By Jonathan Porter
“They basically behave like humans at a pub on a typical Saturday night,” says the Godfather of Whyalla cuttlefish, Tony Bramley, after he spits out his regulator.
We have just surfaced above The Gutter, a favourite haunt of these amazingly colourful – and highly promiscuous – sea creatures. The sky is impossibly blue, but the water is a chilly 15C or so – in other words perfect for viewing the sepia apama or giant cuttlefish.
He is referring to the machinations the male cuttlefish will resort to in order to “get lucky”.
“They will even dress up in drag,” Bramley says.
The cuttlefish of Whyalla in the Spencer Gulf are an astonishing strobing and constantly changing mix of purple and green with a bit of maroon. They can change colour and texture and shape at will. Why? You ask, well to communicate and … who am I kidding – it’s all for the ladies.
We have just seen a male change shape and colour to imitate a female in order to evade a much bigger male, wait until his back is turned and quickly mate with a female the larger chap was guarding.
Bramley pushes his mask on to the top of his head. “The guard thought he had two females, and thought ‘ripper’ and turned his back on the sneak,” he says, the corners of his brown, almost black, eyes crinkled in mirth.
Whyalla Cuttlefish a-courtin’
It turns out all this mate guarding is a waste of time; the females will mate with literally any male who comes a-courtin’.
Three years ago it looked like the days of the cuttlefish aggregation – which lasts from May to August – were over. But drastic conservation measures by the state government – in part spurred by a vocal and energetic campaign by Brimley – have brought numbers back to the hundreds of thousands.
The cephalopods’ only concern now is the thousands of hungry New Zealand fur seals who descend on Whyalla at breeding time, the Kiwi mammals having been robbed of their usual seafood diet by equally hungry humans.
I ask him why he wanted to save these critters, who frankly resemble a third-stage Guild navigator from the movie Dune. For those whose background in 1980s sci-fi flicks is lacking – that means really ugly.
Bramley said he was one of a group of concerned divers who could literally see the drop in numbers every time they dived.
“It was only when numbers dropped to basically zero that we realised we had to do something fast and we were lucky the media came on board.”
The good news is not only are the cuttlefish now coming back, but Whyalla Council is organising a Sea Life festival to celebrate their return for 2017.
“The Sea Life Festival will be held at the same time as the annual aggregation of the giant cuttlefish to Whyalla and celebrate the Sea Life of Whyalla in its natural attributes and lifestyle,” says Liz McNeill – Tourism Development Manager with Whyalla Council.
“Whyalla is a mecca for divers wishing to witness a mesmerising underwater spectacle – observing the giant cuttlefish in such numbers is a privileged experience.”