The wet season has arrived in the tropical north-west, a time of destruction and renewal. Nutrient-rich waters flood into the sea, the layers mixing in plumes as the waves churn. Nimbus clouds broil, engulfing the entire sky.
Thunder echoes off the sandstone cliffs that stand sentinel to the river openings. Broadened by the floods, the swollen mouths gobble up sandy shores and scrub-filled lowlands, swamping the contorted coast that lay bleached and dehydrated only weeks before.
Above the monsoon, a sliver of new moon ascends its arc amongst the stars. Mangroves claw deep into sucking mud as wind tears at leaf and limb. Wild barramundi feel the tide slacken its tug, the trigger for the start of the breeding season. Females cruise the shallow waters, searching for shelter to lay their eggs. Smaller males stalk and fight close by, vying for the opportunity to fertilise the next generation.
Many kilometres inland at the hatchery, there is no such choice for the captive barramundi imprisoned as broodstock. Their days are patterned by rigid controls to ensure a year-round supply of eggs. There is no natural selection of the strongest, fittest or most able; human intervention milks both sexes of their genes. Tank water clouds with the hope of new life.
Inside a single delicate shell, cells divide and multiply. Along with its four hundred thousand siblings, an egg is regulated to ensure survival. The larva twists inside its protective casing, developing organs, skin and bones. Absorbing the goodness of the yolk, the emerging life fills the enclosed space in perfect conditions of light, warmth, and salinity. There are no threats from predators, cold, or a wind-lashed coastline.
The perfect specimen matures, forming miniature scales that will blossom into silvery discs, evolving a tail, fins and eyes. After a mass birthing of the all-male larvae, he separates from the melee to quaff nutrients from the feed tube. His colour solidifies into a pale silver-grey. His strong jaws learn to snap at anything small enough to swallow. As he grows, so too does the size of his meals. Everything is regulated, precise in timing, amounts, and content.
Beyond the protective sheds, the wet season vents the last of its fury. As the waters recede, verdant shoots emerge on sedges, down-covered chicks gawp in reed nests and joeys explore beyond their pouch. The crop of farmed barramundi is readied for release into the impoundment lake, a man-made environment for human recreation. Their lives are destined for rod and table, not to perpetuate the species.
As the oxygen-enriched waters of the travel bag mingle with those of the lake, the immature barramundi escapes with the other released fingerlings into the unknown.
Lurking in the murky depths, the young fish stirs the sludge on the lake bottom, stirring up mollusks and fry. He takes time to acclimatise to the changes in his environment—warmest around the shallows, coolest in the dark depths in the centre of this vast lake. Brightness varies as clouds scud across the sun, overhanging trees flutter shade and night falls in a blaze of oranges and reds, unlike the regular glow of the mercury vapour lamps of the hatchery.
No regular splashes of defrosted prawns break the surface of his new environment. Gulping down crunchy snails and clawed crustaceans, the barramundi seeks out any food source, as natural as taking oxygen through his gills. The pickings are thin. Hunger drives him nearer the surface.
The long legs of a jabiru appear to be thick reeds until a sharp beak probes the surrounds. The juvenile fish twitches out of reach. In deeper water, he feels safe until a cormorant dives with barely a splash. The sleek bird’s bill snaps close to the barramundi’s tail as he twists away. Taking refuge, he waits amongst sunken branches and snagged flotsam.
With the threat avoided, the barramundi searches his haven. Drawn by shimmering light, the young fish detects shadows on the rippling surface. He glides closer. The feathered undersides and paddling flippers of a pair of black swans are of no interest to him. The wriggling tadpoles swarming under the lily-pads are another matter. Boof! With a voluble snap of his jaws, he consumes all that he can engulf.
A change in the water movement alerts his senses, the flow caused not by wind or current but by a larger fish. He thrusts away into the safety of the reeds. Once the danger moves on, he glides further out into the lake, exploring. Where is the best food? What places offer safety? He grows.
