Getting sub aquatic in the freezing cold part III

After the previous night’s failed attempt at getting in the water, Rick and I had decided to attempt a morning dive back at Portsea. Only a minute’s walk from the Dive Victoria Group’s dive shop, we once again dropped into the muddy water at the shore end of the pier. The murk was considerable, visibility improved slightly as we headed for the shallow reef nearby.

Rick under pier

Soon Rick tugged excitedly at one of my fins. I turned around as he jabbed his finger in the direction of three bedraggled looking male sea dragons sitting in a small sandy depression. It was like a divorced weekend dad’s meeting, all of them were missing fins or parts of their tails, yet carrying the unhatched eggs under what was left of their tails – females nowhere in sight. Rick was ecstatic nonetheless, they were his first ever sea dragons. The dragons weren’t so pleased and promptly packed up and moved to another spot to continue whatever they were doing.

Rick and sea dragon

Rick observes a sea dragon

The shallow reef had loads of nooks and crannies, most of them had a resident scaly fin guarding egg masses, but under the deeper ones there were several stingrays, hidden from the surge and sunlight while swarms of bullseyes (Pemphris spp) awaited nightfall to come out and feed. Sponges and bryzoans of all colours carpeted the ceilings.

_C3A6700

The stingrays were tucked right in under the caves. I could not get the camera far enough in…

Bullseye school

Bullseyes under a ceiling of sponges

But there were no cuttlefish to photograph, so we headed for the pier. On a pylon, a beautiful blue and yellow nudibranch (Tamjba verconis) crawled over a red sponge.

Blue and yellow sea slug (Tamjba verconis)

Blue and yellow sea slug (Tamjba verconis)

Red sea tulip

Red sea tulip – a sea squirt – also on the pylonn

Red sea star

Red sea stars were common amongst the rubble

Orange biscuit star

Biscuit stars are never in short supply either.

One fish did catch me by surprise, and it was a lucky find. A small fish about 12cm long moved just enough for me to see it. Incredibly well camouflaged, the velvet fish (Aploactisoma milseii) is rarely seen though probably common. I don’t know much about these cool little fish, though they are probably ambush predators.

Velvetfish (Aploactisoma milseii)

The enigmatic velvet fish

So that was about it for the dive. Here’s a seadragon’s head. Just because.

Weedy sea dragon head

Getting sub-aquatic in the freezing cold part II

Well, here we are moving on to part 2 of the Southern diving adventure. My mate Rick came over to have a dive or two, specifically a night dive.

After getting the equipment again from Dive Victoria group we set off to Blairgowrie, just a little way up the Peninsula from Portsea.

It was a longer walk in the howling wind up the pier to the drop-in point towards the end. As soon as we finished the descent I noticed a Pot Bellied Seahorse (Hippocampus abdominalis) sitting on the pylon. I chased it around and around until it settled on a clump of weed. But the silt was too much and the seahorse kept turning away. I managed a couple of what I think are sub-standard shots.
Potbellied seahorse (Hippocampus abdominalis)
This dive wasn’t so spectacular, the water was siltier, darker and other than mullet and a few leatherjackets and porcupinefish there was not a great deal about in the way of fish. But there were loads of invertebrates. The blue spotted yellow nudibranch was all over the place, as were sponges, anenomes, ascidians and hermit crabs.

Red hermit crab (Strigopagurus strigimanus)

Red hermit crab (Strigopagurus strigimanus)

White and yellow sea anenome

White and yellow “Poached egg” sea anenome

Red sponge macro

Red sponge macro

Blue and yellow sea slug (Tamjba verconis)

Blue and yellow sea slug (Tamjba verconis)

Ascidians on pylon

Ascidians on pylon. Ascidians or sea squirts are not actually invertebrates!

There were however loads of Southern Goatfish, (Upeneicthys vlamingii) known locally as “red mullet” though are not mullet at all. They feed by feeling about with their chin barbels for food, plunging their heads into the sand when they find something edible. They also feed above the bottom on fish and crustaceans.

Southern goatfish (Upeneicthys vlamingii)

Southern goatfish (Upeneicthys vlamingii) rooting about in the sand.

