Read Article written in Sportdiving Magazine

Leafy Sea Dragon

Sportdiving Magazine, Aug-Sept 1996, Kelvin Aitken, p36-39

I had repeatedly searched various locations with other experienced operators and was a little sceptical when Jim assured me – he almost even used that fateful word “guarantee” – that he could find me a dragon. With an entire week dedicated to the search, he smiled smugly and nodded.

Divemaster Steve lugged one of my cameras down for the first dive on the spectacular northwest coast of Kangaroo Island in early February. I always mentally wiped out the first dive on any trip as something almost always goes awry so I wasn’t surprised when the dive on kelpy reef dropping down to sand, perfect dragon territory, proved fruitless. Then, rounding the last corner, there it was. Yes they are real, they do exist. Seeing one in the flesh after all those magazine photographs was no disappointment. It was far more delicate and wondrous that I had ever imagined. Like a regal lady in full royal attire it swirled its trailing skirts around and turned its long mournful face to me, eyes full of curiosity swivelling under a burst of tassels.

The fact that it was a male took a while to register but certainly did not detract from my ecstasy at finding the fabled dragon. November through to January is the best time to find male sea dragons with eggs. A wrinkly patch of skin under the tail accepts eggs laid by the fussy female who picks the biggest and best-looking male around to provide and care for her brood of young. Sounds familiar? I was very fortunate to find one male that had either started very late or had possibly picked up a second batch; even so, many of the eggs had already hatched and tiny striped bodies could be seen peering out from or struggling within their protective egg cases.

They were so ripe a touch of the finger could burst an egg case allowing a tiny individual, without most of the tassels of a fully mature adult, to emerge and float off to blend perfectly into its kelpy haven. Like their parents, these mini-dragons would also feed on tiny shrimp-like crustaceans until big enough to venture out of the weed and patrol the kelp beds, perfectly camouflaged. Even as we watched each other in mutual curiosity, the dragon took advantage of the situation and zapped up mycids that I had stirred from the kelp and sandy bottom. A slight stretch of the neck and a quick gulp slurped up the tiny glass-clear critters.

Kangaroo Island is a wildlife paradise just a short ferry ride from Adelaide. I had driven across from Melbourne to Cape Jervis with a car laden with film, steel tanks, film, weights, film, cameras and film to catch the smaller ferry that departs just across the waters of Backstairs Passage. Notices around the ferry informed visitors of the regular sightings of southern right whales around Kangaroo Island waters but being just out of mid-summer I knew that the binocular wielding Japanese tourists would have to wait another six months for a chance to spot the barnacle encrusted barrel like blimp of blubber that makes up a Southern Right.

My ferry landed at picturesque Penneshaw. I had stayed at the camping ground during a previous summer so knew well the clear water that surrounded the pier, the strong currents that whipped past the point and the subsequent riot of invertebrate life that covered every rock. At dusk fairy penguins waddle up the beach to nest in pipes set into the steep banks around the point making for a regular and uncrowded experience every night.

Driving through town with a pub that served great meals, a deli with chef-prepared rotisserie chicken that sold out within a couple of hours and the worlds best fish and chips crisped to perfection from a nondescript shop overlooking the straits, I motored up the steep hill with sweeping views across the ocean to Adelaide and Cape Jervis. An excellent sealed road through rolling sandhills now covered in pasture made my journey to Kingscote (where the rapid Adelaide ferry berths) a pleasure with only a brief pause to allow an echidna waddle across the bitumen.

The Kingscote pier is a site not to be missed. It makes a superb night dive with easy water entry and exit plus a huge array of critters. Sponge crabs are rampant along with various octopus species (including the neon Blue Ring), seahorses, decorator crabs and row upon row of horseshoe mussels reminding me of an abandoned cemetery with slanting tombstones galore. The pier itself would take dozens of dives to explore; Steve and I did one dive for about an hour that only took us from one side across to the other.

Turning west and parallel to the north coast for half an hour took me towards Jim and Josie Thistletons private paradise. A short stretch of red dirt road off the main drag landed me in a farmyard straight out of a Ma and Pa Kettle movie. Chickens clucked around and a sheep dog gave up the effort to bark and came over for a scratch. The only signs of a dive operation were the cabins scattered about and the thump of the compressor somewhere out the back.

Jim provides not only dive trips in his comfortable twin-hulled boat but also dive instructions, sightseeing trips along the coast by boat and wildlife tours on land at dusk. Not too far from Jim and Josies farm and dive operation is the famous Seal Beach with Australian sea lions snoozing and socialising on the sand oblivious to the tourists wandering by. At the far west end of the Island is a national park renown for its approachable animal life including koalas, emus, echidnas, wallabies and native birdlife. While the diving is reason enough to go, don’t leave the family or non-diving friends behind as the animals, quiet private tours, farm-fresh barbecues, scenery and a huge mulberry tree in the front yard will round out the perfect vacation.

Part of the fun is the trip to the ocean on the back of an old tray truck. Wedgetailed and sea eagles are a common sight with a pair of sea eagles being fed from the boat on some trips. A very steep descent lands you at Jims private one-boat marina dredged out of the boulder and shale beach. Divers are advised to get wetsuits on straight away as encounters with pods of bottlenose and common dolphins are a regular occurrence. On most days we encountered dolphins and managed to get into the water with them.

The prevailing southeasterly winds allow the north coast to stay very calm most of the time. This coupled with clear blue water that surrounds the island make just perfect conditions for dolphin swims. One particular dolphin is very friendly, allowing very close contact with divers. Jim swears that it comes to his whistle and it is not hard to see why. Just make sure that you are ready for action and that you have that extra roll of film handy.

Most times I tend to be a little one-eyed when it comes to diving. I had travelled to Jims place to photograph sea dragons and sea dragons only. I had been tempted during my searches with Steve to detour to the courting blue devils, the huge queen morwongs that hung in the spectacular boulder corridors and had definitely become twitchy at the sight of the harlequin fish that looks like a Dr Suess creation painted and spattered by a deranged 60’s hippy. And my monk-like devotion was rewarded thanks to Jim’s local knowledge along with Steve’s loyal assistance and sharp eyes during very long and eventually very chilly dives.

While some dives gave a score of zero, due more to the seadragons marvellous camouflage than a paucity of subjects, I averaged one dragon per dive with some dives having two either apart or together; not bad results at all!

On many occasions that last dive of a trip has held something special. I had found more dragons that I thought was possible. Even the weedy or common dragon was about. However on the last dive none could be found. After six days of diving and feeling that my subject was well and truly “in the can” I felt that I could relax and have a rare just for fun dive. Sure the cameras came too, but the tended to serve more as sea anchors that recording instruments. The sun was dancing is shafts through clear calm blue water, the kelp lay limpid on the rocks, crayfish feelers waved from under ledges (maybe just one..or two) and the queen morwong hung huge and tame against the boulders.

Then it happened. Steves eyes popped as he stared over my shoulder. A great white perhaps? Maybe a bronze whaler or a thresher? I spun around, heart thumping. Out of the blue, backlit by the dancing beams, surged a huge pod of dolphins and swung close to share the view of us and the young pups swimming in the unison under their mothers protective bellies. Sonar filled the sea.

It was perfect – just a kiss of flash-fill would freeze it forever. Even as the thought occurred I realised that Steve held the wide angle units and I could never reach them in time. Some moments are like fine food and wine, meant to be consumed and not preserved. We watched and heard them pass and depart, a final rearguard dolphin scorning my ungainly dolphin kick.

Paradise does exist. It is not a fantasy. Dragons float in dolphin seas on the north coast of Kangaroo Island.

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