Vibrations disturb the water. The barramundi senses the arrival of a large shape riding the crystal blue—it is like no fish or bird he has yet encountered. Drifting closer, he approaches the shadow from below. There are no legs, no flippers, nor wafting fins. The boat appears to be harmless, providing shade and reducing glare. He hovers beneath its bulk. There is no pull and push from a tide in this sapphire world. He ripples his fins to keep below the centre, waiting, watching for unsuspecting smaller fish that might also seek shelter.
A splash attracts his attention; he flexes and turns. A silver streak flashes across his line of sight. With a tail-twitch, he follows, catching up with ease as the creature twists and spins towards the surface.
Boof! He clamps his jaws tight. The inflexible object is not what he’d expected. His head jerks. His body flips over. Pain sears his flesh. Out of control, he is forced to swim by a tug on his mouth.
Bracing, oblivious to discomfort, he turns and forces down to darkness and safety. His jaw remains snagged. He dives down, down, down to the darkness of submerged skeletons of ancient gum trees.
About to reach the gnarled timber, he flips backward, tossed upside down. Spun again, his body is righted in the opposite direction of where he tries to go. For a few moments, he follows the pull. Summoning reserves, he torpedoes towards the lake centre, keeping near the surface. Despite his determination to make distance, he tires. The water flow reverses over his gills as he loses his battle, drawn back towards the hulking shape that previously provided shelter. He sees limbs flail towards the water as a man leans over the side of the boat. A net sweeps towards him.
He twists and leaps, clearing the surface. Silver scales flash in rainbow spray. He draws away, only to be reeled back.
Cheers and shouts reverberate through the water, increasing his panic. Leap after leap he regains distance, but with every surge his strength diminishes.
Gathering the last of his resources, the barramundi shoots up from metres below, clearing the water and twisting in the air, shaking his head and tossing his tail. Plummeting back through the surface, he dives head down, descending deep.
This time there is no resistance.
In the weeks that follow, the barramundi avoids boats. Nervous of every unusual shape in the water, his hunger builds. High above the ripples, puffs of cloud gather like ragtag revelers for a party. Their countenances change from white and cheery to black and gloomy as the evening darkens. Towers of muscled cumulus thrust upwards into storm-heads, challenging the light. With a roar, a new wet season unleashes its violence across the parched land. Spasmodic illumination highlights the slashing rain as it blends with the waves. The barramundi sinks deep, taking refuge from the turbulence.
On the lake bed, the mollusks hide in layers of silt. During morning lulls, the fish rises to seek other prey. There is little food to be caught. The diving coots are too quick to snatch and the churned waters obscure his vision. No matter—his hunger does not claw at his gut as before; the change in season has tempered his desire for food.
Clusters of bull ants spin by on eucalypt-leaf boats, caught in eddies until they are blown ashore. Lemon-bellied flycatchers dart after symphonies of mosquitoes. St. Andrew’s Cross spiders twang in the centre of their webs in the casuarinas, gripping the sticky threads as they await the blow-in of their prey. The barramundi ignores them, content to snatch an unwary frog or small fry swarming by his resting place. It is enough to keep him alive. He waits, hovering in the darkness, letting the world wash around him.
Kangaroos sneak near the shore, hop by hop, balancing on their tails as their heads turn to check for danger. The crocodiles doze further upriver, too cold to venture on shore or in the roiling lake. They lie passive in the shallows, eyes and nostrils protruding, waiting for the sun to return and renew their vigour.
The wet season recedes. The last of the clouds tear into shreds and dissipate in the breeze. With the dry returned, boats loom and shudder on the lake’s surface. The barramundi’s desires return to feeding and basking. A flash catches his attention; instinct forces him to pursue the fleeing shape. As he feels the jerk and pain deep in his gut, he recalls the danger.
