The day after we met the dolphins dark and low and overcast, but the air was still calm and the water flat and glassy, and I took Dr Tabubil out to Port Lowly to skip rocks.
Point Lowly, twenty minutes out of town, is where the gulf narrows into a funnel and pushes its water up to Port Augusta at its tip. On the points narrow nose there is a lighthouse on a shingle beach, with a small sheltered cove tucked in below it under the brow of a hill. The shore is flat, loose, sandstone slabs, tangled and stumbly, but the floor of the little cove is clear white sand, knee-deep at mid-tide, designed approximately and precisely for paddling with small children on hot summer afternoons.
In that hot summer weather the water sparkles like gold and sapphires, and the rocks are full of blue-tongue and shingle-back lizards, but the air is a solid block of black flies.
We don’t go there very much in summer.
In winter, however, the flies clear out and although the water is too cold for wading, the little cove is always still, and the flat stones are most excellent for skipping on the water. Dr Tabubil had a fine time. Me, I make a good splash, but I throw lousy. In thirty years of trying hard, Dad never did manage to teach me to throw. He used to take me out of town to a good creek and explain the finer points of aim and pitch and windup, and we'd chuck rocks onto the concrete apron below the culvert and in thirty years, I never got any good.
A man and two young boys were fishing on the other side of the point. I looked away from a particularly good splash and saw them holding a cuttlefish high in the air and waving at us.
I walked around the bay to meet them, my feet crunching and sliding enjoyably on the shingle.
"You missed a pod of dolphins coming through" the man said. He nodded at the turbid rapids of the rip current, running north ten meters out from the shore. "Ten of them. Jumping. That was a sight!"
The boys, both about ten years old, grinned amiably at me. The man cleared his throat and reached into a bucket. "Couple of cuttlefish do for you, then?"
"How do you do them?" I said. "I've never cooked one before."
A crunching of stones announced the arrival of Dr Tabubil, following on behind me.
"Ah." The man said. "Two of you. You ever seen one of these out of the water?"
He scraped the bucket forward and we peered inside. It was full of ink, with shining, green-lipped backs rising out of the murky water, and eyes - big eyes, huge and thick and clouded, staring out at us through the murk.
The man showed us how to catch them, casting his line right out into the rip and dragging the lure across the surface of the water back in toward the shore. Once he'd caught one, mottled and brown and many-tentacled, he showed us how to hold it, grasping it behind the wide vanes of the head and using our thumb and forefinger to empty the siphon below its throat.
I grasped carefully.
"Oi! Stop that!" He shouted in alarm."Point the thing some other way! It hasn't dumped its ink yet!"
The boys shouted with laughter. Hastily, I turned the cuttlefish toward the bucket, feeling the animal emptying itself under my hands, its slick, solid body growing soft and flaccid as the water streamed out of it. An empty sack.
Behind me, Dr Tabubil's face was set. She looked miserable.
"It looks cruel," the man said"but the ones we catch are already dying." He swept his hand out across the water. "See the rip? The mating ground is on the other side of the lighthouse. No fishing there. Cuttlefish mate once, and then they're spent. They die. As they get weaker, they're swept out into the current and come around this side of the point. I was out there on a boat last week and the current was full of dead cuttlefish and cuttlefish bones, floating on the water.
"Mind how you hold it" he told me. He held up a fishing lure; the wood was scratched and pitted. "This was done by a cuttlefish beak earlier this afternoon. They’ve got serious beaks. You see that long thing -" he pointed into the bucket where a long, slender pseudopod floated free on the surface. "- Don't let a cuttlefish snag you with that. It flings that tentacle out and snares a fish or a crab, and it hangs on tight. If it gets your finger back to it's beak with that thing, you'll have one hell of a nasty bite."
I looked at the pale, empty thing in my hands and wondered.
"Put him down on the rock!" One of the boys said. "Watch him change color!" I put the mottled brown cuttlefish down on a white rock, and in seconds it was as pale as the rock, rimmed with green and blue strings of luminescence. Even dying, it glowed.
"We won't eat this one." The man said. "It's a little male, I reckon. A mimic. I'll use it for bait for catching snapper. Snapper love cuttlefish. See that patch of still water out past the tip of the point? That's because three currents meet. If you go out there in a boat, you can practically pull the snapper in with a hand-net. They hang around waiting for the dying cuttlefish to be swept out of the spawning ground and around the point."
We put the little cuttlefish into the bucket with his kin. The man stood and stretched, and the boys ran whooping into the water, splashing and kicking up the spray.
"Where are you from?" The man said. We told him.
"Huh." He said. "I thought you'd be American. You've got the accent. Hey! Maybe you can tell me. All the Americans I've met are absolutely obsessed with kangaroos! Americans and the Japanese both. Why is that?"
I shrugged. "They're exotic. They live far away, they're tall as people, have huge hind legs, go boinging across the landscape - what's not to fascinate?"
"I bet" Dr Tabubil said, " that you're fascinated by grizzly bears."
"Bears-" The man shoo his head. "Huge things. Terrifying. One of these days - " he broke off, laughing. "I reckon you've got a point. I used to live down on the Murray Riverland, and I'd take Americans out on safari, hunting for galahs and emus and kangaroos. Last year I took a Japanese girl. There was an American with her and they both wanted emus. Big haystack things on legs, but I suppose they don't have anything like that where they come from.
So I took them out into the bush - we drove and drove and the girls got restless.
'Why aren't we seeing any emus?' They said.
'Because we can't catch up with them!' I said. I was driving a big old jeep and I put my foot on the accelerator, and pretty soon we found an emus - pacing alongside the road. The girls shrieked at me to stop and let them look.
'You girls stay quiet and sit on those cameras!' I said. "You see, if you see one emu, you know you've got a lot of emus. So I drove like mad and the emu started to run, and soon there were five, and then there were ten of them, pounding along the road, those big dinosaur feet going flat out. I swung the wheel and swerved off the road into the scrub. The gils were screaming at me to stop and trying to point their cameras through the windows, but I just plowed through the scrub and I got ahead of them, you see? Then I bounced back onto the road, spun the car around to face the herd and I stopped the car dead and turned off the motor.
'There.' I told them. 'Get your cameras out now.' And as I said it, fifteen emus came thundering right at us, parting around the car like those dinosaurs in that movie Jurassic Park and thundering away up the road in a cloud of dust. They got photos like they'd never get anywhere else."
He smiled away across the gulf. "Big as haystacks, but by God, they're impressive when they're moving."
7/7/11 Update: It has since been explained to me by reliable authorities that the theory of 'dying cuttlefish being washed around the point where we can catch 'em without guilt' is - to put it very politely - a complete and utter load of tosh.
Tony at the dive shop goes one step further: "It's a very low season, and one of the hypotheses being tossed around is that because the weather put the cuttlefish six weeks late, they had six more weeks out at sea in the face of predators. The local fishermen have been beefing up their fishing as well. I don't know how much of an effect the fishermen are having, but considering the fact that the cuttlefish population has only recently bounced back from the edge, and that the season is as low as it is, they're acting with pretty poor spirit. And if they're making up stories like that to make themselves feel better about what they're doing - !"