04 November 2016

The wake-up kiss for the incurious: Exploring tidal waters on Australia's temperate coast

Every year, millions of people stand on rocky shores gaze out to sea like sleepwalkers, looking for whales while at their feet, literally, unexplored worlds teem.

So you’re going to the beach. If you haven’t packed this essential, you are going to miss so much. If kids are coming too, this book can make your trip a life-changer for you and for them.
 Exploring tidal waters on Australia's temperate coast
by Phil Colman and Peter Mitchell

I’ll say right off: I consider this a model of a guidebook in any field, and this one encompasses so many.

In many ways, it’s written as if two children never grew up enough to get boring and well-behaved.

Although it's a superb identifying aid for anyone who's ever been challenged as to who's the real alien when you look coastal oddities in their, uh, eyes? this book would make an irresistible nag if you think you live too far away (say Broken Hill, NSW; Irkutsk, Siberia; New York City) or think zombies are more interesting than the truly freaky tidal world. Although this book’s title speaks specifically of “Australia’s temperate coast”, it is not stuck in one geographical place.

I’m prejudiced about this book. I first found it at my local library, and within a half hour, realised that it had answered so many questions about things I’ve seen and had never been able to identify or understand. I had to tell the authors. So I tracked down the guy whose concept it originally was--Phil Colman--to tell him how great this unassuming masterpiece really is. Subsequently, I was lucky enough to meet Phil Colman and spend a couple of hours with him as guide, exploring tidepools on Long Reef, his stamping ground in Sydney. Two of the best hours of my life, with one of my favourite people anywhere. I can’t remember ever saying so many incoherent one-word sentences that ended in multiple exclamation marks. He is so gracefully knowledgable, proving that there is no reason a brilliant expert can’t communicate in ways any dumbo with curiosity and a will to learn can understand and thrill to.

Onwards to the Book—

Relationships are discussed in awesomely voyeuristic detail.

About Neptune’s necklace Hormosira banksii, “a brown algae (it actually looks green) . . . Each front looks like a row of beads about 12 to 15mm in diameter. On the surface of each bead you may see little yellow spots that mark the egg and sperm chambers. As you walk on them the vesicles split open with a popping noise and you may be surprised to find that they are not filled with air, but with water that keeps them alive whilst exposed at low tide.”

The common bluebottle that when dried on the beach, pops under a foot like an exploding paper bag, gets a writeup that includes: “The bluebottle is not a single animal but a whole complex of individual zooids. The individuals cannot exist alone, only as the superorganism…The whole animal is a hermaphrodite, but produces males, which remain attached, and minute females, which float off and eventually produce another bluebottle by a process of budding.”

Scientific theories are examined with the same delightful unwillingness to just look away. About one theory that is great in theory, “many ecologists now think that the concept is too fuzzy to be of practical use. Oh, well, back to the drawing board and try again.”

Phil Colman is a scientist who’s specialised in insects, seashells, and other specialties one can add an -ist to, for international museums. He calls himself a naturalist, and when he isn’t guiding, teaching, or trying to save coastal environments, is luxuriating, picking off leeches, etc., in the wilds of New Caledonia. Do read his Saving the Reef (by navigating Government)! He writes that he’s “been taking people to look at life on coastal shore platforms at low tide for more than 40 years” Questions people asked made him see the need for “a simple book … written in plain English”.

Because Colman wanted to describe not just what things are, but how they live and relate to not just each other, but the places they live, the authorship became not one but two, as “’I’ became ‘we’ when a colleague came in to help me out with aspects such as geology, or which I profess to know little.” In Peter Mitchell, geologist, academic, environmental consultant who says with typical modesty, he “doesn’t know who he is anymore” and that “in the third half of his life he spends time trying to correct the environmental mistakes he contributed along the way”, this book got the perfect co-author. Read more about them and their creation in this Pittwater Online story

The original concept enlarged and enriched itself quite naturally, and the result should be a classic, so much does it say with so much fun and wit, in a book that you really can carry as a companion. Modestly titled and only 122 pages long, it is extraordinary in its ability to answer so many questions.

Winner of the Royal Zoological Society of NSW Whitley Award in 2013, Exploring tidal waters should have won some international award because its scope is global and its communication quality outstanding.

As I think Peter Mitchell writes in “The Water environment” chapter (though the writing of the two co-authors is seamless) “Waves travel in great circle routes round the world unaffected by the Coriolis ‘force’ and they only change direction when they ‘feel bottom’ near the shore.”

It is an instant reference for a myriad of “what is it” questions as well as taking anyone and everyone down avenues of weirdness it takes an unhinged imagination to imagine they exist. It is also one of those books that will not exhaust itself, but only stir further interest. Even compared to the classic I’ve written about before, the huge heavy, Isobel Bennnett’s brilliant Australian Seashores: adapted from W.J. Dakin’s Australian seashores, a book I love, this little book is actually more useful. The photographs, many of which are by Peter Mitchell, are superb. Combined with the succinct explanations, this makes the book the best I’ve seen for searching something you’ve seen and coming up with a “That’s it!”

The design is for maximum usefulness, as are the glossary, index, and generous resources listing. The book is even bound right. Shove it in your pack, and you can be sure its pages won’t fall out.

And in every sense, the information is inviting instead of intimidating.

a chapter title

And possibly best of all, this is all done with no dumbing down. Children especially, deserve better.

In the chapter “Jargon”, for instance. “Scientific names may be a bit daunting but they are better than common names that are sometimes only used locally and are certainly not standardised. For example, a common bivalve used as a fishing bait along our NSW shores is known as a pipi (also pippi). This just happens to be a Maori word that applies to three different bivalve genera in New Zealand…In South Australia the same shellfish is called a Goolwa cockle, while in Queensland it is sometimes known by an Aboriginal name, ugari (also eugari or yugari). But any scientist in Sydney, Tierra del Fuego, or London can avoid this confusion because everywhere in the world it is Donax deltoides as there is only one such species. Try to get used to scientific names. Four-year-olds have no trouble with Tyrannosaurus rex.”

I’ll leave it to children of all ages to discover what this book says about “solar powered dragons”.

Every library in Australia should have this in stock, so tell your library.

And you should have your own, to put sticky notes on, date that you saw, identify, think…

Get it and give it. It will help answer your questions as well as drive you crazy to solve more. And it is the perfect waking kiss to those whose curiosities are asleep.

 with Phil Colman as my guide, I 'discovered' this beauty.
With Exploring tidal waters on Australia's temperate coast, by Phil Colman and Peter Mitchell, 
I learned, and you can learn too, who this is.

Get yours from the CSIRO bookshop


get yourself on a Guided Reef Walk where Phil Colman himself might be your guide, and buy your copy then.