A Windang Shindig

The Gong 151
#003 A Windang Shindig

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On a cool and blustery day in March, Salty, Keen Wasabi and I hiked around Lake Illawarra foreshore to the sandy arm of Windang Island. The island’s green top rises conspicuously from the lip of the lake. Anglers endure relentless plumes of spray on the seaward cliffs, each wave sending waterfalls cascading down deep flutes in the rock. Snorkelers proliferate in the summer, diving from ledges exposed at low tide, while swimmers wander up from Warilla Beach to survey the long and peaceful bay. The island is also notorious for sharks.

At 11 o’ clock the tide was at about 0.6 metres and dropping. Things that are usually submerged were becoming exposed. Keen and I dropped our nets and tanks on a rock ledge and waded out amongst the pools.

Soon we were walking on mats of Neptune’s Necklace (Hormosira banksii). This brown alga is made distinct by the string of olive-coloured beads that make up its thallus (body). Like plants, brown algae uses chlorophyll to photosynthesise and  absorb energy from the sun. Unlike plants, it also produces xanthophyll, a yellow pigment. This gives brown algae its distinct brown-green colour.

While at first it seems weird – after all, chlorophyll works perfectly well for plants – the secret of brown algae is where it exists in the ocean. Red light is bad at penetrating the ocean’s surface. Green light however penetrates deeply into the water. Because a thing’s colour is determined by the light it reflects (meaning green plants reflect green light) algae need to be differently coloured to absorb the light available to them beneath the waves. For Neptune’s Necklace, this means disguising its green chlorophyll with red pigment.

What I find fascinating about Neptune’s Necklace is just how well-equipped it is to maximise its light exposure. The alga is made up of multiple strands of beads called thalli. Each bead is made of a  spongey tissue filled with air and protected by a waxy coating. When submerged, the air makes the beads float, drawing them towards the surface, where there is more light. When the tide drops, the beads lay like a carpet across the rocks, their waxy coating preventing them from losing too much moisture.

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Shells embedded in the island’s dirt wall.

Neptune isn’t the only one who fancies his algae. As we sat by twin rock pools on the low intertidal, Keen and I counted 135 Zebra Top Snails (Austrocochlea porcata) in and around the strings of beads. Interestingly, of all the species of snail in the pools, only Zebra Tops were found on the Neptune’s Necklace. Smaller snails seemed to prefer the shelter of the algae more than the larger ones, who preferred grazing on an encrusting brown algae on the bottom of the pools.

Up until last week, I kept five Zebra Tops Snails in my laboratory aquarium. They eat the slimy brown algae that is a fact of aquarium life, and it’s fun watching a snail licking glass.

Woe betide me, this week I am down to three Zebra Tops. The reason? Clever fish. Working together, two of my fish (Holly, a Black Drummer, and Dart, a Blackspot Sergeant) repeatedly ram the Zebra Tops until they come unstuck from the glass and tumble upside-down into the sand.

Like other marine snails, Zebra Tops have a tough disc called an operculum that they can draw over the opening in their shell, like shutting a door. My fish are quite unable to get past the operculum. But, as they learned, if the snail wants to right itself, it has to push its operculum aside and stretch its soft body around the top of the shell to grab a hold of something solid. When that is done, the snail gives a quick pull and flips around upright.

Holly and Dart wait until the snail’s soft body is exposed, and attack. In just a few strikes the fish have conquered a snail as big as themselves. This bringing down of the mammoth results in tank-wide excitement, as the other drummers rush in for a nibble and the crab dances out of his cave, claws waving.

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Scary-story-snail face.

On the beach, Zebra Tops have more insidious enemies than tiny fish. Seastars prowl for young snails. You will have seen seastars sold as trinkets and jewellery. Dried and bleached, they offer poor comparison to these active hunters.

A sea star’s underside is covered in hundreds of tube feet. At the end of each arm, there is a splay of probing fingers and a rudimentary eye. A seastar can move as swiftly as a snail or abalone. It crawls over its pray, wrapping it in powerful arms. It then everts its stomach, coating its prey in digestive juices. Finally the seastar draws its stomach and its melted pray back into its body.

