The Kingfisher Theory - Part 2

In my mind the phrase “coral reef” will be forever linked to a Frenchman, seemingly made from leather, pushing the Zodiacs away from The Calypso. Small knitted woollen hats. An undersea world that was very, very far away, full of lithe divers, which, it now seems to me now, must have had been both exotic and faintly erotic. Even in the dull tones of black and white TV, you could tell that the living reefs were alive with colour. Yet the only coral I knew was cold and grey, turned to lifeless stone at the same times as the world swamps laid down and turn to coal. Sleeping the long sleep of a carbon sink. Waiting. The coral, weathered from cliff faces on the Mendips, found its way into my pockets and was eventually lost during teenage room cleanings – times when you throw away childhood treasure despite adulthood looking distant and difficult.

When I read that there was coral reef that you could walk out to at the end of Horseshoe Bay I have to say that my interest levels went up a notch or three. So at low tide I set off to find the reef, wondering if there would be any lithe Frenchmen there, or nut-brown marine biologists. When I got there it looked nothing like what I expected. It was largely grey brown, as if I was still seeing it on a black and white television, or a poorly tuned colour one. It seemed, well, dusty and uncleaned. It looked like it could do with a good spring clean. I was not really disappointed, but I was surprised. I slowed down to look and realised I had been tricked by the scale of things. There was abundant life, but much of it was small, hidden. Tiny specks of fish darted in the pools and crabs rushed to find shelter. Shrimps, transparent as living glass, worked their way from sand patch to sand patch, legs flashing in all directions. A blur of activity around an invisible core. A larger crab, hand sized, raised its claws in threat, or anger, or both. Dome shaped corals, with a surface that glistened like honeycomb pushed above the surface.

Herons and Egrets stalked through the shallow water, necks held as springs and eyes focussed on the flashes and movement of the water. If I came too close they eyed me with obvious wintry discontent, head held high, neck straightened. One step more from me and they took flight with two or three lazy flaps and glided to another part of the reef. The egrets took flight quicker, but landed sooner. Easier to spook, quicker to recover. I watched them catch tiny sparklings of fish which were swallowed, flip flap, with barely a pause. The slightly larger ones were first turned around head first to better slide down the curved, slender neck, then swallowed in a fluid gulp. As I would come to learn they were far better at fishing than I was. The more I looked the more I saw. The colours were not great, but the place was. Bursting.

I notice a circle, a hole in the ground, with coral scraps built up around it. A fish? A crab? Who knows, but it was not there by chance and it was not designed either. Complexity and order without design. Purpose, yes. But how that purpose is defined depends on what you select, on what you see being passed on. Small movements in the watery hole made me stop and wait. And wait. And whatever it was, waited as well, and outlasted me. I don’t suppose you live long if you are small, probably tasty and imprudent with your appearances. I moved on and left the hole and its dweller to its own devices. The exposed coral sand and mud hissed and pooped with the busy sounds of life. From hidden places the rocks themselves seem to spit in disgust at my human intrusion. But it’s just the sea-squirts those ancient, stiffened ancestors, squeezing short spurts of water into the air. I feel that it’s no way to great family, no matter how distant.

Coral as a sort of living rock messes with our ideas of what it means to be alive. And when I found something that looked for all the world like a pile of melted industrial rubber gloves I knew that I was looking at something strange and distant. The coral (if that’s what it was) lay slumped in one small part of the reef. It looked alien. It was slightly soft to the touch, yielding in a way that was strangely unpleasant.

On the muddy sand behind the reef soldier crabs marched in ever changing formations. Splitting and reforming, pausing for no reason I could detect and then moving on. Like all good soldiers they dug when danger approached. In their Blues, their dress uniforms, down by the sea, could they be anything but Marines? They seemed to bypass a star fish lying upside down on the sand, the slight movement of its legs a signal that it would soon cease to twinkle. The water that flows over the sand is bath warm, and I stand ankle deep at the wave’s edge and know that, for this week at least, I have driven the cold winter away.

On the way back to the house for lunch there were no kingfishers on the wires. The Kingfisher Theory holds. On the way out in the afternoon they were there. The Theory holds again.
We parked by the road and walked uphill. It was bright but cool – perfect. Queenslanders walked past in jackets and hats. Tourists walked past in shorts and tee shirts. Most people seemed to be wearing sandals, as if snakes were non- existent and advice was meant for other people. With a well defined sense of superiority I tripped over and almost dropped my camera. H laughed. I wondered if my sandals were in the car.

