Almost exactly a year ago, just before we left Australia, I had a second opportunity to go diving with the Giant Australian Cuttlefish.
The dive happened a week and a half before we left Australia, when I was in a rather busy period of my life. I have always intended to talk about it, because that day dive was, if anything, even more extra-ordinary than the first dive: the sun was shining and the water was clear and there were exponentially more cuttlefish out and about than when Dr Tabubil and I went diving- but what with the move, and then one thing and then another, the photos have been languishing on my desktop for the past year and I haven’t found the moment.
And then a couple of weeks ago, Australian friends sent news that made my cuttlefish images very topical indeed.
For those who aren't aware, the Australian Giant Cuttlefish is the largest cuttlefish species in the world - up to a meter across, and the coast of the Spencer Gulf in South Australia, where I lived, is a place very special to these animals.
Those unfamiliar might read my post HERE and explore its own attendant links, or if you're in a hurry, you might just read this quick summary. And then go look up the BBC documentary series 'LIFE' (2009) and check out the episode 'Creatures of the Deep.' (after which you will want to go read the post linked above anyway, because the giant cuttlefish so entirely fascinating).
The Australian Giant Cuttlefish is the largest cuttlefish species on earth. They lead a solitary, leave-me-alone-and-to-hell-with-the-neighbors sort of life, but once a year, they come by the thousands to breed along a very small and very specific stretch of the coast along the upper Spencer Gulf in Southern Australia.
Point Lowly, this little stretch of coast, is the world's only known mass cuttlefish spawning ground. Just outside the coastal mining town of Whyalla, the sandy floor of the gulf gives way to a litter of sandstone slabs, built up with ledges and overhangs under which the cuttlefish can lay and leave their eggs.
When they have finished breeding they disappear. We have no idea where they go or what they do – all we know of them we know from this brief annual window of time and breeding behavior, and when they leave they vanish out of science and out of human knowledge.
Because of the scale of this breeding event, the Australian Giant Cuttlefish is a species that lives in a tenuous equilibrium. An event that disrupted the breeding colony would have a huge effect on the viability of the whole species.
When I left Australia, there were two threats to the cuttlefish.
Threat the first:
A large Australian multinational firm (BHP Billiton) wished to build a desalination plant for their inland mining operations, and they had chosen this same specific piece of coast to build it on. The scientific reports are inconclusive to hypothetically optimistic – there is no direct evidence to indicate that an upsurge of salinity in the local region would affect the breeding grounds.
The local geology of the breeding site holds nothing special for the desal plant. A few kilometers in either direction across hundreds of kilometers of gulf coastline would have made no difference either way to the economics or feasibility of the plan. When you are building around a species so special, so evanescent and so terribly unknown, in what sort of human universe would you want to take that risk?
Local landowning interests had played NIMBY and refused to give up any of their sheep pastures, and the state-owned land that is this very special breeding ground seems to have been the only piece of coast that did not have someone in government willing to stand up for it. Shame on South Australia. When I left, the proposal was still, slightly, on the fence; the people of the gulf coast cared – even if their elected representatives didn’t, and there was some tenuous hope.
Threat the second:
When Dr Tabubil and I made our first dive last year, Tony's dive shop was a busy place: on his sofa was a pair of Japanese documentary film-makers (if anyone knows who they were filming for or how to find the footage that they took, please let me know. I’d love to see it) and at the back of the dive-shop, drinking coffee and talking in low, frustrated tones, was a team of bemused biologists and marine scientists. The cuttlefish numbers were low that year – very low. The winter drop in water temperature had happened more slowly than usual, and the cuttlefish had been coming late and slowly. And when they came, they had been much smaller than the average. The scientists watched, futilely, and took censuses, and waited to see what would happen. And wondered why the cuttlefish that came were so small.
That was 2011. In June of 2012, two things happened. BHP Billion won. The desalination plant is going ahead. Huzzah for Big Businesses. Huzzah.
But it may not matter one way or the other. This year, the cuttlefish did not come back. The numbers at the breeding ground were low last year, but nothing like low enough to affect species viability. The water conditions at the breeding ground have not changed. Whatever has happened happened out wherever the cuttlefish go when they do go, and it happened extremely enough that within two years, an entire submarine ecosystem may be gone forever.
And so, in a spirit of cargo cults and magical thinking, we’re going to have a week or so of cuttlefish: perhaps, if we wish hard enough, a critical concentration of photo and video will bring them back from wherever they have gone.
Given a large enough set of universes, nothing is impossible. They’re curious creatures, cuttlefish. Look at this one here – he found me, a long, dark-blue-neoprene-and aluminum-tank thing, floating a foot or so above the surface, and was moved enough not to run but to swim over to me and investigate. He came on and on and would have snatched the camera from my hands if I had let him.
Here’s to the Cuttlefish: