ocean

An unseen distance

One of Tim Winton’s most recent works, The Boy Behind the Curtain is an absolute gem that delves deep into the author’s past and reflects on his inner musings of life and the world around him. The collection of 22 stories, 16 of which have been previously published, is intimately woven together and draws upon the past to delightfully expose Winton’s innermost mind and the heartbeat of his childhood.

Image: Penguin Random House

Image: Penguin Random House

Winton’s past is filled with simple yet dynamic day-to-day events. Winton describes his experience of being the son of a policeman, what it was like growing up in the church, and an ever-growing passion for and relationship with the environment. The poignancy of the novel is not just in the description of his stories, but his ability to express how these events shaped the man he is today. The plethora of his unique life experiences takes us directly into the shoes of a schoolboy on a farm, a university undergraduate enrolled in the only creative writing school in Australia, a surfer, and an environmental activist. No matter the outcome of each story, Winton’s reflections focus on how his underlying views and beliefs shape his response to the situation. More often than not, Winton’s inextricable connection to the marine environment provides the lens through which he views the world - that is, a world that is so precious, so unique and yet delicate; that is worth all that we have to protect it from human exploitation. Given our strong marine connections at Wild Melbourne, it’s also where I spend most of my time exploring.

For any reader of Winton’s novels, his strong connection with and passion for the marine ecosystem is well known. Nothing is lost in this novel, either, when Winton ingeniously recreates feelings of life in between the land and the shore; the shoreline, the waves and what lies beneath. This is where Winton thrives.

The chapter titled ‘The Wait and Flow’ is just one example where the author delves into his love for surfing. To Winton’s surprise, he was asked one day why he surfed when most of the time it’s just bobbing in the cold ocean waiting for waves. Even as a surfer myself, I concede that’s a valid point! Winton responds, ‘And I didn’t know how to answer. Almost everyday of my life is shaped according to the weather, most acutely to swell, tide and wind direction. After surfing for over fifty years, you would expect I’d be able to give a better account of myself.’

Of course on later reflection, surfing for Winton is so much more than that and I certainly agree. The wave turns up ‘from the unseen distance’. If you manage to meet it, ‘you live for a short while in the eternal tense. The feeling is divine.’

Winton also explores the seemingly simple yet methodical sway of the tides. At first glance, there appears to be nothing particularly special about the incoming and subsequent outgoing tides that occur four times a day. Merely an empty beach with little signs of life present one day, then a beach full of life the next.

And yet it holds me captive, has me returning morning and evening, high tide and low, because it’s never the same place. It holds its secrets close.

He then challenges the idea of not ‘objectifying’ whatever is washed up on the beach. Instead of seeing the piece of bleached coral or the ragged seaweed holdfasts as objects just washed up on the shore, they are subjects each with a story to tell: ‘For the moment, the bleached head of coral that lies face-down in the rockpool is shelter to the deadly blue-ringed octopus, but before this it was home to half a million lives… a minuscule part of what it takes to keep the deeps alive and therefore all life on earth’. Furthermore, ‘To tread here and never pay tribute, to glance and just see objects, is to be spiritually impoverished.’ A subtle yet powerfully different way to view the world around us.

In  The Boy Behind the Curtain , Winton celebrates the life found in rockpools and the objects - or subjects - washed up in the often unappreciated intertidal zones of Australia's beaches.  Image:  James Donaldson  on  Unsplash

In The Boy Behind the Curtain, Winton celebrates the life found in rockpools and the objects - or subjects - washed up in the often unappreciated intertidal zones of Australia's beaches. Image: James Donaldson on Unsplash

Finally, Winton explores and challenges the peculiar demonisation of sharks in Australia in the chapter ‘Demon Shark’. In general, Winton describes how it’s true that Australians tend to have a very positive and sympathetic attitude to the treatment of animals, ‘whether it’s a dog being beaten or a bear tortured for its bile, cruelty and thoughtless slaughter offend us.’ When it comes to sharks, however, it’s a different matter: ‘Other cultures have their wolves and bears… our demon is silent and it swims.’ Winton candidly explores the way that governments have managed the perception of sharks and openly criticises parts of the media for fear-mongering in order to sway public opinion; as Winton argues, ‘fear sells’.

