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Ningaloo Reef

 

After 2 days trip and a heavy 6 hr. jet-lag, we landed in Perth. Steve, a dear friend member of WA Undersea Club, was waiting for us. He had already arranged to meet Barry Paxman at Ningaloo Reef: 1380 km North of Perth. The day after, at 8 a.m., we were at Coral Bay ready to start the endeavor in the tropical water of the most remote part of Western Australia.

The last part of the road, 60 km of 4 WD track and sandy dunes and then finally the camp. Obviously deserted. Barry was already fishing. outback.jpg (37400 byte)

The following days have been plenty of astonishing marine close encounters, specially for us, Italian spearfishers, not so used to dive with so many fish around. And all with the constant roar of the swell on the Ningaloo Reef as sound track.  

 

Day 1. The very second dive, good water 15 m of viso, I’m attempting an European “aspetto” e.g. waiting on the bottom for the fish to close up the distance. A dark shape is slowly materializing in front of me. Suddenly I realize it’s a big shark. From the bottom it rises the muzzle and swim upward, up to me. For a moment I see the perfect torpedo shape of the shark framed by the three aileron of the dorsal and the pectoral fins. Then it swims lazily away, showing the beautiful banded side. My first tiger shark.

Again day 1. The first shot in the Ocean, a school of caranx (now we know them as trevallies) of 6-7 kilos swims by. Francesco shoots one of them and proudly bring the fish to the boat. Barry smiles... and, with our dismay, promptly cut the fish in little pieces. That was our introductions to the Australian practice of burley. From then on it’ll be a constant struggle for catching the “good fish” and avoiding the bad ones.  

 

Day 3. Mantas, mantas everywhere. Big lone mantas and schools of little ones. A huge manta ray swims up to the surface and then 

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A huge Queensland groper

reverse itself and plunges directly to the bottom. Before if fades in the depth, Francesco chases it and pats it back. The manta jumps, frightened folds its wing on the back for the first powerful stroke and swims rapidly away. Francesco, surprised, round itself in a ball and nearly loses the gun as he’s tossed on the wake. I promptly attempt seriously to drown myself, just laughing. Moments later he doubles up for the same reason as I foolishly swim at breakneck speed chasing a school of shy little mantas, for the pleasure of seeing a little longer their silver “horns” and graceful dance.  

 

Day 4. The quarrel with the cods. I shoot a little trevally and a big potato cod comes rapidly from a cave and grabs the fish on the spear. Surprised I try to recover it and furiously retrieve my line. I succeed in snatching it from the big mouth but there is no way, the cod chase the receding fish and sucks it again, bumping at top speed against my fins. With the fish sideways in the mouth swims back in the cave. In the Mediterranean sea such a fish would fulfill a dive’s life, and here I’m not even thinking to shoot it... Francesco, some days later will encounter one more aggressive, and bigger, which will suck away the fish bending the shaft and breaking the line on the bottom rocks.  

 

Day 5. The peak of fishing. Francesco, after a very long dive and careful approach, stones a huge Spanish Mackerel of 35 kilos. Half an hour later, I’m bounced from wave tip to wave tip, by an ever greater Spanish, who hit the scale at 37 kilos. That was at the sameMy BEAUTIFUL 37+ kg Spanish time great and disappointing. Great because only in my wild dreams I’ve seen such fish. Disappointing because Barry, after a heartfelt “bloody bastards, look what a catch”, will tell us that my fish was only 1.6 kilos below the Australian record!

 

Day 9. The whales. Not so much perhaps as an encounter, but I’ve never seen a whale so close and in 20 meters of water. The attempt to approach them, swimming with them underwater, is a great filling. The whales run away at such speed that the strokes flatten out the rough sea surface, creating an ephemeral two hundred meters long glassy blue road.

 

Day 4 and 12. The dugongs. The fourth day I see a strange, big, light blue-green shape on the bottom. I swim to it and suddenly I realize I’m staring at a grazing dugong! I dive to the bottom and slowly try to approach it... but the dugong scuttles away uninterested, swinging up and down that funny fat tail.

