If you’ve been following our recent posts and our Facebook updates judiciously, you’d know that we had the greatest pleasure of visiting Cairns Marine and their wonderful team just a few weeks back. Apart from touring the facility and seeing how things were managed, we also had the absolute delight of speaking to Timothy Bennet, deepwater diver and overall fish collector for the company.
Regrettably, my camera broke just a couple of days before this trip so everything had to be taken with an iPhone camera. What a complete and absolute shame because we saw tons of incredible things, some non fish related, that would have made for some really awesome photos. Well, C’est la vie!
We’ll try to describe the overall layout of the place to the best of our ability in words. The facility itself is a sizeable area with distinct and organised work stations. Now if you could visualise roughly, the cargo loading and transport area is just outside across the road opposite from the main building. Stuff here gets loaded and prepared before transportation to the airport. Crossing that tiny stretch of asphalt will take you to the main building, which upon entering you will be greeted by three display tanks, and a stairwell that leads to the various staff offices.
Continuing ahead past the stairwell will take you to the main indoor holding systems (pictured above), where the bulk of their fish and coral are held. Now you can imagine what this must be like for a fish or coral nut. Literally it’s a candy store, and I myself spent many hours just walking up and down the rows of tanks admiring the minuscule fraction of what the Coral Sea has to offer. Vincent Chalias of Amblard SA was also on the trip, and I don’t want to speak on his behalf but I’d assume he had a great time looking and identifying corals over at the coral raceways.
We have to commend the neatness, exquisiteness and overall functionality of the facility though. One might think that it was ruled by an iron cladded dictator with severe OCD, but we kid. It’s not. Everything is meticulously thought out and systematic from the arrival of the livestock, to quarantine, to holding, to packing and then finally to transport. It’s like watching a well oiled machine.
Cairns Marine collects their fish primarily from the Coral Sea, about 240 kilometres East of Cairns. Their corals come from further south, and the two collection areas do not overlap. We spoke to Timothy Bennet (more on that later) on what it’s like to do what he does, and it was enthralling. Seriously I could, and I would, and if I had my way I will, listen to this man speak forever.
Tim and his two sons, all three of which are phenomenal divers and collectors, typically make about week long trips out to the Coral Sea where they travel around different habitats catching various fish. The boats full of goodies then return back to the facility where they get sorted and housed in their respective holding tanks. When we asked Julian Baggio what it’s like awaiting a Coral Sea unload, he described it as puppies for Christmas. And by puppies we mean super cute fluffy ones. You bet it’s awesome, and if my job had perks like Coral Sea unloads every week i’d be over the metaphorical moon as well.
Be it fish or coral, everything gets tagged after unloading right down to the date of collection as well as GPS locality. They are that serious. The information is keyed into a computer database for easy access and reference, and makes for a very professional way of tracking down their livestock.
Despite the hoards of colourful coral and swaths of shimmering reef fish, Cairns Marine is by and large a major dealer and exporter of large animals intended for public aquariums. The round tubs you see above houses some of the “smaller-large” animals such as rays, Maori wrasses, Trevally, Queenfish, Snappers which are all intended for larger displays or public aquaria.
The outdoor portion of Cairns Marine’s facility is where the big boys are kept. Sharks, some of the larger rays and boney fishes are housed here temporarily before transport and shipping. There’s even a large holding tank for numerous Australian Lungfish, which I would have taken pictures of if my phone wasn’t held hostage by three and five years olds for zombie chasers. I was too mesmerised to remember anyway, and I apologise for that.
Everybody loves cool sharks and awesome rays, but one big fish that really charmed my socks off were these absolutely marvellous Naso tonganus. These cuties were named after Tonga, their type locality, but are actually pretty widespread. I’ve never seen this species in person but that fleshy bump on their head is so unusual, it almost looks like a baby beluga or some kind of cetacean.
We got to see Lyle Squire (director of Cairns Marine) and Laura Simmons (Curator and project manager) work on packing and crating up some reef sharks for transport in situ. It’s unbelievable how much thought and innovation gets put into something like this. We don’t want to reveal too much, but it’s really commendable how the welfare of the animal and the cargo box is taken into such extreme consideration, with real clever and methodical procedures.
On the facility and management front, it was really an eye opening and privileged experience getting to tour the grounds. You can tell just how much thought and effort gets put into the livestock by the little things like stickers that adorned every tank. Stickers that dictate the daily feeding regime, as well as which boat vessel they came from and date of arrivals. Right up to the big things like customising and innovating the size and shape of the big fish crates and what are the best ways to go about doing certain things.
On the other hand, talking to the staff was a whole different level of bewilderment. Timothy Bennett and Fenton Walsh as we mentioned before, were a true delight. Fenton is a scientist who works on fish species, and he most recently published the paper on Cirrhilabrus squirei. Talking to him about fish and his job was amazing. I love fish, and I love looking at them and photographing them and just talking about them in general. But speaking to him, and the diver who collects them is a whole new realm of exciting.