Mooching about over the bottom was a sparsely spotted stingaree. Not a stingray, stingarees are easily identified by the short tail. They do have a spine on it, and it is every bit as nasty as that of a true stingray. These guys are super common in the shallows of Port Phillip Bay.

Sparsely spotted stingaree (Urolophus paucimaculatus)

Sparsely spotted stingaree (Urolophus paucimaculatus)

For me, the highlight of the dive were the leatherjackets (filefish). The six spined (Meushenia freycineti) was by far the most common, though only juveniles but the coolest is the sponge-mimicking Pygmy leatherjacket (Brachaluteres jacksonianus) which, when disturbed curls its tail and does its best imitation of a sponge.

Pygmy leatherjacket (Brachaluteres jacksonianus)

Pygmy leatherjacket (Brachaluteres jacksonianus) imitating a sponge

Sixspined leatherjacket (Meushenia freycineti)

Sixspined leatherjacket (Meushenia freycineti)

It was getting way too cold, so Rick and I surfaced and walked back to the car in the rain with totally numb feet and hands.

That night we scheduled a night dive, however the wind had changed and strengthened. Trying to gear up at Sorrento was horrible, cold and windy. Touching the wetsuit with my finger sent a cold shock up my arm. Besides, the visibility had dropped significantly anyway.

We agreed to return to Portsea the next day for a final dive…

Getting sub aquatic in the freezing cold part I

I’ve been back a week now, and I am only just thawing out after some awesome diving in the far south of Victoria.

I arrived at Dive Victoria Group‘s Portsea office and was fitted out for the gear. Now, I live in the extreme north of Australia, well into the tropics, and this location is about as far from that as you can get on the mainland. Wetsuits and hoods are not things I wear into the water very often in the hot North. Waddling down the short path to Portsea Pier, the cold wind froze the exposed skin on my hands, feet and face. This was going to be a real challenge!

To make matters worse, the dredging and opening of Port Phillip Bay’s heads have caused nasty erosion along the front beach of Portsea, so there is earthworks to stabilize it all, muddying up the water. Also, more swell can get in on the incoming tide, which stirs up the water significantly.

Life on the pylons

Looking towards the surface

Life on the pylons

Life on the pylons

Piercing cold needles of sea water seeped into my wetsuit as I eased myself in, but once fully submerged, the wetsuit did its job and I was warm, except for the hands and feet. Never mind, as I continued down and out, the murky water gave way to better visibility.

One of the first sightings was a wonderful Giant Cuttlefish (Sepia apama). It didn’t like the attention, and stayed just out of range of the camera. I did manage one snap shot but it is slightly blurred, no good.

Giant cuttlefish (Sepia apama)

The giant cuttlefish that would not stay still

As always there was a heap of ascidians (sea squirts), bryzoans, sea weeds and sponges growing all over the pylons. Picking away at them was a Magpie Perch (Cheilodactylus nigrans) which is a species of morwong; perch like marine fishes mostly found in cold southern waters. They feed on small invertebrates in the sand and among the marine growth.

Juvenile magpie perch (Cheilodactylus nigripes)

Juvenile magpie perch (Cheilodactylus nigripes)

By no means rare were swarms of porcupine fish (Diodon necthemerus). Closely related to the puffer fish, they are covered in sharp spines, if given a fright they inflate with water to create a spiny ball most predators can’t even hope to eat, though in the tropics I did watch a giant toadfish preying on one a few years back on the surface.

Porcupinefish (Diodon nicthemerus) schooling

Porcupinefish (Diodon nicthemerus) schooling

Porcupinefish (Diodon nicthemerus) inflated

Porcupinefish (Diodon nicthemerus) inflated

At the corner of the pier was a Scaleyfin (Parma victoriae), a species of cold water damsel fish. This male was guarding his clutch of eggs laid in an old tyre.

Male scaleyfin (Parma victoriae)

Male scaleyfin (Parma victoriae)

A beautiful male Senator wrasse (Pictilabrus laticlavus) was paying attention to a nearby female, darting in and out of the weeds. As quick as a flash, they both raced towards the surface, spawning in a split second, returning to the weeds again.

