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Unlocking The Secrets Of The Deep

By Pascal Geraghty on October 23, 2015 in Other

Photo: Pascal Geraghty

Photo: Pascal Geraghty

Do you ever wonder what new species of fish might be lurking down there, undiscovered, in the deep, black, uncharted depths?

Nope? Fair enough. There are certainly more important things to ponder in life these days. To be honest, I never gave the fish thing much thought either. That is, until I unwittingly played a best-supporting role in a new(ish) discovery a few years back.

While the rest of Sydney slept, I jumped aboard the commercial line fishing boat ‘Blue Eye’ in Botany Bay. With 400 horses on the back, and a compass and moonlight for guidance, we pointed the bow due east – destination Browns Mountain. 40 kilometres later we arrived to find that we had the popular seamount to ourselves, albeit with a sloppy sea and a touch too much current. The hydraulic reels were nevertheless fired up and fresh baits lowered all the way to the rocky summit 430 metres below us. The vessel’s namesake was our target species and it wasn’t long before we were hauling hefty cod onto the deck, along with a smattering of gemfish.

One of the lines was lacking the tell-tale tugs of a trevalla and was promptly retrieved for a bait check and change. Closer inspection of this ‘empty’ line, however, revealed a doe-eyed and obviously hungry little fish dangling off the end of a circle hook the size of its own head. I couldn’t help but feel for the poor fella, yet he was alive and well – in marvellous nick, in fact, considering the gut-bursting journey it’d just endured from its high-pressured home to the surface.

We scratched our heads. What on Earth was it? We’d never seen one of these before.

In a moment of tenderness, and taxonomic ineptness, I counselled the fisher to toss it overboard. They’re probably as common as bottoms out here, I thought. No use killing a poor little fish. Let’s let it live to fight another day.

I snapped a few photos for good measure with a view to flicking them to the fish identification boffins at Fisheries and the Museum. Surely they could enlighten us.

Well, once they’d regained their collective composure, I was informed that this humble little critter had only ever been seen three times before, having been trawled up from the depths of the Lord Howe Rise and New Zealand’s Three Kings Ridge in 1962, 1998 and 2001. What’s more, the species was yet to be formally described due to the poor condition of those previously collected. Cue our little guy.

The skipper, luckily, had ignored my wise counsel on the day and had preserved the fish on ice. It went on to become the pin-up specimen (or holotype) for the new species.

I campaigned for my name to be recognised in the scientific title, but that too was completely ignored.

And that’s the story of how the banded cucumberfish (Paraulopus balteatus) became officially known to the world.