One such predator on Windang Island is the Eight-Armed Seastar (Meridiastra calcar.) It’s obvious when these seastars are busy eating, as their central disc will be raised into a hump, the prey engulfed beneath it. While snails are high on the menu, Eight-Armed Seastars will also graze on algae, and I have even seen them feasting on crabs’ legs and fishes’ tails.

Perhaps one reason Zebra Tops choose to hide amongst the beads of Neptune’s Necklace is that it is not readily navigated by seastars. Seastars probably also have poor vision, and cannot tell a small Zebra Top from a bead.

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Anglers enticing sharks with their juicy backsides.

“The sale of souls to gain the whole world is completely voluntary and almost unanimous…but not quite.”

As we finished counting Zebra Tops (Keen felt sorry for some and rescued them from seastars. But echinoderms need to eat too!) we noticed a huge white and grey Pelican riding thermals rising from the hot exposed rock. Wind gusted hard over the island’s top, and the Pelican would surf thermals for a minute before lowering itself into the gusts and riding in a wide crescent out over the ocean. Seeming without a care in the world, it would then coast over the island and catch another thermal.

“Do you think it’s having fun?” said Keen.

“Looks like it,” I said.

We watched the seabird, a proud example of Australian Pelican (Pelecanus conspicillatus.) Its wings wobbled as it hovered on the thermal. Then – it dropped and swooped out over the waves. In moments it was back.

“It’s not looking for food,” I said, as the seabird hung suspended in the air. “And that does look like fun.”

Keen sighed. “I wish I had wings.”

We spent a while chasing gobies in rock pools, and then we were hungry, which meant it was time to go. On the return hike to the car we walked past the mouth of Lake Illawarra. The tide was starting to rise and the foreshore was wet and dark. It also appeared to be moving.

“Hey, crabs!” I had ditched my gear and was dancing amongst crabs in a second. “Look, Keen, soldier crabs!”

All across the foreshore, an army of perhaps ten thousand soldier crabs were digging out new holes above the waterline. In amongst the waves of smaller Mictyris platycheles were large Light-Blue Soldier Crabs (Mictyris longicarpus) looking like horses amongst foot soldiers. They were oblivious to us. By the drove they kept on digging, while others processed sand through their mouthparts, restlessly surging across the boundary of surf and sand.

Salty poked his nose into a crab’s back, and watched baffled as the crab burrowed in a spiral into the wet sand. In seconds it was up again, scuttling for higher ground. From the water a Pelican watched on idly, sailing as majestically as a brilliant white yacht. Storm clouds bathed the escarpment beyond.

Keen and I finished the journey to the car in high spirits. The world can be savage, it’s true. But from the snails sampling the finest delicacies of the sea, to the pelican surveying its kingdom, it is also a world of great joy and satisfaction.

Thank you Keen and Salty for a banger of a trip out of Windang Island. Thanks to you two, I’m finally able to present the first five Gong 151 species!

 

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#001 Neptune’s Necklace (Hormosira banksii)

Length: Up to 300 mm

Zone: Low intertidal

Sighted: Day, on rocky substrate in pools and low-lying channels

Locations: Windang Island, common

 

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#027 Zebra Top Snail (Austrocochlea porcata)

Height: Up to 25mm

Zone: Low intertidal

Sighted: Day, on rocky substrate and algae fronds

Locations: Windang Island, common

 

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#078 Light-Blue Soldier Crab (Mictyris longicarpus)

Carapace width: Up to 25mm

Zone: Low intertidal (brackish water)

Sighted: Day, on border of sand and sea

Location: Windang Island (Lake Illawarra entrance), common

 

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#090 Eight-Armed Seastar (Meridiastra calcar)

Arm radius: Up to 50 mm

Zone: Low intertidal

Sighted: Day, on submerged rocks and rocky substrate

Locations: Windang Island, uncommon

 

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# 138 Australian Pelican (Pelecanus conspicillatus)

Wingspan: Up to 2.6 m

Zone: Shore

Sighted: Day, cruising on calm water or riding on thermals.

