Travel Story - Wildlife Aussie style 

Oh be gone, wobbegong

Escaping from Whistler’s winter for the first time in 20 years, we were hiding out near Margaret River in W.A. (Western Australia). Gracetown, population about a hundred, had all the amenities: the shop, the café and the hall. The surf, sun and sand more than made up for the lack of snow. We just needed to figure out the wildlife.

It began innocently enough. Dave suggested, "We really should check the cray trap."

Translation: cray equals Western rock lobster, which look like a Canadian lobster except with whip-like barbed antennae instead of pincers.

"Sure, it looks like the wind has died down," I responded.

No matter what time of day we paddled out into the bay, the wind seemed to pick up. Wind in Western Australia was a bit like breathing; it never stopped unless you were dead. The trick was to guess when it was going to switch from offshore to onshore.

In the history of Gracetown, no one had ever used a "goat boat" (plastic kayak) to set or check their cray trap. The locals shook their heads at us bobbing in the vibrant mango-coloured Sea Slug. They were quite tolerant of Canadians and assumed it must be a cultural ritual. Aussies checked for crays with tinnies (aluminum boats, not beer cans).

As Dave pulled up the trap, I gave up trying to brace and concentrated on keeping the kayak perpendicular to the waves crashing over the stern. The offshore had kicked up right on schedule as we had headed out.

"We have to have at least three crays!" Dave shouted, feeling the weight of the trap as he pulled it up from the bottom.

I hung my feet into the water for extra stability, as with a final heave he got it out of the water.

"We’ve got a shark!" he yelled. "It’s a wobbegong and he must have eaten the crays. The bait’s gone," Dave added.

Sure enough, the gummy shark was curled up with his tail spilling out. He had to be at least four feet long, over 20 pounds and almost filled the trap. There was no way of getting him out while perched on the deck of the goat boat.

It got better. I was in the paddle position and Dave was facing backward holding on to the trap balancing precariously on the stern.

"Let’s paddle to shore to release it from the trap," instructed Dave.

That was easier said than done. There was only one choice, head straight back into the wind. The cliffs of South Point were on the right and the surf was bombing on the rocks at North Point, to the left. By this time, the waves were capping and I began to feel like a harried hamster on a wheel, working like crazy and making no headway.

"We’ll have to switch," decided Dave as he jumped into the water. For a few seconds it was Mr. Shark and me mono au mono.

Dave scrambled onto the bow and I shimmied to the back. I had to turn backwards and face the trap to keep it from falling off the kayak.

Now, up to this point I had only had a fleeting glimpse of the wobbegong. Boy, was he ugly. I was relieved the wobbie had slithered to the rear of the trap and was curled up, with folds on his belly like weathered leather. His tail flopped out through the slats onto the stern. The only redeeming feature I could see was the pattern of cream crescent-shaped gills contrasting against the subdued brown mottling of his smooth skin.

"Aaaaah!" escaped from my lips. The dinner-plate face, edged with wormy whiskers lunged close my face. My guts ignored my brain’s message that he couldn’t get through the bars. There were no signs of intelligence in the pea-sized beady eyes peeking out of the folds in the sides of his head. I attempted to control my rapid breathing as the wobbie inched nearer. The kayak teetered side to side as Dave battled the swell. South Point was shrinking at an excruciatingly slow rate.

Turning my head in our direction of travel, we crept ever closer to the beach. The golden sand never looked so good. I leapt gratefully off the Sea Slug as it nudged onto shore. Like a Swiss time-piece the wind petered out.

As Dave moved the trap into the shallows, I backed gingerly out of the water. I wasn’t about to experience a gummy shark glommed onto my leg.

The lid of the trap opened and freedom beckoned.

"Oh, be gone wobbegong," I intoned as he swum lazily into the depths.

Ah, wildlife Aussie style.

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