Hobart was smashing a March heat record with a sweltering 38°C and choppers plied the sky trying to dampen the wildfires. We were up on the island’s northern coastline where the temperature was more mellow because the hot, thuggish northerly winds cool as they travel across Bass Strait from the Australian mainland to Tasmania, then heat up again when rushing south across the island.
We were in Devonport because we were taking the ferry over to Melbourne the next day and as the dogs were going to have to endure a long day in the car while we relaxed on the upper decks, we treated them to the dog beach.
The beach is short and that day with the tide out the sand was a broad expanse, with a rivulet making a shallow entrance to the sea right down the centre. Seeking shade, we made for the eastern side where amongst the rock pools we found (all within a tiny area) litter that we gathered up. Tinnies, mostly, and pieces of plastic and I thought about the irony – humans offended by biodegradable animal scats and dog poop but fine with leaving long enduring plastic lying around that kills and maims other species. It’s a simple cognitive dissonance it really shouldn’t be that difficult for us to overcome. We are the filthiest of species.
The dark basalt rock was laced with tubeworms, limpets, brown seaweeds and neptune’s necklace. The barnacles and mussels were small. I found cockles and something new entirely – a small, round thing, soft but not squishy, living quietly beneath a rock. It is tethya,aka a golf ball or ball sponge. Another sponge close by looked like an old brown brain.
It can be particularly difficult to identify rock hugging life forms that manifest as coatings in rock pools. It can take long periods of quiet observation of a rock surface to even see the diversity of everything that’s there. Hunting on the web later, I discovered that almost 1/3 of the world’s tethya are found in Australia. It’s possible that some arrived unnoticed as migrants and interesting to consider that as convicts stepped ashore in Van Diemens Land, fellow travellers on the ship’s hull may have broken away and taken root along the coastline.
A sponge is a close knit community of tiny individuals and when you’re looking at that diversity of coatings on the rocks you can usually tell a sponge because it is thick and tough and perforated with tiny pores ‘that look like miniature volcanic craters’ (Zell). These communities can be smooth, matt or shiny, but they are still sponges. They reproduce sexually and / or asexually – and this handy capability and their simple water filtering lifestyle is probably two reasons why they’ve been around for over 500 million years and counting.
Up on the wrackline I found cuttlebones, faintly pink, like the others I’ve discovered from Eaglehawk Bay on the Tasman Peninsula and the Bay of Fires in the north east. These are possibly Sepia novaehollandiae, the New Holland Cuttlefish.
That day, lazily spent rock pool exploring, was a peaceful interlude bracketed by those fires in southern Tasmania and fires in Victoria. Driving through Gippsland several days later, sunlight was snuffed out, day eerily turned midnight black and it was a relief at Lakes Entrance to come into the light again, despite the smoky air.
I wasn’t thinking about the tethya by then, but it was surely still there, adding beauty to the world, filtering water, being bumped by old tin cans and pieces of plastic, and although I’m no gambler I’ll bet you anything that sponges around the world, having endured climate changes before, will inhabit the planet long after we have gone, leaving our pollution and plastic mess behind us on the rising, acidic seas.
This trip was in March. It’s December now and fires are burning all along the NSW coast. Just over the mountains the country is desiccated, a drought worse than many can remember. Towns are losing their water supplies. I have bought an air purifier and downloaded the Plume, AirVisual and AirRater apps, none of these items I ever thought I’d be interested in. This is an illustration of today’s fire situation
In fact, there have been fires burning since September. Not even rainforests have been immune. The situation is unprecedented and we have become used to smoke haze putting exercise, if not our lives on hold and burnt offerings on the waves, with fragments of forests transforming into tide lines on the beaches of the North Coast.
This, more than any other year, has been one of reflection about climate change, the biospheric, physical and psychic injury it causes and the abdication of political morality and leadership with regard to this issue. In many ways that unpresidential, cheating and ignorant trump is a most unflattering mirror of our own materialistic and uncultivated shortcomings. Here’s hoping for a successful impeachment and that whoever comes next in the USA is clear eyed about the human impact on the air we breathe, the water we drink, the wildlife we cherish and the sea water and temperature rising.
For more information on Back Beach see Beachsafe’s summary. This, and the number T1135 for Back Beach is from: Short, A.D. 2006. Beaches of the Tasmanian coast and islands. Sydney University Press, Sydney.
Zell, L. (2014). Wild discovery guides – Australian seashores. Wild Discovery, [n.p.]
Tasman Peninsula and the beaches of Frederick Henry Bay: Sloping Main in Stinking Bay (T340)
A Fabulist Disappears
Once, in Africa, we met a charismatic man we thought might be a fabulist. Over drinks, as we watched wildlife grazing the plains from the comfort of a lodge, he told us mesmerising stories about his role in the Entebbe raid and other incredible boy’s own adventures in wild and dangerous places, where, risking his life time and again he escaped miraculously.
Mostly we were awed, but when one of us expressed scepticism he told us, ‘every few years I change my job and that way I change my life. That’s how I’ve done so much living’. And afterwards, asking each other, could any of it be true one of the locals said, ‘all these things – they all happened far away.’
I was reminded of the enjoyable time spent in the company of this man when I researched Sloping (aka Slopen) Main and discovered that one day a fabulist trailing many names but not much else, had arrived there and made himself comfortable in an old convict hut on a farm behind the beach.
On Sloping Main Marsh, before the Port Arthur penitentiary was built to accommodate the convicts petty and otherwise off the streets of Britain, settlers built a farm. It was the 1820s and these weatherboard buildings are the oldest on the Tasman Peninsula. A short drive away there’s the Surgeon’s cottage (red brick) and a house associated with the semaphore system, but I walked this beach not thinking about history, and I walked in ignorance of a tale of secret liaisons, disappearance and assumed murder that happened here in the Saltwater – Slopen Main area of the peninsula back in the 1980s.
Walking Sloping Main
The beach is a 3.5 km long crescent that faces west with Cape Deslacs and Cremorne visible in the distance. It’s bounded by Black Jack Point below Gwandalan (southern end) and Lobster Point to the north, with Sloping Island just offshore in Stinking Bay.
It was raining over the mountain and the sky was dramatic with clouds, shafts of sunshine and drifts of rainfall. A bevy of clouds was being driven across Storm Bay by the South Westerly heading in our direction. Behind us Gwandalan, a small community of seaside cottages and shacks, perched on the lower edge of Mount Wilmot, just above the point. In front of us a stunning sweep of white sand purled off into the distance and behind the dunes on the forlorn and muddy flat, the land said nothing of dark events.
The wrack line lay along the base of the small incipient dune and was no more than a delicate wavering line of seaweed. Marram grass had taken hold, threatening the gradual gradient of a back dune. There were eucalypts poking out of the dunes, both the living and the dead and there were gutting tables every so often and sometimes a bench. It’s a low energy beach but the waves that day were hectic and the tide was low, the white sand lined with cusps.
