Small settlements

A photo of a red bait crab

By John Bennett

                                            Easter Sunday, Woolgoolga, NSW


The air spits monochrome over Emerald Beach, 

cresting waves milk spume and briefly hold their breath.

Quicksilver snares Solitary Island, a jut of kangaroo

pricks his ears and holds the composition together.

It’s a wild scenario – the untamed Pacific (plus surfers)

and sheer, knurled cliffs, but Eastern Greys stay close.

In well under two centuries, they’ve lost their fear

as prey and graze intimately with passers-by.

The water’s dishevelled, there’s no point looking

for the Hawksbill or Green Turtles observed last time.

That sky was cobalt, rich as an apothecary jar

and a Diamond Python flowed over our path.

Such memories spark transparent desire for reality

and simplicity with snakes at home in the garden.



We continue north to Woopi where the headland

feeds a spindly, fairy-tale stand of casuarinas.

Our salty, elemental church promises surfers

riffling wave after wave, a perfect one, one day.

The beach drags nippers to a squiggle for the race,

lifesavers ride past checking the rips, planting flags.

Under crumpled cloud two dozen sharp bills

briskly probe a spring mattress of fresh Brown Kelp.

Maddey says people complain, but seaweed is no weed.

She dries kelp on her washing line and makes a soup.

Spooked, the Ruddy Turnstones eject, skid low,

bank back, striking black and white stencilled Vs.

They drop onto a basalt spine and wait for us to pass.

They are waiting to migrate to Siberia any day now.

Their handfuls of feathers will embark on a journey

of six thousand kilometres with no stops, and then more.

Our mission is water trapped in dark glassy rock

where small skittering fish centre attention –

Stripeys, black-spot greys and an aqua brilliance,

camouflage discarded, shadowing the overhangs.

Noise from these mirrored realms, breath sounds,

fins-swish, calls or cries are smothered by breakers,

the big hitters. At sea-level it’s all about the eye, baroque

tapestries, uncompromising furnishings often shifting,

a convoluted approach almost Modernist, veering

between representation and outright abstraction.

The reflect/refract flux frustrates focus, a Waratah Anemone

mouth stuffed with carmine tentacles, goes with the flow.

A toddler chucks a spiral skeleton, a big Turban shell,

into splash and giddy ripples. They make him happy.

The spatter casts me fifty years to English minnows

ricocheting between the barnacles and periwinkles.

Among pop-able black Bladderwrack and spongy, yellow

egg cases of the Whelks roamed young green crabs

I would pocket, add wet seaweed and pet for a day or two

then return. I loved them – mortality rate unknown.

A Purple Swift-footed Shore Crab stares back, motionless,

a complete stranger, colours carve up the meagre light.

Spotted Sea Hares sway to their own rhythm, lobes

and tentacles drift a spectacle of world-class camouflage.

Even limpets leave their moorings, in slow motion,

hunger is never tamed, grazing is continuous.

Time strays and scatters in their dumb umwelt, but

words would wash away in the rip, the ram and drag.

After all, for all the verbiage and prolix lexicons

on the tip of our screens, what do we do with it all?

Having lost gills, we pump eight litres of sweet air

down every minute, like most things, without thinking.

Zoanthids, a colony of Polythoa, spineless coral polyps

weave carpets from a paradise of affiliated medallions.

Sea lettuce, a hymn to Earth’s brightest green, tastes

salty from warm amniotic waters feigning transparency.

Attention is worship, environment is the altar,

a vast multitude of tight textures circulating truths.

The Mulberry Whelk, a carnivorous grid-roller design,

drills through a victim’s shell and injects sulphuric acid.

A single chiton in medieval armour or alien uniform

sticks, too many nose-dived in the recent downpours.

Rock pools are radiant confusions with tidal emphasis,

one wave nearly lugs me, clumsy and unpredictable.

The cavities breed walls oozing life, an alchemy

protects the meticulous gardens from a brutal ocean.

Sanctuaries radiate the spin and dart of juveniles

waiting for the chance to escape gastropodic creep.

The territories grow forests and pasture, are there cities?

Is suburbia lurking in a corner? (We are inept inhabitants)

Each oasis has its own performances, its own history

its own heaven/haven, and at night its own constellation.        

And each has its ouroboros swallowing the present

until the sea rides climate change over the ramparts.

A slender tentacle reaches out pursued by the octopus,

a few months old, spilling across the dance floor

snaking arms out then contracting them, stretching

Newton’s 3rd law of motion with muscles braced

on fluid not bone. The Gloomy Octopus dissolves

into its rubbled lair constructed from shell and algae.

One rupture wedged into sea is filled to the brim

with Neptune’s Necklace, pale shade balls on a dam.

Photographing the beads, the ground drops from under

my feet, rotten timbers, thin ice, as if I was skating

my arms windmill, camera raised high. The impulse is

to save the machine! I was lost but somehow saved.

Since when is concrete conglomerate geological?

Casually out of place, plastic pipes are obscene remnants

of a sizeable jetty for timber town trade, disintegrating

after the war, after the forests were stripped of Red Cedar.

Is the future fixed for this unlikely planet? Species picked off

one by one as development strangles the remnant pools.


~A poem inspired by the Coffs By Nature Rocky Shore Explore ~


Woolgoolga (AKA Woopi) (‘wiigulga’, Gumbaynggirr for the black apple tree) is north of Coffs Harbour, NSW. I had enjoyed a rocky shore ecology course with the WEA in Sydney in the early 80s. I recall an American tutor obsessed with tube worms, but have forgotten too much and lost my notes. This was a Coffs By Nature event, ‘Rocky shore Xplore Woopi’.

Ruddy Turnstones

After twice completing a 27,000 km journey around the world twice, one ruddy turnstone has well and truly earned a lifetime of frequent-flyer points. Researchers tracked the migration of four ruddy turnstones (Arenaria interpres) from Australia to their breeding grounds in Siberia. The turnstones were found to fly non-stop from Australia to Taiwan, a distance of about 7600 km, in just six days.

Sea Hares

These were Spotted Sea Hares (Aplysia argus), one of 16 species in NSW alone. Also known as Black-spotted Sea Hare, Black-tailed Sea Hare, Indo-Pacific Sea Hare, Nudibranch, Ringed Sea Hare, Ragged Sea Hare, Rang’s Sea Hare, White-speckled Sea Hare, and just in this language of English.


This was the common Sydney octopus (Octopus tetricus), known as the Gloomy Octopus, named after its droopy-looking white eyes. It can grow to about 80 centimetres). Females sometimes cannibalise the males following mating.

The octopus needs three hearts to pump the viscous blue blood of copper and each of its eight arms contains its own ‘mini brain’. An octopus has as many neurons as a dog around 500 million. About two thirds are located in the arms. The rest fill a doughnut-shaped brain, wrapped around the oesophagus.