Week 21 – ray

Week 21 – Saturday 20 October to Friday 26 October 2012

Illustration by Rhiannon Shaw, The Big Issue 294. December 2007

Tom saw a decent-sized stingray this week, out between the groynes, where the serious swimmers go. Late last summer there was a ray in the shallows one day, almost on the sand. It wasn’t looking too lively.  Tom and Roger tugged it out out of harm’s way into deeper water. It still wasn’t looking too lively but the outgoing tide looked after things.

I spied a little ray, maybe the size of a frypan last week and then this week, on Wednesday, I saw a larger ray in the shallows. About a metre wide. I floated above it for a few seconds. It stayed still. The first ray I saw last year was Saturday 5 November. The first ray I saw in 2010 was Saturday 30 October.

There’s another ray we see quite often at the beach: Ray the walker, with the big “G’day!” and the big smile.

In a month or two I hope to find more stingrays around the corner at Jawbone Marine Sanctuary.

Here’s a story I wrote five summers ago called Looking For Big Ray. The Big Issue published it back then.

Any day now, I’ll see it. Early morning maybe, with the place to myself, save for the descending hot-air balloons and the incoming ferry. Or later in the day with people about, unsuspecting visitors.

I will be floating. It will be camouflaged, its diamond shape hidden just below the sand. There might be two circles, like dark coins, to give me a clue. There might be a hint of its tail, a vague line in the sand.

Any day now. The wind will be still, the water will be calm.

My chest, already feeling the pressure of the water, will beat hard. My eyes, protected by goggles, will widen. My breathing, aided by the snorkel, will quicken.

The key is not to panic, to know that you can be safe. And then to try to stop time, to savour the moment…

I always thought stingrays were exotic, far-away creatures that lived up north on the Great Barrier Reef, off Cairns. Or inland, even, in the confines of an aquarium. I thought I had as much chance of meeting a stingray here at a suburban beach in Melbourne as I had of coming across a whale or a dolphin or a shark (which is a cousin of the stingray).

But any day now I will see a ray here, in the shallows, in water less than two metres deep, just twenty metres from shore.

I am such a novice snorkeller that I still get excited seeing common creatures – zebra fish, starfish, jellyfish, sea urchins, soft drink cans, golf balls, rubbish bags.

But seeing a ray takes you to another world, one of heightened fear and surprise and wonder.

Not that there should be much to fear, for stingrays are not naturally aggressive creatures. Sometimes they stay still in the sand and you hover above, trying to make out their length and width. Sometimes they take fright, rise a little from their nest and swim away, although it looks more like they are flying through the water, their pectoral wings moving gracefully.

One summer I asked one of the regular swimmers about the local stingrays. ‘Oh them,’ said 80 year old Jack nonchalantly, ‘you see them a bit. Sometime you might accidentally stand on one. They usually mind their own business.’

Once, when snorkelling with a cousin and my teenage son, we came across a creature we later dubbed Big Ray. It was probably a Smooth Ray, given that it seemed close to three metres long. Smooth Rays can also be three metres across and weigh up to 250 kilograms. All we knew then was that Big Ray was long and wide and dark, a dark ageing grey. And big.

It lay there floating, beside some rocks, a stone’s throw from families on the shore making sandcastles, from teenagers on the sand making phonecalls, from elderly friends standing waist-deep in the shallows. Not far at all from the kiosk and the ice-cream van and the car-park and the traffic.

The three of us gazed down at Big Ray, our hearts thumping. After a minute or so we gently swam away, stood chest deep in the water, removed our snorkels and tried – in vain – to put our wonder into words, into sentences.

When we returned for a second glimpse, Big Ray was gone. Bored maybe, or hungry. Or frightened by our shadows and voices. My cousin saw Big Ray the next day but I have not been so lucky.

The stingrays of Port Phillip Bay are not migratory creatures. It is we who disappear into our winter nests in the colder months. And then gradually we come out into the sunlight and into the water…

Any day now I’ll see my first stingray of the summer. It might be a young one, the size of a pancake. It might be an elder, like Big Ray. It might stay still, it might move away.

Regardless, I’ll try to hold onto the moment for as long as possible, knowing that it’s like trying to hold onto water.

Any day now.

The sun will be hot, the sky will be clear.

Any day now.




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