I love fish. Something about the way they stare and shimmer, and then quickly flick away from you when you’re snorkelling. The endless variety of shapes and sizes and forms. Their easy existence in a medium so foreign to ours. Well, it’s not really easy, there’s always something trying to eat you, if you are a fish. But they make it look easy.
I may have become a fish scientist if I hadn’t endured my first marine biology field trips in Melbourne. Where the seas are freezing cold, and the southerly winds are colder – at any time of the year. And if I wasn’t a cold-water-wimp. My better-insulated or simply tougher friends ended up studying barnacles or seaweed or reef fish, while I happily went out into the forest and got excited about trees and birds and bugs. (I’ve never lost that excitement, as you can probably tell from this blog).
But I still love fish. So an aquarium of very fecund guppies still burbles away in our living room, and every now and then I go snorkelling, and become entranced once again by the fish. The last time I did this was at Woody Head, in the marvellous Bundjalung National Park, in northern New South Wales.
I suppose it’s a cliché, but a wonderful thing about the underwater world is that you have no real hint of its wonders while you are on the surface. If you try to peer into the sea from above, all you glimpse are vague shapes and muted colours, distorted by the reflection and movement of the water surface.
On this day, there were pelicans cruising around the rocky reef at Woody Head, and tiny shorebirds prodding the rockpools.
A pair of lapwings stood on the rocks, modelling the different ways a lapwing could wear its face-flaps.
Then it was time to don the snorkel gear and see what was underwater.
When I came back out of the water, I began to sketch what I’d seen, from memory. And sometimes this is the most fun method of nature journaling, because you don’t feel that you have to slavishly stick to reality. You can’t be too critical of yourself either, as you accept that you’re just doing your best to remember the details, not create a perfectly realistic picture. After all, if I had wanted a photo-realistic picture, I would have taken a photo.
I like to get down the rough shapes and arrangements of the animals, plants and the scene. And then, I confess, I go rifling through field guides to narrow down ID’s and also to remind myself of any characteristic markings before I finish the picture. Sometimes just a subtle shape or position of a stripe or a spot can make all the difference between whether a sketch is recognised as a particular species or not.
The place I snorkelled was a large, sandy-bottomed pool, bordered by rocky reefs, where the pelicans had settled to roost. Crested terns were flying backwards and forwards across the sky, making repeated trips from their nests, far away on the Iluka breakwater, to the fishing grounds out at sea off Woody Head, and back again. All the while calling their harsh, grating, garrulous cries.
Well-submerged, on the edge of the rocks was a mass of Ecklonia seaweed, swirling and heaving in the rhythm of the waves. Silvery, deep-bodied fish were swaying gently, in small groups, in front of the Ecklonia forest, courted by a bright stripey cleaner wrasse. While below, just above the sandy sea bottom, was a criss-crossed pile of flutemouths, looking like an abandoned game of ‘pick-up-sticks’.
A friend had raved about wobbegong sharks at this place, and here one was, glaring at me from its grizzled face, all leafy and lacy with bits of brown-olive camouflage. It lay motionless beneath shifting diamonds of sunlight and shadows, cut by the sea.
On a small rocky outcrop, a gang of baby angelfish had staked out their home turf, around a curtseying tuft of Padina seaweed, with a stout little damselfish for company.
At least, that’s what I think they all were. I never did become a fish expert, and you probably didn’t either. But that shouldn’t stop us from looking and wondering and having fun. And perhaps using the humble art of nature journaling to capture a fleeting glimpse of the underwater world.