This novel has it all, with a particular focus on the way life takes you in all directions, eventually shaping the person you are today. Readers will reach the end of the novel with a sense of how this particular man experiences life — metaphorically, philosophically. How he carries things; feels and makes sense of the world around him. This selection of short essays beautifully captures life in Australia and provokes a sense of inner searching that can only be done in the quietness of one’s room or reflecting in nature itself. It is a must-read for any Winton admirer or lover of the Australian environment.

The Boy Behind the Curtain is the third title in Winton's autobiographical trilogy. All three books in the series are available to purchase from Penguin Random House.

You can also read our reviews of Winton's Land's Edge: A Coastal Memoir and Island Home: A Landscape Memoir


Stephen McGain studied a Bachelor and Master of Science at the University of Melbourne. His Masters involved investigating the impacts that dredging and climate change might have on the important seagrass habitats that exist in Port Phillip Bay. He is currently studying a Diploma in Conservation Land Management in the hope of further contributing his knowledge and skills to the local community.


Banner image courtesy of Josh Withers on Unsplash.

Come and Sea The Real Thing: The Pelagic Experience

This article is co-authored by Rowan Mott and Cathy Cavallo.

The wandering albatross steals all of the limelight when it comes to the romanticism of seabirds. But picture the tiny grey-backed storm-petrel, a bird weighing only 35 grams, battling ocean gales and crashing swell as it patters across the water surface on dainty wings. Now that’s an impressive seabird.

Most of us never have the privilege of seeing either a wandering albatross or a grey-backed storm-petrel because our land-locked lives never coincide with the places either of these species call home. Although standing atop the cliffs at places such as Anglesea can be highly rewarding for spotting some seabird species, many of the truly majestic inhabitants of Victorian waters occur mainly beyond the horizon, over deeper waters at or past the edge of the continental shelf. If you want to see these birds in their natural environment, you’ll have to get on a boat. Thankfully, there are boat trips organised with the sole objective of seeing seabirds. Because these trips venture into what marine scientists call ‘pelagic waters’ (oceanic waters removed from the shoreline and sea floor), these trips are commonly referred to as a pelagic.

It’s hard to comprehend the diminutive grey-backed storm-petrel withstanding fierce ocean storms. Yet, they are equally suited to these conditions as the colossal wandering albatross.  Image: Rowan Mott

It’s hard to comprehend the diminutive grey-backed storm-petrel withstanding fierce ocean storms. Yet, they are equally suited to these conditions as the colossal wandering albatross. Image: Rowan Mott

New Zealand wandering albatrosses breed across the Tasman, but their huge wingspan enables efficient flight and their wide-ranging movements make them a common sighting on Victorian pelagics.  Image: Cathy Cavallo

New Zealand wandering albatrosses breed across the Tasman, but their huge wingspan enables efficient flight and their wide-ranging movements make them a common sighting on Victorian pelagics. Image: Cathy Cavallo

Before we went on our first pelagic, going out on one felt like an insurmountable hurdle. We didn’t know how to find out about them, and this mystery gave the impression that newcomers might not be welcome. Then there was the fear of exposing our naivety – how could we hope to tell one shearwater from another? Worse still, what if we succumbed to seasickness and ended up vomiting over the side of the boat in front of these diehard seabirders? Our inexperience and presumptions held us back, denying us the joy and thrill of the pelagic experience. Let us now allay these common misconceptions before they delay your own trip any longer.

