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Capturing the Giant Cuttlefish Migration in Whyalla, South Australia
By Brett Lobwein, May 28, 2024 @ 08:00 PM (EST)

A quartet of giant cuttlefish engage in mating behavior in the shallows near Whyalla, Australia

A few meters off a rocky beach at Point Lowly in Whyalla, South Australia, a mesmerizing spectacle unfolds every year, drawing underwater enthusiasts and professional photographers and videographers from around the globe. It was even featured on the BBC’s Blue Planet II. It's a phenomenon that evokes a sense of wonder and admiration—the annual aggregation of the Australian giant cuttlefish (Sepia apama).

As the southern winter approaches, these magnificent cephalopods aggregate in the shallow waters, transforming the ocean into a kaleidoscope of colors, patterns and mesmerizing behaviors. It is a sight that seems almost otherworldly, reminiscent of an underwater ballet during which these intelligent creatures dance with grace, agility, and sometimes even aggression.

A lone giant cuttlefish flutters over the algae and seaweed covered bottom off Whyalla

A pair of giant cuttlefish mate face to face

For underwater photographers, the giant cuttlefish migration presents a unique opportunity to capture moments of raw beauty and natural wonder. With their ability to change color and texture in an instant, cuttlefish are living canvases, painting the ocean floor with their intricate designs and patterns. Capturing the essence of the migration isn’t just about snapping photos; it’s about patience, putting up with cold water, and immersing oneself in their world for a little while.

One of the most striking aspects of the giant cuttlefish aggregation is just the sheer number of individuals that gather in the waters off Whyalla. During peak season, which typically occurs between May and August, thousands of the three- to four-foot long cephalopods converge in a spectacular display of nature’s abundance. I highly recommend trying to visit in the earlier part of winter. As the season goes on, the cuttlefish start to thin as they generally aren’t feeding while engaged in their mating rituals and the “fights” by the males for the affection of females start to take their toll. The males will become ragged and often are missing limbs or chunks of their bodies!

A beautiful giant cuttlefish, stretched out in all its glory beneath the sunrays

Two huge male giant cuttlefish battle it out for the right to mate with nearby females

A wider look at the cuttlefish fight from above, showing the habitat off Whyalla where the cuttlefish aggregation occurs

This mass gathering isn’t just a random occurrence; it’s driven by the cuttlefish’s instinctual need to reproduce. The mating rituals unfold with mesmerizing complexity. Male cuttlefish, adorned in vibrant displays of colors and patterns, engage in elaborate courtship displays to attract females. These displays often involve rhythmic pulsations of their colorful skin, accompanied by mesmerizing movements and postures. Once a female is finally enticed, the male gently grasps her with his specialized mating arm, transferring sperm packets into her reproductive tract. The process ensures successful fertilization, ultimately contributing to the continuation of the species’ remarkable life cycle.

The males will also be adorned in their finest colors and patterns to deter another competitive male or males in a spectacular display. It is a competition unlike any other—success is measured not in brute strength, but in artistic flair. From a photographic perspective, these stand-offs are among the highlights.

As the sun begins to set, a male giant cuttlefish positions himself between the photographer and “his” female

A lone cuttlefish, hopefully zooming its way towards a potential mate

As an underwater photographer, I am also very conscious that my presence or camera equipment like strobes doesn’t disrupt or harm the creatures we seek to photograph. The good news is that cuttlefish are so focused on nothing else but reproducing that from my experience they don’t seem affected by the presence of divers or photographers. Divers should still be mindful that they don’t get in the way of cuttlefish moving around looking for a mate, and also pay special attention to their buoyancy, as you don’t want to damage freshly laid eggs (they are normally in protected overhangs), kick a hidden cuttlefish or damage the seaweed. Plus, the “snot” seaweed will ruin your photos!

With regards to photographic gear, wide-angle or fisheye lenses are going to serve you very well as the cuttlefish are not shy and are easily approached. Strobes or video lights to bring out the colors of the cuttlefish are beneficial as well. My preference is to dive the site either early in the morning or late in the evening so that you avoid the harsh light directly above. Be mindful of the drive out to the site at this time of day. However, there will be plenty of kangaroos active at these times!

While I have been lucky enough to experience beautiful, clear blue water many times at Whyalla, it is the Southern Ocean, a notoriously unpredictable and volatile body of water in terms of conditions. Thanks to the site’s relatively shallow depths, it can be dramatically impacted by wind and swell movement. I definitely recommend giving yourself a few days to allow for good weather windows. And did I mention the water can be cold? I have had temperatures as low as 9°C (48°F), but generally the temperature is around 10–14°C (50–57°F).

The sun setting doesn’t put an end to the festivities! The cuttlefish keep at it—all hours of the day

For those traveling to South Australia for this, I highly recommend spending a bit of extra time to explore the amazing diving in the area. Whyalla is very close to Port Lincoln, the great white shark capital of the world, and the team at Rodney Fox Shark Expeditions. A trip to the area isn’t complete without a visit to some of the nearby jetties to dive with the fantastical leafy seadragons

Fortunately for the cuttlefish, and after hard campaigning by the dive community, the Australian Government has put in place a permanent ban on cuttlefish fishing in the Upper Spencer Gulf. The protection means the amazing migration and aggregation of the giant cuttlefish is safe for many generations of both cuttlefish and humans to enjoy.

A lone giant cuttlefish photographed in the last light of the fading sun


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