Lip-smacking LizardsOccasionally I don the dick-stickers, goggles and ear plugs, and pretend to be one of those all year, all weather ocean swimmers. Seemingly immune to the cold and unperturbed by the threat of sharks, they ply endlessly, anonymously, at an excruciating snail’s pace backwards and forwards off Coogee Beach.
Myself, though, I refuse to dabble unless its champagne swimming conditions – sunny, pancake flat and crystal clear. I rubber-up if it feels even remotely fresh and I swim in constant fear of being swallowed whole. I also take the punt that whoever’s seen me and concluded that I’m one of the abovementioned hardy, fearless, tireless types doesn’t watch for long enough to notice that I’ve staggered from the water after one return lap.
Nevertheless, I was making a beeline for shore recently following one such swim and decided to make a detour via the reef in the southern corner. I was lured over by an abundance of blackfish surging to and fro beneath the waves. Near the edge of the rock shelf I stumbled across a dirty big flathead sunning itself on the bottom. Normally expertly camouflaged, this carefree flatty stuck out like dog’s balls on the sand. You cheeky bugger, I thought. He was either thrill-seeking or knows that the local spearos are bloody hopeless.
It got me thinking about everyone’s favourite fish with chips. There’s far more to flathead than getting a loan to purchase skinless fillets, getting slashed by their painful spines and being subjected to cool fishos calling them ‘lizards’.
The particular individual I spotted was clearly a dusky flathead (Platycephalus fuscus). Its large size gave it away. But it’s not the only flathead species living in the area. You might also come across others such as bluespotted (or sand), longspine, tiger (or trawl), mud and freespine flathead. The dusky, however, is undoubtedly the king of the flathead jungle. It is the largest, most sought-after Australian flathead species and can reach gigantic proportions, including lengths up to 120cm and approximately 15kg. It is a bottom-dwelling ambush predator that inhabits estuaries and nearshore coastal waters along Australia’s east coast. It lies in waiting for unsuspecting prey on a range of substrates including mud, sand, seagrass and rocky reefs, and its colour patterns can vary accordingly.
Platycephalus fuscus is a key component of recreational and commercial fisheries in NSW. Research has shown that it can live for a long time (at least 16 years), but that males and females become sexually mature at around 32cm (about 1.2 years) and 57cm (about 4.5 years) respectively. Tag-release studies have also shown that they are capable of moving between estuaries.
The dusky flathead is an iconic species – next time you’re looking around underwater, keep your eyes peeled. They are crafty operators, experts in camouflage, that will see you long before you see them. Now and again, though, you’ll happen across a loud and proud individual who’ll present you the opportunity to watch, learn and admire.