Richard Robinson

The animals next door

What’s a wildlife photographer to do when lockdown puts an end to travel?

Written by       Photographed by Richard Robinson

When Eva and Nina Robinson joined their father on rock-pooling missions they turned up plenty of little olive rockfish—Acanthoclinus fuscus, or taumaka. It’s the only rockfish found in estuaries, and is common on coastlines around the country. The taumaka is a resilient little creature—it can breathe air when out of the water, and survive in puddles between high tides. Females lay up to 10,000 eggs in a gelatinous cluster under a rock, and males guard them, blocking the entrance to the nest with small stones and mud. In rock pools, the fish look dark and nondescript—but the studio lights revealed striking geometric designs and rich colours. On the previous spread, the smooth-handed crab, Pilumnopeus serratifrons, is also found in Australia. It’s not known whether it found its own way here, or was introduced. Its right-hand claw is usually bulkier than its left-hand one.

In August, the Delta variant of COVID-19 began to spread in New Zealand, and the entire country returned to the strictest form of lockdown. All at once, everyone’s world got a whole lot smaller. For Richard Robinson, the change couldn’t have been more pronounced. Now, instead of heading to the subantarctic islands to photograph whales underwater or hitching rides with commercial tuna-fishing operations off the coast of Australia, Robinson—along with his wife and three young children—found himself confined to the neighbourhood.

So he set himself a new assignment: to record the tiny inhabitants of the tide pools on the flats of Snells Beach, just 400 metres from his home. As a child, Robinson collected buckets full of specimens alongside his grandfather for the tidal tank at Napier’s National Aquarium of New Zealand. Now, as Auckland’s lockdown ticked over six weeks, then seven, he shared the same pastime with his own kids. Robinson and seven-year-old Eva made a habit of walking out onto the sand at low tide to see what they could find. Armed with buckets and nets, they lifted up rocks and peered into pools. Occasionally, five-year-old Nina joined in.

The best time to sneak up on sea creatures is usually after dark, using a red-light torch, the colour first lost underwater. But Robinson didn’t want to worry his neighbours by flashing a light around on the beach at night. And anyway, collecting by day turned out to have an unexpected perk: Eva’s keen eye. On her first day, she found a translucent little greeny-gold creature with one oversized claw—a snapping shrimp. She nicknamed it Stripy, for the bands on its tail, and over the following days, it became her favourite species to spot. “I just like the big claw, and they’re so cute.”

When another Stripy was left too long in a bucket with a hungry eleven-armed starfish, tragedy ensued. “I cried,” says Eva.

Eva’s favourite tidal creature is the snapping shrimp, Alpheus richardsoni, which commonly digs its burrows 30 centimetres deep into northern New Zealand estuaries. “It snapped to scare me and once I got pinched by one, but I didn’t really mind,” says Eva. According to University of Auckland marine biologist Richard Taylor, the snapping shrimp makes such a loud and distinctive crack with its oversized claw that the larvae of some fish species follow the sound to find new habitat to settle in.

Each day, father and daughter collected a couple of creatures, brought them home to a makeshift garage studio and kept them in aerated jars. Meanwhile, Robinson set about purifying the seawater scooped up from Snells Beach—though the water looked clear to the naked eye, under the studio lights tiny suspended particles got in the way. He ran each water sample through his kitchen purifying jug over and over until it was clean.

Even though Sadie Mills wrote a guide to New Zealand’s 90 species of anemone, she can’t say for sure which kind this one is: “Anemones are really difficult taxonomically, you have to be a bit careful in identifying them.” That’s because some species can be found in a multitude of different colours, shapes, sizes and patterns that overlap with those of other species, and there have been few genetic studies into these charismatic animals.

Then, he tipped each critter into a glass cube about 10 centimetres long on each side. Against one side he placed a backdrop: a white page torn from his dive notepad. Two or three strobe lights illuminated the scene for a fraction of a second, brightly enough that he could shoot at a narrow aperture and keep the entire animal in focus.

“Some of these things are moving really fast,” he says. “The mantis shrimp are not sitting still in there. The fish are shooting around at top speed. They’re all flying around, and you have to try to focus on them and snap them.”

Each close-up reveals the vivid colours, delicate symmetry and intricate patterns of these tiny animals—and even the suggestion of personalities. “When you shoot them eye to eye, the hairy crabs are just such characters,” says Robinson.

