The continuing adventures of marine boy (and his dad)

I’m not sure when it all started, when it became impossible to walk over a bridge without looking over the edge. Without looking for fish. I’m not sure when it all started, when it became impossible to walk along a pier without looking over the edge. Without looking for fish. Beach edge, pond side, creek bank, it’s always the same. The search for the fin flash of silver. Salmon in the Leven, flooding from Windermere, chub in the Somerset Brue chasing finger squeezed flakes of bread, surface swirls for floating crusts. Toad fish by Swan Bay Pier, bright sun surf whiting at Point Lonsdale. But more often than not I can’t put a name to the fish - mystery fish below a bridge or darting, shadow scared, in rock pools. Fin after fin breaking the surface of Broom harbor - maybe more fish than I have ever seen in one place - all without a name. Sometimes you see more than fish, a passing crab, the single swirl of an otter under a bridge, a water vole; but mostly it’s fish.

Standing on the bridge over Tidal River watching the fish dash and feed is like looking into another world. A world of buoyancy and flow. Winds have to be strong indeed to prevent the movement on land, but the flow of a river must be different. In the paper this week was a story of a platypus which had been found far out to sea, washed from the river by the floods, by the tyranny of water.

Seeing fish from the land or its built siblings is to see only half the creature. One tail flick and they are gone and we don’t see the fish, we see the fleeing fish. And that’s different to the fish itself. A zoo tiger is a caged tiger and that’s different from a tiger itself. To be able to see the fish as it is (or maybe see more of the fish as it is) you need to join it in the water. Recently I have started to have swimming lessons - not because I can’t swim, but because I want to swim better. For a few minutes in each of the lessons I feel like I am actually swimming, not just making the movements that prevent drowning. Each lesson those few minutes get longer. When you watch a fish dash away in fear you are only seeing the movements needed to avoid death. But when the fish don’t seem to mind you being there you see a different kind of swimming altogether. The range of movement approaches dance and the single minded swim sprint from fear to safety fades away.

Queenscliff has two piers, one where people walk and fish and the other for the pilot boat - the guide ship for the tortured waters of the Heads. A current flows between the piers and you can float on the surface, buoyed by a wetsuit, and just drift. The water is clear and the depth small, rock reefs appear and a few gentle fin kicks bring you closer. The reefs are like islands, flush with life in the seemingly barren sand. Some change comes about and sea grass starts to grow, a marine meadow. Small fish flicker between the strands of plant and, with eyes keener than mine, find food. They upend and kiss the plants or the seabed. Small clouds of sand break away from the sea bed as feeding occurs. Where the reefs have walls the edges are patrolled by wrasse, colorful dwellers on these mini drop-offs. Fish faces emerge from small caves and cracks, crabs wave claws, transparent shrimps, living glass, flick between safety and food. Purple specked brain anemones, soft and plastic, roll in the current. Lying on the surface is a strange Cartesian world of two dimensions. The buoyancy of the wetsuits keeps you pinned to the surface and diving is difficult. Once you stop trying you bob back to the surface. When you are trying to look at a fish or crab the journey to the surface seems rapid and disappointing. When you are at the end of your held breath the journey to the surface seems long and the rush of air distant.

Swimming in the rain was strange. You could hear the plink fizz of the drops in the water around you, you could see the bomb crater double splash of impact and rebound. Lying on the surface, at the boundary of two worlds, the rain only falls on your back. I could feel the impact but not the wetness. In the water, surrounded, the wet feels dry, feels normal, and you don’t feel the extra touch of the rain as it runs down your neck. The rain does not give the feeling of otherness it does when you are dry. Hardly surprising, but surprising anyway.

H has never snorkeled before, but looks relaxed as he drifts over fish, biscuit stars and elephant snails. He sees a squid, but it’s gone by the time I get there. Arms folded across his back he looks like a seal, albeit a seal with a mask and snorkel. He circles thumb and first finger to say he OK. You can see him smiling inside the face mask. A fin kick and he is off. Independent on a cool summer’s morning.

Under the pilot pier life abounds, the stanchions and piles rich with weed and sponges. Limpets cling in the splash zones, worms wave their fans. Around each wooden pile the currents have cut a trench, and here fish seem to gather. Wrasse, gobies, sliver fish, bronze fish, fish with glitter jewel colors. Small fish, large fish, larger fish ghosting in the background. The trip ends and we walk heavy footed along the beach. Shark eggs, abalone shells, dead-men’s fingers, storm washed beach finds in the rain. Sandy feet, and tired legs. We go in search of lunch.


