Swimming in a Queensland rainforest is surreal enough, but a scuba dive with a platypus twist near Mackay’s Eungella National Park is one for the bucket list, writes Steve Madgwick.
A yellow-beaked cormorant perches purposefully on an overhanging branch, staring down at the riverbank next to me – a good sign. A beaming full moon pokes out of a clearing in the gum trees – not such a good sign.
The moon tells me that there’s probably only a few minutes remaining of my ‘rainforest scuba taster’, the second of today’s hour-long dives in Finch Hatton Creek on my quest for some one-on-one time with a platypus.
The bird habitually steals food from Penelope and Laticia, the pool’s resident platypuses, when they surface to chew the insects they’ve fossicked. It knows better than humans when the mysterious monotremes are ready for breakfast (around dawn) and dinner (around dusk).
The girls have chosen a particularly crystal-clear section of this slow-flowing creek for their burrow: ‘Oliver’s Pool’ – a peaceful stretch just outside the stunning Eungella National Park, which is the largest continuous stretch of subtropical rainforest in Australia.
Platypuses usually live in muddy waterways, but when my guide, Pioneer Valley local Luana Royle, realised that Penelope and Laticia were calling this high-visibility scuba wonderland home in 2011, she dove (literally) on the opportunity: and Rainforest Scuba was born. Royle, a dive instructor for seven years in places such as Thailand and Vietnam, has been leading small groups to this exotic locale, about an hour’s drive west of Mackay, ever since.
The fresh 15-degree underwater world of Oliver’s Pool is like a psychedelic x-ray of the rainforest above. We float around the filigree branches of submerged trees blanketed in fluorescent green moss, navigate giant palm fronds that lie on the smooth-stoned creek bed and peek into hidden caves.
My dive torch illuminates a stocky eel-tailed catfish with whiskers any hipster would be envious of. Pairs of unhurried sooty grunters (black bream) and drink-coaster-sized turtles ignore my intrusion. Translucent fingernail-sized shrimp, Penelope and Laticia’s staple diet, are swept up in the wake of my flippers as I clumsily kick about.
As we entered Oliver’s Pool for the earlier dive at dawn, I had spotted one of the girls splashing on the surface in the distance, but by the time we manoeuvred the 30 metres underwater she had gone to burrow. They’re elusive creatures, right? Well, not always.
After the dawn dive, Royle drove me up to Broken River, in Eungella’s heart, where we sat on the riverbank and watched randy and hungry males cruise the river for girls and ‘grub’, the show all the more intense because it’s early in the breeding season. They dived repeatedly (up to 70 times an hour apparently), sometimes reappearing down river, often disappearing.
Despite the relative plethora of platypuses here (I saw seven in one hour), the dire visibility of the tannin-filled Broken River renders scuba diving pointless. Luckily, by the time the flow reaches Oliver’s Pool, the water has been filtered through rocks, sand and waterfalls, offering ideal ‘vis’ of between five and 10 metres, in water about three metres deep.
But now the thick canopy accentuates daylight’s retreat. I surface near the submerged burrow entrance and loiter, my masked face poking out of the calm surface, seeking a splash; any sign. I dread the inevitable tap on the shoulder, the signal to return to shore, platypus-less, defeated.
“They all think I’m crazy for diving in the rainforest,” whispers Royle behind me. But the cormorant, who still hangs around, doesn’t think she’s crazy – and neither do I.
Then, a gentle splash, directly below the bird. It’s a tiny, shiny mocha-brown body, less than 40 centimetres long, followed by a barely discernible wake. Then she dives. In the opposite direction, another splash. Both the girls are out for an evening of shrimp hors d’oeuvres.
It’s too dark (and I’m not quick enough) to go under for a scuba view, so I just marvel for a few moments of almost arm’s-length action, sporadic birdsong my soundtrack. And then, the water’s surface reverts to glass.
Yesterday I would have been disappointed with this brief interaction, even though Royle told me that this is “not a platypus dive”, but a dive in the rainforest. This is not a zoo after all, and the girls are too busy, and have too much self-respect, to put on a private show for every voyeuristic tight-wetsuited visitor that demands one.
All the same, I’m surprised to admit, just being here is more than enough.
The details: Rainforest Scuba dive with a platypus
Getting there: Fly to Mackay with Qantas, Virgin Australia or TigerAir. Drive 65 kilometres west through Pioneer Valley’s sugar cane fields to the small town of Finch Hatton. All major car rental companies service the airport.
Staying there: We stayed at the basic but comfortable self-contained Finch Hatton Gorge Cabins, 1.5 kilometres from Eungella National Park’s entrance. Home-cooked meals available. From $155 per cabin, per night, high season; $95 per cabin, per night, low season.
Diving there: Rainforest Scuba, based in Finch Hatton, offers dives for $150 (unqualified) or $100 (qualified diver) per session including equipment and light refreshments. Note – there is no guarantee you’ll see a platypus!