We passed a dead cormorant and two dead fish. We passed kelp glistening on the swash. We walked through a light shower and the temperature dropped – it was summer but snow was forecast. After a bit more than an hour we reached the Cardwell Cliffs and stood below the headland contemplating the start of Lime Bay National Park above our heads. A quick scramble up and we’d have found a walking track. Whalebone Beach is on the other side.
Because of the wind we hoped to find a track behind the dunes, which had widened here, but there was nothing. We found ourselves standing on the bed of a dry rivulet, a crust of white over the mud beneath. Burdens Marsh, partly drained, was dry but there was a fence and then farmland and so we turned back. Twelve oyster catchers walked ahead of us, flying occasionally to maintain a safe space. A seagull foraged for sand mussels. High on the cliffs the small community of Gandwanan looked tiny in the vast landscape of sea, islands, peninsulas and distant shores. That day, because of the moody sea, the landscape seemed gothic and ominous. Even the names seemed gothic. I did not yet know about The Disappearance.
Man of Mystery
The fabulist, a man of no fixed name or address, was invited to stay in that simple hut by the farming couple who owned the land. He and his wife knew him as Reuben. Other friends concurrently knew him by different names entirely. Later, piecing together the story, the coroner concluded that he was Tony Zachary Harras, sometimes Harris, born in the UK in 1934. Some of his aliases were Judah Zachariah Reuben Wolfe Mattathyahu, Karl Wolfe, Carl Wolf, Reuben Wolfe, Zac Mattathyahu, Reuben Mattathyahu, Carl Mattathyahu and also Karl Mattathyahu.
Beaches acquire different names through no actions of their own and Sloping Main and the island just offshore also have a slippery identity.I couldn’t find their Aboriginal names, but the explorer, D’Entrecasteaux, christened it Frederic Henri / St Aigen when he sailed by in 1792, according to Tasmanian Nomenclature. In 1798 Flinders, circumnavigating Van Diemen’s Land in the Norfolk, called it Sloping Island and that’s officially what it is today, but it’s just as commonly called Slopen and occasionally Storring. The Slopen might come from a whaling captain, a farmer or a lazy corruption. The beach and the island share that same identity. (Here’s a bit more about that history.)
Unlike the beach and the island the fabulist actively chose a whole series of names. Why does a man need that many names unless he has profound identity issues, fears for his life or is up to no good? At any rate, I’m calling him Tony – just because it’s authentic when so little else about this story seems to be.
He began his working life in primary industry and moved on to the British Armed Forces before arriving in Australia at about the age of 24. The period he spent in the forces seems to have influenced him quite profoundly. Regardless, he was in Australia from 1958 to 1960, then travelled to New Zealand before returning to the UK. He changed his name to Tony Zackary Harras but he could not settle. He was soon back in Australia and then he was marrying in the UK. A son was born. On the birth certificate Tony is Zachary Anthony Harras, vermin controller.
In 1971/1972 he was working as a gardener at the Botanical Gardens in Adelaide and then threw that in to become a bushman near Maydena, Tasmania. His marriage was over and he told friends he’d spent time in Israel but in 2014 when the cold case into his disappearance was reopened, the coroner expressed scepticism about that.
At first, in Tasmania, he called himself Judah Zachariah Reuben Wolfe Mattathyahu but he referred to himself by random versions of that name so that various friends knew him by his pseudynyms concurrently.
This aura of mystery was enhanced by the incredible stories he told about himself. He put it about that after getting interested in Judaism he’d fought for Israel in the Six Day War. He said his wife and his two children died in a war but when and in which war remained vague as does that family. He told friends he’d gone to Africa with seven others to destabilise a government and was the only one that got out alive. He’d followed through on orders to kill seven men and then he’d escaped by chopper. He said he was mixed up in the Entebbe air raid, that the only person shot was his cousin but when that was investigated no proof was found. He also said he’d been a Nazi hunter. Assassin, mercenary… imagination or fact? These were events that happened far away and could not be verified, not even by the coroner.
Fact: He was logging on a property on the Tasman Peninsula, at Slopen Main Beach and at the invitation of John and Anne Hull, the owners, who knew him as Reuben, he moved into a little convict built building on their land. Anne, on this farm, that at times must have felt remote, must have fallen for the stories. Soon she and Rueben were deep into an affair, her family oblivious.
After the fabulist disappeared and the police came calling, she said there’d never been an affair, but this story didn’t hold up in court. It emerged that he’d phone and say he needed his shirt washed. This was the code they used. She’d dress up, at his request, in her black coat and boots and go over to the little convict building. His shirt needed washing often; sometimes three times a day. There was passion unfolding in that building and Tony, aka Rueben Mattathyahu aka whoever didn’t exactly keep quiet about it.
A friend in Hobart let him have the use of a room in the same building as his shop, a well known shop at the time, that sold outdoor gear. It became the scene of secret trysts. He showed friends photographs, explicit ones, of what they got up to in that room and so the affair was impossible for Anne to deny. Faced with proof and under further questioning her story changed. The relationship was nothing much, they seldom met, she had no time.
All this took place in the early 80’s. John Hull said he only found out about it when police arrived at the property in 2012 investigating this old, cold case but the coroner found that at the very least he knew in March 1984 when detectives showed him photographs of Anne and Rueben in the Hobart room. What had happened to Tony, they wanted to know. The police quizzed Anne too. She said John had been fishing up at the lakes the weekend Tony disappeared and she said that when she’d finally told John about the affair and offered to leave, they never spoke of it again. John, in 1984, declared he’d been at the lakes shooting, but at the coronial enquiry in 2014 he said he was in the killing shed slaughtering sheep after dark when Tony’s friend arrived to find out where the fabulist was. (The coroner didn’t believe he was in either of these places. The killing shed seems to me to be an ironic place to be at night shortly after a murder.)
The Hulls agreed that in the final weeks before the fabulist went missing he wanted to be alone. His employer at the time described him as “fearful” and “agitated”, another friend said that he was looking for other work, anxious to leave Sloping Main. Another said he thought he’d received a call from Tony, possibly after the Saturday in November that he was supposed to have gone missing. The coroner was sceptical that the date he gave was correct.
When the Hull’s son Alan was interviewed about those final weeks and that eventful night, he told the coroner he’d seen a terrible altercation and that he had “a sneaky suspicion” that ‘there was only one other time I seen him after that’.
He said his father had rung him up and said not to come home because Rueben was ‘behaving really badly, he’s about to go’ but Alan said, ‘I’m not real good at doing as I’m told. So I toddles home.’
That night, he said, he didn’t drive in as usual but parked in the bush and as he walked along the fence line where he could stay hidden he saw a ‘flash looking car’ he didn’t recognise and a rowdy fight taking place with ‘a bit of noise and clonking and banging you could hear and squealing…’ and these men he didn’t recognise had Tony by the feet as they came out the door. The fight went on, he said, but finally the fabulist got the upper hand and sent the men packing in their car.
