Last year we went snorkeling in the tail of the cuttlefish mating season. It was late July. The water was extremely cold. And only a few, solitary giants were left, cruising for last-come, last-served egg-laying spots under the rocks.
It's a different situation this year. In most years the water temperature begins to drop in late May and it drops steadily, a few degrees a week, until it reaches it's winter plateau of 11 or 12 degrees Celsius.
This year the water temperature dropped more slowly than usual, and then plateau at 17 degrees for several weeks. The cuttlefish were confused by the uncharacteristic variation, and have arrived slowly, in very small numbers -the smaller, first-season cuttlefish first arriving. The numbers are beginning to rise now, if very gradually, but the cuttlefish that have come are still few and small - a team of marine biologists spoke quietly in the corner of Tony's dive shop that morning, while we waited for a phone call with the morning dive report - a census update from the dawn divers telling us where on the coast there were numbers enough to be worth a dive.
The crew of a Japanese nature television show was in town to film the cuttlefish. They were diving three times a day, every day, in all weathers. Two men, one young, one middle aged, sat silently on a sofa at the back of the dive shop, mainlining mugs of hot coffee and bags of jelly sweets with the grim expressions of men who spend far too much of their time shrugging in and out of cold, clammy wetsuits in dark weather and really, seriously need the calories.
After half an hour, the call came in - and we headed out to Black Point - a outcropping of shingle coast few kilometers in toward from the lighthouse at Point Lowly.
The sun was out, the breeze was stiff, the rough parking lot at the Point was a sun-trap thirty feet above a rocky shore. We kitted up and sat in the sun, drowsy as cats, stiff as neoprene mummies in our rented suits. Don't try this without a spotter. If you fall over you're not going to get up without someone to hoist and heave and unhook and unlatch and unseam -
Getting down to the water was equally involved - we three penguin-analogues in full scuba kit humping flippers and masks and tanks and weight belts down a narrow path across the cliff face, and then scrambling for several hundred slippery, stumbling meters across the same sort of unstable, rocky shore we'd skipped rocks across a few days earlier.
Our entry point was a small cove in the lee of a point of rock. We sat on its sun-side, recovering ourselves and then - breathing. Breath, you asthmatic aspiring- scuba-diver you! Long, slow, breaths! Slowly in, slowly out, in and out, in and out, make a smooth, even rhythm and let it lead you, step by step, out into the water.
And fall down. I'm an original Australian water baby, Bondi-born and Gold Coast-bred, but with a regulator in my mouth and a tank on my back my center of balance was all off. It was disorienting and helpless-feeling. Tony took me in slowly. Rocking and stumbling as the waves hit, fighting back instead of rolling.
Two years ago, in the Cook Islands, I tried a shallow reef dive. Nobody warned me beforehand that when I used a regulator I'd have to draw hard to take a breath. When you're asthmatic, having to pull hard for a breath is a warning sign that you're starting an asthma attack. You spend your life working to avoid exactly that. Underwater, my reflexes never stopped red-lining and they never had to - the reef was so shallow that if I had a problem, all I had to do was unbend my knees and stand up. So I never tried.
Tony was gentle as a man with an newborn baby. Slowly - waist deep - put the mask on. Chest deep - put your face into the water. Breathe. Breath was pressure on my lungs - I fought - I couldn't get enough air! I lifted my face out of the water and spat out my regulator and took a deep breath - and breathed just the same as I'd breathed underwater. Hah. Tony was right. It's psychosomatic, you dill. Breathe and keep that CO2 moving and you're right as houses. I popped the regulator back in and Tony took me by the hand and led me out into the gulf. We stepped underneath the water and his hand was so strong and secure on my own that fear was impossible. And there was so much to see.
It was strange to be a human down there. Tony had me at slightly negative buoyancy, and I spent my time bouncing across the bottom on my belly, sliding over seagrass and, initially alarming, big black sea urchins - but it put me at eye level with the cuttlefish. They were small, but they were everywhere. If this was nothing, small potatoes, low season - my god.
It was a busy world. The water was cloudy and the same color as the seagrass, and the cuttlefish emerged, dreamlike, from the shadows as we came upon them - grass taking form into cuttlefish, rather than the other way round. They drifted across the bottom and I drifted after them, their colors shifting and sliding from green to brown to purple into red, blue iridescence shining along the rims of their mantles.
Two giants were facing off, hanging broadside to each other, their mantles flared, their bodies shifting through a repertoire of color - their heads were red, their rims were green, and across the flat screen of their mantles ribbons of color pulsed and flared.
We hung there, drifting in space, watching them. I was so enthralled I lost the rhythm of my breathing. I inhaled too much and found myself gently rising from the sea floor and tipping inexorably upside down, and hung there, stranded, with my hair brushing the seafloor and my flippers pointed at the distant, sun-spangled surface 4 meters above.
Dr Tabubil cleared her ears to regularize her pressure and in her own distraction shot the bubbles down the front of her suit. Out of the corner of my eye I saw her shooting toward the surface like a bottle rocket. I imagined that I heard her giggling.
I got twisted around down there - the top of my oxygen bottle had slid up against the back of my head and I had no forward or upward vision. I was restricted to seeing straight ahead and sideways. It was limiting, claustrophobic even, but Tony's hand was firm on mine and, somehow, my limited field of view enhanced the otherworldliness of the experience. A limited view was right and proper, and matched my limited understanding and my slender awareness of myself in this place, where I was so strange and clumsy and out of joint.
Bouncing back along the bottom again, I found myself eye to eye with a foot-long female cuttlefish squeezed into a crevice under a rock. She was laying eggs, her color reduced to a pearly blue-white pallor. A male rushed to guard her. I stood my ground and hung nose to nose with him until she emerged and slanted color-wise into purple and then to sandy green, and lifted her tentacles and squirted sideways away into the grass.
Tony squeezed my hand and moved off. I was completely lost down there - I figured we'd surface where we were and paddle back to shore above water, but he was leading me steadily up an incline and the grass shaded into bare rock and we were up. Out.
We had been underwater for almost forty minutes. It felt as if it had been ten. Barely. I wasn't cold. Just dazed. Amazed.
We lay on the rocks in the sun, smiling foolishly at each other. Then we humped our gear back up the cliff, and stripped and changed into warm flannel pajamas, and ate sweet imperial mandarins and blocks of chocolate and drank our way through thermoses of hot tea.
And i did all right - no asthma. Tony is all fired up to take me out again. When the numbers climb, and we can watch 'em by the hundreds.
Photographs and Video (and if you do ONE thing - watch the video.):
Dr Tabubil reclining (gingerly) above Black Point.
Finding my balance underwater.
A cuttlefish emerges from the seagrass - notice how his front half is red with rage (pushy humans!) while his back half is still the color of the grass.
For every one we see, there is at least one more hiding in the grass. Probably more! See how the one on the right holds his tentacles to mimic the tangled shape of the grass.
And - gone!
Two Huge Males Face Off.
Video footage of the giant male displaying: