Sunday 20 December 2015

Climbing aboard Climax once again with Randall, Matthew and Jacob I embarked upon another trip on the boat, this time as a fisheries observer to tag, measure and record crays. We began with an unexpectedly short trip to open the season, catching just over 2 tonne in 4 days. Returning to offload, the weather held us at bay before venturing to the much anticipated Port Davey region to complete the translocation of 60,000 crayfish.

The Southern Rock Lobster season opened on the 15th of November. Pots can be ‘shot’ from 1pm on the 14th, ready to be pulled from 12:00am on the 15th.  So, we departed from Hobart on Friday the 13th – no fishy superstitions here, headed for South West Cape. Randall mentioned that it’s important to get down to the south-west fishing grounds early, to get in a good position for shooting pots before every other skipper and his dog do so. This year, the season opened with restrictions all along the east coast due to a toxic algal bloom. This closure meant that potentially there would be more boats heading south to begin the 2015-16 season, fishermen being forced to work southern areas that they would not normally because of restrictions on their home grounds.

We motored down the Channel for Margate, stopping briefly to put on bait and the pots, which had been on autumn ‘holiday’ in the fish buyer’s shed. After our last trip to Flinders Island in August, the decks had been cleared for maintenance over the ‘break’ – a mammoth job of replacing fuel tanks, then re-fibre glassing the decks. With pots back on board and a flash new ‘Research’ flag flying up front (indicating this very important person’s presence on the boat!), we continued on south. I had my first taste of driving the boat, with Randall handing over the helm to track down the channel, into Margate (minus the berthing part) and then back out and continuing down past the Actaeons. Using the plotter and a previous track mark on the 3D mapper I kept a good course, staying well clear of salmon cages, rocks and other hazards, getting a feel for driving the boat in calm conditions. Later I turned the autopilot on, sitting back, but still keeping an eye out for other vessels and unexpected obstacles until Randall took over after dinner.

We motored on through the night, passing Whale Head light, rounding South East Cape and into a slightly larger swell, which tested my stomach and resolve. I was relieved to come into anchor in the lee of De Witt for the night – hoping that my stomach would ease back into the maritime motion gradually, without dire consequences.

We had a sleep-in the next morning, a leisurely wake up at 9am to continue on to South West Cape, ready to begin shooting the pots from 1pm. Conditions were not particularly bad, but my stomach was suffering and that fuzzy headed feeling returned after my several months ashore. I spent some time hanging out the back and occasionally over the side as the boys shot the pots. We came into Karamu Bay to anchor, which rested my stomach, enough to get some dinner down and then retire to bed.

Saturday morning we started at the usual 3am, in the dark. Despite feeling very average I got myself ready with calipers, tagging gun and recording sheets, setting up my ‘office’ out on the back deck, behind the wheelhouse, ready to survey the two research pots and all of their contents. The Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies grant two extra ‘research’ pots to the 50 pot limit per vessel on the proviso that catch information is recorded for these. These particular pots have the usual escape gaps closed so that anything that enters the pot and doesn’t climb back out through the neck is captured. Usually, skipper and deckhands record this information and supply it at the end of the trip to the scientists to add to their data collection. On this occasion, with me on board as an official field observer, it became my job to measure, record and also tag the specimens.

As each research pot came to the surface, the contents were placed in a separate fish bin and I took it round the back to measure, sex, tag and record every cray, making notes about colour, by-catch, location and the weather conditions. Each individual is measured along the carapace with size specimens set aside to be placed in the holding tank, while undersize specimens have their sex and size recorded, along with a small tag attached and then they are returned to the water. All of this information contributes to the sustainable management of the fishery. 

We completed three shots for the day with surprisingly good numbers caught and then anchored again in Karamu Bay for the night. Sunday came, with my seasickness worsening – it was a very long day! I managed to keep tagging and recording in between bouts of hanging over the side, even keeping water down became impossible.  I curled up on the back deck, feeling like death, with the hope that laying flat and closing my eyes would bring some relief. It was either that or the bitter cold, but I managed to get through the day, just.

Seasickness really takes it out of you, by the end of the day I was completely exhausted and welcomed my bed as soon as dinner was over. I don’t think I stirred at all that night, until the 3am wake up to do it all over again. Monday morning brought calmer weather and I hoped it would be my ‘turn the corner’ day where my body would adjust to the motion without the uncomfortable side effects. It did turn out to be a much better day stomach wise, and my spirits rose as the day drew on.