That story, said the coroner, was untruthful and inconsistent because he could not adequately explain why he’d not called the police at the time, even though there was a phone at the main residence. Neither did he mention this to the police when they were investigating in 1984. In fact, the Hulls never did tell anyone Rueben had disappeared. It was March 1984, four months after he’d disappeared, before the friend involved that night told the police that his itinerant friend had vanished. That’s a long and puzzling gap. Long enough for any trail to grow cold.
Anne said in 2012 that the police interrogation she’d endured in 1984 was so traumatising it still gave her nightmares. Her memory was vague and inconsistent about the facts though. She’d said her husband was away deer hunting but when interviewed the next day he said he was away fishing at the lakes. (Although actually, up at the lakes, you can do a bit of both if you are so inclined, but John was pretty clear he’d only ever gone fishing there twice before).
Anne said Tony (only she called him Reuben) often left the property, mostly for employment purposes and at times up to three or four months. ‘During these times he was away.,’ she said, ‘I would have a forwarding address to which I wrote to but Reuben never replied. The last time I saw Reuben was with John at Black Jack Hill gathering sheep. Reuben did not say where he was going when he left in November and I have no idea of his whereabouts. John, Rueben and myself parted on good terms.’ (Years later, though, it emerged that he’d left a letter in the hut for them, asking them to ‘look after the things I love’ until he returned. It’s odd they didn’t tender this at the time. It’s also odd that if he feared John he would turn to him to look after his possessions.)
One Dark Night
A witness the coroner did find convincing was a friend who said Tony (only he knew him as Mattathyahu) had no car and relied on others for transport and had asked him the day before he disappeared to pass on a message to this friend’s cousin for a lift from Slopen Main to Hobart. The arrangement was for this cousin, who was Tony’s friend, to pick him up. The arrangement was that he’d return with him to Glen Huon. Tony would spend the night with him there and then the next day this same man would drive him into Hobart.
That’s some favour to ask for and some favour to give. The distance one way is 153 km or 2 hrs 18 minutes, excluding the trip into Hobart the next day, which would have been another 90 min return trip for the friend, and these distances and times are based on better road conditions than existed back then. It was a night time journey on a Saturday. That’s great generosity. The friend connected with the flat in Hobart where the liaisons took place, said Tony (only he knew him as Karl Wolfe) had told him he’d be coming by the next day to fetch some stuff and that he’d had ‘enough down there and had to get out’. But he never turned up and he never heard from him again.
The night he was expecting his lift out of Sloping Main to Glen Huon south of Hobart, the fabulist phoned the intermediary at 8.30 p.m. to confirm his lift was arriving. He was assured it would be arriving in about half an hour. This seems to have been Mattathyahu’s last contact with anyone, anywhere and it’s not clear from the coronial report where he made that phone call from, because he doesn’t seem to have had a phone at the hut.
The friend providing the lift (who the coroner also found to be a reliable witness) was the person who finally reported the November 1983 disappearance in March 1984. He’d visited Mattathyahu at the Sloping Main farm several times and he’d responded to the request for a lift, even though it involved this lengthy four hour plus return drive at night. He arrived at 9.30 pm to find lights on, doors open, and the two dogs in the yard. When the friend went into the empty hut the luggage was ready to go, so after a wait of about 15 mins, he went to the Hulls, a 10 minute drive away at Saltwater River.
He asked Anne if she’d seen Tony, and she said she hadn’t and so this friend, the reliable witness, went back to Mattathyahu’s dwelling. He said he checked his friend’s belongings – the sleeping bag, a couple of trunks, a toolbox, spade, axe and wooden club, the bags standing at the door.
He waited, but the fabulist did not arrive and so then he drove to the shop at Premaydena, a 20 minute drive away, passed Saltwater River again, to phone his cousin who’d given him the message, then returned to his friend’s place and waited again until midnight, and this I have to say seems incredibly kind hearted or downright concerned after that long drive from the Huon Valley, especially as he’d only got the message around 4 pm that afternoon, a Saturday and especially if it crossed his mind even just for a moment that his friend was simply standing him up or that there was some confusion.
At the 2014 cold case coronial enquiry, Anne also said that this friend came to their door but she described him as “scared stiff”. It was “darkish” and she told him she didn’t know where Reuben was. She didn’t know what date it was either but “there would have been family” at her place because ‘our place always seemed to be full of people and I can’t remember who they were. All I know is I’d look sometimes and there they’d be sitting around like little birds waiting to be fed.’
But she said when he was leaving she looked through a window and thought she saw Reuben in his car. So why, the coroner asked, was he asking for Reuben if Reuben was in the car (something the friend denied, as well as denying having company for the trip down, putting paid, as far as the coroner was concerned, to the notion of Alan Hull’s suggestion there’d been a violent altercation). And why was he so scared stiff? She said that would be because he’d seen Reuben, but she had no plausible response for why she hadn’t told the police this at the time, saying only that ‘he came and gone – he came and went as he so chose.’
Alan Hull said that despite his mother not remembering, he was at home on the evening of 12 November 1983 and overheard the conversation with the friend, who was a man he recognised. He, too, saw Reuben in the car and remembered thinking, ‘I wonder when I’ll see him again.’ But the coroner said this was a story designed to protect his parents, the main suspects.
The last witness was John Hull. In his 23 March 1984 statement he’d described how the fabulist began living on the property at Sloping Main, how he got to know him “reasonably well” and how they became friendly and saw each other twice a week.
He thought the last time he saw Tony was about Tuesday 8 November 1983 at his place about 5 pm. He’d seemed his normal self and had not said anything about leaving, although he knew he was looking for a job. Neither did he take much notice of the fact that he’d gone, but ‘now I am aware of the arrangements he made, I find it strange that he didn’t keep them, as he was a meticulous person.’
The night of the disappearance, when the friend had arrived at their house, he was in the killing sheds, slaughtering sheep, he told the coroner. Previously he’d said he was up at the lakes (Central Plateau). The coroner didn’t think he was in either of these locations and I can’t help wondering whether it is usual for farmers to slaughter their sheep at night.
He said on Sunday 13th he’d gone to Reuben’s camp to get his dogs and returned on several occasions to get tools and guns that belonged to him.
He also mentioned a telephone call he’d received ‘last Monday night 19 March 84’ from an acquaintance who’d seen the notice in the paper about Reuben and had told him he’d had a call from Tony around Christmas enquiring about a job. He said he’d asked Tony (only he called him Reuben) if he was out of money and he said he wasn’t.”
The coroner, after listening to the Hull’s stories found Anne to be ‘grossly exaggerating’ while too reticent about known facts. He said, ‘Those members of the Hull family who gave evidence were in my view at pains to present as a reason for Mattathyahu’s agitation and his intention to leave the idea in some way that his colourful past as a mercenary and Nazi hunter was catching up with him. The much more likely explanation in my view for any agitation and his making arrangements to leave, in something of a hurry, is that his affair with Anne Hull had been discovered by someone and he was anxious to get away from the locality.’
