Giant Australian cuttlefish aggregation begins near Point Lowly

It was with some trepidation that we approached the 2014 Giant Australian Cuttlefish (Sepia apama) breeding season in South Australia’s Northern Spencer Gulf.

Last year delivered the lowest cuttlefish count on record for the reefs at Point Lowly and Black Point, despite the introduction of a ban on commercial and recreational fishing for cuttlefish in all waters north of Wallaroo. Many locals and environmental scientists were fearing the worst. True to forecast, the season initially appeared to be a non-event, before taking a surprising turn.

On May 6th, the Godfather of the cuttlefish, Tony Bramley of Whyalla Diving Services told ABC news radio that after his latest dive, he believed that the population was ‘lost’.

“Normally there’d be a few background animals here and there, you know, the normal permanent residents in a given area. You’d see something. I didn’t see anything out there cephalopod-wise. Nothing at all.”

MAY 18TH CUTTLEFISH SIGHTINGS

Spirits among cuttle-fans lifted on May 20th when Tony Bramley spoke to ABC Rural about his observations on the previous weekend. He said that he had seen hundreds of cuttlefish on a single dive at Black Point, but cautiously reminded listeners that not long ago he would have expected thousands.

Teresa Court from the Whyalla Visitors Centre (who dived with Tony) confirmed the sighting, estimating that she saw 150 cuttlefish in under an hour.

The local population estimate Tony cited from the previous year was 8,000 animals, while the official Government figure was 13,500. Wherever the truth lies, last year’s turnout was crushing for Tony and those who’ve watched the aggregation shrink year after years since the late 1990s. The historical estimate of a population of 250,000 animals today may seem unimaginable, but it remains enshrined on interpretive signage at both Black Point and Stony Point dive sites for all to see. Pre commercial fishing estimates were never made and can only be guessed at.

Environmental scientist Professor Bronwyn Gillanders of the University of Adelaide shared Tony’s excitement following his observations and also spoke to ABC Rural. She explained that counts are estimates based on multiple surveys conducted over several sites each season, and that SARDI’s survey results would confirm or deny the population trend after the season’s end. She reminded listeners that the population in Northern Spencer Gulf is genetically distinct, meaning that it has little or no crossover with populations elsewhere in Australian waters. It could be that the population is its own species or sub-species of cuttlefish. Gillanders has stated previously that the results of this research this are due for publication early in 2015.

2014 CUTTLEFISH VIDEO ON YOUTUBE

A Youtube clip featuring GoPro footage of Giant Australian Cuttlefish from Tony and Teresa’s dive has been uploaded by Andrew Hosking and is featured below. The sightings appear to have reawakened local interest in the animals, with Whyalla residents discussing the turn of events across several Facebook pages. This is certainly a welcome reprieve, in what for us has been three years of largely bad news for these animals as they diminished in number and individual size while new threats to the integrity of their habitat emerged.

 UNDERWATER PHOTOGRAPHY COMPETITION

Meanwhile, the Marine Life Society of South Australia Inc., a not-for-profit organisation formed way back in 1976 has chosen to draw attention to the biodiversity of the waters around Whyalla and Point Lowly. This June long weekend (7-9th) MLSSA will host the region’s first ever underwater photography competition: The Whyalla Underwater Shootout. The event promises to be a celebration of the region’s weird and wonderful marine life, from the charismatic cuttlefish to the nebulous nudibranch.

With several months of cuttlefish aggregation antics near Point Lowly ahead, we wish the cuttlefish and the photographers and conservationists working to support their survival all the very best.

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Dan Monceaux is a South Australian documentary filmmaker and the director of Cuttlefish Country.

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