Telopea Point

In the calm conditions Randall gave me a go at driving the boat while pulling pots. What may seem like a relatively straightforward thing to do, is in fact quite complicated, with many things to be aware of and I was nervous! You have to consider currents, swell direction and the wave action to approach the buoys from the correct direction, idling up alongside so that they can be grappled in over the side and pulled up and into the hauler. You have to keep an eye on the plotter to make sure that the boat ends up right over the top of the pot, while also being aware of other buoys in the water nearby so as not to drive over any lines and foul the propeller. While this is happening you have to operate the hauler, paying attention to speed, tension and the arrival of the pot out of the water, while remembering to reduce revs, and put the engine in neutral. The hauler has to be controlled so as not to pull too quickly causing the buoys to be flung at speed up and over the horns and usually into the poor deckhand’s face – sorry Jacob! You also have to make sure the toggles that attach the buoys to the line of the pot don’t jam in the hauler and then when the pot comes up that you stop the pot and provide enough slack so that it can be rocked up over the gunnels and placed on the deck to be sorted. It’s a bit like learning to drive a manual car for the first time. Randall assured me that with practice it all becomes automatic. I didn’t run over any buoys, thank god, but Jacob and Matthew did have to dodge a couple airborne missiles! Practice makes perfect…?

Working around South West Cape the weather was outstanding on Tuesday, with clear sunshine and barely a breath of wind. Catch rates were extremely good and I was kept busy with my research pots and in between helped to re-bait pots. With a clear head and no thought of being sick, I had an awesome day out on deck. We saw several large pods of porpoises cruise pass, numbering 50 or so in each pod, as well as Shy Albatross, the occasional Sooty Albatross and Fairy Prions. We moved around pulling and shooting pots, which provided spectacular views of Wilson’s Bight, Telopea Point and Mount Karamu. Jellies of various kinds were clearly visible over the side as we slid through the amazing emerald green waters below.

Looking to South West Cape in beautiful conditions

Wednesday morning brought a change in the weather with an increase in wind, rain squalls and larger swells. It’s amazing how quickly the weather changes, from bright sunshine and barely a breath, to blustery and wet conditions. The mountains became shrouded in low lying cloud and haze, making for a much moodier, sultry day out on the water. Inside, in the galley at breakfast, Matthew had some unexpected conditions to deal with also, with the microwave dying! As you can probably imagine, space is at a premium on a boat and you have to be resourceful cooking wise, to prepare meals for four people in a space the size of a small closet! This means that ovens and your usual kitchen whizz bangs are often absent. On Climax Matthew cooks for us all with an electric frying pan, a small twin electric hotplate, microwave, deep fryer, rice cooker and one of those glass bowl convection ovens, stowed under the table where we eat. The microwave is an important tool for quickly heating things up for hungry and impatient stomachs, so its unexpected demise brought on discussions about what the dinner menu would be without it. Crayfish mornay was decided upon – the one pot recipe being ideal – ah the hardship!!!!

Grey and moody, but beautiful none the less

Another amazing day saw our tanks full and the decision to head for home to unload and see what the market price was fetching for our precious catch.  We motored back between De Witt and Maatsuyker with a huge pod of porpoises again, many riding the bow wave. Hanging over the rail at the bow I could clearly hear them clicking and buzzing their sonar calls to each other, and then I became curiously observed as many periodically turned on their sides to eye ball the stranger above.



We arrived in Margate early (3:30am) the next morning and tied up to the wharf, awaiting 
the fish truck to unload our catch at 6am. It was a busy morning at the wharf with a couple other cray boats and an abalone boat, all waiting to unload. Our trucks arrived and jostled for a spot on the jetty unloading a colourful array of plastic bins being stacked up on the wharf, ready to be filled and weighed.

All hands were on deck to unload and soon all tanks were empty, lids were back on and the trucks off to the factory. With a slightly disappointing $70 per kilo, the decision was made to have a couple days rest at home, then to head off, this time for Port Davey to complete the translocation work, bide some time, and hope for the price to rise before Christmas.

Our ‘few days’ at home turned into a week as we sat out some VERY rough weather. 8m swells, and gusts up to 85km/hr kept Climax tied up to the wharf and me in the garden, doing some much needed weeding and tidying. The following Friday we were off again, me super excited to finally be making my way to Port Davey. The boat was replenished with MORE food and my customary baked offerings to keep us going!

We once again motored down the Channel, protected from the worst of the raging weather that had been pummelling the southwest for the past week.  Late in the day we passed Recherche Bay, heading for our overnight anchorage at Mouldy Hole.

Passing Recherche, Randall noticed a group of Gannets furiously feeding over a patch of
water, so with two flaps of a crayfish’s tail the reel was out, attached to the back rail and a lure was cast over the side for a momentary diversion to see if there was anything biting about. For some reason it was me who ended up out in the (bloody cold) wind with my hand on the line, anticipating the bite of a hungry barracouda. Two anxious faces peered out from the warm sanctuary of the wheelhouse, asking if I could feel anything.  After going round in circles again, again, and again, by which time they’d decided a cuppa was a better bet, the line was reeled in and we continued on just a bit further south to our spot for the night. We had dinner and discussed our departure the next morning with the promise of the wind dropping out over night, making for a more comfortable passage across to South West Cape.