There is an outside perception that seabirders are a cliquey group, but this is not the case. Your first chance to find this out will be if you arrive early enough to join the other participants for the traditional pre-trip dinner. On every trip, the more experienced participants are always glad to share their knowledge and passion for the birds you’ll see. The more unusual sightings will be called out so that everyone has the best chance of seeing them and even common species are called out the first few times they are seen. The really special birds ('megas') will be greeted by whoops and expletives - perhaps not the quiet birdwatching you might be used to. Often the excitement will carry everyone off the boat and into a local café for a debrief afterwards.

Experienced pelagic participants are only too happy to share their knowledge and point out the species you’re seeing. You’ll know if they spot an exceptional rarity, such as this Salvin’s albatross, by the loud whoops and maybe even an expletive when it’s spotted!  Image: Rowan Mott

Experienced pelagic participants are only too happy to share their knowledge and point out the species you’re seeing. You’ll know if they spot an exceptional rarity, such as this Salvin’s albatross, by the loud whoops and maybe even an expletive when it’s spotted! Image: Rowan Mott

Wandering albatrosses lose most of their airborne grace the moment they splash down. On the water’s surface, they bear an alarming resemblance to an enormous rubber ducky.  Image: Rowan Mott

Wandering albatrosses lose most of their airborne grace the moment they splash down. On the water’s surface, they bear an alarming resemblance to an enormous rubber ducky. Image: Rowan Mott

Petrels of many species are a common sight at the back of the boat. Here, a grey-face petrel (near) and white-headed petrel (far) mirror each other’s movements.  Image: Cathy Cavallo

Petrels of many species are a common sight at the back of the boat. Here, a grey-face petrel (near) and white-headed petrel (far) mirror each other’s movements. Image: Cathy Cavallo

For most species seen on any trip, there will be ample opportunity to get great views. Upon reaching the continental shelf edge, the boat is allowed to drift with the current while berley (chopped up fish bits and other assorted delicacies) is thrown over the side. Seabirds are drawn to this free meal in their droves, and within a few minutes of the first bit of berley hitting the water, there are usually anywhere from tens to one hundred or more seabirds making close passes of the boat.

And we haven’t even mentioned the countless birds bobbing mere metres from the back of the boat like giant rubber-duckies. The albatrosses lose all of their aerial grace as they paddle curiously towards the boat, staring up at you with their beguiling eyes. Petrels of all sizes quarrel over scraps of berley until the domineering giant petrel splashes in to claim it all. Terns hovering above spy tidbits before darting down to snatch one from the water’s surface with the deftest touch. Wherever you look, there are birds revealing the personalities and idiosyncrasies of each species.

Amongst all of the squawking squabbles and awkward landings, these close encounters will provide you with great opportunities to familiarise yourself with the identifying features of these seabirds, not to mention giving you great prospects for photography. With patience, the differences between a short-tailed shearwater and a sooty shearwater may even begin to solidify in your head.

Giant petrels are the vultures of the sea. Here, a northern giant petrel shows the gluttonous character typical of the species as it gobbles down a piece of berley.  Image: Rowan Mott

Giant petrels are the vultures of the sea. Here, a northern giant petrel shows the gluttonous character typical of the species as it gobbles down a piece of berley. Image: Rowan Mott

Terns, such as this young white-fronted tern, fly above most of the seabird congregation at the back of the boat. They use this vantage point to spot tidbits floating on the water’s surface. They elegantly swoop down to pick them from the surface.  Image: Rowan Mott

Terns, such as this young white-fronted tern, fly above most of the seabird congregation at the back of the boat. They use this vantage point to spot tidbits floating on the water’s surface. They elegantly swoop down to pick them from the surface. Image: Rowan Mott

Fear of seasickness is a major reason many people never partake in a pelagic. Although it can be daunting, most people find some relief in over-the-counter motion sickness remedies. Further reducing your chances of becoming ill, pelagics are cancelled if the weather forecast predicts strong winds and large swells. The precautionary decision on whether a trip is to be cancelled is usually made a day and a half before departure, giving you time to rearrange your travel plans and ease the worry on your fragile stomach.

