Wednesday 14 January 2015

Getting my sea legs...

On the 28th of December, I was picked up en route by the the skipper and crew of 'Climax,' a 63 foot cray boat that would take me down the D'Entrecasteaux Channel, past Bruny Island, Maatsuyker Island and into the great South West World Heritage region of Tasmania.

Randall, Matthew and Jacob berthed Climax alongside the jetty momentarily as all my gear was put on board, including myself and we were soon off waving Wags the Wonder Dog, my Dad and mainland Tasmania goodbye!

We motored down the Channel with the Cape Bruny Lighthouse passing to our left, Southport, Recherche and Whale Head to our right and then on into twilight to Maatsuyker Island, the home of Australia's southernmost lighthouse.

We anchored overnight, beginning with a 4am start the next morning for the first of many 'day shots'. Excited to be on board I was up at sparrow fart, keen to catch my first sunrise for the trip and see exactly what was happening up on deck and in the wheelhouse.

I think the boys were a bit surprised to see me up, but kindly greeted me good morning and introduced me to how they go about 'shooting the pots' (
as setting the cray pots is called in fishing lingo) for their first catch. It wasn't long before all 50 pots were out, buoys floating on the surface marking their positions for retrieval later in the morning. 

Shooting pots as the sun comes up


The sun poking its head over the horizon on Day 1 with Albatross

Being up before the sun is an experience not to be missed when at sea. As the light creeps across the sky and water, predictions of the weather for the day ahead and a good day's fishing are pondered. The skipper and deckhand's day begins early, with memories of sleep being well gone as the sun appears and the deck fills up with pots collected from the previous day's night shot.

The wonderful inky depths

Looking NNW back towards the Needles and Maatsuyker Island, the lighthouse is a tiny white speck in the right of the picture, half way up the hill

Looking back to the coast and watching the sleepy mist of morning lift and reveal headlands and islands, it was such a thrill to finally see, in the flesh, the wild and rugged south west coast of the World Heritage area. To be able to view this from the vantage point of the sea, looking back to land was very special. It made me think of European explorers and the artists on board these voyages of discovery. Thinking back to my reading on Matthew Flinders and having opportunity to see some of his original coastal elevations, charts and sketches, the accuracy of these documents is remarkable. He was such an accomplished chart maker that many of the maps we use today are virtually the same as the charts that he made when travelling around the coastline of southern Australia.


Moving around south of the Needles and Maatsuyker

We worked south of Maatsuyker and the Needles for the first shot of the day, having breakfast once all the pots were resting on the rocky bottom awaiting their crawlie visitors. In between pulling them again later in the morning Randall, Matthew and Jacob decided to take me for a bit of sight seeing, winding our way through the Needles, past the Maatsuyker lighthouse high on the cliff above and round to the the old jetty and tramway. The rocks and crags were littered with Australian Fur Seals (smelt long before being seen), birds and giant bull kelp.  At the old jetty we also saw a couple of Elephant Seals (initially mistaken for a lump of concrete until they moved), and some Leopard Seals - the first time I've seen these in the wild!

The lush green of the Needles in the morning light

Maatsuyker Lighthouse

Mewstone off in the distance

Amazing geology of the coast of Maatsuyker Island

An Australian Fur Seal coming to see what we were up to

We pulled the morning shot, with good results then passing fellow cray boats 'Teiva' and 'Annandale' headed out to Mewstone as the relative calm of the morning gave way to stronger winds, surface chop and a rising swell. This was where things started to get interesting with me finding out that Randall's choice of tea bag disagreed with me!

The Sisters, Flat Top to the left and Round Top to the right


Wind beginning to pick up Day 2

Mewstone up close on Day 2

The process of shooting pots is one based upon experience, trial and error and a fair degree of luck. Pots are shot at various depths, dependent upon the conditions. Decisions are made in reference to running of tides, swell, wind, water depth and deductions about suitable benthic terrain as observed using the depth sounder in conjunction with the visual soundings of the 3D mapping software and previous waypoints marked on the GPS plotter. Randall pointed out that years of diving have provided an additional multidimensional information store for him to draw upon when making decisions about where and where not to place pots. As he idly remarked, "you have to think like a crayfish," considering all the nooks and crannies within the rock structure and the potential hidey holes where they would most likely be. 

