as a kid living on the coast of one of the most beautiful countries and coastlines in the world, and especially given the weather around here, it wouldn't come as much of a surprise to find that i spend a lot of time by the seashore as a kid. Fishing (a little), swimming (heaps) and the amateur nature study that a lot of kids do.
I saw seahorses, jelly fish, crabs, dozens of fish, molluscs, and shellfish, and even small sharks when swimming or clambering out on rocks and in rockpools around Lurline bay, between Maroubra and Coogee beaches. The sun beat down on us mercilessly and i knew not what a blessing my mixed blood was in this country, while my pasty while anglo friends fried, my olive skin just got darker. This was before the days of the skin cancer concerns and the rush to be tanned, we were just as we were, dark, light, it didn't matter. We were kids.
Doing our usual rounds we saw the creatures we knew and sometimes found something new. We knew what was dangerous, and we knew the ones that looked dangerous but we'd been told weren't really, but we were still suspicious. Sea Urchins, all spiky and hard could be a problem if you stepped on them, but we knew to look out for them, the blue ringed octopus we were all aware of, but you could almost never see because they were so damn small (it's about the size of an adult thumb, and can kill a football team with one bite) and they were very timid. We never put our hands under rocks, or in holes, because there was a lot out there that would have a taste of childrens fingers. The one thing we all knew about was bluebottles,
they're very much a part of an east coast australian summer.
I say we, but i may have been mostly me, in fact now that i think about it, it was just me. I remember going to school and correcting teachers about all sorts of marine creatures. I didn't realise at the time exactly how rude that was to them, but i thought everyone should really know the truth.
The dangerous one we knew of was the "portuguese man o'war". While the bluebottles hurt like a bitch, and many of the other kids had been stung by them, i never had and never wanted to (and to this day i have eluded their bastard blue tendrills), the Man O'war could kill you, and there was a report nearly every year of some tourist getting killed by one.
This is a really poor place for tourists in many ways, the dangers we take for granted and seem perfectly obvious to us, seem to escape their grasp. Crocodiles for example. We know not to trust the dodgy bastards and if you can't seem them, we all immediately assume they are there (in the Northern parts of the country at least). This ridiculously hostile flora and fauna, is as many anthropologists and cultural commentators point out, is probably the source of what appears to many other nationalities as recklessness among Australians. All through writings concerning Australians abroad there is this constant about australians being cheery in the face of death and this gallows humour being a little disturbing for their allies in the trenches. The Kiwis seem to have it too, their fauna is about as dangerous as a goldfish, because the Maoris killed everything dangerous long ago. Still, the Maoris probably fill that role in the Kiwis psyche.
It was this particular blindingly bright day, that we were down at the water swimming in the rock pool, and catching crabs (the bastards can nip) and enjoying the day and developing skin cancers presumably, when a bright blue and silver flash caught my eye in a long but shallow rock pool. I stopped and summoned my friends to observe. Now i knew there was pretty much nothing good that was blue, but most of them were slow moving, this shot under an overhanging rock when my shadow passed over like a dart.
We stirred the water and it flashed away again, then another then another. We'd seen nothing like it, and to be honest we'd seen very little of it at this stage. I was suspicious because i'd seen blue frills, and blue frills made me think of blue tentacles, and blue tentacles meant stingers, and screaming friends. We wanted, I wanted, a much closer look.
We started to corral off a section of the pool close to the fish for that's what we had agreed that they were. Poorly chosen it turned out as they had far too many places to hide. Half an hour later of chasing we'd reconsidered, and chosen a section of the pool that suited us, and had blocked up the holes and gaps but submerging our mother's brightly coloured towels and our plain shirts. We wedged rubber thongs under the ledges and kept others to splash in the water.
Bare footed we waded into the pool, which came about to our knees in places, and started herding these blue lightning flashes towards our trap. Fish flashing and us splashing, within ten minutes we'd corralled them off and could see them clearly.
