An underwater nature journaling adventure

posted in: Nature journaling | 15

Bannerfish and mullet

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.

Pelicans cruising at Woody Head
Pelicans cruising at Woody Head

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.

pelicans on the rocks

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.

Beach-washed Ecklonia clump.
Beach-washed Ecklonia clump.

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’.

silvery fish Ecklonia and flutemouths

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.

baby angelfish

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.

Snorkelling at Woody Head


15 Responses

  1. Augusta

    As always beautiful work! You capture the “feeling” of being in nature so well.

    • Paula Peeters

      Oh thankyou Augusta 🙂 It’s always great to connect with someone who ‘gets it’ too.

  2. Paula Schetters

    I think you could create a 16 or 24 page full-colour illustrated children’s book around a trip to the seashore from this material. I love the way you explore this environment with such an expression of delight, while adding a naturalist’s perspective. In fact all of the nature journals could become children’s story books in themselves each with a page dedicated to the individual animal or plant life in that environment, but instead using only a child’s perspective, and by threading a conservation-based story throughout each. However you’ve probably already thought of this… I can see a new resource being published, a series of ‘exploring the environment’ for children in the early years of schooling.

    • Paula Peeters

      Hi Paula Thanks for your great encouragement and ideas, as always. No, I hadn’t really thought of nature journals turning into kid’s books, but that’s the great beauty of nature journaling – it can be the raw material and inspiration for so many other projects. Wearing my (cash-strapped) self-publisher hat, I get a bit scared off by the thought of printing costs for a colour-illustrated book. But there’s always other publishers, crowd-funding, who knows? I’m open to ideas (and offers!). Cheers, Paula

  3. Lachlan

    This post is awesome! Really nice. Can I post a link with one of the pics in our next monthly round up?

  4. Paula Peeters

    Hey thanks Lachlan, I’m chuffed that a real fish expert liked my post 🙂 and feel bad that I don’t read your excellent blog more often. Of course you can post the link and a picture, and you’re welcome to re-blog the whole post, if you like. Cheers, Paula

  5. Belinda Daly

    Thanks Paula,
    Beautiful to see some ocean layers! I’m a bit fascinated by the flutemouths and how you can differentiate them from a pile of weed or sticks!

    • Paula Peeters

      Thank you Belinda for reading! The flutemouths… Well they were just sort of floating in a pile, suspended above a patch of weed (maybe explains why they were floating). And they have eyes. Sticks don’t usually have eyes…! ☺️

      • Paula Peeters

        “The long tubular snout of the Rough Flutemouth is a very efficient device for sucking in small fishes, a major food source.” I didn’t make them up. Really.

  6. Fiona Hamer

    Love this. The underwater world is such a strange, beautiful place.
    I also totally agree that your illustrations would make a good children’s book. There’s not enough for kids that introduces them to the wonders without tormenting them with “of course everything’s going to die, and it’s all the fault of us humans.” It may be true, but I think kids need to know what the world is before we tell them it’s horribly doomed.

    • Paula Peeters

      Hi Fiona, thanks so much for your appreciation and words of encouragement! Interesting what you say about kid’s books – that we need more wonder and less doom. That’s one of the main drivers behind this blog. I’ve been immersed in trying to save the environment for all of my working life, and felt that we had perhaps forgotten to celebrate all the joy and wonder of it all. Thanks for reading 🙂

  7. Gail Rehbein

    This is a beautiful post Paula – in words and pictures. You had me smiling with your playful descriptions and depictions. It’s brightened this rainy Sunday. Thanks! 🙂

    • Paula Peeters

      Thank you Gail! I like to see the humour in things, and I’m sure lots of animals have a sense of humour too. Yes, not great weather for outdoor exercise yesterday in south east Queensland (but now our pond is full again). I was feeling quite stodgy by the end of it.