The rocky reefs, tall kelp forests and vibrant sponge gardens are also teeming with marine life. Predominantly found on the margins of the Bay, they are dominated by hundreds of different seaweeds, fish, crustaceans and sponge gardens. For anyone that has dived or snorkelled in Port Phillip Bay, vibrant colours become strikingly obvious - something that is not initially expected. For example, take one look at the southern blue devil (Paraplesiops meleagris), Shaw's cowfish (Aracana aurita), sea tulips, wandering anemones (Phlyctenactis tuberculosa), six-spined leatherjacket (Meuschenia freycineti), sea stars and the blue and yellow tambja (Verconis macro) and you can see that life in Port Phillip Bay is far from boring - even rivalling the colours seen on the Great Barrier Reef. The Bay is also home to giant kelp forests.

While their current stands do not compare to their previous abundance, Victoria’s majestic marine state emblem, the weedy seadragon (Phyllopteryx taeniolatus), can be seen here in all its glory. I can distinctly remember seeing this species for the first time or, more accurately, not seeing it until a colleague pointed it out to me. Floating gracefully and peacefully through the water, I wondered how such a delicate creature was able to survive in the often turbulent waters of Port Phillip Bay - a truly majestic animal indeed.

Luckily, we at Wild Melbourne aren’t the only ones who think Port Phillip Bay is amazing! There are several other groups, including Reef Watch, Explore Underwater Victoria and Melbourne Down Under, that aim to promote the diversity found in Port Phillip Bay so that everyday Victorians can discover these underwater secrets for themselves. Port Phillip Bay is still Melbourne’s best kept secret; however, it’s time we told everyone else about it so that they too can appreciate and experience the joy and beauty it can provide.

Victoria's marine state emblem, the weedy seadragon.  Image: Cathy Cavallo

Victoria's marine state emblem, the weedy seadragon. Image: Cathy Cavallo

FAST FACTS

The Bay supports:

•         approximately 300 species of fish;

•         several hundred species of molluscs;

•         several hundred species of crustaceans;

•         at least 200 species of seaweeds;

•         several hundred species of polychaetes (bristle worms);

•         two species of seagrass;

•         several hundred species of cnidarians (jellyfish, corals, etc.);

•         and several hundred species of sponges.


Banner image courtesy of Great Ocean Road Coast Committee.

 

Watery Neighbours: The Animals that Reside Beneath Australia's Waves

This is a guest post by Melissa Marquez.

With summer in full swing, it’s important that we look at the animals sharing the waters with Melbourne’s residents and visitors. After reaching the beach (and slathering some sunscreen on), don’t skip the tide pools! Here you will see sea snails, tubeworms and abalone. White rock sea snail eggs (Dicathasis orbita) have recently been found to contain chemicals (called N-alkylisatins) that are proving incredibly powerful in fighting cancer cells, as shown by researchers from the University of Wollongong.

Wading out to slightly deeper waters, there are beautiful seaweed gardens including towering bull kelp forests and beds of delicate green and red species. And while you may be hungry for some abalone, no species of these fellows are allowed to be caught from the intertidal zone in Victorian waters (less than two metres deep); Port Phillip Bay has a permanent ban on the take of greenlip abalone.

There are many species of jellyfish to be found in Australian waters. 

There are many species of jellyfish to be found in Australian waters. 

Calmer waters support colourful soft corals, sponge gardens and sea urchins. Most people become familiar with the sea urchin after plucking its painful spines from their feet. While the spiky sea urchin doesn’t look like a culinary delicacy, there is a demand for the creature in Hong Kong. Sea urchins, when not kept in check, can wreak havoc on reefs, devouring kelp and other important resources.

Also on the reef, you can see sharks, skates, and rays. There are about 180 species living in Australian waters – some of which you can read about in a previous Wild Melbourne post. They share this oceanic space with a number of species, such as the critically endangered hand fish (family Brachionichthyidae), which prefers to walk on its pectoral and pelvic fins than swim.

There are plenty of creatures to look out for while swimming in Australian waters. Living in Australia’s reefs are stinging stonefish (Synanceia verrucosa), with a mottled appearance that helps them hide. Take care not to step on the coral – not only will it help protect the reef overall, but these stonefish are extremely poisonous and hard to see! Another spectacularly coloured venomous animal is the southern blue-lined octopus (Hapalochlaena fasciata), a type of blue-ringed octopus (Genus Hapalochlaena). The box jellyfish (Chironex fleckeri) is another creature all Australians should be wary of. These venomous residents have tentacles that can dangle up to two metres long; pay attention to any signs your beach may have posted in regards to sightings of these animals.

Travelling the Great Ocean Road this summer? If you make your way to Portland from November to May, you may be able to spot some blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus) that feed on the abundant krill present at this time. Krill are small crustaceans that are the main staple in the diets of hundreds of different animals – including baleen whales, like the blue whale! If you aren’t able to see its streamlined shape (they are deep blue in colour, and have a dorsal fin located near their tail), perhaps you can still spot the tall, straight blow from its blowhole.

If you're lucky enough, you may be able to spot a blue whale in Victorian waters off Portland between November and May. 

If you're lucky enough, you may be able to spot a blue whale in Victorian waters off Portland between November and May. 