We talked to Tim for a little bit over dinner regarding some aspects of his job and fish collecting in general. Tim collects with his two sons, who are just as good as he is. You can imagine the amount of things I wanted to ask and the kinds of questions that were running through my mind. Tim catches most if not all of the fish that passes through Cairns Marine, and each one of those fish has a story behind it. How he catches them, where he finds them, how they are like in the wild, what kind of environment they live in, what’s their biology, how they move, etc. Every facet of the animal in its natural surrounding has been immortalised in Tim’s brain, and there was only so many things I could ask.
So I did anyway. I made a mental list of every fish I could possibly think of from the Coral Sea and began firing. Tell me more about Pseudocoris aequalis! What about that undescribed Plectranthias? What are some of the cool fish you’ve seen?
Tim’s mind is like hard disk with accessible information at the click of a button. He can generate visual maps of the deepwater dive locations and the terrain with such accuracy you’d be hard pressed not to hold your breath for fear of drowning. It was interesting when he mentioned briefly on Bodianus paraleucosticticus, for which I whipped out a photo on my phone to show him. He was delighted that it’s still alive and doing fine, and you could see it in his eye the genuine love for fish and his job.
He then continued about the habitat, where B. paraleucosticticus is found in. These deepwater hogfishes are found in excess of 70m (230ft) where it is dark. The particular one he caught however was found upside down in a huge cave, where it shared with Centropyge colini. His excitement and enthusiasm when recalling these stories are palpable and tangible almost, and it’s heartening to see.
We tapped into some of his knowledge database on some of the Coral Sea Pseudanthias as well. Now there are tons of beautiful species that come out of the Coral Sea, but in my opinion the three most gorgeous species have to be Pseudanthias flavicauda, Pseudanthias ventralis and the brand new Pseudanthias cf. aurulentus.
P. flavicauda is the most nimble and hardest to catch of the three, according to Tim. If I didn’t remember wrongly, he finds them at 60m where they school along near vertical walls. The habitat makes it tricky and difficult to set up a barrier net to chase and maraud them in, and they generally scatter and disperse when attempted. Tim also mentioned that it takes a certain instinct on the job, to be able to say there’s the fish I want to catch, there, there and there, then actually doing it within a set amount of time while ignoring all the other stuff you don’t want.
I guess it’s difficult to visualise and imagine, unless you are there actually doing it. Pseudanthias ventralis also prefers deeper waters, but in calm slow moving areas with flat rubble bottoms. These are easier to catch with a barrier net, where they are herded and picked off. Sometimes they get scared and descend into the rubble where it is also easy to collect. When asked if he’s seen any of them swimming upside down in caves, Tim said no.
I asked because in the related Hawaiian species, P. hawaiiensis, they are sometimes observed swimming upside down underneath large ledges. The screen capture above demonstrates this very well, with a group of females and a single male at the lower left.
The Coral Sea P. ventralis are not needled during decompression because they are too small and fragile. Instead, they are brought up to the surface slowly over many days, a tedious and time consuming task. Collecting around the Coral Sea means that Tim and his crew has to travel to different reefs with different habitats throughout their week’s stay. The ventralis anthias comes from only one reef, where he has to go back repeatedly many times a day over a few days to surface it. When you buy one of these fish from Cairns Marine, you get an idea how much effort goes into one little fish.
Apart from talking to Tim, we also had the luxury of seeing a Coral Sea collection unloading fresh from the boat. So naturally we’d want to pick some stuff back for ourselves, and it was great fun sticking these “Go To Lemon” stickers on available stock. We asked Tim finally what he really wanted to see in 2015, and he said with his new rebreather he hopes to find a new angelfish.
He’s already seen Liopropoma tonstrinum, which is a new record for the Coral Sea. This particular species is so aggressive in its distribution that every year we are finding out new range extensions for it. At 90m (300ft), Tim mentioned seeing a pair of banded butterflyfishes. At that depth and description, only two genus comes to mind. Prognathodes or Roa. Now these two genera can be really deepwater and it’s not surprising if they exist down in the Coral Sea, especially for Prognathodes. Roa on the other hand, is only represented by R. australis in the Southern Hemisphere, and it’s found in Western Australia. Still it’s anybody’s guess what those butterflies he saw down there were, but we bet you anything it’s probably new.
We wish Tim and his two sons all the best in their dives, to stay safe and just have fun. Special thanks to Lyle Squire, Laura Simmons, Fenton Walsh, Rob Lancely and Julian Baggio for the incredible hospitality, laughs and a great time. If you are reading this, a huge thank you from us, and especially to Rob + Julian for the fishing trip and the unorthodox airport welcome.
A big thanks to Ehsan Dashti of Triton Applied Reef Bioscience and Vincent Chalias of Amblard SA for the companionship too. Before this turns into a graduation day speech, we’d like to end off here. Hope you enjoyed the recount, despite our crappy iPhone photos or lack thereof…
Keep reading for a follow up on our visit to the Sydney Museum and meet up with world authority on dottybacks, Dr. Anthony Gill!