Dragon Road, Part 2

By a stroke of luck our group of five is sharing the divers lodge at Eaglehawk Neck on the Tasman Peninsula with members of the Reef Life Survey (RLS). This Australian team, on its annual trip to monitor local fish populations, just happen to be the go-to gurus for finding fish in southern Australian waters. We jump at our good fortune, asking about handfish even before the final handshake.

Long before our plane from Melbourne landed in Hobart, we were fixated on finding a handfish, an evolutionary oddity that prefers to walk on its fins rather than swim. These relatives of deepwater anglerfish and frogfish are a big reason why we ventured so far south — into the very epicenter of the rare 4-inch fish’s range. But based on what we hear shortly after arriving, our chances of finding a handfish aren’t so good these days.

It seems that spotted handfish, the most common of the family’s 14 species, have been in decline for decades because of scallop dredging and urban renewal, which has stripped away much of their preferred habitat. And the more obscure red handfish hasn’t been sighted for some time. A few patchy populations of spotted handfish are believed to still exist along the banks of the wide Derwent Estuary that slices Hobart in half, but nobody is sure exactly where we should look. Then, out of nowhere, the Reef Life Survey folks appear. As beer tabs pop, a pair of surveyors, happy to share knowledge with fellow fish worshipers, sit at the end of the communal dining table sketching a napkin map for Dave Robson, our Tasmanian host.

Threatening skies shadow our drive to the trendy Hobart neighborhood of Sandy Bay the following morning. A sloping tree-lined lane leads us to the entrance of a concrete ditch built to channel runoff into the muddy shallows of the estuary. Shortly afterward Dave arrives, pulling a trailer full of scuba tanks. Together we make our way down to a small leaf- and Styrofoam-littered beach of drainage silt to survey our entry point. Our fingertips come out of the water tingling from the cold, and a drizzle begins. In my nearly 50 years of diving I can’t remember a less appealing place to dive.

Everything is somber except us. To a person we’re primed to plunge into the Derwent on a seemingly senseless adventure to find a strange little fish few have heard of inside or outside of Tasmania. Each member of our group has a slightly different reason for being here: Richard adores animals of every type, Yann revels in the hunt, Wendy wants to see and do it all, I make my living documenting marine life, and Anna is the queen of the arcane. What we share is the joy of finding sea creatures that strike our fancy, and at the moment our fancy happens to be handfish. 

Visibility is worse than expected. Like a schooling fish, I stick close to Yann and Anna as we blindly search for hollows in the soft bottom where driftweed collects and handfish hide. Wendy, Richard and Dave wander off in another direction. We have hardly seen a fish, much less a handfish, for 20 minutes when Wendy somehow tracks us down and leads us to the first of what will turn out to be three spotted handfish found on the dive. Roused from its weedy patch, the appropriately named fish ambles away on seven fingerlike fin rays. An hour later we emerge from the Derwent, chilled to the bone, and wade to shore, where diving friends of Dave wait with the most welcome cups of hot chocolate of our lives.

Back at our apartment the handfish celebration is still under way when Anna gets around to checking her email. She dances back into the room with news of a red handfish sighting by RLS members. We’re off at first light. The hourlong drive ends on a bluff overlooking Frederick Henry Bay. Dave is already there, standing next to the trailer with his arms crossed. He doesn’t look happy. A glance at the 4-foot rollers smashing against the rocks below says it all. There’s no way to safely make it past the breakers, and even if we did, the sea would be soup. For a long while we sit on our haunches, sulking like children. All of us have hunted wildlife long enough to realize our endeavors are fraught with failure. And after so much recent luck it seems silly for us to take defeat so hard. But we do.

Thankfully we have a remedy for such misfortunes. It’s back to mainland Australia tomorrow for the last leg of our road trip. At Newcastle on the southeastern coast, Team Australia, as we’re now calling ourselves, will pick up yet another van and head north toward Port Nelson, where gray nurse sharks, striped blue-ringed octopuses, giant cuttlefish and heaven knows what else await.

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© Alert Diver — Q4 2017