They were breathtaking. Silver and blue, with long curly fins that trailed like the tendrils of the bluebottles we hated so, large eyes and blue stripes from their tops to their predictably white bellies. I had never seen anything like them before, and i knew a lot about the sea. I'm not sure i've seen anything like them since. We had to capture them and show them off.
Now don't get me wrong here, this was one of the things that i wasn't stupid about as a kid (there were many i must point out), but i knew we couldn't keep them, we could only keep them at most overnight, but long enough to show off to the kids who weren't allowed to leave the street and to our parents. I was sure that my Da could tell me what they were. We could take them back later that day, or in the morning.
So after more splashing about and chasing we'd caught two and placed them in a bucket, the third we had either lost over the side of the rockpool into the bay proper, or we had caught and carefully released into the large rockpool. I really don't recall, but i knew two was enough for us.
So Adam and i, him being the biggest and strongest, and me because it was my plan and i always took responsibility (see an idiot at an early age), started carrying these buckets up the sloping cliffs to the street. The cliffs weren't sheer but they weren't that easy with bucket with nearly 20 kilos of water for an eleven year old. We loved going as fast as we can unladen, and it was a habit that made our mothers nervous, the mothers that knew what we got up to in any case. Kids heal quickly, and broken bones and bruises are all as glamourous as war wounds to kids.
We climbed up and the other kids dispersed to their homes or stayed down at the rocks. Adam and i lugged these fucking buckets up the hill from the bay, and then to the top of hill that overlooked maroubra beach. My house lay at the bottom of Torrington road, a long way further down. I don't know how many times we stopped for a rest and how many times we checked our captives, but it must have taken us an hour at least for what was a fifteen minute walk on even the shortest legs.
We got home finally got some long steel cooking trays and poured out our catches of the day, crabs, shellfish, seaweed, and these two blue lightning bolts. We arranged them artistically and waited for our mothers to come out and see what we had caught.
The rest of our captives were much the same as usual, hiding under clumps of weed, or under rocks or fighting amongst themselves as the crabs often did, but the Blue fish were opening and closing their mouths desperately, gulping water and looking panicked, their blues fading and no longer looking quite as spectacular as before.
Eventually the adults insisted we came in and had lunch and agreed that after lunch they would come out at our repeated and urgent insistance that speed was of the essence.
One of the blue fish regarded us gloomily on our return, his blue fins folded up and his bright blue colouring almost faded to the lightest pastel, he was no longer the blue flash of briliance that had caught my eye in the rockpool. The adults agreed he was pretty, but no more handsome than anything else. The other blue was floating belly up, and the crabs were waving their claws as he floated past, waving in hunger but it seemed to me that they waved his passing. A few minutes later the biggest crab had climbed on to others and brought him down to eat and they squabbled over his carcass.
The remaining blue was returned to the sea as soon as my Da got back to drive me down to the beach, i was all for returning him to the bay where we'd got him, but because it was dark the beach would be easier, and there Northern end (which was where i lived) had plenty of similar rocky areas.
I released the remaining and sickly looking blue into a quieter pool that joined to the ocean beyond and watched him slowly half floating and gulping, until he managed to right himself and slowly swam off under the rocks.
It would be dramatic and cathartic to say i did so with tears streaming down my face at the sorrow i felt at having killed his friend, but the reality of it was that i was angry. I was angry that i'd made this mistake, that was a mistake without me knowing it. Other fish and creatures survived overnight or sometimes longer. Hell i'd later convert a pair of estuarine Toadfish to freshwater and they were fine, until i'd traded them to some friends for something or other, then they'd died (about four months after i'd got them).
But these blue lightning bolts had died and suffered as a result of this mistake. Adam had been chided by his mother for it, and my own mother was largely ignorant of anything to do with animals, and had said nothing. But i was angry that i had done this. Angry that i'd been unable to capture this beauty i'd found even for an extended moment.
It took me a long time to learn that you can't capture beauty. Moments are just that, moments, and you have to appreciate them as is, they cannot be extended or manipulated.