Richard Freeman has been a professional solo fisherman for more than 40 years in his trusty Shark Cat. Spending so much time on the water, his usual companions are the dolphins, sharks… and seabirds. In this regular column, Richard shares a few stories about his feathered friends. He reckons that understanding their behaviour – and calls –makes him a better fisherman.
Australian gannets are the finest fishers of all of seabirds. To see them diving and feeding on baitfish is to marvel at Mother Nature. They adjust their wings like the variablesweep wing on an F-111. When shallow-diving, they form a W pattern; when diving deep, they dislocate their wings and tuck them in to get a torpedo shape. On a deep-sea charge they resemble the shape of a Coke bottle – a Coke bottle dropping from more than 30 metres at over 145km/h. On hitting the surface, they inflate airbags around their neck and shoulders to cushion the impact before diving deep to catch unsuspecting baitfish.
One day while spanner crabbing off Noosa, I was marveling at a large flock of gannets wheeling down onto a school of baitfish that a pod of striped dolphins had herded to the surface. The baitfish took cover from the aerial assault under my boat and I found myself in the centre of a gannet assault. They were raining down around my boat like ballistic missiles, just millimetres from the gunwales.
On another occasion, off Caloundra, I was idling towards my next crab line when I noticed a gannet resting 10 metres from my boat. I pulled the camera out and took a few snaps before seeing the glint of fishing line in the morning sun. This bird was in trouble. I lifted it out of the water and gently spread its wings – the span was two metres, almost as wide as my 18ft Shark Cat. I carefully unwound the fishing line and removed two fishing hooks before returning the bird to the sea. But the gannet just sat there; it wouldn’t take flight. I fired up the Mercury four-strokes and managed to startle it into taking off. The gannet gained five metres of altitude, but began to falter. I screamed at the top of my lungs, “Fly gannet, fly!” That seemed to do the trick and it gained more height before becoming a tiny speck in the distance. That was one of my favourite days on the water, one I’ll never forget. Nor will the gannet, I imagine.
Another day, I watched as hundreds of gannets circled on a big thermal whirlpool extending hundreds of metres into the sky. The next afternoon, the sky was full of gannets flying south. They were in a hurry, forming small groups, breaking away like riders in the Tour de France – always trying to find the slipstream, but working together to advance the flock.