Senator wrasse male

Senator wrasse male

Senator wrasse female

Senator wrasse female

At the end of the pier a bright orange fish caught my attention. Scribbled with blue, the Mosaic leatherjacket (Eubalichthys mosaicus) paid me no attention, going about his business picking at things unseen amongst the sponges.

Mosaic leatherjacket (Eubalicthys mosaicus)

Mosaic leatherjacket (Eubalicthys mosaicus)

A cousin of the leatherjacket is the Shaw’s cowfish (Aracana aurita). This is a male, females are shades of brown.

Shaw's cowfish (male) (Aracana aurita)

Shaw’s cowfish (male) (Aracana aurita)

I moved out over the sea nymph and algae beds in search of other things when I noticed right in front of me was this awesome little Ringbacked pipefish (Stipecampus cristatus). With the appearance of a rotting sea nymph stem, it sits on the bottom, rolling around with the waves, snapping up tiny shrimps.

Ring backed pipefish (Stipecampus cristatus)

Ring backed pipefish (Stipecampus cristatus)

The star of the show were the sea dragons. (Phyllopteryx taeniolatus). Cousins of the seahorses and pipefish, they drift about over the weeds and sneak up on tiny shrimps, snapping them up with the long tubular snout. Without the aid of diving lights, they are not overly colourful, but light up wonderfully when light is available. Orange body with yellow spots and blue-purple bars they are one of the most spectacular of all the southern fishes. Like all seahorses and their relatives, the male carries the eggs until they hatch.

Weedy sea dragon (Phyllopteryx taeniolatus)

A weedy sea dragon hovers in midwater

Weedy sea dragon camouflaged in weeds (Phyllopteryx taeniolatus)

Despite their colours, the weedy seadragon is well camouflaged when they want to be.

A freezing cold first dive for this trip in Victoria, but not one I regret. Two more dives to come…

Puddle pirating in the NT – The mangroves

Mangroves are fascinating environments. Usually murky in the Darwin region, the water clarity and salinity can change rapidly with tide and rainfall. The fish that live in it are remarkable.

Mangrove cardinalfish (Apogon hylasoma)

Above is the Mangrove cardinalfish (Apogon hylasoma). Known sometimes as a “gobbleguts” this fish simply inhales other fish. When breeding time comes around, males hold the eggs in their mouth for protection until the young can swim away.

Estuarine toadfish (Batrachomeus trispinosis)

Estuarine toadfish (Batrachomeus trispinosis)

A grumpy looking fish is the Mangrove toadfish. This species is often mistaken for the distantly related Stonefish. They can vibrate their swim bladder to make a humming or croaking sound, reminiscent of a toad or frog. They ambush fish and shrimps using their camouflage.

Sunset or barred gudgeon (Bostrychus zonatus)

Sunset or barred gudgeon (Bostrychus zonatus)

Entering the freshwater drains during the wet season, the Sunset or Barred Gudgeon is an aggressive predator. Even aggressive to their own kind it is difficult to keep more than one in an aquarium.

Lipstick goby (Eugnathogobius nemus)

Lipstick goby (Eugnathogobius nemus)

The Lipstick goby is a comical creature found in shallow sandy pools. Males have red pigment on their lips!

Eurythmus sp

Eurythmus sp

This unidentified eel tailed catfish came from the Finniss river estuary.

Silverbiddy (Gerres sp)

Silverbiddy (Gerres sp)

Siver biddies are cool, they cruise along above the bottom, then plunge their faces into the sand or mud to extract any tasty items buried within. They live in mangrove areas, entering the freshwater after rains.

Hemigobius hoveni

Hemigobius hoveni

This Hemigobius is common around Darwin.

Greenback mullet (Liza subviridis)

Greenback mullet (Liza subviridis)

Mullet are abundant in mangroves, the Greenback mullet is probably the most commonly seen.

Mangrove Jack (Lutjanus argentimaculatus)

Mangrove Jack (Lutjanus argentimaculatus)

Mangrove Jack (Lutjanus argentimaculatus)

Mangrove Jack (Lutjanus argentimaculatus)

Mangrove Jacks are true snappers found all over the tropical Indo-Pacific. Adults live offshore on deep reefs but the young are common in clean freshwater rivers and creeks.

