Once in a Lifetime

waves, dawn, ocean

Marine biologists said it would only happen once, a phenomenon, swarming of bait fish off Cape Cuvier along distant Western Australian coast. A desolate, rocky place, few got to observe strange sights of an oil slick like teeming with millions of anchovies, sardines or like tiny fish pushed in almost underneath cliff bases. Evening news carried footage along with noted experts attempting to theorize why.

Long forgotten when I took a road trip to Carnarvon, planned as an escape from Perth’s wintery dullness; a chance to let in a little sunshine and spend time seeing unique things ten hours in a coach away.

A coast touted as where desert and seashore meet. Touristy things like a visit to plantations feed by endless artesian reserves, pipes running into sandy expanses of Carnarvon River, never a drop of surface river flow visible.

Wandering around town strengthens sensations of having missed this town’s heyday as a major export port. Much defunct, unused for several decades, closed off since the mid- 1960s. Hard to imagine rails running out to one-mile Jetty pushing loads of local harvests to be loaded onto export bound vessels. Yet out of mangroves expensive touring yacht masks appear to grow. An alternative method to travel from the big city.

‘Be sure to bring your bathers,’ the tour guide said when I booked a day trip, a chance to take in famous Blow Holes, which appear to be a whale plume trapped under sharp rocks.

‘There could be a chance to swim.’

A drive out of town into shimmering salt lakes, blinding yet appearing to be sky blue coloured pools of water. Only when you came closer are mirages obvious.

I remember thinking how dusty and isolated this flat station land. How can anyone make a living out here? Known for feral camels released by earliest settlers, a location with little else than wild goats. When I worked for a meat exporting company, these beasts were caught, Halal slaughtered and sent to Middle East countries or sold for Easter. Little else alive out here, until we swiftly pulled to a halt. Burnt rubber smells still tangible in furnace like air as curious tourists tumbled out of the truck.

‘It’s a Horned Lizard.’

A dust coloured creature tried desperately to camouflage itself as a slight road bump. Looking like a bonsai dragon with multiple horns upward in all directions. How on earth did this driver see such a tiny reptile? Two Japanese women were babbling and giggling. Soon enough the creature scampered away, and the group reloaded. By this stage longing for ocean. As if serving to remind about evolution from life forms destined to return to cool blue depths.

‘You can swim here; I’ll park the truck for at least 40 minutes. But watch out for sharks over there.’

He points to visible dorsal fins that flip and dance at the northern edge of what seems a small rocky reef. Swimming with sharks – a surprise day-trip inclusion.

Shallows, just beyond milk-white pristine sand appeared heavy with seaweed drifting shoreward on gentle currents. As much as I craved a cooling ocean dip the ocean this water didn’t look so inviting.

Regardless I waded out into water so clear its barely perceivable, warm too. Coloured like something touched by various artists. Azure, cobalt, cerulean, turquoise words are insignificant as descriptions. No waves as on-shore breeze flattened everything perfectly level. I looked back at yellow, seemingly rust stained cliffs surrounding this narrow beach, wondering aloud how this coast would change if developers got their hands on those ocean views. Conceding isolation proved beneficial, if all this were closer to population, like on East coasts land would be Resort Ville by now. I am so glad hillocks here are not daubed with apartment blocks and wealth.

As I walked deeper, weed appears to recede. With head under water, weed morphs into giant shoals of fish. As I swam, they part like shimmering, bejewelled curtains making openings kindred to every-changing undersea mazes which roll towards us. Swim in and fish encapsulate your every move. I cannot see where these walls of fish begin and end, only that they are alive and moving. Tumbling over you cannot perceive a sea floor, because swarming masses close tight behind, above and under forming a carpet of fish and all about are finger length bodies panicking to swim away from humans.

I reach out and try to grab a handful, but all I can catch are a few scales and sensation of live things slipping out of my hands. Fingers are not made to hold sea creatures tight. A slight haze of oil is the only thing remaining on fingertips. Half in and out of the water, it’s possible to see fish jump just above surfaces trying to escape. As I stood in waist deep water an adjacent ballet of dorsal fins now takes on a new meaning. Sharks are not bothered with us, because an all-you-can-eat buffet is right here. Their open mouths much more effective than human fingers, at scooping up fish. Sharks cut swathes through masses, an aquatic feast trapped in below towering shadow cliffs. Off to one side, swimmers are just something forcing their quarry into eager jaws. A solo defence of hiding in a multitude doesn’t feel effective.

Now I saw this black shape which initially appeared to be seaweed change and shape in efforts to protect itself, like a giant single organism rather than millions of individuals. Predators are forcing the shoal in two journeys towards death; either into shallow shore waters, to be dumped in a high tide flotsam zone, or into jaws. Small fish swarm between legs as if humanity might be some form of security.

This became a point I understood my own insignificance when faced with a life and death situation. Along with a tumult of sensations to do with appreciating nature, relaxing in my own solitude, and trying to protect myself for life’s predators.


By Karen Lethlean

Karen Lethlean is a retired English teacher. With fiction Barbaric Yawp, Ken*Again, Pendulum Papers. She has won a few awards through Australian and UK competitions. Including Best of Times, with Bum Joke. In her other life Karen is a triathlete who has done Hawaii Ironman championships twice.