John McNamee reports
Not too many people will miss Wally the wobbegong.
Except for us of course who got used to spotting him emerging from his rocky caves as we crossed the bay on our early morning swims.
Sometimes when the water was crystal clear and we could see right down to the ocean floor we would notice how the dawn sun highlighted the intricate markings which give Wally and his “cousin” the Port Jackson species their “carpet-shark” nickname.
Wally looked a fairly docile creature and we got used to seeing him swimming about lazily, occasionally darting forward in a flash of foam and swirling sand to snatch at an unwary bait fish.
Yes, it could be a bit alarming at times as we could see Wally’s tail thrashing about way down there and shoals of tiny fish scattering in all directions. Some of us would put on a little spurt and swim a little faster as we passed over the “killing zone.”
“A shark’s always a bloody shark mate let me tell you,” said Jonesy ”and they all know how to bite!!”
Now you couldn’t call Wally a charismatic member of his piscatorial genre with his ominous looking twin dorsal fins, his sharp teeth and his characteristic flowing “beard” — made up of sensors to help him hunt down prey as he’s basically a nocturnal denizen.
Wally and his fascinating ilk may not be as famous along Sydney’s coastal environs as the spectacular blue groper for example. But he’s got his primitive charm all the same.
He’s not a threat to humans, although he can deliver a nasty bite to inquisitive scuba divers or snorkellers who rashly reach out to stroke him.
Like the relatively harmless Port Jackson, Wally is not a protected species although it is apparently a common agreement among coastal fishermen that if they become part of the “bycatch”, they will be thrown back into the water… after of course, the obligatory snapshot.
But somebody didn’t tell this particular group of rock fishermen one early morning recently as we were gathering for our brisk cross-bay run-swim-run.
There were about four of them, none with life jackets of course, all with their long-line rods reaching out across the rock shelf into a fairly heaving swell.
As we chatted and pulled on our silicone caps to protect against the still-chilly ocean temperature, we heard a commotion, a lot of excited shouting and one of the fisherman straining to haul in what was either an underwater snag or a very large fish indeed.
Now alot of us during our lives have cast the odd line into the briny or the tranquil inland waterways in the hope of catching a fish…it’s a primeval urge among mankind.
But that morning, most of us were hoping that it was a snag that was making the straining nylon fishing line behave so violently.
“If that’s a biggie on the end of that, he’s putting up a bloody good fight for life,” Harry said grimly as we watched the other blokes running to help their mate.
“I just hope it’s not Bluey or one of his mates,” said Stevo who, like the rest of us, witnessed a speared groper being battered to death on the promenade at Clovelly beach some years ago now.
None of us ever suspected it could possibly be Wally. Port Jacksons are more likely to snatch at a baited hook than wobbies, our fisho mates used to tell us.
But it was. The bloke with the rod had managed to reel in the struggling catch on to the rock ledge where his mate rushed forward, gaffed it through the back and scooped the writhing creature into his hand-held net.
To our horror we saw that the desperately twisting, twirling fish with a large hook embedded in its bearded jaw, was a wobbegong.
There was much excitement among these callous anglers who gathered around capering and pointing and laughing as Wally struggled to breathe.
Harry stood up on the rock ledge and shouted out to them: “Mate, could you please throw him back. He’s a harmless gummy shark, and he doesn’t make good eating.”
They waved at us, and said something about “photo, photo” indicating their i-phones. We said “well could you please hurry up, the fish is dying.”
But they seemed to think that was quite amusing and continued to mill around laughing and pointing as Wally’s struggles became weaker and weaker.
We couldn’t reach them across the rock ledge because of a deep surging channel but we kept pleading for them to throw him back.
They kept nodding and saying “yes, we’ll throw back” but clearly they had no intention of doing so and continued to take more photos.
We were ropable but it was futile. By now the wobbie’s writhings had become spasmodic and feeble.
It was only then that the bloke who caught him in the first place, leant down and cut the hook and line from the bloodied gaping jaws.
He picked up the half-dead creature and made a big show of throwing it back into deep water.
But we could see that he just dumped him in a shallow rock pool where we had no doubt they would go back and claim the carcass.
As I said, none of us could be described as tree-hugging touchy-feely types who wail too much over the loss of habitat of the green-bellied hornet frog.
But that morning we were all feeling a bit sick in the lower abdominal area after witnessing what amounted to a callous slaughter of a rather spectacular example of our wonderful marine life.
“Hey Macca,” Stevo said to me, ”I don’t think I feel like a swim this morning, that OK?”
“Yeah, I’m the same,” said Harry, looking a bit glum.
“No worries fellas, “I said, “the coffee’s on me at Vicky’s and we’ll meet up as usual tomorrow.”
The next morning it was another beautiful day in paradise as we say, and we were pleased to see there were no fishermen on the rock ledge. We all dived in for our ritual swim and beach run knowing we had some demons to exorcise from our memory.
We were only about halfway across when Harry suddenly stopped swimming and began gesticulating excitedly downwards towards the ocean floor.
Sure enough, there was a flurry of sand which scattered some dozing dinner-plate sized stingrays and out of the commotion there was the distinctive carpet markings of a cruising wobbegong.
“Must be Son of Wally,” laughed Stevo, and we all chuckled and continued swimming with lighter hearts across to the northern headland.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Wobbegong in a local Aboriginal language means “shaggy beard.”