Up close and personal with giant cuttlefish

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Underwater photographer Carl Charter gives us a first-hand account of the giant cuttlefish migration near Whyalla.

Every winter along the coast in Upper Spencer Gulf Marine Park between Fitzgerald Bay and False Bay near Whyalla, thousands of giant Australian cuttlefish congregate to mate.

Swimming out over the rock ledges and weed you suddenly see a flash, like sun glittering off a metallic object in the distance.

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Swimming towards this glitter, it’s not long before you realise you are surrounded by huge yet incredibly graceful giant Australian cuttlefish – the larger males the size of a medium sized dog, the body measuring over 60 centimetres long and weighing 5 kilograms.

Despite their huge size, these creatures hover around effortlessly much like a spacecraft in orbit. Yet if threatened they can shoot water through their siphon and move through the water backwards at lightning speed.

In an area the size of the average rumpus room, you will see 20 to 30 individuals. You will witness large males putting on incredible colour shows pulsating through all the colours of the rainbow at the blink of an eye.

Group of cuttlefish during mating season

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Small males will come in close, pull in their tentacles and change colour to mimic a female – when the large male isn’t watching the small cross-dressing male will swoop in and mate with the female.

At first the sheer size and rapid colour-changes of these creatures is intimidating, yet after a few minutes you realise that they are oblivious to your presence. There is one thing on their mind – procreation.

The best spot for young families to experience the giant Australian cuttlefish is Stony Point, about 20 kilometres north east of Whyalla, where there is easy access via a boardwalk to shallow water. The next best spot is nearby Black Point where you will also find shelter from a north or north-easterly wind on the north-west point of Black Point.

If winds pick up from the south you can drive north east (north of Santos) to find sheltered coves on the other side of the peninsula. Directions and location maps can be found at Whyalla Diving Centre.

The giant Australian cuttlefish starts to congregate to breed in mid-May but the best time of year to experience them is June and July when the breeding season is in full swing.

Giant Australian cuttlefish are active day and night, but the best time to swim with them is normally in the morning before the winds pick up in the afternoon.

Close-up of a cuttlefish

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The breeding areas off Stony Point and Black Point have an average depth of 4 metres, so as long as the visibility is at least 4 metres you will easily see giant Australian cuttlefish while snorkelling in the shallows close to coast. 

If you’re careful to move slowly and not get in between mating pairs, you can get up close without disturbing the cuttlefish. In fact the cuttlefish seem oblivious to people as they go about their activities of outsmarting the other cuttlefish to find a mate.

Two divers swim near a group of cuttlefish

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the winter months, the water is very cold so a well-fitting full 5-millimetre or 7-millimetre wetsuit with hood, gloves and boots is the way to go. If you haven’t got your own gear you can always hire it.

Snorkelling is safe along this bit of coast but you do need to be careful when entering water over rocks and boulders, as they can be unstable and slippery. Stony Point has a boardwalk down to the water and a waist-height chain to hold onto for support, making it the safest point to enter or exit.

The water can get rough in adverse weather conditions so it is advisable to check the weather and sea conditions before you leave home. It is advised not to snorkel off the tip of Point Lowly due to deep water and strong currents.

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To ensure you don’t have a negative impact on the environment and the cuttlefish practise your snorkelling skills before swimming with them. Try not to stand up on rocks and plants. Also do some reading to learn more about cuttlefish and the habitat in which they live. And remember, don’t touch, handle or feed them, or get in between mating pairs.

I’ve been lucky enough to dive with the giant Australian cuttlefish several times since my first visit in 2005. In fact, my first dive trip to experience the giant Australian cuttlefish congregation and their incredible show of colour inspired me to buy my first underwater camera.

To witness something so awe-inspiring and special in my own backyard, which people travel from all over the world to experience, keeps me coming back. I’m always after ‘that’ special image that shows one of the many colours, textures and behaviours of these magnificent creatures. 

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Sadly over the years, the cuttlefish congregation has fluctuated in numbers. It is not known if this fluctuation in numbers is a natural population change, so if you are keen to witness the breeding congregation of giant Australian cuttlefish, do it now.

 

All images copyright Carl Charter.

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