Locations: Windang Island, uncommon

 

Now it’s up to you. Get out into the Gong and meet some animals!

For the five species listed, we need to find:

  • Which locations they can be found
  • Their numbers in each location
  • Their interactions with other species
  • What they eat
  • What they do all day

You can join Salty and I for a day of discovering sea creatures on Saturday 8th April 2017 at Bellambi Beach. Some snacks will be provided. Bring a bottle of water, your camera, and let’s see what we find.

*Coming soon: Updated link to the 151 Field Guide*

The Gong 151

#001 The Gong 151

Welcome to the world of marine biology!

My name is Anneque “Dangerpus” Machelle. I’m studying to become a marine biologist. This world’s oceans are inhabited by a vast array of fascinating creatures. Some are playful, others could swallow you whole. But what we know about life in the ocean is, well, just a drop in the ocean. Some biologists think over 90% of the life in the ocean remains undiscovered!

That’s why I’ve dedicated my life to studying marine life. Together with my best buddy Salty, I’m on a mission to find 151 marine species in the Gong region. Yet we can’t do it without your help. If you’ve ever dreamed of working with marine animals, discovering new species, and learning incredible things about old ones, The Gong 151 is for you. We need your help to complete this guide and become masters of the ocean.

Each week, Salty and I will explore a new species. Come with us to swim, snorkel, dive and explore to make the ultimate guide to marine life in the Gong region.

Get ready to make amazing discoveries!

For each species, hit the beach and help us find:

  • Distribution
  • Population: common, uncommon, rare or legendary
  • Size
  • Interactions within a  species
  • Interactions with other species (including humans!)
  • And lots and lots of photos

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Links:

Species discovered so far

Area map

Submit data or suggest species

Make your own field notebook DIY

The White Globster

It was a stormy day in early November when I happened upon the grey and battered beach. Brown lumps of bladderwrack heaped on the sand like walruses on the high tide line. Huge cups of banded fanweed nestled in the wrack. Death was in the air as dozens of sea squirts pushed one last feeble breath of water from their aorta-shaped siphons.

Then there was the Globster.

Startling white it was, with a mass of tentacles like so much upturned udon. It splayed limp yet plump on the wet sand, commanding the beach not by its size but by its sheer unknowability.

I approached with suspicion in every sodden step. Was this some monstrous anemone risen from the deep? Some nest of hideous marine worms? Or was it something altogether more sinister and strange?

Cold drizzle peppered the back of my neck as I bent over the weird lump. I found a stick and turned it over. The mass was firm and jellylike, damp, with an inner sheen. It neither quivered nor tried to escape my cautious prodding. Recalling that everything in the sea is venomous, I drew a tentacle away from the mass with the end of the stick. Each individual tentacle appeared to taper down to a fine string, woven into a net encompassing a mass of detritus. The mass had no apparent foot or mechanism of defence. I knew it had to be toxic.

The seagulls kept their distance as I wandered the short bay, overturning bladderwrack with my stick. More white masses were exposed. Two more were large, the size of an adult’s brain. Another two were not much bigger than my balled fist.

The rain drove harder. Sheets of water fell across the sea. To the west, the escarpment was cloaked in deep grey cloud. A momentary merging of sea and land. Alas, I do not have gills. In lament of a bag and gloves, I left the Globster for drier land.

 

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Artist’s rendition of author’s description.

Only to return the next day. The small masses were gone. So was the week of heavy rain and cold water pushed from beyond the continental shelf. Sun shone on the bladderwrack, baking it crusty and black. The two large white masses had survived well, one slightly dehydrated. In its greying mass were revealed paler lumps. Each tendril carried five lumps, giving them the appearance of too-many jointed fingers.

I tried to guess how many tendrils there were. A hundred, two hundred? Could it be an egg mass? Thinking of anemones, I checked the creature for a mouth. A pair of silver gulls watched from a distance. There was no mouth.

Eager now, knowing the creatures were dead (if they had ever been alive) I found the stick I’d wedged in the sand and gently peeled tendrils away from the central mass. A grey stretchy latex-like material bound the tendrils to a central net, the gatherer of debris. Twigs and stringy weeds littered the tendrils. It was impossible to tell whether the tendrils were poking through the grey latex or were part of it. I would have to dissect it to find out.

