Both side of the bay.

Port Phillip Bay sits below Melbourne like the head of a badly battered tadpole. The Yarra - the tadpole’s tail - stretches up into the hills to the north.

The bay itself is shallow and in its waters hides the ghost of Yarra’s course, from when the world was colder and the sea was lower. The bay is held in the arms of two peninsulas - the Mornington to the east and the Bellarine to the west. Each is visible from the other, and each is different from the other, and in between is the water, constantly shifting but seemingly permanent. But in reality it is a newcomer, a flooded plain from the end of the last ice age. And as the world warms it will grow larger and come knocking on peoples doors, an unwelcome guest and the first foot of a startling new year.

Standing on the edge of a great ocean can feel like looking at the edge of the world, the grey seasky and the waves and maybe the curve of the Earth. But the Bay is not this big, it lacks the vast scale of the ocean and you can always see parts of land in the distance, lighthouses, and the toothpick spikes of Melbourne’s CBD. At night those tall towers glitter like modern lighthouses, but you have to wonder why all the lights are left on. As the city has spread out around the arms of the bay, with its street plans looking like some form of cheap tattoo, the mystery of time and tide has been brought closer to the city.
On the beach at St. Kilda, once a small village, now a bayside suburb, jellyfish were washed up on the beach, causing alarm to young children, concern to strolling coffee drinkers and not a jot of interest to the sleeping bodies of last night’s party folk, blurred and recovering at the water’s edge.

While the bay may not have the edge of the world view of the Pacific it really is the edge of our world. The coming and going of the tide makes all coastal edges vague and imprecise, places where maps are even more uncertain than normal. Coastal maps are at best an approximation and are often out of date the moment they are drawn. The coast marks the boundary between our air world and the water world that is elsewhere. The silver pull of the moon changes the water’s edge hour by hour, sometimes sea, sometimes land and often something in between. We are suited to that land, but at sea we need the help of our technology to survive. It’s no real surprise that the development of our civilisation can be mapped on to the exploration of the world’s oceans, and that the Sea of Tranquillity, which is not a sea at all, is as far as we have been.

To pass from the water’s edge and out on to the water itself is always a journey, where physics is needed and it seems that the rules of motion change. The journey from land to sea always holds the attention, and even on short trips you will find people just standing and watching, peering out over the ship side rails and into the water. This may be bring rewards, but it seems to be worthwhile just in itself.

The ferry from Queenscliff to Sorrento ploughs backwards and forwards across the bay, on the hour, every hour of daylight. Forty minutes of travel, twenty minutes to load and unload and then back to the other side, passing its twin mid-journey. Sometimes the ferries are followed by bay dolphins, recently identified as a new species, playing in the wake. Surfing the standing wave they follow the boat, delighting the rail leaners and leaving as suddenly as they arrived, possible bored, possible getting to where they needed to go using the public transport provided by the day trippers. Who knows?

An industry has built up around watching the dolphins, with boats from both sides of the bay searching for them. Hundreds of people, me included, invest time and money trying to see these beautiful animals, and seem delighted when they find them and devastated when they don’t. But as ever, it is the surprise encounter, the un-planned visit that holds the highest reward; the wake surfers or the encounters while fishing. Neither side of the bay has a monopoly on these animals, but they do seem to crop up more often on the Mornington side.
Dolphins have a huge public appeal and whoever manages their PR is doing a mighty fine job, for the details of their private life are as sordid as a typical footballers, with sex and coercion to the fore, but fewer drugs. The real life of a dolphin is very far from the picture shown in Flipper! But people still flock to see them - seeking, and often finding, a connection between them and the wild they would not find elsewhere - and no matter that the real life details of the animal they have come to see are something of a state secret. People wax lyrical about the experience, and ignore the birds overhead. Our guide talks of science and the need for conservation, then about the power of homeopathy. Contradictory ideas in the same mind - quite impressive really. And all around us the dolphins swim. For all my cynicism about this, there is no doubting the appeal of these animals. I just wish we could wash the candy coat away, and know them as they really are, not as we want them to be.
I spent a morning weaving between the moored boats over on the Mornington side, under steep cliffs capped with the expansive houses of the rich - architect designed, but often ugly none the less. Some had pulley railways from the cliff edge to the beach below, to save the weary legs that 100 meter climb at the end of the day - or if the rumours are correct, to deliver cold wine and strawberries to the beach at lunch time. The waves lap at the base of the cliffs and at the hulls of long moored boats, with a green strip of fouling underneath and bird lime on top.

