IMG_1693 cropped for The lair

The Ghost

Ebb, June 2017

Mid 2014, I woke up one morning with a terrible hangover. I’m not a morning person at the best of times, and so it goes that I couldn’t board my mate’s boat to go out to the reef with a bunch of jolly cockroaches (New South Welshmen). Just the thought of being on the sea with green gills was a flashback of sheer terror from my teenage years in a commercial fishing family. Anyways, I wandered along the beach where it was blowing 20 to 25 knots, and I snuck into a small coastal stream for a sobering snorkel. The head was pulsating and my spirits were at best a one out of ten. Forgoing the reef experience due to too much of the amber had been a school boy error at best. For a couple of hours, I took a few photos, counted fish and estimated body sizes, scribbled notes and then it started to rain. The stream was well flowing, and this is often when the male rabbitheads (Sicyopterus lagocephalus) colour up in their dazzling attire. My mate, James Donaldson (whom grew up in NSW) had taken a cracking photo of this species and to say I was envious would be a reasonable assumption. Now I was starting to get excited about the prospect of getting a few OK shots and taking on the NSW pack (of course this is how nature photographers typically think of photography, by comparing it to a brutal game of football).

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The male Rabbitheaded cling goby as captured on camera by James Donaldson.

 

I got to the last pool of the day, just below a waterfall, and was preparing for some high ISO setting shots in the partial light because I had seen several rabbits in this pool years ago. Then suddenly I was confronted with the largest cling goby I had ever seen. I only got a quick glance, it had a red eye and a predominantly brown body, and then I searched around for it some more only to reveal no cigar. It had gone to ground, and I was left licking my wounds and heading back along the sea shore to camp. Camp was kitted with a TV and a hot shower, so it was hardly the worst I had felt that day.

Later in the evening I was horizontal and wrestling with the fact that Queensland had lost a game of footy. This is not any easy feeling to shake if you are from God’s country and you like rugby league. Among other things, I knew that In a couple of days I would return to the mainland only to contend with zealous text messages from an old fisho friend, Rhian Clear, regarding how sweet the game had been from the NSW perspective. But as I faded off to sleep, the last thing racing through my mind wasn’t footy it was this new giant brown cling goby. Was it real? Had the boys spiked my drinks the night before? It was dead-set Alice in Wonderland for fish biologists 101. So the next day, I set off back along the beach with three Go Pro cameras, some dive weights, and a fist full of cable-ties. Goes without saying – how good are cable-ties, eh? Anyways, I was expecting this goby to be so damn shy that I would need to set up the surveillance cameras.

As I was perched on this giant, piano-like rock preparing the cameras and attaching them to the weights, I spied this giant white goby from above the water surface. Yesterday it was brown, today it was a luminescent white with a red eye (Alice in Wonderland, the next level). A quick spit in my mask to clear the fog and then ever so slowly I lowered myself down the slippery rock face. Into the algal rock my gripping of finger nails somehow prevented what would have been an unforgivable splash below where the white apparition awaited. I then somehow bent my body like a rookie yoga master and extended head first through the water surface to fire off about 8 to 10 shots. All within only the failing body of middle aged man. The majestic goby cautiously grazed breakfast in the shallows right in front of my nose. After gathering myself once more, I retracted from the water having completed perhaps the shortest and shallowest dive of my life. Then it was time to activate the video cameras and position them about in the underwater boulder fields with film a rolling.

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The Ghost, Sicyopterus cynocephalus (this individual is about 180 mm TL) (photo: for once, not by James Donaldson)

 

It was a magical bloody experience and despite less than ideal lighting conditions, the stills turned out alright and some very nice video of the giant cling goby dominating its domain was also forthcoming. A month or two later I fired up the Dirty Worm (my trusty boat) and I went back to that same spot with James Donaldson and Gerry Allen to pepper the joint with Go Pros in the bid to find out some more about this giant ghost of a cling goby. The fish turns out to be the ninth cling goby species verified to inhabit streams of the Wet Tropics in Australia. And that is what I will be rabbiting on about at ASFB this year.