In search of the sea dragons

 

 

In Victoria’s Port Phillip Bay, David Whitley goes looking for some very weird fish

The mercury may be well over the 40 degree mark, but Jacqui insists we put on the wetsuits. “The water in the bay is about 19 degrees and, trust me, you’ll feel it.”

The Great Barrier Reef may be Australia’s conventional snorkelling hotspot, but the stretch of Port Phillip Bay just off Portsea’s beach has something that Queensland can’t rustle up. It is home to a small colony of phyllopteryx taeniolatus – more colloquially known as the weedy sea dragon. Cousins of the seahorse, these little fellas grow to about 40cm long and look about as bizarre as it’s possible for a fish to get.

Through the wonders of evolution, they’ve developed things that aren’t quite polyps, aren’t quite fins and aren’t quite humps. Whatever they are, they protrude from the body, cunningly making them look like seaweed.

Subsequently, they can be rather hard to spot, even when you’re floating above them, keeping an intent lookout.

From the beach, we swim over to the buoy that marks the outer edge of the mini-marina. A small reef lined with luxuriant eel grass makes this area a prime habitat for all manner of temperate weather-loving fish, and a fair few stingrays that hang out on the bottom minding their own business.

The secret to spotting the weedy sea dragons, we’re told, is to stay still and just fix your gaze on a patch of grass. They’re most easily seen when they move across a patch that’s otherwise staying still.

And it’s using this technique that one’s cover is blown. It uses its slender body in a wave-like motion, gently gliding above the seabed.

From the top, they look entirely black, but duck down and it’s possible to see the vivid pinks and yellows that make up their bodies.

But these are not mighty dragons. In fact, they’re extraordinary weak – and hopeless swimmers. They can’t fight swells as waves come into the beach and are helplessly pushed along by them. That’s why they seek peaceful, secluded spots to live in.

Portsea, historically, has been one such spot. But a decision to dredge parts of the bay a few years ago has had character-changing effects. Now surf occasionally gets up, hitting the shore much harder than it once did.

This means its eroding much faster than it once did, and walls of sandbags are piled up alongside the slowly-shrinking beach. There are fears over the future of the village pub, which sits on top of a hillock right above the sea.

 

But the sea dragons may be in trouble too. Jacqui Younger, who guides the snorkelling tours for Bayplay Adventures. “If we’re honest, we don’t know what will happen to them. But the dredging has not been a good thing for Portsea.”

We finish off by swimming over to the pier, where seemingly hundreds of children are jumping off - partly to keep cool and partly to show off to their friends. Under the pier, crabs run up the wooden support poles and shoals of puffer fish flock around them like intimidatory gangs. But Jacqui spots what she’s been after.

“Here he is,” she says. “It’s the last one.” The dragon has some caviar-like blobs on its back.

“They’re eggs, and this is the only one that is still carrying them this season. The female will lay them on his back, and he’s the one that looks after them.”

Hopefully, when they do hatch, they manage to find a way to beat the ever larger waves.

 

 

Disclosure: David was a guest of Tourism Australia and Tourism Victoria

Picture credit 12

Handily, you can get Melbourne included as a stopover (plus get another 9 around the world) on a Navigator RTW We also love Australia (Go Aussies!) and sell very well priced breaks in Victoria

by David Whitley