In the Company of Dragons
Whyalla, South Australia
Photos by Howard and Michele Hall
The Princess II was followed to the northern apex of the Spencer Gulf by a southerly wind that beat against the rocky coast. In the shallows below the south-facing rocky shore is where we had found giant cuttlefish spawning three years ago.
Then, as now, I looked over the side and found the water almost impossibly murky. Three years ago, as I swam ashore, the wind died and visibility was already twenty feet and getting clearer fast. Conditions were far better than I had expected. Hoping for a similar experience today, I swam into the shallows with my RED camera and movie lights only to discover my worst fears. I could barely see four feet.
With wind waves crashing against the rocks, the water surged and heaved, making it impossible to hold a motion picture camera steady. The only good news was that the cuttlefish had arrived in number. On the roiled up ocean floor I could see numerous males fighting, courting females, and pairs of cuttlefish mating.
When I returned to the boat, I found my other expedition members excited about what they had seen though horrified by the terrible conditions. I was quite proud of being in the company of divers who could make the best of diving in four-foot visibility. I have often said that one doesn’t need great water clarity to do good underwater animal behavior work, but four-foot visibility challenges any optimism for capturing great images more than a bit. Andrew Fox lightened everyone’s mood by giving a weather report calling for calming winds. If the winds would abate, visibility should improve quickly.
The next day conditions did improve markedly. By the afternoon I was photographing giant cuttlefish behavior in 20-foot visibility. Although this is far from great water clarity for divers accustomed to gliding over coral reefs in gin-clear seas, it was more than enough for capturing great sequences of cuttlefish behavior. Everyone on board was thrilled.
These are the largest cuttlefish in the world. Large males can reach three feet in length. Getting close is no problem. The annual spawning is the end of their lifecycle. After the males mate and the females lay their eggs, both sexes die. So, during the spawning season, giant cuttlefish are fearless. We easily photographed mating, fighting, egg-laying, and other behavior from literally inches away.
Most people are surprised to learn how short the cuttlefish lifespan is. Most live only a year. Only the giant males are older. They live two years.
But not all of the males are giants. Smaller males are called “sneakers.” These one-year-olds are about the size of the females. To avoid confronting giant males, the sneakers change their colors and postures, adopting a feminine disguise, then slip past the giant males to seduce females. The strategy is surprisingly effective. Females actually seem to prefer the sneakers to the giant aggressive males.
We spent three days in Whyalla and this gave me plenty of time to capture the lifecycle of the giant cuttlefish. It was great to see so many animals on the spawning grounds. Australia has outlawed fishing for the giant cuttlefish during spawning seasons. Before the law was passed, these giants were rapidly disappearing from the Gulf. Now they seem to be back in healthy numbers and every year more gather in the northern Spencer Gulf.
At the end of the third day, we turned the Princess II south and headed back to the Neptune Islands for a final few days of diving with great white sharks. Two days later we would head back to Port Lincoln and our group would break up and begin the long trip home.
This had not been a typical diving expedition. At times we had gale-force winds, rain, high seas, and certainly cold water. But what we experienced in these lush temperate waters has made the trip more than memorable.
Click here to read Howard’s field report on filming the Australian sea lion.
Click here to read Howard’s field report on one of the most unique creatures in the sea, the dragon fish.
Click here to read Howard’s field report on swimming with great white sharks.