Wednesday 14 April 2010

In Search of the Elusive LSD

OK, now that I have got everyone's attention with the mention of LSD, I should probably own up to the fact that this post has got absolutely nothing to do with the hallucinogenic drug lysergic acid diethylamide. However, the subject is still rather mind blowingly amazing, and you may even think that you have been indulging in some recreational medicinal substance when you gaze upon its awesomeness, dude!

So, as promised in my previous post, let me reintroduce to you all the leafy sea dragon. This post was originally written a few years ago as a magazine article for Diver magazine. Since it was written for the general public, my language may be a little less colourful than usual. Well, I used my real name, didn't I, so I had to behave.

When one thinks of diving in Australia, most people conjure up images of the Great Barrier Reef, or perhaps a few of us might think of the magnificent whale sharks of Ningaloo Reef. Most of us, however, do not think about diving in the cold waters of South Australia, if only because of fear of the great white shark (of course, for some that might be an excellent reason to dive there). When Mr. DBM and I arrived, rather unexpectedly, in South Australia a few years ago, we had not entertained the idea of diving there. Nevertheless, we are divers at heart, and when we walked passed a dive shop in Adelaide, we were drawn in, like bees to honey. There, on the wall, was a photograph of one of the most beautiful and bizarre creatures I have ever seen: the leafy sea dragon. We wasted no time in quizzing the shop owner on where these incredible creatures could be found and whether there was a remote chance of us seeing them. It turns out that, although in global terms they are rare, locally, at one particular dive site, they are as common as goldfish at a county fair.

The dive site that we were directed to was Rapid Bay. This is located on the Fleurieu Peninsula, an hour’s drive south of Adelaide. The drive down takes you through scenic rolling hills and the vineyards of the McLaren Vale. The coastline is dotted with beautiful sandy beaches where many Adelaide residents spend their summer weekends swimming and surfing. At the tip of the peninsula is Cape Jervis, the departure point for the ferry heading to Kangaroo Island. This is a top destination for tourists in this region, with stunning coastal scenery and abundant Australian wildlife.

We drove down the peninsula the night before our planned dive, camping at a charming campground in Deep Creek Conservation Park. Early the next morning we headed off to the dive site, already wondering whether we would get to see these almost mythical creatures. We arrived at the site to be confronted by a frighteningly long pier. As we geared up, we dreaded the long hike to the end of the pier and contemplated how we were going to enter the water once we got there. As it turned out, the hike was quite long, but there was a ladder at the end of the pier, allowing a fairly easy entry. When we hit the water, we shuddered, shivered and longed for our drysuits. The water really wasn’t all that cold, but if you are a warm water wimp, a drysuit would be nice.

As we descended, the first thing that struck me was how blue the water was. We are used to diving the cold, green waters off the coast of British Columbia and it seemed very peculiar to be surrounded by blue water. We headed under the pier to encounter large shoals of fish taking shelter amid the crowding pier supports. Shafts of sunlight penetrated the gloom, providing wonderful backlighting to the schools of old wives, fusiliers and bullseyes, which floated before our eyes, in no hurry to go anywhere or do anything. The pier supports themselves were crowded with life. Colourful encrusting sponges vied for space with colonial and solitary tunicates and filter feeding crustaceans and bryozoans. Well-camouflaged nudibranchs and starfish hid and fed amongst these pier dwellers. At the base of the piers, crabs could be seen scuttling over the silty sea floor as morwang and boarfish glided between the pillars higher up. Despite this wealth of life, there were no leafy sea dragons to be seen. Was this due to their superb camouflage and our inability to spot them, or were they just not there? As our dive lengthened, I started poking every bit of seaweed and eelgrass that I could find, still hoping to spot the elusive LSD, but to no avail. Eventually, we had to surface and haul our weary bodies back down the distressingly long pier to our car.

This would be a rather sad little tale if we never encountered the leafy creatures we had tried so hard to find. Not to be deterred, we decided to enrol some professional help. We hired two local divemasters from Adelaide Scuba, a great dive store just south of Adelaide. The divemasters came with no guarantee, but it would certainly improve our chances of spotting the dragon. Back to Rapid Bay and another long hike to the end of the pier. This time after dropping in to the water and heading under the pier, the object of our search became reality. Within a few minutes of starting the dive, I saw a leafy sea dragon floating along, just off the ground between the piers. I was overcome with excitement. I squealed like a pig and shouted through my regulator at my husband, pointing frantically at the fish that was going no where in a hurry. It was one of the most amazing animals that I have ever seen. It is basically a sea horse, but it is camouflaged to look like seaweed. The yellowy green and brown body is covered with plate-like appendages that mimic the fronds of brown seaweed. The delicate fin on its back slowly propels the dragon forward while its tiny mouth on the end its snout sucks in tiny crustaceans for food. Within seconds of the first sighting, we saw two more, one a heavily pregnant male (this is not a typo, in seahorses it is the male that carries and gives birth to the young). As an added bonus, at the end of the dive while heading over the eel grass bed, we saw a weedy sea dragon, a slightly less flamboyant relative of the leafy sea dragon. What an incredible experience, one that I can recommend to any diver. The site may not rival the diversity and complexity of the Great Barrier Reef, it may be slightly chilly and it may not have 100 ft. visibility, but it does provide shelter for one of the most weird and wonderful creatures that you could ever see.

Not that I am trying to make excuses or anything, but you may have noticed that these photos are not up to my usual standards. Well, I know a poor workman blames his tools and all that, but this was sometime ago, and at this point in my dive career I only had a manual film camera. And when I say manual, I mean everything was manual. It did not even have a focus knob on it - I had to focus by guessing how far away the subject was and that is quite tricky underwater!


Baino said...

You are my live action heroin, er I mean herione. I'd love to dive but a) they don't make suits that big and b) what's coming up behind me! Fabulous photos of course. Did you hear about the Chinese tanker that just crashed into the GBR? Idiots trying to take shortcuts!

Don't Bug Me! said...

Baino: Ah, a shortcut - I wondered how they could be so far off course. Even worse than BC Ferries - but then rumour has it that they crashed because they were too busy having sex to worry about steering the boat.

Suldog said...

Thanks for the good read! What fascinating animals you write about!

Jay said...

You're apologising for the quality of those magnificent photos? Good grief ... LOL! And now you've told us what you were working with, I'm even more stunned.

What an experience you had. I will never dive - for various reasons - so I'm living vicariously through you. Thank you for showing me these amazing creatures!

Cortes said...

Another entertaining story, even with the less than spicy language. I did not know that you were a "published author", but it doesn't surprise me. Another post extremely well done!

Kate said...

Brilliant photos as usual - just amazing!!!

Don't Bug Me! said...

Suldog: You're welcome!

Jay: Photoshop was never more welcome than with these photos! I guess I should get back on holiday soon for all you armchair travellers. You must be getting vicariously itchy feet.

Cortes: I would hardly call B.C Diver Magazine a prestigious publication!

Kate: Thank you, as usual!