He photographed the olive rockfish, one of the most common fishes found on New Zealand’s rocky shores, and the transparent rosy-pink glass shrimp. There were estuarine gobies, the little fishes that scatter in the sand pools on any beach in northern New Zealand. “They look like nothing when you see them,” Robinson says, “but up close their patterns are just amazing.”

Two speckled fish dance under Robinson’s studio lights: at left, the spotted robust triplefin (Forsterygion capito) and at right, the mottled twister (Bellapiscis lesleyae) New Zealand is the triplefin capital of the world, with 27 out of the world’s 130 species endemic to our waters. Triplefin expert Kendall Clements from the University of Auckland once said that they are “as iconic among New Zealand fishes as wētā are among New Zealand insects and kiwi among New Zealand birds.” A brand-new species with fetching yellow polka-dots has just been discovered off Rakiura/Stewart Island, at a depth of more than 100 metres.
The New Zealand hermit crab, Pagurus novizealandiae, is just one of around 60 species of hermit crab found in our waters and on our rocky shores. This species is found only in New Zealand, and is common in intertidal areas around the country. It has a flexible, spiral-shaped body that coils into its borrowed shell, and it moves into ever-larger mollusc and gastropod shells as it grows. This hermit crab has adopted an empty southern olive shell as its home. The shell’s original owner was an endemic sea snail, Amalda australis or pūpū piatāta, which hunts beneath the sand, leaving a distinctive trail.
When a flounder (Rhombosolea plebeia) hatches from its egg, its eyes are located on both sides of its body, like most fish. But when it reaches five millimetres long, one eye starts to migrate across its body. Over several weeks, the juvenile’s growing muscles and bones push the eye over the top of its head until it ends up next to the other eye, giving it the distinctive face of an adult flounder—like a creature in a Picasso painting. At the same time, the young flounder settle on the sea floor, where those lopsided eyes give it the perfect view of ocean and sky. These two-centimetre-long flounder had probably settled on the sand recently when the Robinsons scooped them up.
One of the decorator crabs that the Robinsons found was so well camouflaged that they didn’t realise they’d collected it—they found it in the bucket when they got home. Marine biologist Colin McLay says that this kind of spider crab (Notomithrax ursus) should be described as “dressmaker” rather than “decorator”, because of the way the crabs measure, cut, and attach pieces of seaweed on their shells—making a kind of “customised garment” used to conceal themselves from predators.

There were triplefins, a species with such an accurate sense of place that if you move one 700 metres from its home, it will find its way back again. And there were tiny flounders, barely three centimetres long, which had only just morphed into their bizarre, asymmetric shape. “When they’re fry, they’re like a normal little fish with eyes on both sides,” Robinson says, “but then as they grow, one of the eyes migrates through to the other side.”

The kawari/speckled whelk is a predatory sea snail. It’s mostly interested in eating shellfish.

Eva collected a tiny, unassuming isopod less than a centimetre long, and insisted on bringing it home. To her dad’s surprise, it was spectacular under the studio lights—a sweet little crustacean in orange and cobalt, lime green and pink. Its portrait is now one of Robinson’s favourite photographs of the whole collection.

The isopod Eva insisted on bringing home turned out to be a mature male Isocladus armatus, a sea-dwelling relative of slaters. Females of the species have a pouch called a marsupium where they brood eggs that hatch as miniature adults.

While fish, starfish and crabs could be easily caught with a net or bare hands, collecting the vicious mantis shrimp required a special tool to suck them from their holes in the sand. On a previous assignment, Robinson had looked in vain for mantis shrimp at Snells Beach, but with Eva he found them on the first go. “It was a mantis shrimp party out there,” he says.

When the animals’ moments in the spotlight were over, the Robinsons returned them to the tidal area where they’d been found. “Occasionally with a few tears from Eva,” says Robinson, “when she became quite attached.”

The project—which Robinson describes as “a sort of unscientific photographic reference of some of the subtidal species that we have just literally on my back doorstep”—gave meaning and focus to the family’s time in lockdown. It also allowed Robinson, whose specialty is underwater photography, to share his love of the art form and the sea with his family.

And, unlike Robinson’s recent assignments for New Zealand Geographic, this one didn’t require weeks of travel, multiple dives or the invention of new photography gear. Instead, it served as a reminder that nature isn’t “out there”: wildlife lives alongside us, in our neighbourhoods, around the corner, and there in the sand between our toes.

“I usually find that, to do remarkable stories, I’m going further and deeper and way out of my comfort zone,” says Robinson. “And yet at the end of my street I found something beautiful.”

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