Too late. He twists and sinks, leaps and swims. No matter how he struggles to escape, he is relentlessly drawn back towards the boat. Exhausted, he no longer has the strength to fight.
Cool wetness disappears. Struggling and flapping, the barramundi flies through the air. Landing with a thud, hardness bruises his flesh. He loses awareness as his gills fail to gain oxygen. Light blinds his eyes and his mouth is twisted and sawed as the lure is removed. His skin burns as life drains away in the scorching sun.
He lies, dazed.
Too small to legally keep, the barramundi is reprieved. He sails over the side and crashes through the water’s surface. His gills flex, gasping to regain essential life force. Recovering from his ordeal, he shoots away with a twist. He swims deep, thoughts of food temporarily forgotten. He needs time to heal, gain strength, and rebuild his reserves.
Several more times over the next seasons, the fish falls prey to the rod and line before being released. Wary of boats, lines and spinning hooks, the barramundi avoids the smaller fish that look too much like metal lures. His hunger grows and his once plump body becomes lean. But having matured over the seasons, he has other matters on his mind. At a half-metre long, he is ready to seek out the females ripe with eggs wending their way down rivers to the estuaries to spawn. No matter that the hatchery managers had no intention of their farmed offspring reproducing—his urges are irresistible.
Oppressive humidity blankets the earth. Despite spending most of his early life in fresh water, the barramundi needs brackish water to breed. He yearns to taste the saltiness of the estuary and feel the pull of the tides. He prowls, all his senses tuned for what he seeks, unable to taste the tang that leads to his birthing grounds.
The barramundi knows every part of this lake—every protruding rock where the crocodiles watch for an easy dinner; every dangling branch from where birds flit to drink; every reed bed hiding tender cygnets ripe for the taking. Bivalves vent below, revealing their location. Ospreys dive and sea-eagles swoop, scooping up fish that would normally make him a good meal. He is not interested. Somewhere, his instincts tell him, there must be a path between the drooping paperbarks to the place of his hatching.
He laps his silted prison.
Once the wet season breaks, the barramundi gives up his futile search for the river mouth and cruising females. He must turn his mind back to finding food and surviving another year. The onslaught of rain has washed organic matter into the food chain. The barramundi, now one of the biggest creatures in the lake, takes his rightful place in its pattern of eat or be eaten.
Mussels, frogs, bream, cygnets—anything that comes within snap range is consumed—he is hungry, a hunter, a predator.
One evening, as long shadows shiver across the water, an archer fish rises and squirts a fountain in the chance of bringing down a hovering dragonfly. The barramundi also rises, anticipating the delicate taste and texture of the smaller fish. He opens his mouth wide and lunges… and sucks in only water as a spasm wracks his body.
He is thrown sideways, striking a stick protruding from the muddy bottom. He feels it puncture his skin, carving a gash the length of his fin. Sinking to the lake bed, he squirms in confusion. His fins remain lifeless as he tries to turn. He thrusts forward, calling on all his strength. Gaining deeper water, he attempts to glide lower—his body jack-knifes. Paralysed, he sinks like a feather on a still day until he settles in the mud. Lying stunned, he is unable to comprehend this latest torture.
The barramundi lets his organs raise him to the surface. Halfway, he attempts to flex his tail to move forward. Instead, his body jerks into a vertical climb, spinning like a willy-willy. This is nothing he has experienced before; there is no tug in his mouth, no hook in his flesh, and no net wrapping around him.
He does not realise he has been too long in fresh water, that the brine of the sea called him for more than the need to reproduce. The virus that invades him attacks his nervous system. Unable to avoid underwater obstacles, he scrapes his skin into a tableau of cuts and bruises. His eyes haze over as if reflecting the drifting smoke of a bushfire. He is no longer able to feed.
Losing weight, he sinks further into his entrapment.
