Tech divers find rare walking fish on Tasman shipwreck

A pink handfish looks as surprised as the wreck-divers who spotted it were (James Parkinson)
A pink handfish looks as surprised as the wreck-divers who spotted it were (James Parkinson)

Technical divers exploring a deep-lying 19th-century shipwreck off Tasmania were amazed to come across several examples of an endangered fish that has only rarely been spotted before.

The pink handfish is one of 14 handfish species that have been identified off the southern Australian island-state. They move by ‘walking’ along the seabed on their pectoral fins rather than swimming.

Divers James Parkinson, Brad Turner and Bob Van Der Velde from the Eaglehawk Dive Centre and Scuba Diving Tasmania had organised the wreck dive as part of a series of explorations to mark the 140th anniversary of the Tasman’s sinking. 

Brad Turner, one of the divers on the wreck of the Tasman (James Parkinson)
Brad Turner on the wreck of the Tasman (James Parkinson)

The schooner-rigged 64m steamship, built in Glasgow in 1873, carried passengers, mail and cargo between Sydney and Tasmania’s capital Hobart for the Tasmanian Steam Shipping Company. 

On 30 November, 1883 the Tasman sank in 15 minutes after hitting an unmarked reef, though the 29 people onboard managed to get to safety on the lifeboats. 

Porthole on the wreck  (James Parkinson)
Porthole on the wreck (James Parkinson)

The broken-up wreck was not discovered until 1998, lying 70m deep south-west of Little Hippolyte Rock. In an area swept by strong currents, the site attracts many fish – and now it seems that the benthic pink handfish (Brachiopsilus dianthus) has also found it a haven.

“Brad’s eagle eye spotted the little fish among the flattened wreckage of the Tasman,” said Parkinson from Eaglehawk Dive Centre, adding that on a second descent the divers had spotted two of the rarely sighted fish, which belong to the anglerfish family.

“The pink handfish had only been observed by divers on three other occasions,” he said. “This is the first video and photos taken by divers of the fish in its natural environment.”

How the divers spotted the pink handfish

The mixed-gas divers were able to spend 25 minutes on the wreck, which Parkinson describes as “alive with colour, making for a spectacular dive with often terrific visibility.

“Numerous relics such as brass portholes, bottles and plates can be seen scattered across the wreck, which adds to the dive experience,” he said. Some artefacts from the Tasman are displayed at the Maritime Museum Tasmania in Hobart.

It is only recently that marine biologists concluded that the paucity of sightings of the pink handfish was because it shunned shallow waters. The species is IUCN Red Listed as Endangered.

It was a team from the University of Tasmania’s Institute for Marine & Antarctic Studies (IMAS) that captured the first video of a pink handfish using an ROV at a depth of 150m on the Commonwealth Tas Fracture in 2021. It has also been seen since then on the deep Huon marine reserve.

Pink handfish on the Tasman wreck (James Parkinson)
Pink handfish on the Tasman wreck (James Parkinson)

IMAS associate professor Neville Barrett commented that the recent dive “gives us hope that the pink handfish have some deeper and cooler-water refuge from the warming coastal waters that are threatening the existence of many Tasmanian marine species.” He described the Tasman wreck discovery as “remarkable and extremely valuable”.

Also on Divernet: Diver discovery doubles numbers of rare walking fish, The Unsung Reef, Team effort cracks Tasmanian cave puzzle, ‘World’s oldest beer’ recovered from shipwreck

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