Curious now more than I was frightened, I lifted one large mass on a stick and carried it to the water’s edge. When it dropped into the foot of a wave, its tendrils bloomed out weightlessly and carried the mass back to shore. It was limp, unresponsive, even in the water. But for the first time, it was not some hideous monstrosity washed up on the sand. In the water, one could see that it was functional, even beautiful. Its shape was that of a dozen jellyfish arranged on a multi-tiered cake stand. Alien as it was, it was somehow elegant.

I picked up the mass on the stick and flung it into deeper water. Whatever it was, if it had any chance of survival, it was in the sea.

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The Globster.

Work beckoned in the afternoon, but all I had were questions about the solitary white mass left on the beach. I couldn’t tell if the thing were plant or animals. If it were dead or alive. I was unsure if it were a collective or single organisms or a strange clutch of eggs.

The home bell struck. I wandered into the workshop and picked a rubber glove from the box the mechanic keeps on his toolbox.

“I’m taking this,” I warned him. “And you won’t want it back.”

The mechanic was still shaking his head over the news that Trump looked to win presidency and didn’t deign to answer.

Well, forgiveness is easier attainted than permission, so I took my plastic bag and rubber gloves and trotted down to the beach. Right in the middle of Thirroul Beach are the big yellow buildings of the local surf lifesaving club. I ducked under the boathouse door and knocked on the tin roller. A couple of lifeguards on duty in the booth looked around.

“Come in, come in!” said the older of the pair, ushering me up the stairs to the booth. Beneath the panorama of rolling waves were clusters of tide charts and shift rosters. “What can we do for you?”
I shrugged. Regardless of the answer, I knew what I was going to do. “There’s a weird white thing washed up on the beach. I was wondering if you might know what it was?”

A brief description of the creature – like an overturned bowl of noodles – didn’t spark any fires, so I brought up a picture on my phone.

“Ew,” said the younger lifeguard. “What is that?

“Never seen anything like it here before,” said the older. “What is it?”

“No idea,” I said. “But if you don’t mind, I might collect it and take it to the University for IDing. That’s if you don’t mind.”

Both lifeguards made noises of encouragement.

“Go do it!” said the older one as I ducked back under the roller door. “Make sure you come back and tell us what it is.”

Thusly bidden, I trekked up the beach, barely able to keep from running in the fear that the white Globster had already been taken, by man, tide or seagull, but equally gone.

But there it was, caught in the seaweed pushed up during the afternoon’s high tide, but not washed away. I donned gloves and bagged the mass. I scanned the beach. Not another mass was to be seen.

Though it was the more dehydrated of the two large masses, the thing was heavy. Heavy enough that I wandered into town and into the supermarket, where I sat the inconspicuous bag on the vegetable scales. 450 grams – a full pound.

Heavier still was the news that Trump had won the presidency. There was gloom in the workshop as I went to fetch the car. “This will cheer you up,” I said, to the pair of mechanics languishing by the radio. I opened the bag. “Guess what this is.”

The head mechanic peered into the bag. The scent of clean seawater drifted back. “Um. Is that a squid?”

“It’s an anemone, obviously,” said the hired help, an erstwhile technician resembling a seagull. “Clear as day. Anemone.”

“Anemones have mouths,” I told him. “This thing doesn’t. They also have tapered tendrils; these are blunt. It’s not an anemone.”

“Then it’s worms,” he said, but like the rest of the seagulls, he kept his distance.

Back home in the lab* I filled a bucket with water and spread out the dissection kit. Armed with tweezers and a scalpel, I began the long work of extracting debris from the tendrils. Soon I could see that a grey rubbery net bound the mass together, forming a cylindrical body distinct from the fronds of tendrils. Floating the mass in the bucket, these fronds became apparent; tiers of tendrils arranged around the narrow body. Furthermore, the body extended into a dark grey, thick rubber knob. Roots extended from one end of the knob; a hank of seagrass from the other.