He found that Tony’s disappearance was homicide but could not establish the how and that ‘Mr Mattathyahu died on or about the 12 November 1983 at or near Slopen Main, Tasmania’.
Tony was a man clearly fascinated by war, not averse to killing ‘vermin’ or trees, or, according to the tales he told (truth or lies) killing people too. He is known to have had guns, spears and knives and a wooden club (Ford, 2019). It’s an open possibility, one can imagine, that he had enemies who no doubt knew him by some other name.
Out there, there is someone who either knew or knows the truth but isn’t telling.
‘You can walk to Susan Bay from here, only you can’t.’ That was the verdict of the two local men working on their boat at a shed on the rocks at Connelly’s Bay a tiny rural community (pop. 40, according to the 2016 census) about 50 km east of Hobart, tucked beneath Thornes Hills and Quarry Hill on the dirt road to Dunalley. We’d taken them by surprise, appearing suddenly from around the back of the shed. Midweek, this small community of seaside shacks seemed deserted. They were the only people we’d seen.
They hemmed and hawed about how far you could walk west along the rocks. There was a track, they finally admitted, but it was on private property. You had to climb through the fence.
And so, rugged up against a considerable chill factor and beneath a constantly changing sky, we headed off along the boulders until the terrain pushed us upwards and we found the going easier along track and through grass. It made for brisk and easy walking and as we neared Susan Bay we shared the path with a woman and her dog. I don’t like trespassing but if she was the owner she didn’t mind our presence and if she wasn’t she allowed me to feel that perhaps it was okay to be walking where we found ourselves. Perhaps, in fact, we weren’t trespassing at all.
After the barriers of one sort or another that we’d experienced along this stretch of Frederick Henry coastline, it was an exhilarating walk, and a pleasure to reach Susan Bay beach again.
Again some birdlife, again that sense of being miles away from anywhere. And then, after a bit of idle strolling along the tide line looking at the shells that had washed up here, after enjoying the sense of arrival and goal attained, we turned around and made our way to back to that tiny community where eucalpt covered hills meet the sea.
If getting started on this walk had taken some initial searching for a plausible route, then completing it proved harder still. No signs had warned us we’d been trespassing on the walk out, but here at the end it was clear that the farmer was protective about his land. We wanted to get off it, back on to the rocks where we belonged and were relieved when we finally escaped and made our way back to the edge of the shore.
Like Susan Bay, Connellys Bay (in the area known as Connellys Marsh), is an anchorage used by local sailors because it provides refuge from winds blowing in from the NW and NE and it has a nice sandy bottom that provides easy anchoring behind the moorings at the northern end of the bay.
Source: Cruising Yacht Club of Tasmania. 2014. Cruising Southern Tasmania: a guide to the waterways and anchorages of South Eastern Tasmania from Wineglass Bay to South East Cape. TASMAP, 2014
When we came back to the Primrose Sands area to find our way to the cobbled beach we’d spied as we’d peered over the rocks on our previous visit, a trim of houses along the shore hid the track from view. Signposting just isn’t that great around here, which means that unless you approach by boat, these coastal spots tend to remain local secrets or the haunts of sailors.
Instead we set off along the eastern shore of Gypsy Bay, stopping to chat to a man fishing for flathead, skirting boat houses and spending a long time enjoying the rock platforms. It was a crisp day. A big blue stillness had settled over the water and from the point we had a magnificent view out over Frederick Henry Bay to the Tasman Peninsula.
Always Take the Scenic Route
These two bays – Gypsy and Susan – are rather overlooked spots, only stumbled across if you ignore the highway and instead take the scenic route between Hobart and Dunally. We idled at Gypsy Bay enjoying the boat sheds near the boat ramp and the eccentricities that make it appealing.
It proved impossible that day to walk around the shore of Susan Bay but on a spring low it’s possibly a cinch. Disappointed, our moods rose when we stumbled on a path between houses and followed it down to the bottom of the cliffs where we discovered a beach, rather curved, rather dark and rather thin and therefore easy prey for the ocean that nibbles away at the cliff, felling eucalypts out of the failing banks.
Whisker thin though the beach was on the tide that day, it had an appealing sense of moody seclusion, and we wandered along it in no rush whatsoever, enjoying the birdlife and stopping to chat to a local who spoke at length about this bay and with the most enormous affection. He’d bought two properties along the shore and hoped Hobartians never woke up to this small bay’s particular loveliness. As we followed him back up the path, looking back at those lovely views of the Tasman Peninsula, he told us exactly how to find our way on to Carlton Bluff, which meant that at this point we ended up heading west again, putting eastward exploring on hold.
At the eastern end of Primrose Beach there’s a two pronged point. The western tip is called Renaud Point, the eastern one is Primrose Point and between them lies a cobbled beach. I didn’t know this at the time because our walk was unplanned. We were here after one of our failed attempts at Carlton Bluff and had decided we’d explore this headland instead. It seemed more modest in proportion and couldn’t have been easier to access.
We took the rocks as far as we could go before taking an idle, conversational walk along the clifftop in front of the houses, where we found a path which we followed down to the thin, dark shore. In one particular cove, quiet and shadowed, absent locals were nevertheless a presence because of things they’d left there. An old seat. Boats. Other bits and pieces of fishing gear. It was a small domesticated spot where serenity pooled that late afternoon in the low, cold sunlight.
This isn’t the kind of place I’ve ever heard anyone suggest for a walk and yet it was a pleasure discovering this unfamiliar corner of Hobart’s outer lying environs. Invariably walks in guide books are easy choices but we were certainly finding enjoyment in straying into less visited places and discovering sparks of magic.
We continued along the rocks at the bottom of the cliffs, manoeuvring slowly towards a cobbled beach that had come into view. Two men stood on it, deep in conversation, looking at the sea then turning at times to observe our futile attempts to trump geology. I was excited to reach it and discover what lay behind it.
But a buttress of rock rose between us and that beach and while possibly two of us might have made it over the top it would have been too onerous for our canine companion. Turning back, defeated now by both ends of Primrose Sands, we agreed we’d try to reach this spot again. Next time, we agreed, we’d begin further up the coast and walking east to west.
From Carlton Beach the bluff had looked inviting. We were even sure we we could see a track, but from the beach at Primrose Sands it showed us a different face. There was a little bit of suburb on that side of the slope but not enough to domesticate it because although we explored all its roads, we found no access to a promising track.
It’s the norm in Hobart for suburbs to have tracks and trails through the bushland that backs or interweaves with them, but the Sorell Council seemed to have not yet done Primrose Sands this favour. Still, their lack of action protects the bluff and no doubt about it, the people who live there have millionaire views over Norfolk Bay and the Tasman Peninsula, Sloping Island and Frederick Henry Bay, as well as west towards Bruny Island. One day property here is going to boom, but on our visits it seemed as though everyone had evacuated. Later I read in The Mercury that the place has unfortunately been plagued by arson and there were depressing signs of this.