Working all around Tasmania's coast, not just the South West, Randall pointed out the differing conditions, tides and sea floor that make each area different in terms of how and where the pots are shot. The assistance of the echo sounder and mapping software provide invaluable additional information for making their placement as efficient and rewarding as possible. The intricacies of reading these visual iterations is not at first apparent to the untrained eye, nor their interpretive agency. Like any visual image the user needs to develop an understanding of the visual language being used, what it signifies and the method of notation. Watching over Randall's shoulder and asking questions, I slowly began to better understand what it was that I was observing and in turn how that information was used to make for a successful catch.

The 'all seeing eye' of the skipper when shooting pots


As you can see conditions picked up later in the day (Day 2) and my wobbly land lubbing legs (and stomach) were seriously put to the test. Staying out on deck in the fresh air was best, with the distractions of amazing scenery, beautiful Albatross and spectacular heaving seas keeping my thoughts away from the heaving going on in my tummy!

After shooting pots to be left overnight and picked up the next morning we found relatively calm anchorages in the lee of Mewstone and De Witt or 'Big Witch' as it's known by the fishermen. The slightly reduced pitch and roll gave my stomach a rest and meant that I was able to enjoy Matthew's great cooking and keep up my strength. The first few nights sleeping on the boat were a challenge with new noises and of course the rocking movement taking some getting used to. You would think that being rocked to sleep would be incredibly relaxing, but I guess it's some time since I've had that experience! Eventually this was to change, with my very last night on the boat, which was flat calm being incredibly strange after the constant movement of nearly two weeks!

The first few days of being on board the cray boat the dominant sensory experience was not visual (as stunning as this was), but more strongly felt via and through the body. So much so was this sensory experience that I was unable to draw until New Year's Day. The adjusting of my body to being at sea and being constantly reminded of my instability not only made me lose my stomach, but also my head in the fuzziness and fog of feeling seasick. It took all of my time and effort (and concentration) focusing on the problem at hand, which was attempting to gain control of an entirely uncontrollable situation. They say that only 1/3 of individual's have any success with medication and I've always thought that it was largely a mind over matter situation for those whose bodies are able to physically adjust to the constant heaving and rolling. Keeping food and water down is a challenge, but even more so is trying to battle the nausea head on by getting up on deck and not resorting only to lying in bed wishing it all away.

Considering the perseverance required to overcome seasickness actively (even when feeling exhausted and like you've been kicked in the guts repeatedly) has some similarity to the challenge of drawing I guess! It's also an orientation process via the body, not just the eyes.

A rather inquisitive (and opportunistic) Shy Albatross looking for a free feed

Success! Spent bait from the pot for lunch!

Pitch and roll!

By New Year's Day I was able to concentrate on something other than keeping my breakfast and dinner down, beginning making notes and drawings in my journal and observing the goings on. Inspired by historic elevation drawings and also the work of renowned Tasmanian artist Bea Maddock I tried my hand at some elevation drawings of my own. I became interested in the ever changing appearance of coastline, rocks and landforms, as we moved about shooting and collecting pots. Being able to see these forms from multiple viewpoints gave rise to quick drawings, noting our changing heading. 

Being on board a moving vessel while attempting to draw demonstrated the limitations of conventional maps to only show one dominant viewpoint and how misleading this type of representation can be. The dynamics of the changing environment and my position within it meant that I and my drawings were constantly on the move, necessitating a different approach. The drawing process began to focus on how quickly I could record what I was seeing and on the process of looking, making brief observations of the ship's compass to note our approximate heading. I wasn't so interested in exactly where we were in terms of latitude and longitude (as this was constantly changing), but more interested in and reliant upon the process of observing and using drawing as a translative process and tool to speak of my apparent (and brief) relation to landmarks.

This made me think of the use of the 3D mapping software in conjunction with the GPS plotter and echo sounder, which provides Randall with an interpretation of the immediate environment. The 3D mapping software provides an image, in bird's eye view, using tone and graduated colour to indicate a basic relief topography. The echo sounder creates an image on the vertical plane indicating water depth and using colour, revealing the varying density of the reflective surfaces which the echo is resonating off. Through experience Randall can differentiate between sand and rock, as well as being able to point out schools of fish and weedy areas. These screen images, combined with waypoints marked by the GPS plotter and his keen observation out the window to the sea, sky and land all come together to formulate a visual and cognitive map of the areas being worked, overlaid with the memory of prior shots adding to the richness of understanding.