A cyclone hits the land, causing trees to thrash and tear out their roots. Marsh worts and lilies wash away from the banks and form emerald islands, swirling like giant whirligig beetles across the surface. Rivers rise in the honeycombed landscape, carving new caves, channels, and gorges. Mountains are worn down pebble by pebble, creeks change course, billabongs overflow and become one again with their source.
Floods spill into the impoundment, flattening reed beds and snapping off melaleuca trunks as if they were dried twigs brushed by a passing kangaroo. The lake rises against the dam wall, challenging gravity. The spillway is broached, roaring with its own wind and spray as the freed water races towards the sea.
Sick and confused, the barramundi is caught in the maelstrom, too weak to fight the swirl. Bruised and battered, he tosses on the surface, floating on his side in a whirlpool of misery. He is helpless to fight the force and is swept along like the debris from the storm. It is all he can do to take oxygen through his gills and ride the wild torrent.
Plunging down the rapids, bashed against rocks, tossed end over end, he is thrown through the air and belly-flops back into turbulence, tail downstream until he is spun and carried forward in the rush.
His body slows and sinks. Caught unawares, he brings his fins to bear and straightens, righting himself in the flow. The tug is less here; he can move of his own accord if only his body will obey his signals. He resists the drag that would force him back in the surge, remaining in the deep pool that provides a quiet refuge.
No longer at the mercy of the raging river, the barramundi rests. He is unaware that the upheaval of the elements has delivered him into tidal waters, aiding his body to combat the virus. He snatches a few unwary fry as they pass. Bacteria and ticks suck at his wounded flesh, but his body responds with a renewed strength and vitality. Moving downstream with the current, he tastes the tartness of salt and feels his body recovering. Not yet strong enough to face the full might of the ocean and its predators, he finds sanctuary in a cove, dark and still.
After many more days the sun emerges to heat the land in a steaming fug. Lizards emerge from under logs to bask on rocks, insects hum in swarms, and wallabies nibble at fresh foliage. The barramundi becomes more confident as he explores, regaining his strength, filling out loose skin and rebuilding fat reserves. He fights off parasites as his wounds leave scars under misshapen scales. A gleam shines in his once-glazed eyes.
Hunger drives him from his resting place.
Avoiding crocodiles and fishermen in the estuaries and open sea, far downstream from the impoundment, the mature barramundi lives the life nature ordained for him. Another wet season looms, the moon shrinking to a faint crescent. The slack tide brings females from afar into the estuary mouth. He out-swims his rivals to cruise alongside a much larger female, keeping himself between her and other suitors. She slows and hovers as she checks out conditions among the mangroves. Satisfied that all is well, she releases her stream.
He lets his milt flow, fertilising the eggs.
As the tides come and go he meets up with more females, though not always with the same success. His body still feels the trauma of disease, the stress affecting his fertility as well as his strength. Larger males thrust him out of their path, charging between him and his prospective mates. As the monsoon season peaks, he returns to feeding, growing and fattening.
Despite his scars and life experiences, the barramundi grows to over a metre in length. He weighs more than fifteen kilograms and starts to feel a change in his countenance. His massive bulk absorbs his male organs as ovaries develop. She must eat voraciously to feed this metamorphosis, aggressively snatching at smaller fish, even male barramundi that approach too close too soon. She commences the production of eggs.
Driven by nature to seek the place of her birth, the barramundi searches the inlets along the coast, rejecting each one as she fails to find her source. A memory of her escape from the impoundment leads her into a wide estuary. Swimming upriver, she encounters fresh water. The dam wall bars her way; there is no stream to follow back to the place where she emerged from the tanks. After a long search, she returns to the river mouth, tastes again the brackishness and swims in the opposite direction along the rugged shoreline.
Covering more distance than nature intended, she strains with the effort of seeking a haven for her growing eggs. Her cavity swells with potential life, dragging her slower while at the same time her urge becomes more pronounced. Dissatisfied, she returns to the waters where she has spent the last two years.