Although the choice of whether to take seasickness tablets is up to you, it would be remiss of us to not mention that binoculars are a necessity for spotting the birds that don’t oblige with a close pass. You will also want to wear warm clothing (including a beanie and gloves) and a waterproof jacket and pants. This will not only keep out the cold sea breeze, but will guard against wind-blown splash. Suitable footwear is a must, and on your first trip you will notice a motley assortment being sported by other participants, ranging from gumboots and neoprene wetsuit boots, to elastic sided boots. Whatever your footwear of choice, a thick pair of woollen socks is most definitely recommended.

Fairy prions may be one of the most common species on a Victorian pelagic. If, like us, you don’t want to put your seabird naivety on show, make sure you pronounce their name to rhyme with iron, not neon.  Image: Cathy Cavallo

Fairy prions may be one of the most common species on a Victorian pelagic. If, like us, you don’t want to put your seabird naivety on show, make sure you pronounce their name to rhyme with iron, not neon. Image: Cathy Cavallo

While travelling from port out to deeper water, common dolphins may join the boat for a spot of playful bow-riding.  Image: Cathy Cavallo

While travelling from port out to deeper water, common dolphins may join the boat for a spot of playful bow-riding. Image: Cathy Cavallo

Pelagics in Victoria regularly depart from Port Fairy and Portland. These are the preferred departure points because they’re closer to the continental shelf edge compared to other localities in Victoria. This means that within about two hours of leaving port, you will be ‘out wide’ at the continental shelf edge, in the domain of the wandering albatross and grey-backed storm-petrel. On the way out, familiar coastal species including Australasian gannets, kelp gulls, and greater crested terns may chaperone you to deeper water, so throughout the day, there is always something to keep you alert. This is also the time that common dolphins may join you for a spot of bow-riding.

No matter what turns up on the day, you are guaranteed to enjoy what few will experience in their lives. An internet search for ‘pelagic birdwatching boat trips’ could well be the start of one of the best days you will ever have. From the grace in the effortless turn of the grey-faced petrel to the beauty bound in the splotched, black-and-white markings of a Cape petrel, floating under a swirling flock of seabirds on your first pelagic is certain to put a smile on your face as wide as the wingspan of a wandering albatross.


Rowan Mott

Rowan is a PhD student studying seabird ecology. When he's not thinking about the ocean, he likes to think about woodland birds. 

You can find him on Twitter at @roamingmoth


Cathy Cavallo

Cathy is a PhD student and science communicator with a passion for natural history, environmental engagement and photography. When she isn't running the Wild Melbourne social media, you'll find her working with little penguins on Phillip Island or underwater somewhere.

You can find her on Twitter at @CavalloDelMare


Banner image courtesy of Cathy Cavallo.

Unveiling the Octopus's Garden: The Surprising Diversity of Australian Cephalopods

Some of the most charismatic and curious creatures of the oceans, cephalopods represent a significant portion of the species that make up our marine ecosystems. In fact, the waters of Australia are home to some of the highest diversity of cephalopods in the world. Although including a wide array of distinctive animals such as octopuses, squid, nautiloids and cuttlefish, it is sometimes easy to forget the importance of this unusual group. Cephalopods are classified within the same phylum as the likes of snails, chitons and clams, although cephalopods are generally considered to be much more neurologically advanced than their relatives.

Image: CSIRO Publishing

Image: CSIRO Publishing

Taxonomist Dr Amanda Reid’s new text does much to reveal the varied roles that these organisms play. Functioning almost as a large, especially detailed field guide, Cephalopods of Australia and Sub-Antarctic Territories features 226 species of cephalopod and describes their habitat, biology, and distribution, amongst other aspects. With colour photographs, black and white drawings, and distribution maps, Reid’s work aptly explores why this class of animal is so important ecologically. Existing as both top-level predators and prey for species of fish, cetaceans and seabirds, there is much to be said for the influence that cephalopods have on their surrounding ecosystem.