Carlton Bluff Take One
It was a perfect summer day when we first set off to meet the bluff, leaving our shoes behind us. This meant that when we reached the far end of the beach we couldn’t continue around the bluff by way of the rocks. A young mother and her badly mosquito bitten children were swimming in the sea. There was a house right there, just above the high tide mark and a light smattering of shells caught our attention. Offshore, a boat lay anchored. It was an invitation to dawdle and admire the almost 2 km stretch of beach between the bluff and Renard Point. It’s a moderately exposed beach. Short (2006) explains that the low waves this beach gets are refracted and work with the fine sand to shape and maintain cusps along its extent, as well as a low tide terrace.
We walked back passed undercut foredunes topped with marram grass and a male ray lying dead and mutilated on the sand. We stopped to talk to a local who assured us it was definitely possible to circumnavigate the bluff by way of the rocks on a good low tide.
We decided to come back another day and explore the rocks with our shoes on. We agreed that it would be a short and easy stroll with a bit of rock hopping, but I should have known by now that headlands present all sorts of challenges and it really doesn’t pay to underestimate them.
Carlton Bluff Take Two
When we returned a month later we noticed a plaque freshly glued into the rocks, a small memorial for a lost daughter and so we paused for a quiet moment. The tide was low but not low enough and having reached a point where we could see around the corner into cobbled bays with further rocky points beyond, we agreed we were unlikely to get any further around with our tiny four legged companion and so we called it quits.
Carlton Bluff Take Three
We three tried again some time later, exploring various roads beyond the dried out wetlands, climbing the urbanised stretch of the bluff in search of a path. We could find no access point so yet again we returned to the beach to tackle the rocks. We took off our shoes and rolled up our pants to get over a little gulch. We lifted Matisse up and set him down over those obstacles too vast for tiny poodle legs to manage, but pretty soon they were too great for us too. Sea urchin shells lay about quite densely at the point we reached. In fact, it looked like it could be a midden. Some boys in a boat were fishing and diving offshore. Everything looked serene but I was rueing the fact that we kept missing the better low tides.
Despite the pretty good conditions that day, it was Bluff 3 and us zero. And so decided to abandon our efforts and continue on our way around Renaud Point.
Carlton Bluff Take Four
On another day, further down the coast, we met a man of Dutch descent, who had lived in the area for thirty odd years. He told us that to walk Carlton Bluff you take the path between houses off Midden Street and so encouraged by this new information, we rushed off to try again.
It was 23 November 2017. Hobart was experiencing its longest stretch of continuous days over 27 degrees since records had started 140 years before. That day it was 29 degrees C, a day better suited for swimming than walking, because in Tasmania that sort of temperature is sharp and dry and can feel like needles boring into your skin.
We found the gap between the houses and followed it down to the banks of the Carlton River. In the stratigraphy of the river’s banks there were hints of meals consumed hundreds if not thousands of years ago. We also found an abandoned pair of thongs and several bits of plastic litter and the clear turquoise waters of the river were marred by blooms of what I took to be baggiota floating along the edges. Despite the brutal heat we felt a sense of achievement looking across the river to where we had walked some time before. This time, for sure, we were going to round that bluff.
Eventually we discovered a narrow path above us and clambered up the slope to reach it. Now that we had a path this would be a cinch, we thought, but pretty soon we chose to go back down to the rocks again because we wanted to enjoy the water and we figured that there less chance of encountering snakes down there. We could feel the heat coming up through the soles of our shoes in a most uncomfortable manner and the going was slow. At various points we had to clamber back up, seeking out the path again, picking our way through tussocks of marram and copses of casuarinas, in search of shade for small snatches of cool respite.
Mostly we were off a path rather than on it and the paths we found became confusing – they could well have been made by animals. Our definite preference was the rocks and we started taking every opportunity we could to take off our shoes and sit with our feet in the rock pools, marvelling at their health and the diversity of the seaweed, so different from the D’Entrecasteaux Channel where I’d been sailing and kayaking the week before, observing stressed reefs in the vicinity of the fish farms that I have come to hate for the damage they do to the natural environment and for the impaired lives of the fish entrapped in them.
We had not actually made it to the end of this side of the bluff when my friend remembered an arrangement she had made to see a movie – and so again we turned back.
Four to the Bluff, zero to us.
I still think it’s perfectly possible to walk around the bluff – two locals have said so – but if you plan to do it, start on Midden Road, stay true to the path, choose a cool day and allow ample time. As for kayaking the bluff (something else I considered) sharks enjoy loitering at river mouths, so maybe I will and maybe I won’t. And as for sailing it, that was on my to do list that last summer we owned Samos, but we ended up doing more boat maintenance than actually sailing – and an entirely different adventure was lying in wait.
And yet the faux president of the USA, whose connection to nature apparently extends no further than a golf course claims there is no climate change, a notion that was beginning to sound silly and uninformed back in the 1980s. His is the most stark, most shocking, most dangerous expression of wilful ignorance I believe I’ve ever heard. It illustrates the Great Disconnection that has placed our ecosystem at such dire risk.
On a small island like Tasmania multiple sizeable fires are an indication of how quickly the world as we know it can be irrevocably changed. The air that we breathe, the ground we walk on. The water we drink.
On a beach, a rock pool, deep and vibrant with life one week can be obliterated by sand the next as the beach replenishes itself.
You would not know, as you walk over it, that it had ever existed.
By means of the path and the road we reached the summit of Spectacle Head. It was arguably the most perfect day of summer and we visually wallowed in the landscape about us.
We walked passed the ceramic whale that is a feature of this headland and took a track beneath the casurinas that border the houses (friendly residents, curious dogs) to another clearing. Beneath the cliffs we saw a rocky shoreline interrupted by cobbled beaches. Two 80 year olds drowned off here in the summer of 2017, caught out by rough weather while checking their craypots.
The land was fairly clear of trees on the eastern side of the point and again we lingered, enjoying looking down at the surfers and the long view out along Park and Carlton beaches, with the Carlton river entrance tiny in the distance and Carlton Bluff a heft of shoulder on the far side looking every bit an island and blocking from our view our onward passage.
The track down the cliff face looked too risky, although locals do use it and we ventured some way along it before turning back. A lone Pacific Gull perched on the sharp, narrow edge of cliff. There is no barricade and it would be easy to take a tumble but I liked that it was unfenced and up to individuals to keep themselves safe.
When we got to the bottom by way of the tamer path, the first thing we did was try to get as far around the headland as we could via the rocks. If I’m right this was dolerite, jointed and sandwiched in vertical and horizontal directions that created something of a floral pattern in some areas. That day, we didn’t get far at all.
