May 282012

Spider crabs landscape

About the site

As well as the great wrecks lying out in the ship’s graveyard, diving from Melbourne also features a great set of piers. These shallow and easy shore dives showcase a wide variety of marine critters. Flinders Pier on the east side of the Mornington Peninsula is known for its weedy seadragon population, and scorpion fish, pot bellied seahorses and thousands of nudibranchs can be found between sponge-encrusted pylons all around Port Phillip Bay. While a favourite of macro photographers, the piers aren’t my usual weekend diving destination.

Rye Pier lies on the south east side of the Bay, a bit over an hour’s drive from Melbourne. It has a max depth of 5m or so, and as with all of the pier dives, their protected locations make for good dives when the prevailing southerly winds are creating waves and weather outside the Bay. Rye Pier is known for sightings of pot bellied seahorses and sting rays, easy access and a convenient fish and chip shop across the road.

Spider crabs under Rye Pier

About the dive

The other thing that Rye Pier is known for is the annual spider crab gathering. Every year in approximately autumn, these long-legged and beady eyed crabs come together in thousands. It’s still not clear to me if they’re mating, moulting or migrating, but it’s obviously something that can only be done with all their crabby friends. This year is both the first year I’ve been in town when the procession was on, and one of the largest gatherings seen in recent times. As such I  eagerly followed early reports from divers on Thursday and Friday before finally heading down there last Sunday.

After a morning dive out on one of the J class submarines, we brought the boat back in and tied up to Rye Pier. The clear, shallow water revealed a moving carpet of crabs that could be seen from the boat. Getting closer provided more perspective on numbers….there were thousands of them! Swimming along under the pier revealed the usual inhabitants were having a bad day, with cranky seahorses being harassed by the much larger crabs. Out on the sand the crabs were stacked up four or five high on top of each other, whereas under the pier they gained higher vantage points by climbing the pylons. Crabs outlined against red sponges against blue water besides the pylons were particularly photogenic.

About the photo

While there’s nothing technically exciting about the image up above, it’s my favourite shot for showing the sheer numbers of this phenomenon. The crabs in the foreground are only one layer thick, and looking into the distance you can see where they begin to stand on top of each other. I took this shot from a few different heights and angles. With the masses of spindly legs, lower angles made it hard to spot where one crab began and another ended. A higher angle looking straight down on the scene seemed to imply that the numbers could be a trick of the camera. But with this view, crabs as far as the eye can see become a reality.

The second shot here uses an off camera strobe to subtly increase the light behind the pylon. I love the way the crabs are piled up against the bottom, where a few have seemingly escaped the crush by climbing. And adding a diver for scale and sense (thanks Jono!) gives great context.

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