Notes From The Lineup - Episode 9:
Two days at Northy
Story by | Tim Baker
It looks like something from a Salvador Dali painting. A young bloke is paddling through the Narrabeen lineup on a fine autumn morning when he finishes a stroke, touches something with his hand and pulls out ... a large mullet. He holds it up curiously, trying to figure out how it ended up in his grip. He calls out to a mate, “Hey, fish for dinner.” The thing is stiff as a board and dead as a doornail. He studies it more closely, wondering aloud as to the cause of death. “Maybe someone speared it,” he suggests, studying it intently for wounds, but it appears uninjured. A few minutes later, the same thing happens again. Another guy is paddling along and winds up with a dead mullet in his hands. This is getting weird. Is David Lynch making some sort of abstract episode of Punked out here? I’m waiting for it to start raining mullets.
Someone else suggests it is because of the unseasonably warm weather. I wonder about some kind of run-off from the lagoon. It’s a bit of an alarming thought. Surfers are often fond of seeing themselves as “canaries in the coalmine” of environmental degradation, because of all that time we spend immersed in the ocean. But I figure the fish are the real canaries (old Salvador might quite like that line himself). And if they just start keeling over, there’s cause for concern.
It’s nearly 20 years since I lived on the Northern Beaches of Sydney, probably the first time I’ve surfed Northy in a decade. I don’t recognise too many faces. It’s still a tight knit, localised crowd dominating the lineup, no overt nastiness but just a strong sense that you better know what you’re doing if you want to get a set wave. Fools aren’t suffered easily here. Never have been.
I surfed the previous afternoon, when the waves were bigger, and Simon Anderson was in the water. He has his own spot in the lineup, out a bit further and wider than the main pack, waiting for the wide sets. He’s given his space but never pulls rank, politely asking younger surfers inside of him if they’re going before committing to a wave. I watch the lip explode from the back as he winds off down the line, that familiar upright style undimmed by the years. It’s a gorgeous Sunday afternoon, Mother’s Day, with a light northerly on it, three to four feet, a touch bigger on the odd set and smooth on the face. Almost everyone in the water surfs well. It gets suddenly busy late in the day. “Everyone escaping their Mother’s Day duties,” reckons Simon.
The next morning’s smaller, with long lulls, but glorious conditions. I see a couple of familiar faces and the mood is relaxed. Another legendary local figure, Terry Fitzgerald paddles out for the gentleman’s early, on one of his magnificent air-brushed guns, featuring a cosmic Martin Worthington sunrise on the bottom. Fitzy’s gone for length to pick off the occasional remnant sets. “Straight is great. Trim is in,” he tells me.
I’m not getting a lot of waves amid the tight, high caliber pack, but somehow I don’t mind. There’s an odd satisfaction in seeing a local hierarchy surviving in tact on the fringes of Australia’s largest city. We hear so much about the degradation of the surfing experience, through crowds, commercialism, environmental ills; I take heart from a local surf community able to preserve some order in the water.
But then guys starting waving dead mullet in the air and I’m wondering what the hell’s going on. Random, sudden fish kills are nothing new, and not always due to sinister causes. Many are due to totally natural events, like a depletion of oxygen in the water due to heavy rain or algal blooms.
According to the NSW Department of Primary Industries, almost half of reported fish kills are never explained, but they are definitely on the rise (from two reported events in 1970 to 44 in 1995 in NSW). Mullet, as it happens, are the most common victims.
I’m not sure if a few dead mullet in the lineup even constitutes a fish kill but it’s an unsettling event just the same on an otherwise pristine morning. And the way things are headed, it’s one we may well have to become more accustomed to. Ocean Acidification is one of the more disturbing and least reported aspects of Climate Change. Increased concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is absorbed by the ocean, increasing its acidity and making it less livable for a whole range of marine life, with consequences right up the food chain. To us. Not sure what the climate sceptics say about that one. Man, I hope those mullet died of natural causes. If not, we might have to send a few Northy locals to Canberra to discuss Climate Change policy with K-Rudd.
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