It was most interesting within explanation of the usefulness of all this technology to hear Randall speak about how shooting pots was still largely a process of trial and error regardless. I was excited to know that the unknown was still actively at play within this process and that direct observation and embodied experience (gained from years of being at sea) were still crucial in the process. He did mention that if the plotter or 3D software happened to fail that they would head for home as it would be a waste of time. So, without a doubt the technology is a huge improvement in the guesswork, but not without the human input! 

I was even more interested to hear about the note books he used to keep (prior 3D mapping software and more sophisticated GPS plotter) recording the position of pots and their relative success or failure. Being able to see one of these precious notebooks on our way home was a real treat. Randall mentioned that he still refers to them, despite no longer keeping written records. These repositories hold valuable information, years of trial and error. Holding the collapsing book in my hands and carefully turning the pages to read the shorthand notes was like I'd found El Dorado! Here within the pages of this book, the lines of notation charted a search for the unknown. Jotted down were points of reference, subject to tides, currents and depths. I likened these notations to the buoys, marking the position of the pots, floating and drifting within the currents of a constantly moving body of knowledge. 

One day when we were all in the wheelhouse, in between shooting and pulling pots I jokingly asked how much my new found knowledge about the secrets of cray fishing successfully would  bring me back on the wharf in Hobart. I was interested to know how coveted a skipper's knowledge, experience and approach to shooting pots was, and how this was or wasn't shared with deckhands, who often change from one boat to another. Matthew and Randall (who have been working together since they started out as deckhands at 16), laughed and told me that there are stories of deckhands stealing longitude and latitude references, but this information alone isn't enough to guarantee success. 


The brewing South West

Round Top up close

Day 4 we worked around the Sisters, Flat Top and Round Top. I had success with keeping my breakfast and dinner down but those bloody tea bags kept doing it every time, or maybe it was just the way Randall made my tea....???? By the time we had finished the morning shot I'd got it together, donned all my wet weather gear, grabbed a charcoal pencil and my watercolour pad and planted myself firmly on deck sitting against the fo'c'sle. With butt cheeks clenched for traction I braved the waves and spray (getting washed over several times) and did some drawings in the thick of it. You can see some of this in the video below. There's about 2 hours of filming condensed into 14 mins, making Matthew and Jacob look a bit like scurrying ants as they work pulling pots. You can get a sense of the movement of the boat and how agile and deft they are at moving around the deck, carrying pots, hauling in and going about their work. For me, just trying to stay relatively steady on deck meant moving from one fixed object to another by way of hand holds with drunken staggers in between. The boys make it look easy! You can also see how expertly Randall handles the boat around rocks and shore in rolling swell. 15+ years experience skippering and before that 10 years as a deckhand offering a depth of knowledge and skill that make executing a potentially dangerous and difficult job appear to be as simple as walking down the street!

Check out the boys at work and me drawing on deck here the boys at work

Moving around Round Top

South West Cape Day 4

After a good day's catch around the Sisters we headed west for South West Cape for the remainder of the day and a night shot in closer to shore. By this time I had well and truly overcome the seasickness and was thoroughly enjoying everything that was to be seen and experienced on board. I watched closely as Randall shot pots, looking between depth sounder, 3D map of the ocean floor and drawing upon 25+ years of experience reading conditions. 

Some of the interesting critters brought to the surface in the pots

These crabs do all their own self styling, adding seaweed and algae to their shells

The hermit crabs were real characters

Check out a video of this little guy here Hermit Crab Crawl

Pulling up the pots

Red fish! The best ones!!

Coastline near Wilson Rocks
Early evening looking back towards South West Cape


As the weather fined up and we had days of clear bright sunshine rather than overcast and haze, I was able to pull out the sextant and have a go at taking fixes from the Meridian Passage of the sun and calculate our position. Trying to take fixes as the boys were pulling pots I had mixed success because we were constantly moving around and then I discovered that I'd printed off the wrong Nautical Almanac for making my calculations. Regardless of this I was able to practice my use of the sextant and show Matthew how to do it. Nothing like having to show someone else how to do it to make sure you have learnt it properly yourself!

