Swimming with the Whyalla Cuttlefish is one of the great wildlife experiences.From June to the end of August, Whyalla, at the top of Eyre Peninsula, becomes the giant cuttlefish capital of the world.
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It’s not every day you have permission to hold your wife underwater. But these weren’t normal times. We were snorkeling in the Upper Spencer Gulf near Whyalla; the water was 13 degrees and we were photographing cuttlefish. Yes –Australian giant cuttlefish.
Whyalla, in South Australia, is unique in the world for its wintertime aggregation of Australian giant cuttlefish. They arrive in their tens of thousands to breed. The rocky ledges between Point Lowly and Black Point in the Upper Spencer Gulf Marine Park provide the perfect habitat for them to do their thing.
Fortunately for snorkelers and divers, this cuttlefish congregation takes place only metres from shore making it easy for swimmers of all abilities to see these fascinating creatures.
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The best place to access the giant cuttlefish is Stony Point. It’s about 20 minutes out of Whyalla. There is plenty of parking, change rooms, toilets and a shelter. A short walkway takes you down onto large flat rocks. They make a convenient platform for putting on your fins and launching into the water.
Whether you are snorkelling or diving, the one thing you need to prepare for is the cold. In the winter months, South Australian waters are between 12 and 15 degrees so be ready to cover yourself in as much neoprene as possible.
We hired our gear from the brilliant team at Divers Delight before we left Adelaide. Snorkeling and scuba gear is also available locally from Whyalla Diving Services. We went for 5mm wetsuits, gloves and boots. We decided not to get a hood but in hindsight wished we had. When the water hits your head for the first time, I wouldn’t say it was painful, but you sure knew you were alive!
Giant cuttlefish everywhere
It takes half a minute for you to adjust to the water temperature and be thankful for your wetsuit. In that time, you will likely see your first giant cuttlefish. At between 30 and 60 centimetres long they aren’t hard to spot. You’ll see them in only a metre of water. As you go out a little deeper, into three or four metres of water, you’ll see more and more of them.
You read that there are thousands of giant cuttlefish in the area but it isn’t until you stick your head in the water, and see fifteen of them framed in the shape of your facemask, that you believe it – and you can’t take your eyes off them.
A sight to be seen
Waves of colour pulse across the bodies of the large males as they compete for the attention of the females and ward off other suitors. As they glide across the sea grass and over different colour rocks, their appearance changes to blend in with their environment. It’s quite a show.
They can swim head or tail first, propelled either by a jet of water from their siphon or the rhythmic undulations of their fins. Their movement appears effortless and graceful. As spectacular as it is to watch them from above, it’s even better seeing them ‘face to face’. This is where holding Nat underwater comes in.
Getting up close
While divers are equipped to sink, it is trickier if you are snorkelling. The extra buoyancy of a think wetsuit and the saltier water found at the top of Spencer Gulf make it hard to stay down.
Even though we wore a weight belt, it wasn’t enough to keep us on the bottom. So, when it came time for us to get some eye level photos and video there was only one thing to do.
‘I’m just going to have to hold you down there.’ Nat thought about it for a minute but finally conceded that it was the only way to get the closeup pictures. Once we had a signal sorted out for letting her up, it worked well.
The cuttlefish are so intent on breeding, gawking snorkelers don’t bother them at all. At close range their large heads and big, expressive eyes confer on them a high level of intelligence. Their chameleon-like colour changes look like computer-generated special effects.
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Eyre Peninsula’s best kept secret
Nat and I swam with the cuttlefish three times over the weekend. We lasted about 40 minutes in the water on each occasion. We could have watched them hours but when your legs start cramping and you can’t feel your lips, it’s time to listen to your body and get out.
Eyre Peninsula offers many great wildlife experiences, but few will top swimming with Whyalla’s cuttlefish. Put it on your list – there isn’t anything else like it in Australia.
We stayed at the Sundowner Cabin and Tourist park. Set just outside the town centre the park feels clean, tidy and a great place for a few nights. The back gate leads through to the Sundowner hotel with accommodation and great pub meals. If you are diving or snorkeling the little balcony is perfect for hanging out your wetsuit to dry.
The Australian Giant Cuttlefish is a cephalopod which is the same group name as squid and octopus. Males can grow up to 60 cm long and weigh up to five kilograms. They can alter their skin colour at will, for camouflage or communication. They have three hearts that pump a green-blue coloured blood, they live for one or two years and are usually solitary when they are not spawning.
Best time to visit: June to August.
Where: 20 kilometers from Whyalla at Point Lowly with easy access at Stony Point or Black Point.
Accessible from shore in 2-5m of water. Water temperature 12-15 degrees.
COST – FREE
EQUIPMENT – 5-7mm full wetsuit, gloves, boots, hood, mask, snorkel, fins.