Swimming with aliens

The cuttlefish turn neon blue; their skins ripple with patterns. A metre or so below me, two males spread themselves into vertical screens, each attempting to appear bigger and wider than the other. They flatten their arms and arch their bodies. They look at each other, but don’t touch. Eventually the slightly smaller one gives up and shrinks away, transitioning to a more neutral form as he shimmies off to his next encounter. At a short distance, a female hovers, smaller, brownish, watching carefully.

I have been writing about the giant Australian cuttlefish, Sepia apama, for years, but this is my first time seeing them in the wild. I have watched countless videos, read numerous books and articles, and repeatedly visited the permanent display in the South Australian Museum’s biodiversity gallery. Sepia apama swims in and out of my novel Dyschronia in various shapes and sizes – even as metaphor, as literary image, they insisted on transforming, slipping out from all my nets of meaning. I have obsessed over these strange creatures until they felt like a part of my inner life. I thought I knew what I was going to be looking at.


The road to Whyalla curves back around the coast from Port Augusta. This land and the sea beside it belong to the Barngala people. The landscape my partner and I drive through is mostly flat and covered with desert shrubs, all salt and no fresh water. Across the Spencer Gulf, the familiar Flinders Ranges seem rearranged; Mt Remarkable appears more continuous with them than it does up close. A long, slender cloud hovers over the length of the ancient mountains, like a jaunty scarf that has been tossed into the air.

It’s a quiet Saturday, early in winter, and the air is crisp. We pass the steelworks – they are impossible to miss. Made iconic by their recent career as a political football, the steelworks dominate both the landscape and the town’s reputation. When we drive past, nothing is moving on site. Union flags fly high over the gates, through which no trucks come or go, no workers pass. We continue into town to look for the dive shop.

In 2011, Tony Abbott claimed that Labor’s ‘carbon tax’ would turn Whyalla into a ‘ghost town’, echoing Australian Workers’ Union state secretary Wayne Hanson’s concern that implementing carbon pricing without setting up alternatives for workers would take Whyalla ‘off the map’. For a short time, predicting the closure of the Arrium/Onesteel steelworks became a scare tactic in a painfully unsophisticated public debate that veered rapidly away from the substance of climate change and towards the bizarre hostility that seems to characterise our political era.

Unlike climate change, it turned out to be a false apocalypse. The carbon-pricing scheme only lasted two years, not long enough to discover any effect. It was dismantled in 2014, while Abbott was prime minister. Though he touted this as one of his major successes during his brief reign, ‘axing the tax’ did nothing to help Whyalla. A year later, Arrium posted billion-dollar writedowns. The steelworks haemorrhaged a further $43 million, largely due to shrinking demand from China. Arrium entered voluntary administration in April 2016. Another South Australian industry shuddered to a halt.

Up the road in Port Augusta, the old Alinta coal-fired power station was also going offline. An era was ending. Despite the fact we all knew this was coming, nobody seemed to have a plan in place for what should happen next.


We find the dive shop next door to an empty industrial recruitment office and are welcomed by owner Marlene Bramley. We let ourselves be fitted for rental wetsuits, undersuits, boots, gloves, hooded vests, masks, snorkels and flippers. It seems an unlikely surplus of equipment for shallow, 16-degree water, but it’s impossible not to accept Marlene’s expertise. We try on our kits in the room where the gas cylinders are kept. The shop caters to proper divers as well as casual snorkellers like us. Its walls are covered in posters of the giant cuttlefish and other underwater life. I spot a map of reef ecosystems, its accompanying text urging their protection. There is also a blackboard chalked with the remnants of a dive-school lesson about lungs, the diagram of bronchi and alveoli branched like seaweed.

A few travellers are working at the shop over the winter. We chat with a couple of strong, outdoorsy women from Germany and Argentina, later wondering how they ended up in a place known to most Australians only as a site of industrial dysfunction. The other owner, Tony Bramley – who like many divers is a vocal conservationist – tells me that they get around 1400 customers in a season, and that many more come through on organised tours or diving independently. It’s not a huge economic impact, but in a town this size it’s significant.

Following Marlene’s instructions and a photocopied map, we head back the way we came and turn off near the steelworks. Just before Point Lowly, the Santos LPG plant comes into view, its weird spherical containers like a miniature Pine Gap. We turn into a dirt road signposted ‘Cuttlefish Drive’, eventually arriving at a small car park. In the previous year, thanks to a state government grant, a couple of benches and a row of informative plaques were installed. Plastic non-slip matting covers the simple walkway into the sea.

A few other tourists are getting out of the water as we arrive. It’s mid afternoon and the light is slanting rapidly. We yank recalcitrant wetsuits over our limbs, alternately helping and laughing at each other. Inexperienced as we are, we are grateful for the walkway, the chain and the cement bollards that help us get into the water, and for Marlene’s advice about when to put on the flippers. We are also reassured by the fact that three or four other snorkellers are still out there, not drowning.