Park and Carlton Beaches (T392)
Park and Carlton, popular Hobart surf beaches, merge into each other with no natural division between them. Really, it’s a single beach approximately 3 km long IMHO, facing south and copping the southerly swell. With the tide reasonably low we wandered barefoot along the swash enjoying the light, offshore breeze and the long ripple lines left behind in the sand.
At the time I did this walk a friend was keen to buy a place behind the beach while it remained relatively undiscovered and we’d discussed beach erosion and done some Google Earth exploring. The beach is backed by a narrow strip of coastal reserve. But what looked like a single line of dunes online was broader than I’d anticipated when I set foot on the beach. Marram grass cloaked the incipient dunes in front of taller, older dunes that had been undercut by waves at some point and it was interesting to try to figure out beach processes here. Just after this walk a local told me some guinea pig refugees have made a home in these dunes. She also told me she’s given up fishing. Apparently the flathead Emmett said were bountiful are not so bountiful anymore.
We reached the Carlton Park Surf Life Saving Club and walked on by. We rounded the bend at the river mouth where clear green water was streaming out into the bay, swirling around this year’s sandbank, and not far away there were some surfers and people on SUPS. We were nicely protected from the sea breeze now and walked along in the water with tiny fish swirling around our legs. Exploring the river mouth made me feel exultant. My only prior contact with the river had been further inland, crossing it by way of the bridge and following some of its bends along the road. The modest proportions of this river appeal to me. In size it’s much like the rivers around the town I grew up in. I was eager to return with my kayak.
Carlton Bluff, liberally dotted with casurina’s, rises on the other side and someone was walking a path up there. Behind the dunes the river broadens to form a wetland with houses on the inland slopes.
Pied oyster catchers walked ahead of us, gulls gathered near a fallen tree and a pair of swans were off in the distance, paddling out from the wetland where they seem to like to gather. I tried to imagine what the river looked like untouched, full of the birds that should have been there but weren’t because of habitat loss – the great flocks of earlier days now reduced so dramatically the world over.
At Steele’s Island resort we again encountered friendliness and stopped for a while to chat to the owners, who were enjoying the fine day beside the river. They talked about its shapeshifting tendencies and how they become an island several times a year when the river water rises and fills the wetland and the dry river bed at their entrance. We walked a big circle around their property, enjoying the birdlife. There was a deepness of large shells beneath our feet and in the stratigraphy of the river banks.
The day after this lovely walk, the friend who was hankering after property here asked if I’d come back to explore with her and so I showed her the circuit around Steele’s Island. This time the tide was higher. A dozen swans looked at us hesitantly across the vast mudflats and so we kept well away from their territory.
Each walk along rivers and beaches throws up new delights. I studied the layers of shell in the undercut bank, the same shells we were walking over and tried to imagine the landscapes further down the stratigraphic layers that had once had their time to emblazon this world with beauty.
In 1952 E.T. Emmett wrote, ‘From Sorell to Hobart you have the choice of keeping to the main road which strikes Bellerive at fourteen miles, or of doubling back to Lewisham, ferrying across to Seven Mile Beach, and walking through Rokeby, a distance of something over twenty miles. I chose the latter.
Lewisham is another old-timer, for this was once the route to Port Arthur, and Pittwater was crossed at Dodge’s Ferry. Since then three causeways have been built … Lewisham’s main fame today is based on the good fare at the hostelry and the fat flounders in the bay. The iron bars at the windows of some of the outhouses explain what the buildings were used for a century ago.’
Tiger Bay Beach (T395)
Emmett travelled south through a different time and landscape. Our walk took us north out of Lewisham and along Tiger Bay Beach, which lies in the lee of Tiger Head between Okines and Red Ochre Beach. Short (2006) refers to two Red Ochre Beaches, but the locals seem to call the last beach along Blue Lagoon Beach.
The tide we thought would be low was high, the vast stretches of sand gone. We picked our way along the water’s edge and around the eroding cliffs of friable sandstone at Tiger Head. We found a seat, trees with spaces between their roots and the dune, and the visible signs of human concern – tiles and branches once again heaped there to hold back the ocean’s rising intentions. This beach has boat sheds, there’s a boat ramp and jetties and several boats were moored off the beach.
Red Ochre Beaches 1 and 2 (aka Blue Lagoon Beach)
We encountered a sandstone outcrop here with lovely patterns and strange little indented circles.
Further along we found more boat sheds and this time a significant effort being made to hold back the sea because the path now ran along the top of carefully placed boulders, yet still the sea was winkling out the fill and the sand.
We climbed up onto a thin concrete strip on the side of someone’s garden, clutching on to their fence in order to continue. But returning on a low tide occasion I found I could walk the sand beneath the boulders with ease.
The Ferry Man
This was a nautical walk, because on Blue Lagoon Beach we found ourselves amongst more boat sheds, moorings and jetties sheltered this time by the bulk of Spectacle Head.
Ralph Dodge called the land he bought at Dodges Ferry in 1830 Ferry Farm. It seems he swapped his house in Goulburn Street for these 300 acres and this bit of history still stands, because the house he built can be found at the end of Fourth Avenue, (Southern Beaches Historical Society, 2019), pretty much opposite Sandy Point .
He was a man with an eye for business, because he took the opportunity to establish a ferry service and standing there with the sea breeze filling in, it required no imagination at all to imagine him rowing his neighbours over to Sandy Point on the other side. If only all rivers had their Ralph Dodges walking coastlines would be easier and a lot more fun. Imagining Ralph Dodge I remembered an alpine river in Lesotho where the ferry man challenged his wooden boat with generous loads of locals and read the swirls and rapids with consummate skill while those precariously balanced stayed perfectly silent and perfectly still. In another lifetime perhaps I’ll aspire to being a ferry woman and spend my days napping under a shady tree in a warmer climate, waiting for occasional travellers to come my way.
Spectacle Island, one of the Sloping Group of islands, and a mere 3.5 ha lies just offshore. A small number of pied oystercatchers, 600 pairs of little penguins and 8000 pairs of short-tailed shearwater had burrows on the island when Nigel Brothers surveyed it (Brothers, 2001). It belongs to the birds, so respect them by kindly staying away.
A seagull observed us from the boat ramp as we discussed continuing along the rocks or taking the path we could see heading up Spectacle Head behind the boat sheds. We observed the tide and chose the latter.
Walked Feb 2017
Brothers, Nigel. 2001. Tasmania’s offshore islands. Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart.
Emmett, E.T. 1952. Tasmania by road and track. Melbourne University Press, Melbourne.
Sundra and I had decided to walk from Lewisham to Dunally and for these walks her best friend, Matisse, invariably came too. Despite his venerable age he always kept up with us and chose to stick with whoever might be lagging, although sometimes he’d set off alone to find a different way around an obstacle. And ever polite, he accepted us picking him up and passing him over hazards he couldn’t manage alone. He’d pick up his dignity and continue lightly finding his way.
Rest in peace, gentle Matisse.