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*We used to have a sun room, but since I moved in we have a lab.

A housemate wandered into the lab. Trump’s election speech had just played twice on the television.

“What is that?” said my housemate, Mungus. “It looks like the state of American politics.”

Mungus is an avid dissector and taught me all I knew. I could use his help on this project. “I don’t know what it is. Wanna help me dissect it?”

“Ooh!”

“Take gloves though,” I said, indicating the pack of latex gloves I’d bought as a cover for using the supermarket’s vegetable scales. “It’s probably venomous.”

Mungus took a glove and a razor blade. He sliced of a tendril. While the tendrils had some size variation, they averaged about the size of my pinky finger. Each one contained five transparent lobes kind of like young beans in a pod. Mungus ran the razor blade over the membranous skin of the tendril, cutting it open and extracting a lobe. It dissolved into water in his fingers. It truly seemed like we had some alien on the cutting board.

I cut through another, careful to avoid the lobes. The tendril was the texture of a gummy worm on a hot day. A stretchy membrane hooked on the scalpel and refused to tear. I yanked it and the entire thing split open. Each lobe averaged 8 mm long and 4 mm wide. As carefully as I lifted a lobe on the edge of the scalpel, it dissolved into water.

“Let’s cut through this part,” said Mungus, indicating the dark grey knob. He held it and I cut, slicing through a 15 mm wall of warm rubber.

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Knob with seagrass growing through centre.

“This plant grows right through it,” I said, to break the stunned silence. It was as if the plant had grown right up through this thick rubber tube.

“Is that plant part of it?” said Mungus. “Is this thing part plant, part animal? See the beads on the roots – they look just like the lobes on the tendrils.”

There seemed to be no more to the Globster. No brain, no lungs, no recognisable organs at all. Just the white tendrils and this grey knob with its symbiotic plant. Mungus took a photo.

“I’ll send this to a biologist professor friend. He might be able to help.”

He sent the photo via Messanger and soon we had a reply. ‘No idea! is it an anemone?’

“It’s not an anemone,” I said to Mungus, before he could say it. “It’s nothing like an anemone. We need another biologist.”

It was with a bit of searching that I found an email address for a chap in the University’s marine biology department. But email is slow compared to IM, and it was unlikely I’d hear back that night. I wrapped the Globster in catalogues and stowed in the freezer.

“Maybe we’ve found something new,” I said to Mungus that night. “Maybe it’s something really different.”

“Maybe they’ll name it after us,” said Mungus. “The Mungusopus anemone.”

“Let’s hope not.”

Mungus made eyebrows, and kept his peace.

For the next 20 hours, I checked my phone at every opportunity. Mungus texted me on the hour, every hour. The professor’s reply (and the news of our Nobel Prize) was unforthcoming. The lifeguards asked if we’d had any luck; I had to tell them no.

When at last the email arrived, it was simple, one line.

‘Egg mass. Squid or octopus sp.’

I messaged Mungus immediately. ‘We found something AWESOME. Squid egg mass.’

He replied within the minute. ‘Holy crap. That’s incredible. That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever heard.’

A little research led to the tentative supposition that the eggs belonged to a Sepioteuthis australis, a Southern calamari squid. Common in shallow waters, the squid lays fronds of eggs that attach via a tough rubbery mass to plant matter on the seabed. Our grey knob was an anchor, tethering the mass to a hank of seagrass. The eggs were most likely freshly laid, being small and readily dissolved; as they develop, the eggs become more beadlike. The masses I’d found on the beach must have been yanked from their moorings like boats in a storm by the week of rough weather.

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Sepioteuthis australis, Southern calamari squid.

I went around to the surf club that evening to tell the lifeguards the news. “I’ve never seen anything like that on the beach,” said the older lifeguard. “You find anything else weird, come show us!”

Their enthusiasm was oddly charming. “Of course.”

That evening in the lab, I felt a slight sting of disappointed that we had not discovered anything new. The Mungusopus anemone was not to be. Yet so much more than disappointed, I realised I was thrilled. The ocean contains so many mysteries. The White Globster was only the first.