Later Francesco succeeded in caressing a perhaps more lazy dugong: “I’ll remember well the strange, milky, color, the walrus head and the profusion of tiny barnacles on the skin.” he said.  

 

All days. The turtles. Again, in the Mediterranean sea we have for sure turtles, but the sheer presence of them where overwhelming. Checco 35 kg Spanish They where everywhere. Swimming, big and lonely, very slowly few meters from the surface, reaching some time the surface for a gulp of air. Swimming fast on the bottom when we were chasing them for a little hitchhiking. Sleeping, maybe, in caves on the bottom, three or four of them. In more than a dive I had four turtles at four cardinal points, gently rolling in the swell.  

 

Day 14.The last day on Ningaloo Reef. Evening. Barry has left few days before. We are diving with Hans Beyeler, an accomplished diver, formerly from South Africa and member too of the WA Undersea Club. We are near the reef catching fish for the successive burley as usual, when a big shape show itself on the bottom: it is a tiger shark. It swims slowly away, fading in the background. We continue to dive, not too impressed: we have already seen several during the last days. Five minutes later we’re cutting a lot of fish in the murky water when a larger shape looms up. Another tiger? No. The biggest, is what Hans will later affirm, whaler shark he had ever seen, up to 4 meters. This one is not obviously thinking about fading away. It swims on the bottom, slowly but purposely closing the distance. We keep on diving and cutting up burley, just reducing the distance between each other. The target fish are not showing up at all, maybe the big shark, so close, is scaring them away... Once in a while it opens the mouth and swallow up a thicker bit.

Suddenly the big tail lashes and the shark dart on the surface, where it starts, slowly again, to circle us. I don’t recall any movement, apart my heart’s, but I’m bumping against the shoulders of both Hans and Francesco and scraping my fins against theirs. No one is saying anything, we are stubbornly burleying our fish, straining for maintain the shark in full sight. We’re gently drifting in the current but the shark isn’t doing anything gently. It’s now swimming nervously, circling, but every time it points the muzzle toward us and swims faster directly at us, then stops and again resumes  the circle. We’ve stopped burleying and we’re only watching intensely the shark, craning our necks. Hans suggest that, maybe, is better leave the place. OK. We’re moving. The shark is now behind us and soon it’s not on sight. We swim perhaps 200 m and then we begin again the burley. Not later than 30 second and the shark is again circling us, already on the surface, still very aggressive. Hans shakes his head and acknowledge the defeat: we’re chased out from the water by a hostile shark...

This is fun!

At the end, thinking it well, the easiest part for us to manage was the fishing. At the Ningaloo Reef Marine Park you can only fish pelagic fish. In Italy we haven’t Spanish Mackerel or similar but it’s not so difficult to understand a fish behavior when you have experience of more than 25 years. Obviously we had helpful advice from Barry (thanks Barry), very field experienced. We are still however lacking the ability of searching for the fish, of find it when it’s not yet there, suddenly materialized under the fins, motionless.

 

The nights also have been magnificent, stars everywhere and bright till the horizon, with the South Cross in the center of the sky. The first nights were moonless (good also for fishing), the spectacle truly glorious. The life around the campfire was equally incredible. After two days spent with Barry and his two sons, Lee and Scott, and the dive buddy John Pentland and son Matthew, joined us Hans, Ian Fearley, Brian Loxton and their respectively families.

The perfectly organized camping of Hans and his campfire promptly became the very center of these cold nights. Fishing stories of Australian, Mediterranean and South African waters intertwined each other around the campfire. Cocos Islands, Sicily, Coral Sea and Cape Town the names that rose into the sky mixed with the sparks. And fish, always fish, most landed, some lost, but all accurately memorized, like in a slow motion movie, with that incredibly detailed underwater memory only the divers seem to have. And fishing gear comparison, recipes and bit of life in that immediate comradeship of persons who share happily a strong and long cultivated passion.

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Riccardo A. Andreoli

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