Platypus are mystical creatures.
One may be in a river or lake near you but you won’t see it; they are shy and secretive. They don’t want to be found.
They come and go as they please, often with no indication of where they have been except, maybe, a few ripples or a small stream of bubbles on the surface of the dark, clear waters they need to survive.
Platypus know things that other creatures don’t; for such a small, inoffensive and innocent creature, they seem to have the knowledge and understanding of the most venerable of wizards.
Perhaps this is because their lineage goes back to the very earliest of mammals: they are included in a select group of animals known as monotremes that are the quintessential founders of warm bloodedness; they are an evolutionary link between reptiles and mammals, so they have had aeons to hone their senses and even invent a new one.
Imagine having a 6th sense – called electroreception – that enables you to feel the presence of both your prey and your predators without touching or seeing them.
We humans can see, smell, hear, taste and touch and, yes, we can detect electrical impulses using these senses but the voltage needs to be substantial.
In responses measured in nanoseconds a Platypus can “feel” the incredibly weak electrical pulses of nerve endings at work (synapses) in much the same way as a computer absorbs messages from the internet.
Make the slightest movement — or even think too hard — near a platypus and it will know you’re nearby and depart.
Lucky nocturnal encounter
You need to keep all the above in mind if you wish to see a platypus, if you don’t they will outwit you every time.
Alternatively you can be incredibly lucky like I was once with a small group of guests on tour.
We were spotlighting for nocturnal mammals when we came upon a waterhole below a small waterfall in a stream.
Because the water was shallow I led the way across a smooth rocky platform that formed the top of the waterfall, shining my spotlight to ensure no-one fell the 3 metres into the waterhole, when an errant swing of the beam picked up movement in the water below us…..and there it was, a small pale creature submerged and swimming rapidly back and forth through crystal clear water, nuzzling pebbles at the bottom of the pool.
For a moment I had no idea what I was looking at – platypus are dark brown – yet this animal was silver-grey, then I realised my spotlight was reflecting back at me off the creature’s fur.
I also remembered that platypus close their eyes, and ears, when they submerge (for lengthy periods hunting for worms and crustaceans on the bottom) so we watched this animal for 5 magical minutes until she unexpectedly surfaced giving me no time to turn off the spotlight.
To find platypus you must be still and quiet
After a bout of bottom hunting platypus must come to the surface to crush and eat their prey.
At the instant they meet the surface they open their eyes which, like twin fisheye lenses, take in everything in a microsecond; if anything at all is out of place they dive immediately and disappear, which is precisely what happened to us.
Over the next 20 minutes we waited silently in the starlight whilst I occasionally and cautiously switched on the spotlight and shone it back in the pool, but we never saw her again.
Later, it occurred to me that maybe we’d caught her unawares because the sound of the falling water obscured her 6th sense.
Six of us witnessed this event; I am sure that no-one will ever forget the the star-filled night sky and the tinkle of falling water over the rock ledge into the pool where a platypus had showed herself – in the most extraordinary manner – for longer than most people ever see a platypus.
I truly believe that our platypus cast an archaic spell on us, passed on by her kind over countless generations.
In my mind this was her incantation and her warning:
“Please care for this place where I live: for the clear waters I need to survive, for the quiet streams and rivers; if you don’t I will leave forever and you will have cut the umbilical chord that links you and me to the ancient past when my blood became warm….and that will be the end for you too.”
It’s a warning worth heeding, after all, she is a wizard!
Where can you search for platypus?
Lake Elizabeth. Canoeing is the quietest and best way to see platypus. Do this on the first section of our Coast Mountains Outback tour as described by our Senior Wildlife Guide, Martin Maderthaner:
“The journey begins with our world-renowned koala conservation and research project in a eucalyptus forest close to Melbourne before overnighting in the Otways Ranges in the Great Ocean Road hinterland. Here we head out on canoes on a rainforest-shrouded lake looking for the enigmatic platypus. It takes a trained eye to spot them as they unobtrusively surface between forays of diving down in search of food. We then travel to the coast to explore the coastal heaths, wave-sculpted limestone cliffs and cool temperate rainforests of the famous Great Ocean Road enjoying the wildlife and scenery it has to offer.”
Far North Queensland on our Quolls & Birds in FNQtour
East Gippslandon our Wildlife Journey
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Thanks to FNQ Nature Tours for the cover photo
(Originally published by Echidna Walkabout : December 2020)
In Memory of Michael Williams
The Coast Mountains Outback tour series is dedicated to Michael Williams, Echidna Walkabout Wildlife Guide and Nature Photographer who left us in March 2019