Tarpon (Megalops cyprinoides)

Tarpon (Megalops cyprinoides)

The Indo Pacific tarpon does not grow anywhere near the size of its Atlantic cousin. It is an air-breather and can be found in almost any freshwater or marine habitat, even the most degraded and polluted.

Wilson's mangrove goby (Mugilogobius wilsoni)

Wilson’s mangrove goby (Mugilogobius wilsoni)

Named after a friend of mine, Dave Wilson – the Wilson’s mangrove goby is common in the shallow mangrove pools around Darwin.

Sinuous gudgeon (Odonteleotris macrodon)

Sinuous gudgeon (Odonteleotris macrodon)

During the wet season, the Sinuous gudgeon invades freshwater drains to feed on drowned earthworms. They are a large gudgeon or sleeper, commonly exceeding 40cm.

Juvenile spotted scat (Scatophagus argus)

Juvenile spotted scat (Scatophagus argus)

Juvenile spotted scat (Scatophagus argus)

Juvenile spotted scat (Scatophagus argus)

Spotted scat school (Scatophagus argus)

Spotted scat school (Scatophagus argus)

The above three images show the Spotted Scat, a fish that is at home in either salt or coastal freshwater, feeding on algae and muck, including the poo of other fish (Hence the Latin name)…

Striped scat (Selenotoca multifasciata)

Striped scat (Selenotoca multifasciata)

And there is the Striped Scat also.

Vachell's glassfish (Ambassis vachellii)

Vachell’s glassfish (Ambassis vachellii)

Finally the Vachell’s Glassfish is common in mangroves of Northern Australia, being an important food item for many predators.

Puddle pirating in the NT – Finniss river

Well, you may have noticed the site has been really quiet of late. I have been busy with tourists, Bush Blitz and getting a bunch of fish photos while the dry season here in Darwin hangs on. Not long now and the rains will return and make access impossible to many areas. So let’s have a look at some of the fish I have been encountering in my travels. I’ll start with recent fish from the Finniss region west of Darwin:

Macculloch's [dwarf] rainbow fish from NT (Melanotaenia maccullochi)

The NT dwarf rainbowfish (Melanotaenia maccullochi)

The first is this tiny little rainbowfish – the Macculloch’s or Dwarf rainbowfish. This species is found in patches of northeastern Australia, PNG and one tiny part of the NT, where the local variety is very small and unusually coloured. They sport a pale colour overlaid with black stripes and a red throat. The fin tips are white with a dark submarginal band and a greenish base. This variety is found in extremely shallow water in spring fed swamps.

Primitive, Lorentz's Archerfish (Toxotes [Protoxotes] lorentzi)

The rarely seen Primitive archerfish (Toxotes lorentzi)


Most anglers of northern Australia are familiar with Archerfish- the fish with the awesome ability to weaponize water – shooting a well aimed jet from their mouths at insects, frogs and lizards in the vegetation above. This is the Primitive archerfish, one rarely seen or noticed. Juveniles have tiger stripes and together with adults are found in freshwater lagoons and rivers with lots of overhanging trees. Like the other archerfish species, the Primitive can spit water, though it is not as well adapted as the other species.

Strawman or Blackmast (Craterocephalus stramineus)

Strawman or Blackmast (Craterocephalus stramineus)

Found only in the hard alkaline rivers of the limestone country is this neat little fish. The Blackmast has a tall black and yellow dorsal fin. Feeding mostly on algae and small invertebrates it is a fast swimming species that forms large schools. Delicate and difficult to keep in the aquarium it is spectacular nonetheless.

Giant gudgeon guarding nest (Oxyeleotris selheimi)

Snorkeling in one of the waterfalls I was pleased to find this giant gudgeon guarding a clutch of eggs. This species is often called the “sleepy cod”, a name that belongs to a closely related species (Oxyeleotris lineolata). Ambush predators, they sit and wait for something to swim by, darting out in a flash. This one was about 40cm long.

 

Finniss glassfish (Ambassis sp)

Glassfish are common in many of the northern rivers. This variety is not yet named but it is common in the Finniss. Glassfish are predators, feeding on small aquatic animals.