As a child, I was afraid of the deep. Poor confidence as a swimmer and a vivid imagination combined to concoct a range of underwater monsters and potential deaths. I can still become shaken in the water, especially if the world beneath is dark. A keen swimmer these days, I have worked to minimise this fear – but in a way, it’s a sensible thing for us land animals to have. Water is not our element. Much of what lives in the sea is utterly strange, utterly alien to us.

Fortunately, we don’t have to go far to see the cuttlefish, who gather in water between one and six metres deep. We spot one, then another, and suddenly they are everywhere. I keep an eye out for behaviour I can identify. I see the rival display, the mating tangle, a male hovering over a female to keep others away, and a stealthy smaller male taking on the appearance of a female in order to sneak through this defence.

Though Sepia apama is found all along Australia’s eastern, southern and western coastlines – all the way from Brisbane to Shark Bay – the waters off Point Lowly are the only place where they gather in great numbers to breed. The annual aggregation is huge, covering over sixty hectares each winter, the rocks so dense with cuttlefish that it’s hard to know where to look.

Scientists are still not certain why this aggregation takes place here – some combination of the good egg-laying rocks, the warm, shallow, salty-enough-but-not-too-salty waters, perhaps even cultural habit. But it’s the only known cephalopod breeding aggregation on the planet.

Here, the giant Australian cuttlefish arrive each autumn; here, they court, compete for mates and lay their eggs under rocky ledges. Each spring, they swim away or die. Throughout the breeding season, they demonstrate an extraordinary ability to transform and reshape themselves.

In his wonderful book Other Minds, Peter Godfrey-Smith writes: ‘If we want to understand other minds, the minds of cephalopods are the most other of all.’ Cephalopods – a group made up of squid, octopus, nautilus and cuttlefish – may be the closest thing we will ever find to intelligent alien life. Among them, we know least about the cuttlefish.


We live in a time of catastrophe and loss. In The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert painstakingly and heartbreakingly documents some of the losses that characterise the Anthropocene. Our impact on the oceans is particularly dramatic. ‘Roughly one-third of the CO2 that humans have so far pumped into the air has been absorbed by the oceans … a stunning 150 billion metric tons.’ This increase is causing rapid ocean acidification.

While humans were implementing then dismantling carbon pricing, the cuttlefish began to disappear from these waters. From a population of over 170,000 in the late 1990s, when the phenomenon was first counted, numbers fell rapidly, until in 2013 there were estimated to be only 13,500 giant cuttlefish left in the area. Their lifespans are only about eighteen months, during which they get one chance to breed. It was predicted that the population at Point Lowly could rapidly become extinct.

A working group was formed and research undertaken to identify the factors contributing to the decline, much of it led by Professor Bronwyn Gillanders at the University of Adelaide. A sanctuary zone was created over the spawning area, and fishing of cuttlefish was temporarily banned in the Upper Spencer Gulf Marine Park. Research into possible causes – fishing, pollution, algae – has so far been inconclusive. Researchers have even tested the use of artificial dens, with limited success. Aside from fishing, the most influential factor seems to be water temperature, especially in spring when eggs are gestating. The working group wrapped up in 2016, but the University of Adelaide and the South Australian Museum are still monitoring the population.

The ongoing threat facing the species has drawn artists and writers to the region. Emily Steel wrote a play about them, Sepia, that was performed at RiAus in 2011. In 2014, the Adelaide Fringe parade featured an enormous disco cuttlefish puppet named Stobie. The festival was criticised for failing to adequately promote conservation in a time of crisis. The cuttlefish had become a symbol for what was being lost.


In the presence of the cuttlefish, my impressions quickly change. Individuals begin to distinguish themselves. One male, perhaps bored of the dating game, hovers over some orange seaweed and casually makes himself orange and weedy; there are no rivals nearby and he doesn’t seem to be reacting to us, so perhaps this behaviour is what it seems: a cuttlefish version of humming to oneself. A quick female passes us, waggling the tips of her arms above her head as though scheming. I grab my partner’s shoulder and we follow her, mimicking her gesture, apparently unique to this individual and so familiar that it makes us laugh through our snorkels.

There are no predators nearby, and the life below us goes on unmolested – except by us. Our intrusion must have an effect. I have brought weights that will enable me to duck-dive easily, but it doesn’t feel polite to descend to their level; they are busy with their cuttlefish business.

The first time I make eye contact with a cuttlefish, I am shocked by the familiarity of the animal’s gaze. I know that their eyes are a case of parallel evolution, that their similarity to our own in form is a 600-million-year-old coincidence. I know that I could be projecting. Nonetheless, the experience of catching a cuttlefish’s eye is uncannily like catching the eye of an intelligent human. It seems to react just as a human’s would: widening a little, studying the stranger for a moment, then looking politely away.

Watching them interact with each other, I think of marketplaces and playgrounds, of the agora, the forum and the dance floor. Rivalry between cuttlefish males is often described in terms of conflict, but actual combat is rare. The display looks graceful, even cordial. Godfrey-Smith describes it as a ‘mix of yoga and courtly dance.’ The more interactions I see, the more I come to believe that I am watching a society.