The bright yellow sea kayak was a great toy, and brought back none of the horrors of kayaks from past years - instability, paddling in circles, and forced capsizes in the name of safety. Out past the wading depth from the shore's edge you felt like you were really in the bay, even if the shore was never that far away. At sea-level the gannets that flashed overhead seemed even bigger than normal, the terns floated past and gulls laboured on heavier wings. Cormorants hunted around the piers, cursed by the fishermen, but surely a sign that there were fish to be had. Silver ghost flashes of fish dart through the shallows, and all eyes scan for dolphins. Down the coast we passed the old quarantine station where the ill and the dying were prevented from coming ashore for fear of infection. This was a place of isolation, where the least fortunate were held to die, or prove their health. And it seemed strange that now many of the cliffs were capped by the houses of the very rich, seeking isolation from the less fortunate, medical quarantine one year, social quarantine next. Some people seemed interested in these mega houses, but I could not help but wonder where they will be when the cliffs are undercut and waves wave at the back door? Will the sanctuary of the rich become the high hills and the coast become, once more, the home of the disposed, the ill and the uninsurable? Will they still have the cliff edge railways? Will they still have the boats bobbing at anchor, bought to impress but rarely to sail.
When you paddle on the sea, with each blade stroke leaving its own little gyre in the water, it becomes very clear that much of the water is rather empty of visible life. Pop a drop under the microscope and it may be a different story, but to the human eye it looks empty. But then you encounter small hot spots where life is abundant and visible. Two of these places on the bay do not glory in politically correct names - The Pope's Eye and Chinaman’s Hat. Both are artificial and both are a Mecca for life - although mixing the Pope and Mecca is probably asking for trouble.

The Pope's Eye is a C shaped reef that has been built up by the addition of large stones - the plan was to use it for a gun turret, but technology overtook the need and shore based weapons were trained on the bay instead. Now it has abundant life, both above and below the water. Fish I can’t name swim past and Gannets preen and tend their young on the rocks. For all its wonder, it still has the unmistakable smell of a sea bird colony! On the platform known as the Chinaman’s Hat, Fur Seals loaf around, waiting for next year. These fur seals are bachelors or the elderly, without out a mate this year and resting up for one more roll of the breeding dice. They slide into the water and swim beside us - I hesitate to say they swim with us because we can have no idea of motivation. But whatever the cause they make even the best swimmers look leaden and slow.
But once you get into the water you start to see the real other side of the bay - not defined by the geography of east and west, but by the vertical split of above and below. I have recently heard that some computer games are “immersive”. Well, that may be the case, but swimming underwater really is. With little to hear but the rasping of your own breath in the snorkel you have a greater sense of your own land locked abilities than ever before. In the afternoon, after the sea kayak paddle, I snorkelled around the pier at Portsea. Wrapped in a buoyant and warm suit you could drift over the surface and gaze down at the sea bed. With the help of a lead belt, you could dive down and briefly investigate the life around you. But buoyancy and the need to breath always won, and I soon popped back to the surface, a marine Jeremy Fisher, but not, thankfully, pursued by a trout. A rock ledge weaves in a slow 'S' out from the shore, and the life follows it. Wrasse and dozens of other fish with names I don’t know drift past and disappear with the flick of their tails. A Puffer-fish shows its inflated displeasure, and my own regret at not having a camera grows. Focussed on the sea bed, I find myself surrounded by small surface fish and looking up I swear in surprise, a living patch of silver that seems to have solidified the currents of the water. I have heard the sea called “permanence in motion”, and as the fish currents flow over me, I know what it means. First one way, then another, oblivious to my presence, never ending, never ceasing.

Around the pier the richness of life is astounding, with life forms totally alien to my daily life. Sponges, animals that look like plants, strange faces peering out of small cracks in the wooden piles. A nudibranch - a “sea-slug” - slips over a sponge garden, with bright colours above and below.

I return to the more open sea, away from the fishing lines, strung like cheese wires around the wooden piles, away from the teenagers throwing themselves off the pier, drunk on hormones, or possibly just drunk. I drift over a bed of sea grass, nursery lawn for many species, and slowly something shows itself. A weedy sea-dragon. At this point the lack of a camera causes more swearing. This is a 30cm (or so, I was rather excited!) fish in the same group as a seahorse. It shares the same pipe like structure, but its fins have evolved leaf shapes to hide it in the weed. It really is a remarkable animal. And it just sat there as I dived and dived to look and look. It became bored with the whole affair at about the same time as I needed a break, and it drifted off a few feet to one side and simply disappeared, like a ghost or a lost chain of thought. I knew it was there, but I could no longer find it. It was as if the few minutes I had watched it were a gift from it to me, that it could have hidden at any time if it wanted to, but for some reason it had not. Nonsense I know, but it was a bloody remarkable fish. And on the pier the drunks still throw themselves into the water and laughed when we asked them to stop jumping on us.


As I left the sea a small flock of Black-Tailed Cockatoos floated overhead on hitch-beat wings and called their weird and floating calls. I was back on land. I was back in the air. I was back on my side of the bay, but I wanted to go back to the other side, the underside, for there be dragons.

2 comments:

RBenz said...

Isn't being camera less always frustrating? But, of course, you always have the picture of the dragon in your head. And now it is in mine as well. Great description of a wonderful trip. Rich B

davesbrain said...

Great blog Stewart and thanks for visiting mine; I like the simple-but-effective 'grid' layout. I spent some time (quite a few years back) travelling Australia and looking at wildlife there, so good to see what's currently being photographed and reported on...