As the moon wanes, she can barely resist the need to lay her eggs. Several males approach and fight to be by her side. She ignores their overtures. Continuing to fret, she swims back and forth along the shore like a caged animal pacing the fence.
A dominant male bumps against her belly. The contact triggers a primeval response; she swims alongside him as he leads her nearer the shore. A sandy cove offers shallow water, calm and peaceful, empty of predators. She can no longer prevent the release of her eggs, millions spilling from her in threads as the male hovers and covers them with his sperm.
In the following years, this queen of the seas doubles in weight. She cruises the estuary at will, unafraid of swooping bird or all bar the largest of crocodiles. She is in her element, feasting, growing, and continuing to breed. The scars of earlier times remain, but disease and entrapment are a distant memory. It has been a long time since she encountered boats and men, causing her to forget those early lessons of the sound of motors churning the water.
A flash of silver passes close by. She changes course to follow the tantalising blur of sparkling colours, spinning as it skips the barely-rippled surface of the bay. The shape slows, sinks, hovers. It rises to the surface.
She clamps her bony mouth around the prey, swallowing deep. Turning to resume her patrol, her body lurches as her innards tear. In a panic of pain and confusion, she thrusts away from the direction of the pull on her head, diving and rising and diving again. Her powerful tail swishes behind her muscled body as she drives forward. She senses a line rasping against her scales and twists to avoid contact.
Her fight becomes harder the further she travels. An immense drag on her head tries to turn her around. She pushes towards the mangals, seeking safety in the tangle of roots. The distance is great. She slows as she tires, struggling to reach the safety of concealment near the shore, hoping to snag the trailing line around a sunken branch or submerged stump. But the shallows are too far.
With a massive lunge, she rises to the surface, leaping into the air, hoping for freedom as she has done before with a similar manoeuvre. Gleaming like spilled jewels as fractured waves tumble from her scales, she plummets back into the water, still caught.
The force on her body increases. Changing direction, she heads to the underwater caves that hide the moray eels where rocky cracks offer refuge.
She makes no progress. She dives deep and reverses her course, arrowing like a cormorant as she rockets towards the boat. The line slackens in her mouth as she gathers momentum. She heads towards the shadow of the hull, streaking beneath the propeller in a flash, heading for the open sea.
Her insides jag as she runs out of line, hauled back towards the threat. She is near the end of her endurance. She attempts to breach but once again fails to free the lure that grasps her gut. She is dragged back, shadows of men looming above her.
A net is lowered. In vain, she twists to avoid the trap. Lifted by the hooks deep inside her, the net succeeds in enveloping her tail; it is not large enough to haul her whole body. A hand reaches down and gaffs her behind the gills. Cheers greet her arrival as she flops on board, bucking like a lassoed brumby.
She gasps and flaps.
The men smack each other on the back, sharing ribald comments about their strength and skill.
Exhausted, the barramundi can no longer struggle. She is hefted into the arms of her captor, held under head and tail, and posed for photographs. Smacked onto the floor of the boat, she is measured from lips to tail, around her mighty girth, and across the width of her head; no dimension must be missed if the taxidermist is to make an accurate copy. She is slung from a hook and weighed to more cheers and the opening of celebratory beers.
The congratulations continue amongst the fishermen as she lies prone in the sun. Her skin dries. The pain in her gut continues to twist. Her gills palpitate in pink agitation as they fail to breathe.
She is too big to legally keep—not for her the filleting knife, being lightly dusted with salt and pepper and fried on the barbeque. After a wrench to retrieve the lure, she is lifted and held at the water’s surface to resuscitate. Deprived too long of oxygen, her mind fails to function. Her tail shivers as she glides away from the boat to settle on the seafloor. Despite the fisherman’s intentions, her life drifts away like the sand shifting beneath her. The boat and its men chug away with freshly set lines, oblivious of her final gasps.
The crabs sidle closer, pincers clicking in anticipation of tearing apart her carcass.