Thursday, 4 April 2013

Snorkeling Sydney and Surrounds

OK, I know it seems odd that I should start my blog about the wildlife of Brisbane and surrounds by writing about the wildlife of Sydney instead, but I have a good reason which I will explain shortly. First, let me introduce myself!

My name is Christian and I am a soon-to-be-thirty-year-old man who has returned to Brisbane after living everywhere else between the ages of twenty-two and twenty-nine. Much of this time was spent in Sydney and London, where I increasingly left behind my passion for nature as a "kid thing" and replaced it with a zest for nightlife, partying and travel. It wasn't until a disastrous move to and from Toronto that this began to change. In 2011, after a brief holiday and a fling-turned-relationship there, I moved to that friendly city with the hopes of making it my permanent base. What I hadn't counted on, however, was that Canada hadn't been as fortunate as Australia had been during the Global Financial Crisis, and full-time work was nigh on impossible for me to find in Toronto. After four and a half months of fruitless searching and attachment-building, I had to make one of the hardest decisions I have ever made: I gave up on a blossoming romance and my Canadian dream to return to my hometown of Brisbane.

But I didn't fly straight home. On Australia Day 2012, I flew to my "other hometown" of Sydney, to spend a little time pondering over and grieving my losses with some close friends. Between chats and comforting cups of tea, I had the days to myself for a week and I dragged myself from room to room in a terrace house in Glebe, totally at a loss for what to do with myself.

That's when I saw the snorkel and mask.

Packing a day bag for the beach, I set off for some sheltered spots in the harbour, finally ending up here at the Watson's Bay baths.

Watson's Bay Baths

The experience was healing in a way I could never have foreseen. Submerging myself in an alien world that required a constant awareness, surrounded by life forms i'd never seen up close and personal, all while listening to the meditative sounds of my own breath through the snorkel, was like a soothing balm on my emotional wounds. I made new underwater friends, each with their own distinct personalities: the watchful cuttlefish, the flamboyant leatherjacket, the hard-working goatfish and more. Above all, it quenched a thirst in me I didn't even remember having until I had suddenly satisfied it. Shortly after, I would return to Brisbane and devote more time to outdoor wildlife exploits than ever before. So in a way, I feel like my re-discovered passion for all things wild is a journey I began in the waters of Sydney Harbour, and so it's only fitting that my blogging adventure starts there too.

Arriving mid-morning on Easter Saturday recently, I was disappointed that a murky high tide had reduced visibility throughout much of the baths, but felt relieved that at least the water was warm (23C). The first creature I encountered was a Purple Stinger (Pelagia noctiluca), which I made sure to avoid. A school of Sea Mullet (Mugil cephalus) was a more welcome sight to behold, but as I could barely make out any detail on the harbour bottom due to the high tide, I headed to the shallows and watched several Black-ringed Sea Hares (Aplysia dactylomela) grazing algae off the rocks. A solitary Blue-striped Goatfish (Upeneichthys lineatus) was pleasing to see, and was so busy sifting through the sand for food that it allowed a rather close approach.

One of the most amazing and yet unsettling qualities of a large body of water is how well it can hide big things one minute, then reveal them to your great surprise the next. As I headed back to the pontoon to call it a day, I was reminded of this when I suddenly found myself in the midst of hundreds of Yellowtail (Trachurus novaezelandiae).


It seems the school had been in the baths the entire time I was there, but had been just beyond the scope of my visibility. I have never swam with this type of fish before, so I did a bit of research later and found out they are a kind of trevally well known for congregating under wharves in Australia, but are fished by the tonne elsewhere in the world.

Next on my NSW itinerary was an Easter Sunday visit to a friend who lives on the Central Coast. There I found time to visit the very pretty shoreline of Terrigal, breaking out the snorkeling gear in an area known as The Haven. Being the Easter long weekend however, the water was packed with swimmers and watercraft and I chose to move on to the rockpools at the adjacent headland. The waters there were less than a metre deep, but warm and crystal clear.

Terrigal Haven

I must admit to being paranoid about dangerous sea life, and while I was happy to have foregone the risk of being blind-sided by a Bull Shark (Carcharhinus leuca) in the open waters nearby, I was also uncomfortably aware that I was now swimming in the preferred rock pool habitat of the Blue-ringed Octopus (Hapalochlaena fasciata). For those of you who don't know this creature, it's small enough to fit inside a seashell, and venomous enough to kill you in twenty minutes. Mercifully, there were no octopus encounters at all and instead, I discovered an assortment of fish more likely to feel at home on the Great Barrier Reef than in New South Wales.

Clockwise from top left: Dusky Butterflyfish, Wedge-tail Triggerfish, Stripey, 2x Convict Tang

The dark-coloured fish with the orange rim is called a Dusky Butterflyfish (Chaetodon flavirostris) and it would have been spectacular enough if seen alone, but it also shared the pool with a Racoon Butterflyfish (Chaetodon lunula) that competed for my attention. As for the stripey fish in the photo, the one with the horizontal stripes is indeed called a Stripey (Microcanthus strigatus), and is a common fish in most rock pools along the east coast of Australia. The vertically-striped Convict Tang (Acanthurus triostegus) were the most numerous fish in the pool, moving in dazzling schools as they picked off the algae growing on the rocks. The highlight of the weekend however was the little solitary fish swimming towards the butterflyfish. It is a baby Wedge-tail Triggerfish (Rhinecanthus rectangulus), a creature so emblematic of tropical reefs that it is the state fish of Hawaii, where it is known as the Humuhumunukunukuapua'a. The adult version of the fish is a football shaped and sized creature with jaws so strong that it can bite through coral and steel, though sadly, this little guy is not likely to ever become an adult. Being a tropical species, the winter temperatures of the Central Coast waters will probably kill this fish, which would have been deposited here by strong summer currents coming from the north.

Just when I was ready to leave the pool, I found company in the form of some young Snubnose Drummer (Kyphosus cinerascens).

Bottom left: Australian Sawtail, Centre: Stripey, Surrounding: Snubnose Drummer

As I alluded to before, an enjoyable aspect of encountering a new species is being able to discern its "personality", and I found these little fish to be very friendly. They swam right up to my camera repeatedly before circling back to the safety of their rock overhang, which also housed a juvenile Australian Sawtail (Prionurus microlepidotus), seen in the lower left corner of the photo.

Overall, it was a very enjoyable two days of snorkeling and it left me feeling excited and inspired for future wildlife expeditions... and blogs.

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