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Search For Elusive Species In Tassie

Author: Louise de Beuzeville, Photos by: Louise de Beuzeville

Martin and I decided to head to Tassie this summer in an effort to see giant kelp before it totally disappeared from southern Tasmania. We prepared for the trip by emailing out RLSers Rick Stuart-Smith and Scott Ling for information on likely locations. Instead of getting vague directions like “around X location” we got detailed instructions such as “There are some individuals (not forming enclosed forest) near the Tinderbox boat ramp (300 m to the left looking out to sea).”

So with such exact descriptions in hand we flew into Hobart on a Saturday to be picked up by Martin’s sister. Late on a Saturday. Tip number 1 for Tassie diving: Don’t arrive on a Sat arvo if you want to dive Sunday. Nothing is open. For real. No dive shops in or around Hobart (we tried up to an hour away) were open for tank and weights hire on a Sunday….sigh.

Monday morning, we rang around dive shops. Tip number 2 for Tassie diving: be explicit. If you ring a dive shop and say “are you open at 8am? We need to hire tanks and weights” they may let you know they are open but fail to mention that they don’t hire out tanks or weights. Sigh. After that mistake, we headed in to Hobart to pick up tanks and weights then off to Lucas Point, the most likely shore dive.

The approach to the dive was described by Rick as “a scramble down a steep track and a rock entry”. He wasn’t wrong about steep, but at least there was a track and only a small section that was actually climbing. We did a reconnaissance lap to dump some gear and work out the best entry point then returned with the rest of our gear. Martin wanted to exit on the right side of the point. I was sure we should exit on the left. Tip number 3 for diving in Tassie: listen to Martin. Rick’s response to where we exited was to laugh out loud at me. But why not mix a dive trip with a climbing trip?

The dive itself was enjoyable; we weren’t expecting to see so many different species to Sydney The temp was….quite chilly. Tip number 3 for Tassie diving: a very old 5mm with a torn neck just doesn’t cut it! Sadly, however, there were just a few isolated individuals of Macrocystis Pyrifera. This amazing species – the biggest marine “plant” (algae) – can grow up to 50cm a day and reach heights of 30m.

and more like this:

With my usual skills of foreplanning, I’d told the RLSers at IMAS (Australian Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies) about our arrival…the day after we arrived. As luck would have it, they were heading out the next day and two days later to search for Thymichthys politus (the red handfish). So we decided to stop looking for the endangered giant kelp and increase our chances by searching for a critically endangered fish. Possibly the world’s rarest.

This slow-moving (no-moving from what I saw) benthic fish is endemic to Tassie, and has been thought to be found in only one location with perhaps 20-30 individuals. It’s a funky looking fish (that’s more polite than saying kinda ugly!): a face like a bat, a pom-pom lure, and lovely red hands. The colours vary from salmon to bright red and orange, and they have yellow and black on their mohawk.

Poor Martin was sick on the Tuesday, so I headed off to IMAS to get directions to the known location: an RLS survey site at Sandy Point. There were 6 of us: 2 Canadian visiting researchers, 3 RLSers and me. The conditions for diving were spectacular, the entrance so close and easy, and the reef life fascinating. The Canadians and I were sent to the naughty corner (away from the survey site) for 20-30 minutes until they were done, then we returned to be shown our first handfish. They really are amazing looking creatures. We then all hunted around taking photos and showing others when we found one.

Tip number 4 for diving in Tassie: if you find a really rare creature, photograph it BEFORE swimming off to find someone to show….it’s possible there is one we didn’t photograph because I didn’t do that. D’oh! The others were all so excited after the dive and kept impressing on me how utterly unheard of it was to see so many in one dive. They estimated the population must be at around 30-40.

After the first dive, the other 5 headed off on a 2-night field trip, and I hopped back in for a second dive. Within 2 minutes I found another specimen. I was feeling pretty confident by then….one and a half hours later I still hadn’t found another!

Not to worry. Two days later the 7 of us met up again (this time with Martin) at a site some distance away (for obvious reasons it will remain unidentified). Someone reliable had reportedly seen a red handfish in this location. This dive site was…well…pretty ugly. And we had very little information to go on. The 7 of us spread out over a huge area and began the slow process of searching: fin, lift plant, stare, put plant back, fin, lift next plant, search, drop plant, fin …. You get it? By the time we were getting fairly low on air and about 1.5 hours had passed, we had found nothing (not just no red handfish; really nothing much at all).

We were snorkelling back in and I thought I’d just let Toni (an RLS diver from IMAS) know that we were giving up. At that exact moment, Toni had just found a red handfish. We then all spent the next however-long-until-our-tanks-lasted-till-5-bar-left in the water looking for more. I again found one nearly straight away….and no more. Martin and I really struggled staying down with an empty aluminium tank and being so shallow. But all up as a group we found another 8 individuals, potentially doubling the population and meaning they have the safety of a second population.

Sadly, that was our last dive in Tassie…for this trip. But we will be back: me with a warmer wetsuit, and telling the others we are coming a bit more in advance.


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