More hitchhikers from the pots

A juvenile King Crab

January 6th brought us our finest day out on the water and also the least successful in terms of fish. Randall mentioned that the crays are not nearly as likely to be crawling when the weather becomes calm, apparently they like the rougher conditions, probably something to do with making for easier pickings when things are more stirred up. Again this is entirely dependent upon water depth however, with them also not running when it gets too rough in shallower depths.

Despite there not being quite as many crays in the pots there were other visitors which made being out on deck a bit of a lucky dip as each pot came to the surface. The above image shows a series of salps. These translucent tunicates float around joined at the hip in long chains filter feeding as they go. They frequently have hitchhikers in their hollow barrel like bodies. In the image you can see small flashes of orange which are in fact shrimps hitching a free ride and making the most of the ready made food supply.

You can find out more about these amazing jelly-like sea creatures here

The sun coming up as we approach Maatsuyker Island and the Needles from the west

Making for a 'ship shape' vessel, even the skipper is out with his boots and broom!
As the day developed things became calmer and while waiting for the results of our day shot Randall, Matthew and Jacob took to the decks with scrubbing brush and hose. While out on deck we also observed pools of krill, like red clouds in the turquoise with silvery flashes of schooling bait fish below, making the most of the free feed on offer.

Krill near the surface with a school of bait fish taking full advantage underneath

Passing through the Needles

The last view of Maatsuyker and its lighthouse as we head for Pedra Branca
After the deck scrubbing and a bit of Jacques Cousteau inspired underwater filming of the schooling bait fish Randall and co. decided to take me out to Pedra Branca and try our luck there with the additional draw of trying my hand at Stripey fishing. Striped Trumpeter, as I was told are one of Tasmania's best eating deep sea fish. Earlier on in the trip I had the pleasure of tasting these white fleshed beauties and they are indeed very good eating. Randall scoffed somewhat as I initially made comparison to the more familiar South Australian Snapper, but after an expertly cooked fillet from Matthew I became much better educated on the topic!

Pedra Branca is a large outcrop of rock 16 nautical miles (approx 23 kilometres) off South East Cape, named by Abel Tasman and meaning "white rock" in Portuguese. It is believed that he named this after Pedra Branca in the South China Sea. As you can see from the picture below it is indeed encrusted with a white icing of guano and supports an incredibly diverse ecosystem both above and below the water's surface. It took us a good three hours to motor here from Maatsuyker, arriving as the sun was beginning to set behind us in the west.

Approaching Pedra Branca as the sun sets

Looking back to the west from whence we came

Pedra Branca with the sun setting behind

The usual 3am start began by pulling up the previous day's night shot with a surprisingly good haul. As Randall pointed out Pedra is often a real mixed bag in terms of success and many boats don't work there because of the distance off shore and the swiftly changing nature of the weather in the South, meaning that conditions can change for the worse very quickly. We were lucky both with the weather and the fish! In one of the pots we also had an eight legged visitor who had been happily munching on cray legs overnight until we rudely pulled him up to the surface.

Last day pulling and shooting pots,  Mr Octopus arriving for breakfast

Another passenger

Gurnard - my fishing effort, alas the Stripeys weren't biting!
Once the pots were re-shot it was time for some serious Stripey fishing. Randall and Matthew pulled out two of the biggest fishing reels I have ever seen and attached them to the side, introducing me to my first deep sea fishing experience. Randall gave instruction on how to hook these tasty beauties and how not to get a tangle - I should have paid a bit more attention to that part as not long after I did exactly the thing he showed me not to! Ho hum! Fortunately for me Randall is a patient man and happily untangled my line - probably not the first time he's had to do that I'm guessing....

Well, I did manage to catch something...two Gurnard, apparently good eating (when they're big enough) and delightful with their orange tiger stripes and spikes to keep unassuming fingers away from. Oh, and then there was the seven gill shark and Randall's line simultaneously! Fortunately for the shark (which I think was the same one that Randall had hooked about half an hour earlier) it happily swam away after giving a lovely display of its grey spotted back up at the surface. So, I can kind of say I caught a shark, can't I...???