Summer comes to an end, autumn beckons. Before the water chills we head to Portsea for another swim. I’d been here before, and was spreading words of confidence and encouragement to H. The journey down was punctuated with accounts of some of the more ridiculous world records that people have gained. Most needles in the head, most straws in the mouth, most time wasted sticking needles in your head - that sort of thing. The water around Portsea pier was as clear as clear can be, but there was still a kind of veil drawn over what you could see. The glitter splash of small fish hardens the surface, colours shift and the back swish of waves pulls at the sand. Nets are cast for crabs, lured in by chicken frames. Buckets full of crabs line the pier edge, all legs and claws, destined for the pot.

We walk backwards into the water, facing the land, avoiding the embarrassment of a fin fall. Within minutes we are drifting over seaweed gardens, green and mobile. It feels like you are drifting over a forest canopy, like some giant bird. This time a waterproof camera hangs from my wrist, but I soon find out how hard it is to use. I’m moving, the fish and plants are moving and the sunlight blanks out the screen. Point. Click. Hope. Click again. Pheasant shells are gathered from the sea bed, disturbing the sleep of snails. Old Wives - a classically stripy fish - hover by the rock edge. We are guided into deeper water by the liquid flowing edge of a rock band. When you dive down, you can peek into the dark under shelf of the rock edge. Secret places, with hidden things. If you try to show anybody you can never find them again, as if seeing them causes them to disappear, some form of Schrödinger’s fish. It might be there, but then again.

Under the pier the rush of the water is stronger, funnelled by the wood work and the shape of the shore. Photographs are even harder to take. I play chasey with a crab, round and round a pillar pole. Eight legs are much better than a floating man, hindered by fins, wet suit and millions of years of evolutionary history between me and my marine past. Bright coloured sponge gardens, lemons and oranges, coat the poles. The plants wave, frantic Mexican waves, back and forth, back and forth.

A weedy sea dragon drifts out on the under pier gloom and despite my best efforts eludes being photographed. In the end I stop trying and just watch - not wanting to be prevented from just looking by the desire to take a photograph. This decision is made easier as the battery goes flat, and the camera becomes nothing more than bling.

Sitting in the darkness under the pier, looking out into the sparkling, sun bright water, feels like staring into the emptiness of space. The millions of little cells catching the light in green sparkles, I breathe in what they produce and wonder at the connection of it all. Tiny plants, me and H, the sea dragon, all on a tiny blue planet, a water world, spinning through space.

Here, in the last week of summer, I’m glad I can pay attention, I glad I’m swimming with H and showing him things you don’t always see.
A marine boy (and his dad) in a water world, with no need for fairy tales to explain what we see, and a sense that showing your kids the world as it really is has to be the most important job in the world.

5 comments:

Arija said...

Stewart, thank you so much for taking the rouble to check out my bird. When I first saw it in the Eucalypt I thought "honeyeater" and you neatly confirmed that.However the markings do not match with the Singing Honeyeater as mine has a white under-side and the songster is streaked with a buff brown.

One would have thought with that distinctive loo mask and green on the wings it would have been easy to identify. I have had that trouble before as all varieties of birds are definitely not shown in the bird books. I suspect that regional variants are more prevalent than commonly credited.

Thaks for your help. I will come back to thoroughly enjoy your post when I can. At present we are packing for the Flinders Ranges and Eire peninsula and will be away for at least two weeks.

Yep, I'm going fishing, hooray!

ladyfi said...

Being underwater is like entering a magical world!

Garry said...

Entertaining reading once again, Stewart. Today I think your best photo is definitely the one taken above the water of H kitted out to resemble Mike Nelson of Sea Hunt (guess I'm showing my age there). I haven't had the pleasure of doing this more than a handful of times, but I have fantastic memories of the two times I went scuba diving, the second of which was on a man made reef off Queenscliff, with my ecology group at teachers' college, and also of my snorkelling jaunts on Isla Mujeres in the Caribbean and more recently on the Quiksilver trip out to Agincourt Reef off the coast of Cairns. The colours, shapes, sizes and diversity of the marine life on each of these occasions left me feeling quite in awe of what I had seen. I imagine H will be longing to go back to do it all again before too long. Next time you're driving down to the beach, tell him the true story of your friend who still holds the world record for the most runs scored from a single ball in a game of cricket! Cheers

Nigel Monckton said...

Wot! No mention of poohsticks? Outrageous!
When did it become impossible to walk over a bridge witout dropping bits of stick in and rushing to the other side to see who's appeared first?

JM said...

Love the underwater world! I'm a tropical fish hobbyist and very sorry to live this far from the coral reef... :-) Gladly I already had the chance to explore it in Central America, Eastern Africa and Southeast Asia but... I can't do it on a regular basis... LOL!