We motored on early the next morning, making out the light at Whale Head and continuing on past De Witt, rounding South West Cape and then to our overnight anchorage in the lee of Mutton Bird Island, south of Port Davey. We worked around this area and the East Pyramids for a couple days, anchoring back in the lee of Mutton Bird and Wendar Islands, before heading into Port Davey itself and Saddle Bight for a couple more overnight anchorages.

Dec 1st, the first day of summer started out with a 1-1.5m swell and light winds. By 2pm the wind had picked up to 20-30 knots and blew all afternoon, finishing off with a hail storm as we motored into Rough Bay to translocate the day’s catch at 5:45pm. We anchored again in Saddle Bight with Southern Leader overnight, and again on the 2nd and 3rd. We then moved north and worked West Pyramid for a couple days. I began to think that I was in Pirates of the Caribbean as the weather improved, with winds dropping and the sunshine emerging from the grey sultry clouds of the days prior. The boys thought this was a bit funny - they still think I’m a weirdo for getting all excited and raving about how beautiful and breathtaking it all is. 


West Pyramid is a jagged wedge of rock, breaching the surface with a lush covering of green over its point. As you round it from the northwest, a small sheltered cave is revealed, tucked away, out of sight, only appearing when in close. It was here that we edged in to the rocks to return another day’s catch to the water and I marvelled at its rugged beauty. With extremely light winds we anchored off the southern end of West Pyramid for the night, with me going to bed to dream of pirates and secret treasure………. if only! After my days of measuring, tagging and counting crays, I’m pretty sure that was what I was doing in my sleep. Who said counting sheep was best at bedtime?


Sugarloaf Rock and Wendar Island to the left

Our last day was an absolute cracker! We were out in the dazzling sunshine, with sunscreen and hats on and jumpers off! The day passed with visits from three whales. I perched myself up on top of the wheelhouse with binoculars watching a (Humpback?) mother and calf having a wonderful time slapping their flippers on the surface. This went on for over an hour as we worked off in the distance pulling and shooting pots. As the sun began to set we motored into Island Bay, just north of Window Pane Bay. This was a beautifully rugged series of small coves with some small offshore islands. I was very tempted to jump over the side and swim into shore to take a look around while we waited for dinner. Apparently the gulches and rock pools are teeming with crays that can be readily caught with an onion bag, filled with bait on a rope and then tossed in. The crays emerge for a feed and can be caught with a dab net. I tell you, if I’d had my wetsuit, there would have been no hesitation!

Island Bay

Matthew prepared my favourite for dinner – roast lamb!!! Yum! It was the perfect way to end the perfect day, watching the sun set as we motored back out to pull our last shot for the trip. We pulled the last pot at 10:30pm, filling the tanks with the last crays to be relocated on the trip home. I went to bed, awakening to the horn being promptly blown (several times more than necessary) by Matthew, urging us to get out of bed at 4:30am, to drop off the last lot of crawlies, over the side at Whale Head. Once they were all back in the water, we continued up the Channel for the 6 hour trip back to Hobart, and the end of another amazing couple of weeks at sea. 

Sunset before our last shot for the trip

Again, I had mixed feelings about returning to life on land. I could have quite happily stayed around at Port Davey, wondering at its prehistoric splendour and majesty and all those usual overladen adjective ridden descriptions. This trip was different though. Not just the scenery, but the way I felt about being out there. Perhaps it was because there was less time for me to swan about on deck, instead, being busy with tagging and measuring. Or perhaps it was something about finally easing myself more into the environment on its terms.

Motoring out to pull our last shot for the trip

I didn’t draw nearly as much this trip, even when I had spare time and opportunity to do so. I often just found myself sitting and gazing out as we moved about. I felt content just to sit and be, rather than always feeling this urgent need to capture and record everything before it was lost to me. Am I becoming complacent, the fresh wash of the unseen and newly experienced encounters diminishing as I make repeat trips? I know the boat now. I know what to expect and the routine of day to day. I fall into the rhythm, pitch and roll easily, albeit still with occasions of hanging over the side, but mostly I am comfortable, with those around me, and my surroundings. I know it amuses the boys to see me marvel at what they know so well and what to them is normal. But, I also see that they enjoy being able to share their everyday and that perhaps deep down, under the layers of years spent in this watery world that it still delights them too, with some of the same wonder that new eyes bring. I can’t help myself, I always get excited seeing seals and porpoises over the side and I occasionally see that excitement bubble to the surface in the boys, like when the fishing rods and reels are eagerly pulled out for a spot of ‘leisurely’ fishing in between work. I don’t want the time to come where it all becomes boringly normal, so much so that I no longer notice the amazing in the everyday. I don’t want familiarity to blind me, because it is those small things that are enormously important in reminding me that I do indeed live in an incredible world, with remarkable individuals whose lives I am privileged to share.

North Head

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