Scuba With Platypuses In Queensland's Sugar Cane Capital

For centuries, the platypus – the most peculiar of all Aussie icons – has beguiled and befuddled anyone lucky enough to encounter it. Shelley Thomas goes in search of “Old Man Platypus”, only to discover a world-first scuba dive with his descendants in an equally intriguing location. Smack bang in the middle of Queensland's sugar cane country.

A township nestled in Australia's sugar cane capital, on the doorstep of the nation's largest continuous stretch of sub-tropical rainforest.  Finch Hatton, 80kms west of Mackay is arguably the last place you'd expect a seasoned PADI scuba diving instructor to set up shop.

“It sounds crazy, right?” quips Luana, the brains behind a unique ecotourism venture, Rainforest Scuba, offering a world-first opportunity for people to experience a freshwater scuba dive with platypuses in Oliver's Pool.

It really is a magical experience when you first see a platypus – particularly when sitting quietly, watching them underwater.

“The great thing too is that platypuses are not at all bothered by scuba divers, because we're dark and blow bubbles just like they do. I was over the moon when I first encountered the girls at Oliver's Pool.”

The girls, as Luana affectionately calls them, are what she refers to as three “resident” female platypuses: Penelope, Laticia and Anita.

Dr Tom Grant, a biologist studying the platypus, based at the University of New South Wales, chooses an entirely unscientific term – “mind blowing” – to describe what he witnessed at Oliver's Pool.

“In the 40 years that I've been studying platypuses, I've never seen anything like it,” Dr Grant says matter-of-factly. “You can even stand on the banks before it gets dark and watch a platypus dive to about two metres or more and forage around on the bottom, pushing things aside and actually get into feeding. That's unbelievable!”

Ironically, he learned to scuba dive back in the 70s, when he first started studying the platypus and wanted to observe its underwater behaviour. He soon gave up. The problem being that everywhere he dived was in “pretty turbid water”; a common feature of platypus habitats, solely located on the eastern side of Australia.

“It's normally the kind of water in which you can hardly see the end of your arm,” he explains. “I think in all the time I went diving back then, I saw one platypus that swam close to me and another one on the surface, which I actually didn't see until it touched my mask and we both got a shock at the same time.”

By contrast, Dr Grant says “extraordinary” water visibility at Oliver's Pool allowed him to watch numerous interactions between platypuses, including courtship dances and grooming sessions.

“I saw males and females grab each other's tails and circle around. I don't think I've seen that more than twice before. I saw one male chasing another and watched three or four episodes of platypuses getting up on logs or out on the bank to groom.”

Dr Grant gives Luana's world-first Rainforest Scuba venture the thumbs-up: it's “low impact”, with the added bonus of potentially capturing valuable information and population data about a species best described as more secretive than shy.

The next day, sitting with Chris Ayre, a director at Broken River Mountain Resort, two platypuses appear at one of the viewing platforms, including the smallest one Chris reckons he's ever seen in 12 years.

It's well past 9am. A time considered outside recommended platypus spotting hours – generally falling an hour or so before dusk and the same period after dawn. It's at these times that people are most likely to see platypuses diving to forage for prey (insect larvae, shrimp and worms) at either end of all-night feeding sessions.

Chris knows there's always the chance that platypuses will emerge from their burrows at different intervals during the day, particularly around mating season, which starts a couple of weeks earlier in Queensland, running from late July to September.

Acclaimed Australian wildlife filmmaker and ardent naturalist David Parer spent two platypus mating seasons at Eungella (in 2001 and 2002) shooting key segments of the award-winning ABC documentary “Platypus: World's Strangest Animal”. Not from some hidden bunker, but while staying at Broken River Mountain Resort, setting up his camera on well-worn visitor paths and viewing platforms.

Oddly, David says the high tourist footfall worked in his favour: “Platypuses, which in many places are very, very shy, at Eungella are habituated to people. They're seen almost guaranteed every day.”

The only drawback, he adds, is that the water is too murky to film below the surface.

Back at Oliver's Pool, I'm standing on the banks sizing up river pebbles that I can see perfectly on the bottom.

I spot a cormorant perched patiently above. An opportunist that dives alongside platypuses, dining on small fish and shrimp flushed out by his companions' foraging – a fascinating game of tag-team.

While Mr Cormorant is clearly unruffled, I desperately scan the water for any sign of Penelope the platypus and friends. Ever the optimist, Luana takes pains to explain that she can only ever promise a chance of seeing “the girls”, particularly during a daylight scuba dive. A bit like flipping a 20 cent coin.

On this occasion, the odds are not in my favour. But that's the beauty of nature and, like so many others, I'm hooked for life.

Penelope: you're on my “bucket list” to come back.

  •  Take the plunge: Rainforest Scuba caters to beginner and advanced level divers, with groups capped at a maximum of three or four people: www.rainforestscuba.com
  • Put your walking boots onand pocket some easily mapped-out national park walks through Eungella and Mackay Highlands, with the option of also tailor-making your own special wildlife checklist via:http://www.nprsr.qld.gov.au/parks/great-walks-mackay-highlands/index.html
  • Harness up for an Avatar-esque experience at the top of the rainforest canopy: www.forestflying.com
  • If you're signing up to blow bubbles with platypuses, check out Finch Hatton Gorge Cabinswww.finchhattongorgecabins.com.au The Advanced Ecotourism Certified property offers four self-contained cabins and a restaurant, ideally located close to Oliver's Pool and walking tracks that lead to  swimming falls connected to Araluen and Wheel of Fire waterfalls.
  • Foodie's fear not: the Criterion Hotel in the township of Finch Hatton is renowned for its fine cuisine, as is Broken River Mountain Resort [www.brokenrivermr.com.au], and, if heading up the range, don't miss the Eungella Chalet [www.eungellachalet.com.au], which, hands-down offers the best view from its restaurant and bar. Finally, if coffee's your religion, pull into Coffee Devine, a church-turned café surrounded by sugar 
    cane fields on Mackay-Eungella Rd at Pinnacle, the only route from Mackay to Finch Hatton and on to Eungella National Park.
  • Looking for a guided tour? Reeforest Adventure Tours offers everything you could possibly ask for, including the popular “Platypus and Rainforest Eco Safari” and other day trips to Cape Hillsborough National Park, the Farleigh Sugar Mill and Mackay's historical city sights: www.reeforest.com.au

Word Count: 1138
Author: Shel Gahwell 

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