Mystery Weekend [29]

By Jeanette Mill

Whale watching at Mystery Bay — that sounded tempting. Mind you, of the dozen or so times I have seen whales in my life, they have all been chance sightings. The only times I have ever consciously looked for them — well you know how it goes.

So, as the peripatetic Dr Sanders, Old Sea Dog, oracle, writer, boat builder and organiser of the weekend would prophesy, I decided to go with the flow.

To our collective delight our campsite above the tortured cliffs was hoon free. The ticks, however, were another matter.

The group of 20 or so comprised folk from as far north as Alaska, with a large Canberra contingent. What is this Canberra phenomenon I hear you cry. Bored public servants with too much money to spend? My humble theory is when you live inland the attraction of the coast is all the stronger, and it is a delightful drive.

Late on Saturday morning a group set off to inspect the nonpareil in cliff design that nature had provided to the north of Mystery Bay. Others explored the area by foot. Caves, arches and a huge pile of smooth stones about two or three metres high on the beach south of Corunna Point bore testimony to the forces the elements bring to bear. The bizarre forms of the wind pruned She Oaks capping the cliffs and the cruising Sea Eagles added to the visual feast.

A casual lunch was spent renewing old acquaintances and forging new ones.

In the afternoon Corunna Lake was the paddling venue for one group, while another inspected boats, gear, kicked sand and imaginary tyres on the beach at Mystery Bay before cruising the coastline.

Corunna Lake provided a peaceful setting north from the put in point at the bridge on the Princes Highway. We followed the forested shoreline to the sea kayak turnable limit of Olsons Creek. Some were treated to the spectacle of a startled rabbit taking to the water and “dog” paddling to the far bank. Iridescent Kingfishers played their usual game of keeping one tree ahead of us.

The gods held the rain off until the evening, but also provided us with the camper of the moment and new club member — Tony Peterson. We huddled under his expertly erected tarp (even without real guy ropes this man is a bush comfort thaumaturge). The chocolate, Tim Tams and conversation flowed as the Laksa simmered on the Trangias and the rain pattered. the odd gust of wind emptied the accumulated contents of the tarp down the patient Belinda’s neck.

A Satin Bower Bird delighted in reminding me I was on its turf by running through its entire repertoire of mimicry at dawn. I felt a rush of pleasure at greeting the day earlier than the venerable Old Sea Dog managed.

A fresh wind resulted in more extended rituals on the beach, followed by coastal exploration by land and sea.

The most interesting find of the morning was a dead whale thingy on the beach to the south.

After lunch the wind continued to pick up and no live whales were to be seen to sea.

The south-western end of Wallaga Lake proved a popular destination. We launched from the ramps at Fairhaven Point and explored the convoluted shoreline of the drowned river valley, whilst enjoying the serenity offered by the adjacent national park.

Feeling invigorated after a sprint back into a headwind, I obligingly and patiently demonstrated how not to roll a Puffin for Mark Cecil B de Fish Killer Pearson’s video camera, combined with successful assisted rescue techniques with the coadjuvancy of Gentleman Jim Gear Trailblazer Techno Nerd Marathon Paddler Croft.

A fine evening provided the opportunity of cooking in the open. Those upon whom fortune smiled were initiated into the pleasures of port soaked Tim Tams.

Monday dawned warm and sunny. Many pairs of eyes scanned the sea out towards Montague Island. The water was enticingly blue, tempting many into coastal cruising. They were rewarded with seals and dolphins but no whales.

The dead “whale” on the beach provided a certain sighting. My photos of the aromatic, bloated 3m mammal allowed it to be later identified by a colleague, Graham Ross, as a Risso’s Dolphin. Risso’s Dolphins occur in tropical and warm temperate oceanic waters worldwide, generally in water deeper than 1000m. They occasionally venture closer to shore. Up to 4m in length, they mainly eat cephalopods (squid, cuttlefish, octopus), but also fish. Sometimes they are seen as solitary individuals or pairs, but usually live in herds typically of 20 — 40, but up to several hundred. Colouration is dark grey or greyish black on the upper surface behind the dorsal fin, white and light grey in front of the dorsal fin and a white patch underneath. However colouration tends to lighten with age. The dorsal fin is tall and sharp. The head bulges distinctively and there is no beak. The lower jaw has 3 — 7 pairs of teeth, with no teeth in the upper jaw. Adults usually bear scars from fighting and from damage from prey (it’s a tough life eating live calamari and un-chargrilled octopus).

This was one of two Risso’s Dolphins which had died and washed ashore some months previously. The other had been retrieved by ORRCA *, and examined by Australian Museum scientists. This one was proving difficult to remove due to the rocky coast.

The Innuit Classic prototype created great interest, and was heavily booked for test paddles (Norm — my invoice is in the mail). Cecil B further tested his new splashproof toy by filming Andrew Eddy demonstrating his consummate rolling and bracing style to the awe-struck crowds.

So — no whales, but no shortage of interest, and a very pleasant long weekend.

Thankyou to Graham Ross, series manager for the Fauna of Australia and whale biologist, for identification and information on Risso’s Dolphin.

* ORRCA: Organisation for the Rescue and Research of Cetaceans in Australia.