Encounters with cuttlefish

Trip Start Sep 23, 2004
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Australia  ,
Monday, July 18, 2005

Winters in Auckland are much milder than those in England. Our first- and only- frost of the year so far was greeted with horror as people battled with the ice on their windscreens. However, I found myself missing central heating, and so when school holidays rolled around I headed farther north, to Queensland.

My goal for the first week was to explore the Great Barrier Reef. I signed up for a dive course and soon found myself exploring the depths of a swimming pool with 4 blokes and our mildly insane diving instructor. As the only girl in the group to start with I bore the brunt of Kofi's banter, but was used to it by the first afternoon. After two days of treading water, establishing neutral bouyancy and trying to decipher dive tables, we all passed our tests and headed out to the ocean.

I stayed on the Atlantic Clipper, a sailing boat which travelled between dive sites on the outer reef. The first thing which struck me about diving in the ocean was how much easier it was than pottering round in the pool. And of course it was much more exciting! I didn't see too much on my first dive. I was too busy trying not to over-inflate my bouyancy control device and get dragged to the surface. But after that, the whole process started to come more naturally and I could take more time to enjoy my surroundings.

Being neutrally bouyant is a very strange feeling, and I guess is the closest I'll ever come to being weightless! One of the things we had to master was the fin pivot, when I had to lie on my stomach on the sandy ocean bed and achieve neutral bouyancy, so that when I breathed in and out I would pivot up and down, balanced on my fins. The coolest excercise was the hover, when we sat cross legged on the floor and performed a similar manouver, except when I breathed in I rose up through the water and hovered until I breathed out again (this felt more like Jedi training...). The point behind neutral bouyancy is that I could then glide through the water without perpetually sinking. Just like a fish! And once I'd mastered this, I could panic less and spend more time enjoying my surroundings on our exploration dives. The wildlife could prove distracting- whilst taking putting my weight belt back on as part of a training excercise, I found myself floating on my stomach being wastched by a small cuttlefish. It was watching me with black beady eyes, gently undulating its fins and wiggling its tentacles, obviously quite interested in what this strange person was doing, and quite possibly suggesting that my weight belt was useful and why was I taking it off? I got the giggles- maybe not the best idea whilt breathing through a regulator- and then my instructor thought I was very strange when I finally surfaced a couple of minutes later, spluttering "cuttlefish!" at him!

My second ocean dive was on my own with an instructor. This time I was more confident and took more time to look around in between training exercises. Large areas of the coral were a rather boring uniform green, but they were enlivened by the stunning fish darting around. Tiny neon blue damsels made glowing shoals, whilst the black and white stripey humbug damsels preferred chasing each other around the rocks. I found cleaning stations where large parrot fish, sweetlips and groupers waiting patiently for the cleaner wrasse to nibble off any parasites. My instuctor picked up an electric blue starfish and put it in my hand. It felt rigid, which was not quite what I expected- I'd imagined it would flop over my hands but it kept all its limbs straight. I also had fun interacting with the christmas tree worms- bright blue, orange or pink invertebrates that live in knobbly coral and stick christmas tree-shaped filters out to feed. Casting a shadow over them made them think a fish was nearby and they would shoot back into their tubes so fast it was like someone turned off a light. A few seconds later if the shadow was gone they would ease themselves out again in all their vibrant glory. Brightly coloured butterfly fish and angel fish swam about on their business, and surgeon fish, with sharp scalpels near their tails, formed shoals of mixed species. I even found a huge anemone, inhabited by three pink clownfish (relatives of 'Nemo'). Important fishy fact... many fish can change gender, and with clownfish the dominant fish is always female. If the female dies, the most dominant male changes sex to take her place. So when Nemo's mum got eaten, his dad would have become his mum.... Now why didn't Disney tackle that?

Finding Nemo seems to have found a use amongst amatuer divers- "I saw a white and black thing with a long fin... you know, the thing from the tank in Finding Nemo". "Oh yes, that's a moorish idol." And diving also helped to clear up one or two points that many people seemed to find bewildering- lots of divers had been perplexed by why the shrimp had a cleaning obsession, until they found out that it was a cleaner shrimp. Cleaner shrimp do the same job as the cleaer wrasse, though they tend to be nocturnal. When I went on a night dive, we spotted them by looking for little red glows, which were their eyes reflecting our torch light. Green glows meant sharks....

My night dive was my second dive after I got my diving certificate. It was a magical experience- and slightly scary at times! All the kitchen food scraps were thrown into the sea each night, and the local fish would come to nibble. On the night of our dive, the local fish included a two metre long grouper and 5 bronze whaler sharks, who were slightly larger. We made the guys jump in first, just in case the sharks weren't full up on pasta, and when they seemed to keep all limbs intact we leaped in too. Although the boat lights made it hard to get too lost when we swam out to the reef, diving at night was still rather disorientating. The phosphorescence in the water was high that night, and by turning off our torches and waving our hands around we could activate the phosphorescence and be surrounded by sparkles. Swimming also triggered of the phenomenon, so that divers in front of us appeared to glow slightly.

We saw lots of shrimp eyes reflected back at us, and another shark which preferred to keep its distance. Large and rather ugly sea cucumbers were hunting on the sea bed, and the long-limbed brittle stars (relatives of the starfish) were also on the move. Giant trevally- big bullies of fish with no fear of humans- zipped about, using our torchlights to hunt. As soon as our beams shone on a small fish, they pushed past us and would try to gobble it up. This seemed rather rude- however, we were able to foil their dastardly plans by turning off our torches so that the little fish could dash to freedom and the trevally would fail to stop and hit their head on the rock. Satisfying as this was for us, it didn't deter the trevally, which would soon be shoving us out the way again.

A morning dive on the same reef was also very rewarding. Norman reef had a few tunnels to swim through, which were the daytime hiding places of nocturnal squirrelfish, who gazed at us with huge eyes as we swam past. We also found baby batfish- strangely shaped with very tall black fins, edged with bright orange or covered in broad white stripes. My dive buddies and I also came across a green turtle which glided right past us, and a couple of white tipped reef sharks chilling out on the ocean floor. A Wally (large male Napoleon Maori wrasse) swam up to see if we had anything to feed him, and to allow his head to be scratched, and we saw a small group of unicornfish- large surgeons with horns on their foreheads.

Further dives revealed more turtles and reef sharks, pufferfish and bad-tempered triggerfish which get territorial with anything, even humans, when it's their nesting season. Sailing between reefs, we saw a pair of dwarf minke whales, probably mother and calf, repeatedly coming up for air and once even jumping a little, so the calf's head came out of the water. I was triumphant as I'd gone up on deck determined to see a whale! They must have heard me! At Saxon Reef I swam over the top of the reef through a garden of corals, then explored the reef wall on the other side, which teemed with fish, corals and feather stars, and a couple more turtles which flew past us.

My three days on the reef were glorious and I could have easily spent three more diving and snorkelling. But it was time to get on the fast transfer boat back to Cairns to meet Rick and head off into the rainforest. I'm sure I'll be back someday though- maybe for humpbacked whale season next time!
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