Unfortunately the Stripey's weren't biting and other than Randall catching one as the rest of us ate breakfast at the start of the day, they remained elusive. My Stripey fishing prowess will have to wait for another day, but as the bumper sticker says, "a bad day's fishing is still better than a good day at work!"

We pulled the pots for the last time revealing another good catch of Pedra crawlies and then reluctantly departed, heading for the Channel, Woodbridge jetty and the fish truck to unload our precious cargo first thing next morning. Sea fog crept in and made for an eerie and reflective mood as we all found our spots in the wheelhouse, cracked a few coldies and yarned about the life of fishermen in the great South West!

Arriving at our anchorage of Partridge Island a few hours later we had a huge feed (yes, crayfish was on the menu) and continued our banter in the strange calm of the Channel. I went to bed feeling happy, full and also a bit sad that my adventure would soon be over with the coming of the new day.

See some of the trip back to the Channel in the sea fog here

Back in the D'Entrecasteaux Channel heading back to Woodbridge to unload our catch
I was up early again to make the most of my last sunrise on board. I brushed my teeth for the last time on deck, looking out thinking that bathroom scenery at home just wasn't going to cut it after this. In the glassy conditions we approached Woodbridge awaiting the arrival of the fish truck at 7am.

The view when brushing my teeth up on deck

Unloading the catch

The wonderful skipper, crew and wannabe deckhand!
As we waited for the fish truck and I watched them unload the catch it became readily apparent that life back on land was going to be a slight adjustment process, even after only just a couple weeks at sea. Having to check emails, answer the telephone and reconnect just seemed to be a bit of a drag after my days on board. Leaving my new friends was bittersweet and I felt disoriented heading for home in the car. I guess I was a bit land sick, the fuzzy head returned for the first day as I reacquainted myself with immobile terrain. How strange!

The thing you eventually find exhilarating being at sea is the pitch and roll and being buffeted by the wind and spray, the rougher the better! It's a glorious feeling when you can finally enjoy and embrace the rough conditions once your inner ear and stomach have settled. It has always made me feel a little invincible, after being sorely reminded at the beginning of a trip of being anything but stoic or staunch when bent over the side conversing with the fish.

"It is not a mild thing, this love of the sea. It is not the passing thought that the ocean looks pleasant enough when you see it lying like a great tin plate, catching the drips of the sunset you are watching. It can be fierce. With it comes a certain restlessness of spirit, a feeling of something big and heaving inside your chest. When you have it, there is nothing that can be done to get rid of it."
                                                              - The Alphabet of Light and Dark,  Danielle Wood

Waking up each morning to see the sunrise and wonder at what the day's weather will bring is a wonderful way of being presently aware. I will miss brushing my teeth on deck, looking out to sea and sky as well as the adventure of going below to use the heads - pump in, pump out and hold on! Most of all I will miss the opportunity to be immersed in and aware of my surroundings, not just in a visual sense as a passive observer, but as an active agent, embodied and embedded (albeit on wobbly legs) dealing with and responding to the constant pitch and roll of the world around me.

I can't thank Randall, Matthew and Jacob enough for their warm hospitality, generosity, good humour and easy company. It was a privilege to see their world and experience life on a fishing boat in one of the world's most remarkable and breathtaking regions. As I said to Randall on our last night shot watching the sun go down behind Pedra Branca, "well if you have to be in the office at 9:30 at night, this is certainly the office I'd like to be in!"

The sea has always told tales of the sacred and the strange
It reveals, conceals and silences in its inky depths

Mysteries, myths, tales of woe and wonder lurk beneath her glistening breach
Stories written in the waves, tides and currents
Swept along, winds whisper secrets across her rippling yaw

Past capes of desolation, despair and disaster
Bays of hope and arrival, harbouring castaways, old salts, drifting souls
The flotsam and jetsam of life

All caught in the steady running tide
They find themselves stranded upon unspoken shores 
The sediments of time

Cronies of crusted barnacle and claw 
Baiting deceptive smooth seas from the menacing depths
Awaiting the squint weary skipper to fall into reach

Dragged beneath, fathomless depths
Beyond the light of safekeeping and steer
Ribs touch gently, beds of sleep

Kelpies wailing their silent chorus 
Echoed above, swathed in black net shawls and bonnets of loss
The grey hand sweeps in to still their song and blanket murmuring seeps

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