In the comprehensive introduction to her book, Reid describes the publication as ‘timely’ and a means ‘to provide a solid launching pad for future studies and fisheries management.’ Cephalopods haven’t always been top marine predators – due to overfishing of finfish by humans, they now function as ‘a keystone group in understanding complex ecosystems’ based on their new position as significant marine predators. She hopes that this text will not just inform readers of what we already know about Australian cephalopods, but will ‘also indicate what we don’t know in order to identify potential future research projects.’

This is evident in the varying amounts of detail provided for each order of cephalopods, and the species within these orders. Some species profiles include reference to several research papers, whilst others contain more basic information with fewer references. There is still so much that we don’t know, and Reid is not afraid to demonstrate this.

An artist's impression of the luminiscent firefly squid  (Lycoteuthis lorigera ).  Image: Wikimedia Commons

An artist's impression of the luminiscent firefly squid (Lycoteuthis lorigera). Image: Wikimedia Commons

The nature of the guide is that it truly establishes the immense variety of species within the Cephalopoda class. It would have been no easy feat for Reid to encompass so much information into the one volume. Some standout species include Pfeffer’s flamboyant cuttlefish (Metasepia pfefferi), a vibrant organism with purple-pink patterning along their arms and distinctive, fleshy, flap-like papillae; the greater argonaut (Argonauta argo), a little-studied octopus species whose females look more like a nautilus when they create a paper-like egg case that wraps around their body in the same way that a nautilus shell does; and the crowned firefly squid (Lycoteuthis lorigera), a species possessing spectacularly luminescent photophores (light-producing organs) on several areas of their body.

And of course, some of the most well-known cephalopods found in Australia, the blue-ringed octopuses, of which there are actually more than one species: the blue-lined octopus (Hapalochlaena fasciata), the greater blue-ringed octopus (Hapalochlaena cf. lunulata) and the lesser blue-ringed octopus (Hapalochlaena maculosa). All three are incredibly venomous and have been involved in human fatalities, yet interestingly, the venom is not produced by the octopus themselves, but rather symbiotic bacteria found within them. A species known for its presence in our very own Port Phillip Bay, the Maori octopus (Octopus maorum) is also a fascinating species described that has been studied somewhat extensively.

A lesser blue-ringed octopus ( Hapalochlaena maculosa ) in the waters of Sydney.  Image: Sylke Rohrlach / Wikimedia Commons.

A lesser blue-ringed octopus (Hapalochlaena maculosa) in the waters of Sydney. Image: Sylke Rohrlach / Wikimedia Commons.

Although focused on information practically useful to researchers and fisheries experts, Reid’s text is still very relevant to those amateur naturalists out there, as well as to fishers and divers who want to know more about the marine world that they experience on a regular basis. It is important that we take responsibility for the often overlooked marine species that may be detrimentally affected into the future. It is concerning that there are so many species that we still know so little about – how can we know how they might be affected by human actions if we don’t even have all the information on their basic biology? But it is also refreshing to see the interest being taken in species of cephalopods in the hopes that more can be discovered, as is evident in the publication of such a comprehensive exploration of those organisms found here in Australian waters.  

This book belongs on your bookshelf if… you have a passion for marine ecosystems or are involved in the active management of Australian fisheries and wish to learn more about some of our country’s most significant marine creatures.

Head to the CSIRO Publishing website to purchase your copy. 


Rachel Fetherston

Rachel is an Arts and Science graduate and a freelance writer who is passionate about communicating the importance of the natural world through literature. She has completed an Honours year in Literary Studies, involving research into environmental philosophy and the significance of the non-human other. She is an editor and the Publications Manager for Wild Melbourne.

You can find her on Twitter at @RJFether.


Banner image of a Pfeffer's flamboyant cuttlefish courtesy of Jenny Huang / Wikimedia Commons. 

 

 

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.