Dodges Ferry and Lewisham: Sharing a Magnificent Landscape
Long ago I met a writer who lived at Dodges Ferry. It was considered an odd choice by my friends, all better acquainted with Hobart than I was at that time, but walking this area I realised the writer was prescient. Its proximity to vast Pitt Water Lagoon, quiet coves, a string of sheltered beaches, a magnificent headland, beautiful surf beaches and a photogenic river give it an enviable natural richness.
Lewisham consists of a thin string of houses that extend along the eastern shore of the inner entrance to Pitt Water Lagoon just north of Dodges Ferry and so it isn’t physically on Frederick Henry Bay although its watery landscape is intimately connected to the bay. It strikes me as an under rated place, perched as it is above the water with access to some lovely beaches via a rambling path.
Dodges Ferry and Lewisham probably don’t want their natural wealth proclaimed to the world less the financially obese rush in and take over. For the moment laid back Dodges in particular still has enough shacks and rutted roads to keep it feeling like an authentic holiday village.
It’s about a 35 minute drive from Hobart to Lewisham and Dodges Ferry and it’s rich with water views if you choose to take the Lewisham Scenic Drive turn off. It’s my firm belief that one should always take the scenic route and for this series of walks it was such a no brainer that without fail we did.
Walking the Lewisham Reef
There’s a boat ramp at Lewisham and moorings offshore, and the spit that is Five Mile Beach with its bright white dunes backed by pine forest forms the opposite shore. Water flows in and out of the lagoon to Tiger Head Bay and larger Frederick Henry Bay through a narrow channel at Sandy Point on the Five Mile side and Dodges on the northern, and responds to the lay of the land by swirling and rippling in interesting ways.
After considerable discussion we began our walk at the boat ramp and chose to go boulder hopping in preference to taking the path a sailing friend had told me hugged the shore. Sundra’s miniature poodle, Matisse, hopped from one lichened rock to the next with a grace and dexterity that belied his venerable twenty something years.
The lichens, in various hues, indicated the highest reach of the tide.
As well, there was dolerite weathering in interesting ways.
Eventually we climbed up to the path and discovered that one of the particularly enjoyable aspects of this walk is the number of boat houses tucked into the cliff, each quite idiosyncratic. Boats lie about on the shore, silently emanating the richness of their mysterious lives, and jetties are also stop-and-enjoy features along this varied track. Just like on the Derwent and the D’Entrecasteaux, casuarinas (she oaks) fringe the shore, providing light shade and there are three or four ‘covelets’ depending on how you want to define stretches and pockets of sand divided by man-made features or natural indentations. Where these exist, so do the boat houses, which in many cases look to be tiny weekend beach shacks.
Lewisham Beach & Okines Beach (T396)
The path led us to a beach that a passer by told us was called Lewisham Beach. Sundra was struggling to pronounce the word ‘Lewisham’ and so we agreed that we’d call it the Hamlet of Lewis, which made the place feel pleasantly foreign. I’d thought this particular beach was called Okines but one thing I have discovered about walking beaches is that both they and their names can be transient and confusing. Sorell Council refers to a Lewisham and an Okines Beach and they should know. Short (2006) doesn’t reference a Lewisham Beach. I expect they simply segue into each other and did so without us noticing.
As the tide receded the landscape transformed into vast stretches of sand interleaved with shallow fingers of water, leaving a deep channel over on the Five Mile Beach side of what a little earlier had been a single stretch of water. A few groups with fishing rods had strolled over there and tiny clicking noises emanated from the entrances of a million tiny tunnels as the more permanent inhabitants of this sweep of fabulousness, the soldier crabs, began popping up everywhere and marching off together across the watery stretches of sand like endless pink ribbons. It was hard to find any vacant land on which to place our Gulliver-like feet.
We looked at the ripple marks in the sand, practising our reading of tide and current. There were other clues to the life of the beach. Groins indicated local concern about beach loss and the wrack line showed that this was valid. It was right up against the base of the dunes and we wondered whether the marram grass and the houses themselves had affected beach replenishment. Sundra exchanged pleasantries with a landowner industriously chucking branches down to the base of the dune to join the others strewn there in an effort at holding back the weight and determination of water.
We met some walkers who told us they’d seen a large fish head with a protruding tongue and odd curls on its face and although they told us where to find it we never encountered it, just a hoard of jellyfish patiently waiting for wind and water to carry them back out to sea.
Sometimes the weather and a beach are so compelling that it pays to dawdle and lose yourself in the interesting lives of crustaceans, invertebrates, boulders and curly faced strangers from the watery depths. We idled and we lingered until at last we reached the rivulet. We had taken hours, but Dodges Ferry and Spectacle Head were still simply a distant view. and so we agreed we’d come back on the next good low tide.
There’s a natural spring and a wetland behind the beach, which would have once been handy for the Moomairemener who had been pushed out of their country by the time Ralph Dodge, born on Norfolk Island (and one of the group of settlers who came to Van Diemen’s Land in 1807/1808) was granted this land in 1864. He and his wife Charlotte called it Lagoon Farm and in time it passed to their youngest son, Robert, who with his wife Harriet raised nine children here, before selling the farm to the Crown for the new Soldier Resettlement Grants Scheme that was set up for the soldiers back from World War I.
Ernest Okines was the lucky recipient and as with many beaches the foreshore’s name became linked to the owner. Today the Dodges Ferry Primary School stands on this land – the old homestead was demolished in the 1990s.
In the lightest of my summer clothes I explore the winter rock pools beneath the two headlands that hold the cuttlefish beach tight. A fine trail of their shells lie in a tangle with little pumice stones, mangrove pods, seaweed and the occasional bright piece of tiny plastic that together have invariably traced the sea’s overnight reach up the beach on these southern winter and spring days.
Out in the bay whales may breach and the dolphins surf, but my curiosity is usually focussed on the tiny and the ordinary, although nothing – absolutely nothing– is ordinary about a beach when you start to look at it closely.
This beach is in northern NSW. It’s a short stroll from the long beach that fronts this tiny seaside community, but few people find their way around here, to where the cuttlefish wash up in all their diversity – the large and the small, the bitten and the untouched, the wide and the skinny. It’s not uncommon to find them on Tasmanian beaches too. In fact, they are sometimes the same species, just a bit more tolerant of those cooler waters.
Why so many are washing up on this beach I do not know. Perhaps, hanging around in the same vicinity they are hounded down by predators on the prowl. Perhaps they drift here on the current from exotic vicinities far away. Most likely it’s to do with mating and the high price that extols and most likely they are locals.
I’ve picked up huge pieces of cuttlebone, quite weighty, broken and scoured by a predator’s teeth. I’ve picked up the tiny, perfectly formed shells of newborns (unless there is a teeny tiny species out there) and longer shells, oval, with a pink blush and a tiny cusp. I’ve picked up the ones shaped like a plump leaf, with thin black lines sometimes etched on the anterior side.
