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Underwater at Daintree, Queensland

by David Yendall

Reproduced from in focus 47 (March 1993)


My first serious attempt at underwater photography took place recently in a freshwater creek flowing through the Daintree rainforest in north Queensland. This region, remarkable both for its natural beauty and outstanding diversity of plant and animal life, was recently under threat from local and State Government (both of whom wanted it opened up for logging). However, it is now protected by inclusion in UNESCO's World Heritage List. Unfortunately this came too late to prevent construction of the infamous road from Cape Tribulation to Bloomfield.

The Daintree/Cape Tribulation area is notable as one of the three places on earth where the normally mutually-exclusive zones of tropical rainforest and coral reef actually meet. Opponents of the dirt road thought that its presence would result in sediment being swept by heavy rains into the sea, thereby choking coral polyps on the fringing reefs. As it was Stinger Season (Box Jellyfish, Chironex fleckeri) and Saltwater Crocodiles were cruising from creek to creek, nobody_was out swimming, so I thought it prudent not to investigate too closely myself. Several local residents informed me that the offshore coral was now either dying or already dead. My Nikonos V and Morris Aqua F3 flashgun were christened in a creek surrounded by majestic forest giants, Fan Palms, Stinging Trees and dense thickets of wickedly spiny Calamus (a climbing palm with many names, mostly unprintable), Fruit bats dozed languidly in a tree over the water, and cassowaries had been seen in the area.


The sluggish water was very clear. A small footbridge spanned the creek, and from this I was able to attract - with the aid of bread crumbs -a faithful following of local fishes together with a number of Water Tortoises. These came in all sizes, ranging from tiny and exquisite juveniles to venerable grand tortoises. I later discovered that both tortoises and fish could be summoned readily simply by slapping my hand on the water's surface. The tortoises (Elseya latisternum), or turtles as many people insist on calling them, often came within reach of the probes of my Ocean Optics close-up lens, but would invariably scoot away before I could react. Initially I took pictures by simple submerging the gear whilst I lay on the bridge. This was effective with some species, such as gudgeon, beautiful orange fish that would nibble my fingers and nuzzle the probes and lens, so much that at times they were a positive nuisance. The close-up lens worked well, though it had a tendency to grip my ancient 35 mm Nikkor lens none too well. Luring other species within reach of the probes proved difficult, and only once did I succeed in getting close to the Jungle Perch (Kuhlia pupestris). These attractive large-scaled fish with two black spots each side of the tail were always around but shy, despite their apparent tameness. One large and fiercely territorial individual was inordinately fond of muesli bars. Experiments with Ocean Optics extension tubes were not a success, as I could not persuade anything other than gudgeon to come close enough. Lying on the bridge was very uncomfortable, so eventually I entered the water. At first I stirred up the bottom pretty badly, but after a few minutes the almost imperceptible current swept the sediment downstream, so as long as I faced upstream into the current I could always enjoy clear visibility. The bottom varied too, with murk-producing mounds of decaying vegetation in some places, and good sand in others. The tortoises, alas, resolutely refused to come within focal distance whilst I was immersed, but schools of ferocious-looking Tarpon or Ox-eye Herring (Megalops cyprinoides) did. Despite their menacing aura (they looked as if they felt they owned the waterway) they would not come really close.


Another inhabitant of the creek was the Eel-tailed Catfish and although there are supposed to be many species in Australian freshwater, I saw them only occasionally. Guessing distance with a 35 mm lens was a real headache, so I fashioned a measuring rod from a sapling, which floating on the surface drifted away so slowly that I usually had an accurate gauge ready to hand. Mosquitoes were an added distraction. Even whilst almost totally submerged, they would pay keen attention to the back of my neck. The locally recommended repellent (a cream so powerful that local bush walkers would not use it on account of its alleged carcinogenic properties) did not deter them.


One problem with my otherwise excellent Morris F3 showed itself after the first session. The battery compartment leaked! At first this was not serious, just a slight dampness around the batteries that was easily wiped away. Certainly the unit continued to function underwater, but I could not locate the source of the leak. I dismantled the battery compartment, greased every conceivable place, and still the water came in. On one occasion it jammed so tight that my attempts to get it unscrewed resulted in a badly blistered finger. I thought I had the problem licked when I sealed the tightening screw with blue tack and entered saltwater with it for the first time. After a delightful day spent diving around a fish-rich bommie near Snapper Island (guaranteed croc-free), I opened the flashgun to discover to my horror that the battery and contacts were corroded. The manager of an underwater photographic store in Cairns subsequently pinpointed some minute hair line cracks in the battery compartment cover, but I could barely see them and await verification. His suggestion was to araldite it all over. The fringing reefs at Cape Tribulation are said to be dead in places. At low tide, beside the beautiful sandy beaches, the remnants of an old and very worn reef are exposed. Sea kayaks may be hired at the Cape to explore further, but rough weather intervened whenever I tried to do so. Good diving may be enjoyed off Snapper Island, where my last attempt to get my Morris to behave resulted in its watery demise. Camping is allowed on this island, where ready access to colourful corals and giant clams in shallow water is had simply by crossing the dead white coral fragments on the beach. Next time I shall be equipped with a lycra body-suit to frustrate the Box Jellyfish.

Reproduced from in focus 47. Mar. 93

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