I believe in the personhood of animals, which is one reason I don’t eat them, but I know my judgement about this is cultural, some would say problematically anthropomorphic, and that my belief puts me in a minority among humans. As such, I am cautious about making these cuttlefish mean what I want them to mean. I want to understand and respect them for what they themselves are.

But I can’t escape my human perspective, or entirely rationalise it. Some of our oldest stories tell of animals and their transformations. In talking about encounters with animals, we can’t help but touch the mythical.

In mythic form, cephalopods are often images of horror or terror: Kraken, Cthulhu, Scylla, icons of otherness and monstrosity. Out in the water, though, there is no fear in my body. Just delight and astonishment, curiosity and recognition. Eventually, the chill takes over and I need to return to the land. All stories reach for the mythic, I think, as I struggle with my flippers. Perhaps myths are what we need now. What we need to change.


That night we camp on the other side of the lighthouse, in a small reserve by the boat ramp. After we climb into our swag, we listen to a man and his son trying to catch squid from the non-sanctuary waters, the man so excited by the strange life he sees spotlit in the dark shallows that he sounds more childlike than the child. I want to get up and see what he is seeing. I want to tell him that he doesn’t have to catch and eat what he sees, that he can just stay with the wonder.


In the morning, we swim out again. The water creeps in at our necks and wrists and ankles, chilling us, but the world below is too wonderful to leave behind. I drift out over deeper water. After a while I follow one female back into the shallows, tailing her. She eventually looks sidelong at me with her humanoid eyes, then slips under a boulder. Once I pass over, she slips out again and watches me swim away. I see her irritation change to curiosity. I feel like a foreigner.

How does she really see me? I wonder whether she sees an awkward, masked, surface-bound cuttlefish, its neoprene skin too dull to glitter. Whether some cuttlefish have good opinions of our visits, and others bad. Whether what I think of as species behaviour is partly personality. Whether any of us can escape our nature.

I thought I knew what I was going to be looking at; I didn’t expect to be the alien.


We live in a time of extinctions, a time dominated by narratives of catastrophe. But Whyalla’s cuttlefish have become – at least for now – a story about return. Since 2013, the population has rapidly increased. Numbers in 2015 were up around 130,000 and estimates are even higher this year.

We can’t take any credit; we don’t know why they are back. We do know that cephalopods are doing better than other species in warming oceans. Over the past sixty years, populations of squid, octopus and cuttlefish have generally increased. They may be able to adapt quickly because of their short lifespans, or they may be able to take advantage of warm, acidic conditions. They may simply be smarter than we think.

There are other narratives of restoration. In 2015, after persisting with a twenty-year case, the Barngala people were successful in claiming native title over this area. It’s a historic decision, one that both acknowledges the past and changes the future.

A few weeks after our visit, Whyalla receives news that the steelworks will reopen. A bid from Liberty House, part of the London-based GFG Alliance, has been accepted by administrators. New gates are unveiled, the Arrium name painted over with the Liberty logo. At its height, the steelworks employed a quarter of Whyalla’s workers. The reopening will end more than a year of uncertainty.

Industry – mines, petrochemicals, shipping – continues throughout the gulf and, to varying degrees, influences the make-up of its waters. The return of the cuttlefish to this humble ten-kilometre stretch of coastline between the steelworks and the gas plant – such unlikely industrial brackets for a wildlife haven – feels like a modern miracle. But it’s also a lesson in paying attention. In considering our impacts and managing the risks. In the possible coexistence of multiple intelligences, of manufacturing, tourism, ecosystems and scientific research.

That industrial landscape is changing quickly. Port Augusta, which for decades has borne the impacts of the coal-fired power station – its smokestacks, toxic dust and stinking lake – is about to welcome a better power plant. Repower Port Augusta ran a successful grassroots campaign for solar-thermal energy to replace the dead fossil-fuel generators and bring jobs back to the area.

The biggest risk to all life in the Spencer Gulf is climate change. After a mid-latitude cyclone blacked out the whole state’s energy grid and much of the federal government’s cerebrum in September 2016, South Australian premier Jay Weatherill took a stronger stand. The state is already at over 50 per cent renewable generation and is rapidly adding battery storage and large-scale solar to the grid. The opening of the Tesla battery at Jamestown sent ripples around the world, and the Whyalla steelworks recently announced it would be building its own solar storage capacity, via purchase of a controlling share in local renewable company ZEN Energy. A day before the election he declared a referendum on renewables, Weatherill announced an even bigger battery for Port Augusta. He lost, but not before demonstrating South Australia’s capacity to reinvent itself as a renewables success story – with the kind of private sector enthusiasm that the new Liberal government will find hard to resist.

It’s not enough, not yet. If we throw everything we have at the problem of climate change – not just as a state, but also nationally and internationally – it may become enough to avoid the worst. In a world already warmed by one degree, and rapidly heading for two or three or possibly six more, we need to move quickly.

We need to be able to transform.




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Jennifer Mills

Jennifer Mills was Overland fiction editor between 2012 and 2018. Her latest novel, The Airways, is out through Picador.

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