I’ve picked all these up thinking they were the same but in sorting them I discovered a lot about my ignorance and a lot about their differences. I seem to have collected four distinct species, possibly more.
Cuttlefish Travel Across Time and Language
These exotic cephalapods are so well adapted that their trajectory extends forwards from the Cretaceaous period ‘which lasted approximately 79 million years, from the minor extinction event that closed the Jurassic Period about 145.5million years ago to the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) extinction event dated at 65.5 million years ago,’ according to LiveScience. That’s pretty damn amazing. Humans are untested newcomers in comparison, given we’ve been around in this modern format only during the last 300,000 years (Wikipedia).
Cuttlefish grace the oceans in temperate and tropical locations worldwide, but curiously, they’re not in the Americas and the author of their Wikipedia entry suggests that one theory is that Gondwana had broken up by then and the North Atlantic had become too cold and deep for them to cross. I wonder about the cold bit, given that they’re comfortable in Tasmanian waters.
On the whole they seek out shallow water and are particularly partial to reefs, estuaries and seagrass meadows along the coast although amongst the many different species of cuttlefish, some do like their water deep.
The Greeks and Romans, keen on harvesting cuttlefish not only for their flesh but for their ink called the mollusc sepia.
‘Cuttle’ comes from the Old English name for the species, cudele, which may be connected to the Old Norse word koddi (cushion) as well as Middle Low German’s Kudel (Wikipedia).
Cuttlefish Magic: Embodying the bizarre
Cuttlefish are believed to prefer midnight feasts of shrimp and tiny fish to breakfasts and lunches but some species are out and about during daylight hours. They use two of their ten suckered tentacles with consummate skill, whipping these flexible ‘chopsticks’ out swiftly to pluck unwary fish and crustaceans into their beaky little mouths. It takes significant brain power to manage limbs, tentacles, defence mechanisms and their various mobility features. Its cousin, the octopus, uses nine brains to perform its daily rituals but a cuttlefish has one of the largest brain to body size ratios in the animal world and is known to be a fast learner.
I love the way they hold their tentacles in front of their faces when they swim. It makes them look like they have a long grooved snout. Perhaps this intimidates others while streamlining their motion, but that’s just an uneducated guess.
I’m sorry to make you think twice about that cuttlefish on your predatorial menu but they are unutterably beautiful and if you look them up on Youtube (see links below), you can’t help but feel somewhat mesmerised by the way they sashay about in a frilly sort of way. Think flamenco and think belly dancing for the way they ripple the soft fins along the sides of their body comporting themselves in a languorous or seductive manner.
Yet, no sooner have you thought this than you’re thinking zebras, toads and chameleons because although they are often striped they can change colour, skin texture and shape swiftly, blending into the background by making like they’re seaweed or a rock, or alternatively showing off with a bit of fluorescence or splashes of dazzling disco skin colour (Australian Museum). They use their skin to ‘speak’ or express their feelings, flashing messages via dynamic spots and colourful pulses. For instance, they might colour up one side of their body to bedazzle a potential partner while shading the other side to emphasise a ‘piss off’ to a contender (The Animal Communication Project).
They are physical oxymorons, edible but venomous. Their muscles contain a toxic compound with some suggestion that they are as lethal as blue-ringed octopus. (MarineBio, 2016) Their skin is a canvas and they wield colour like an artist – and yet they are colour blind.
That shell encountered on the beach is actually a phenomenal piece of engineering. We see shell and wonder about gifting it to our budgies or those artistically inclined might sculpt it like a piece of scrimshaw, and those who are frugal might pound it to add to a homemade toothpaste, or to a polish, but a cuttlefish uses this aragonite shell in lieu of a backbone, a shell that does double duty as a nifty buoyancy device because by pumping liquid in and out of the lattice of the minuscule chambers that make up the shell they are able to adjust the internal gas to liquid ratio, and this allows them to migrate up and down the water column, making like an elevator.
There’s a muscular mantle attached to that cuttlebone. It forms a sort of cavity, open at the front and it is also a mobility device. When the mantle muscle contracts, a whoosh of water whips through this siphon, strong enough to propel this magician of the seas at rapid speed. This is the same way it conjures up a cloak of black ink to confuse the enemy – the original “India Ink’ we used in fountain pens once upon a time and the sepia of the Greeks and Romans.
There are many other interesting things about a cuttlefish’s internal geography (for instance, they have three hearts) but for me those eyes have it. There is something soulful about those deep dark, W shaped ancient eyes in a body full of frills and artifice, those colour blind eyes of a master of colour and disguise. Those eyes have an underwater knowingness, but their lifespan is a mere two years. They come together in a big festive crowd to spawn and then, completely spent, they die. A popular place to see Giant Cuttlefish migrate for this molluscan orgy is off Whyalla in the Spencer Gulf, South Australia. (Here is some fantastic youtube footage by Pink Tank Scuba (2015).)
Maternal Cuttlefish Behaviour
The mother may not be around to care for her offspring but she lavishes care on her eggs, carefully hiding and tending them on the under side of rocks, jetties and other shady overhangs. There are sometimes about 30 to 50 eggs in a cluster and they’re not all from the same mother.
Once I read about this I immediately went looking. It was a fine October day and I did actually find eggs in a cluster on the under side of a rock, hanging there like glistening white raindrops, but I couldn’t identify them with 100% certainty and the ease of this find seemed too good to be true given that there’s a lot of diversity in those rock pool worlds.
Cuttlefish as Predator and Prey
Quite a lot of the cuttlefish I’ve collected have smallish teeth marks scouring the shell or making frills along the edges. The literature suggests it’s usually dolphins or sea lions but they’re also preyed on by sharks and larger cuttlefish. Perusing the research it appears cuttlefish numbers have dropped dramatically but are now rising. Some scientists think that overfishing and climate change might, at least for now, be working in their favour.
The Cuttlefish Who’s Who
Cuttlefish are molluscs and belong to the gastropod family. The giant cuttlefish (Sepia apama) is easy to identify by its size. Wild seas over the last few days have brought by the wind sailors, portuguese man ‘o wars in their droves, violet snails and cuttlefish onto the beach in droves. I found two almost perfect giant cuttlefish shells that had been floating around in the oceans for a pretty long time. You could tell; they were encrusted with goose barnacles, most small, but one in particular was large and curious, coming out of its shell to question where the water had disappeared to, I assume.
I started off curious about the different shapes of cuttlefish shell I was finding on the beach but as well as finding out about these cephalopods, these molluscs, these gastropods, losing time to youtube videos about them, I also wandered down related trails and found out some interesting info about people who have studied them, like the interesting Mr Bragg, and stumbled upon some engrossing blogs, like Susan Scott’s. She’s a sailor and marine biologist and I quickly downloaded her book. Here’s her post on cuttlefish.
But I’m still not sure about those eggs and I’m not entirely confident I know the species I’ve found, so if you can help me identify them please leave a comment :).