We were looking for one of Australia’s icons, the Koala. We need to get a few things straight here – it’s not a bear, they don’t spend most of their time in drug induced comas caused by toxins in gum leaves and they don’t fall out of trees onto tourists as in a form of passive aggressive defence. In fact they are related to wombats, sleep whilst they are fermenting their food and only fall out of the trees if they are sick, too hot or dead. The other truth we need to deal with is that once you have found your koala they are not the most interesting thing in the world to watch. They have taken energy conservation to world record levels. Their brains have shrunk so that they no longer fill their heads. They don’t move that much at all. Basically all they do on a regular basis is eat and sleep. The males do a bit of growly shouting in the proper season, to which the females may or may not respond. It depends if they are asleep of not. Koalas also spend a short time each day developing ideas for reality TV, a task for which their shrunken brains are ideally suited, but this is not widely known. Watching a koala is a bit like watching a grey, furry, largely immobile, wooden canker. And while you are watching them you can’t help but smile.

Allegedly there is a thriving colony of Koalas on Magnetic Island. We found just the one. That’s Koala, not colony! It was sat in plain view in a brightly light tree doing almost nothing at all. It seemed to have a game eye, but it could just have been saving energy by keeping it shut. It did actually move its head as we were watching it, but that’s about it.

We walked on and came to an explosives bunker. The hill we were climbing was used during WW II as a look out and gun emplacement. It guarded the approaches to Townsville and never fired a shot in anger. Well not at the enemy anyway. Apparently the guns at the top of the hill had a design that gave them “deadly accuracy”. But when they fired on a small US navy ship that appeared without warning one day they missed! This was probably a good thing for all concerned, especially the ship being subjected to the deadly accurate fire.

Huddled on the roof of the bunker were three Bent Wing Bats. This information was provided on the same sort of signage as described the guns as “deadly accurate” – so they could be anything really, although I am convinced that they were bats! I found them by using the focus assist light on my camera as the world’s most expensive low power torch. In the brief glimpses I got of them, they seemed to be asleep. I found a spider in the same way, and that did not move either. Had I entered some Rumplestiltskin land where all the wildlife was asleep? It seemed that way.
I emerged from the bunker to some of the first living movement that was not part of my own family. A large blue speckled butterfly flew past and landed on a leaf – and stayed there. It was a Blue Tiger. And then it stayed there some more. I had caught it moving, and now it sat very still for a very long time. I’ve never seen such immobile wildlife before.

The top of the hill was covered in the kind of rabbit warren, functional concrete that kids enjoy exploring. Of course it was designed to allow boys only slightly older than H to rain death on equally young boys somewhere near the horizon. I did not feel obliged to point this out at the time. We were joined for lunch by a Pied Currawong.

The view from the hill top was remarkable – with small sandy beaches, forests and other islands in all directions. I was reminded of Turkey, where stories of unending horror were told in a landscape of bright, floral beauty. This place was not the same, but what would it have been like to sit surrounded by all this, waiting to kill, or waiting to face death? In such places this duality is so near the surface that it cannot be ignored. Life and death side by side. The beauty of the world and its other beastly reality hunched together on a small island.

As we drove home there were kingfishers on the wires. I had this place under control.


Anonymous said…

What great shots.
Samantha said…
Absolutely fascinating..
Loved all the photos.
Ian Le Page said…
A beautiful read-what a precise eye Stewart has in his reading of the natural world...a scientist who also has the poet's instinct.

More please....
Oh my gosh that was a fun post to read and look at! At first I was reminded of the Oregon Coast where we go "tide-pooling" in rocky formations when tide's low. The sea life is similar. But of course then I got to the koalas and I knew I wasn't in Oregon any more ;>/// and I laughed aloud at the info there! (Have seen them at the San Diego zoo I think it was; would love to see them in the "real world")....All in all this was a wonderful post and I am very glad you saw the Kingfisher at the end -- all's right with your world -- thanks for sharing it!
Anonymous said…
Amazing day, well portrayed. Such a diversity of sights and sounds and animals!
mick said…
Hi Stewart, no idea why you didn't seem many gulls or terns. Interesting though. I count Terns at Inskip Point - on the mainland just to the south of Fraser Island - and we have been getting 600 approx. each monthly count. These are mostly Crested Terns at present as most of the migrants are in the northern hemisphere at present. All I can assume is that Terns don't have a permanent roosting place on the island. From my experience around here they do roost opportunistically - wherever! - but also have places where large numbers usually come in at night. This only changes if bait fish completely move away.
Unknown said…
I followed you back from my photography blog (thanks for the comment) and I am glad I did. What a great set of photo's and a brilliant account ~ I really enjoyed :)
Veronica said…
Hi. I had a great visit and read of your post! Thanks for following my Cape Town Blog! I hope to arm you with much ammo to keep those expats on their

Kim, USA said…
Oh wow these photos are amazing. Just walking around these place we can see many kind of creatures and they are beautiful! Hope people will take care of this place.

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