And while no human has observed these fish in their natural habitat (exceeding depths of 1,000 metres), the deep waters of Australia are home to a fish which can claim the title of “ugliest animal on Earth”: the blobfish. A member of the family Psychrolutidae, these bottom-dwelling fish look like tadpoles with really big heads. There are three types of blobfish in Australian waters: the smooth-head blobfish (Psychrolutes marcidus), the western blobfish (Psychrolutes occidentalis), and "Mr Blobby" (Psychrolutes microporos). However, although considered “ugly”, it is perhaps more important to acknowledge that they are actually not that well studied. A recent article on The Conversation detailed how perceptions of these deep sea creatures as ‘monsters’ may actually be harmful to their conservation – so perhaps we shouldn’t always judge an animal by its looks!

You may be sharing the warm sand and cool ocean with hundreds of fellow Australians and a few too many tourists, but while looking at the waves, don’t forget there are also plenty of ocean residents sharing the water with you.


Melissa Marquez is a marine biologist studying sharks, skates, rays and chimaeras in Wellington, New Zealand. You can follow her research on Twitter (@mcmsharksxx) and outreach efforts at www.finsunited.co.nz.

The Life Aquatic

It’s often said we know more about space than our own oceans. Whilst this fact may be debatable, one thing is for certain: we have explored very little of the oceans’ depths and the wondrous mysteries they hold. Just like space exploration itself, only a handful of people have ever ventured to the deepest depths of the ocean – a cold world devoid of light yet teeming with some of the strangest, alien-like life forms on earth!

Let’s for a moment pretend you’re an aquanaut, a bold explorer of the oceans in much the same way an astronaut explores the dark reaches of space. You’ve been assigned a mission to explore the marine world in its entirety, beginning from the shorelines whipped by winds and lashed by waves, through the sun-kissed shallows and upper reaches of the open ocean and finally, deep down into the dark, unknown abyss. To prepare you for this incredible voyage, you’re going to need to do a little bit of research. You’ll need to know what environmental conditions you might face, what creatures you’ll encounter (maybe even discover!), and where exactly you might find them should you wish to seek them.

The day your mission begins is drawing close and final preparations are wrapping up. You’ve just experienced a tiring day of physical assessments and you decide to head back to your cabin form some much-needed rest. Upon returning, you notice a book has been left on your bedside table, The Marine World: A Natural History of Ocean Life. The cover shows a ghost-like jellyfish illuminating itself in a glow of neon blue and pink – no doubt, a sign of the strange new world you’re yet to see. Propping yourself up in bed, you open the cover and browse its contents.

Nicely encapsulated in three main sections, you find everything you need to know about the marine world. In the first part, you learn of the ocean’s physical and chemical properties, such as the tides, varying salinity, and changing pressures at great depths. Flicking through the second section, you’re introduced to the ‘living’ ocean and to concepts like food webs, habitat zonation and the various adaptations life has evolved to deal with a variety of challenging conditions. Finally, you reach the last part where the majority of known marine phyla (large groups of life classified by scientists) are catalogued. In this last section, you discover the sheer array of life forms ranging from the microscopic protozoa to the open ocean-cruising whales.

Each page you read contains amazing fact after amazing fact, complemented by beautifully detailed line drawings, illustrations and colour photographs. The language is simple, clear and free of any unnecessary jargon and, despite your fatigued body and mind, it is by no means a chore to read. You’re drawn in more and more, and with each page you find yourself repeatedly going ‘Ah-ha!’ as you begin to understand the complexity of the marine world - the flows of major oceanic currents, nutrient upwellings supporting entire ecosystems, and even how the Antarctic yeti crab (Kiwa tyleri) ‘grows’ its own food at freezing-cold depths! The tapestry of marine life unravels before your eyes and you can clearly see how each life form is intrinsically linked to another, just as each differently coloured brush stroke is woven into a single masterpiece.

Yeti crab (Kiwa sp.). Attached to the hairs (setae) of the crab are filamentous bacteria which are believed to be ’farmed’ by the crab as food. Image:   David Shale, Nature Picture Library.

Yeti crab (Kiwa sp.). Attached to the hairs (setae) of the crab are filamentous bacteria which are believed to be ’farmed’ by the crab as food. Image: David Shale, Nature Picture Library.

Amidst the revelations of each organism’s life history, unique adaptations in form and function, and quirky behaviour, you notice a repeating element. It startles you at first and as you progress through each class of organism it becomes increasingly sobering. It’s a small paragraph at the end of nearly each section titled ‘Uses, Threats, Status and Management’. It dawns upon you that our actions throughout history, particularly in just the last couple of centuries, are threatening life in the oceans. Yet, hinted at in the title is the fact that with greater knowledge and compassion, we can make positive change through ‘managing’ our actions. This buoys you with hope. It is a poignant reminder as to why you signed up for this adventure – to unravel the ocean’s secrets and share its beauty with the world, lest it be lost forever.

Your eyes are heavy now and your body is aching. You slowly close the cover, rest the book down, and your eyes close. You hear the gentle roll of waves, the caw of seagulls and begin to dream of the adventure of a lifetime.

This book belongs on your bookshelf if... you have even the slightest bit of curiosity about life on Earth and what secrets our oceans hold.

Banner image by Evatt Chirgwin.


Leonardo Guida

Following a childhood love for sharks, Leo recently completed his PhD at Monash University investigating the effects of fishing on shark and ray populations. He is Director of Community Operations for Wild Melbourne.

You can find him on Twitter at @ElasmoBro.