Finding the Horse

Finding the Horse

Samir Alhafith

The Peak is a popular fishing reef 4km off Sydney’s coast. For 13 years the Sydney Project has been diving the Peak; plunging to its depths under the waves and being in awe at the marine environment that lays beneath.

Encounters with minke whales and pelagic fish while on deco are always a thrill. On one occasion though I chanced upon a very unusual and extremely rare creature. For the following years I was on a quest to find this creature again and document it on film.

While diving on the Peak in 2002 with two other Sydney Project members I decided to do my fully planned bottom time. The currents were running a bit strong in the shallower depths but the visibility was excellent. The two other divers planned a shorter bottom time and started to head up. Having some time to further explore, I ran the hand reel out to take a look at some of the beautiful outcrops just off the main reef. The area off the main reef is siltier and due to it being in deeper waters, most fisherman don’t tend to use anchors leaving the reef in a more pristine condition. Although there is beautiful coral growth I did notice a lack of fish life which was a bit of a surprise.

As I was about to return to the shot line a creature like no other I have seen before caught my eye. The creature resembled a pipe fish with similar colouring thought the size of the creature was nearer to a sea dragon with a sea horses tail. At the time I didn’t own a video camera but wished I had one at that very moment so I could capture it and try to determine what is was at a later time.

I had no idea what I was seeing and it amazed me; such an odd looking creature which stood out amongst everything else.

After that dive I contacted Dr Richard Pyle in Hawaii to help me to identify the creature. To help me describe it to him I found some photos of a dead specimen on the internet. Dr Pyle identified the creature as a Spiny Pipehorse (Solegnathus spinosissimus Günther).

The Spiney Pipehorse is a rare species found in the waters of south eastern Australia coastline, predominantly in depths of 60 metres and below. The Spiney Pipehorse, has however, been spotted in the more shallow waters in Tasmania’s Derwent River in 2-3 metres.

Although there are a few instances where the Spiney Pipehorse has been photographed, I have not been able to locate video footage or images of it in deeper waters.

As you can imagine trying to describe a marine creature that only you have seen to your mates is fraught with danger. For years I’ve had suggestions to revisit my choice of gas mixture because it was thought I was seeing things. Try telling a bunch of die-hard divers that you saw a creature that looked like a pipe horse but also like a sea dragon in 108 metres of water. It’s doesn’t hold too well. I was determined to try and capture the Spiney Pipehorse on video. I was in the process of buying my first UW video equipment for documenting ship wrecks which would definitely help with capturing the pipehorse. Locating the Spiney Pipehorse again was a totally different matter. It would be 2 years before I would find another.

In June 2004, Dave Apperley, myself and a few others were diving on the SS Cumberland wreck. We were on the 2nd day of diving and the first time we had located the wrecks stern.

We descended the shot line to 98 metres and made our way to the impressive towering stern. As we approached the edge of the reef to my surprise I stumbled across another Spiney Pipehorse sitting just on the edge of the reef. I frantically started to signal Dave to come over and film the pipehorse. I was excited and relieved; finally an opportunity to capture this elusive marine animal on film.

Deco was a happy time with the thought of knowing we had video footage of the Spiney Pipehorse; it was something special.

The excitement though was short lived. As we reviewed the footage the lighting from five HID lights shining onto the Spiney Pipehorse overexposed the footage. All we could see was a white blob. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to cry or give myself an uppercut.

The following 3 years were consumed with diving NSW south coast wrecks. We didn’t return to the Peak to try and find the pipehorse for a while. An opportunity did come along in March 2007. It was the week leading into the Australian technical dive conference Oztek. We were taking a few overseas guests for a dive on the Koputia wreck – a paddle steamer sitting in 78 metres of water.

The day was beautiful – warm sunny blue skies, blue water and virtually no current. Due to being the diver to set the deco station, I was in the water first and headed down the shot line. To my astonishment I found a good sized pipehorse right next to the anchor of the shotline! As Murphy would have it I didn’t have my video with me! All I could think to myself at the time was “did I kick someone’s’ dog!”

It took 8 years of waiting for my luck to change. On the 27th June 2015 some Sydney Project members were on one of our return dives to the Peak. The goal was to support Sydney Project members who hadn’t yet dived the Peak and also work on gaining depth experience prior to attempting some deeper planned NSW south coast wrecks.

When we arrived at the Peak I asked Herb to sound the wall to locate the steep descent to 108 metres in depth. This was the spot we dived in 2002. After 15 minutes Herb found the location and we deployed out shot line and deco station. From the surface there didn’t appear to be any current and the water looked to be quite clear. Three of us jumped in and descend to the bottom. Condition on the bottom was very dark with a deeper current stirring up the silty layers further reducing visibility.

Although we couldn’t sight the reef when we reached the bottom we made the decision to swim towards what we thought to be the direction of the reef in the hope that it wasn’t too far away. The swim wasn’t easy, but thankfully we reached one of the small reef outcrops. Ronnie was running a line from the hotline and Scott and I were following him.

We started to investigate the crevices and nooks within the outcrops to see if we could locate a pipehorse. The current didn’t make things easy on us as we moved around and we were approaching the end of our bottom time window. Prior to the dive we agreed that if a Spiney Pipehorse was located we would extend the dive window to capture footage which would result in a longer deco on the way back up.

We were down to our last before we had to return to the shot line. I looked over to a little canyon in a rock outcrop and my eyes landed on a Spiney Pipehorse. I couldn’t believe it. With the camera rolling I start to film the pipehorse where it was resting within the canyon, switching to stills mode to take images as well. My 20 minute bottom time maxed out to 27 minutes which made for a nice long deco on the return. It wasn’t worried though, I had footage of the elusive Spiney Pipehorse. I couldn’t wipe the smile from my face. Having Henry on support duty was also good for the long ascent back to the boat.

People often ask what is so special about going through such effort, just to find a little fish that no one really cares about. It’s the fact that we live in one of the world’s major cities, and yet just off our coast we have animals that hardly anyone knows even exists! They are extremely rare and not much is known about them I have had the good luck to be guided by a few expert friends in Ichthyology, and we just realised that such dives on these deep reefs can yield a lot more to science. We have so much to learn about health of our reefs, and how it affects the creature that live there. To me the biggest surprise has been just how overfished there reefs are, as there is virtually no big fish to be seen.

People living in a large city such as Sydney can be oblivious to the marine environment. Many only hear about our coastal environment from misguided media. Such information deters many younger generations from getting out and exploring the dynamic marine ecology that is just outside their front door.

There is opportunity for technical divers who focus solely on deep wreck exploration to stop and look at the potential knowledge we can bring up from the deeps to assist our scientific community and to be part of a broader education movement to inform people on the treasures we have under the waves.

A special note of thank you to all Sydney Project members, past and present for the endeavours Sydney Project has taken on. These achievements are not possible without a great team to make it all happen.

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