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Swimming Green Army

By Pascal Geraghty on June 25, 2015 in Other

Photo: Museum Victoria

Photo: Museum Victoria

Who doesn’t love donning smugglers, rummaging haphazardly in kelp, groping in rocky crevices and probing for precious, prickly whiskers?

Free-diving for eastern rock lobsters (Sagmariasus verreauxi) has become a popular pastime enjoyed by the many pseudo hunter-gatherers inhabiting, among other places, Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs.

Searching for, finding and snatching your legislated share off the ocean’s floor, armed with nothing but your bare hands, then wrestling the bucking crustaceans back to your patient tinnie, is the pinnacle of satisfaction.

So I’m told, anyway, because I’m deadset hopeless at diving for crays. Embarrassingly, I’ve never so much as laid a finger on one underwater, let alone swaggered in the door lobster in hand. I blame my pathetic breath-hold skills.

Rather than dwelling on my failures as a recreational primary producer, I’d like to pay tribute to this humble, astronomically priced beast. Few would know of the epic journey lobsters undertake from birth to becoming the hero of designer foams and complex bisques composed by coke-fuelled chefs in hatted establishments and worshipped by the owners of high-end tastebuds.

Sagmariasus verreauxi is the largest species of rock lobster in the world, can live for up to 30 years and is endemic to south-eastern Australia and New Zealand. Funnily enough, though, recent genetic research has revealed that our loyal lobsters don’t actually mingle with their neighbours across the ditch. I can well understand why.

They commence life as an unrecognisable, alien-like planktonic form known as a phyllosoma. This weird, wonderful, flat, transparent critter, with long legs and googly eyes, spends up to a year drifting on the ocean currents, being transported far out to sea, hundreds of kilometres offshore. There they metamorphose into a puerulus stage, an exact miniature replica of the adult model.

Over the next month, the pueruli change from translucent to dark brown and work their way back to the coast to settle, grow and aggregate amongst the homely brown algal fronds coating shallow, nearshore rocky reefs. Here the juveniles spend their formative years, learning social skills and fighting off hungry fish, sharks, rays and octopuses.

As maturity approaches, around 7-8 years of age for females, these seasoned travellers pack their sturdy, green armours and set off once again, this time marching northward. This migration sees most mature lobsters found north of Newcastle, and is coupled with seasonal movements from deeper waters for mating to shallower waters for spawning.

Fortunately, there’ll be lobsters on tap for generations to come, and we can tip our hats to local fisheries scientists for this. A crack team of Sydney researchers was successful in helping rebuild the eastern rock lobster population from a much depleted state in the early 1990s to the sustainable, thriving and ever-increasing numbers roaming out there today.

So next time you’re gawking at the poor, miserable sods hunched motionless in the aquarium window of your local Chinese restaurant, take a moment to admire this fascinating, intrepid, tireless local creature, and consider diving in to find one for yourself. You couldn’t possibly do any worse than me!