On Tasmania, At Last A Platypus

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Recently, for the ninth time, I had the privilege of traveling to Australia. My wife, children, and I arrived at Montreal airport early in the morning to board our first plane, to Chicago, but after we passed through security and arrived at the gate, Air Canada canceled the flight. As things played out, we passed a long and tedious day at the airport, caught an overnight flight on British Airways to London, killed three hours at Heathrow Airport, then boarded a seventeen-hour nonstop flight over Europe, the Middle East, the Indian Ocean, and Sri Lanka to Perth, Western Australia. But there was more to come. A ninety-minute decompression stop at the Perth airport led to us climbing back on the same plane and flying another three and a half hours to Melbourne. And we still weren’t there. We rented a car, navigated and drove an hour in the dark on the left side of the road through the city, and at long last came to blissful rest in the welcoming arms of our dear friend Beris. She had a delicious dinner ready, a bottle of fine Australian red breathing, and air mattresses ready to soften our falls when we crashed.

For me, a chief goal of the trip, aside from renewing acquaintances with friends from the DownUnderWorld and savoring another adventure in one of the most fabulous places on earth, was to shoot good photographs of a platypus—-not one in a tank at a zoo, but a real, live, free-range, egg-laying, venomous platypus with fur like a mole’s and a mouth like a duck’s . My best chance would come in the Tasmanian river pictured above.

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The afternoon we arrived at our rental cabin near the river, we went for a walk. Sure enough, a platypus joined us, surfacing near the riverbank on the far side and cruising upstream. I took keen interest in the fact that the platypus nosed into a brook that trickled into the river. It dove repeatedly, did some masticating on the surface, and then continued back into the main channel and on its way. I thought to myself: that platypus will be back, perhaps the following morning. When it returns, I’ll be standing there, camera ready, waiting.

At first light, I skipped breakfast, bid the rest of our crew goodbye, and set off for a spot on the riverbank I figured might give me a good angle—- if the platypus materialized. I reached the spot by treading carefully through a wetland crowded with sedge hummocks. The terrain offered promising habitat for Tasmania’s most dangerous reptile, the tiger snake, so I found a big stick and prodded the route ahead of me. I love snakes, but I wasn’t keen on stepping on one, especially one with venom more toxic than a cobra’s. At last, I reached the spot and commenced my vigil. I waited one hour, shivering. I waited another hour as the air slowly warmed. I was still waiting, halfway through a third hour, when my wife, Debbie, appeared on the far shore. Above, you can see a photo I took of her at the time. She asked if I’d seen anything. I was launching into a resigned and disappointed reply when I heard something stirring the water behind me.

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A platypus! It was not swimming up the brook, as I’d anticipated, but coming down it. I could hardly believe my good fortune. The photo above shows the platypus at the moment I first spied it. The photo below shows it doing what I’d hoped it would do: cruising in my direction.

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And on it came, on and on until it was gazing up into my eyes and nosing into muck within inches of my feet. The platypus was untroubled by my presence. It rummaged the creek bottom for edible tidbits (insect nymphs, crustaceans, I expect) using electroreceptors on its bill to detect muscle movements. Back on the surface, the platypus did its chewing, leaving circles on the water’s surface. You can see the circles in some of the following photos. Finally, when the platypus was done exploring my little patch of water, it entered the main channel, dove into the murky depths, and sent me home for my own breakfast. The following morning, I returned to the same spot at the same time. No platypus appeared. Sometimes you get lucky. Sometimes you don’t. But I got lucky once, and that’s all it took. Hope you enjoy the photos.

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