Despite more than two centuries of intense human activity, the vast expanse of Port Phillip Bay remains a safe haven for many of Australia’s most important marine species. The Bay still teems with fish, a bounty that’s been a blessing for seven generations of the Beazley clan, one of the last of the traditional fishing families to continue catching and selling its seafood.
Seventy-one-year-old Dugga Beazley started commercial fishing with his father at the age of 13 and knows the Bay and the seasonal ebb and flow of its marine life better than most. He is one of the few to have observed the so-called Red Tide, the awesome spawning migration of the red snapper.
“I used to fish for pike with me old man and a mate called Vinnie MacNamara,” Dugga said, “and once we’d shot the nets late in the afternoon we’d go to a nice quiet spot, a clear sandy gutter between a reef and the shore and we’d chuck the anchor over and have a cuppa and somethin’ to eat before going back to haul the nets.
“This particular night, right on sunset, it was flat calm with a little light northerly. Vinnie had a couple of expensive new rods he was keen to try. I told him, ‘you’re wastin’ your time here, mate’ but he went ahead and cast his lines and lo and behold off they go, a bloody great whirring sound and one of the rods went in the water.
“I said to him, ‘get the spotlight. You might see it on the bottom and with a bit of luck we might be able to get it up with the grapple.’ We put the spotlight over side and bugger me, there was thousands upon thousands of huge red snapper under the boat, packed solid like sardines and all swimmin’ in the same direction, comin’ from Point Cook and headin’ towards Werribee.
“All around the boat, as far as the eye could see was this red tide of snapper. That was at 7.30pm. We sat there and watched them go past until after ten o’clock when the battery in the spotlight went flat. In the morning we picked the nets up and had eight or 10 boxes of pike and 80 big snapper. If we had had snapper nets that night we could never have carried ’em home.”
On other occasions Dugga has seen big snapper swimming so close to shore that their backs were well clear of the water.
“They do that to rub their bellies on the sand,” he said, “which might be their way of getting rid of irritations. I’ve caught thousands and thousands of them and I’ve felt sorry for each and every one. They’re beautiful fish, snapper. When they come up, they roll over and look at me with those big black eyes.
“I’m the last thing they see before they die.”
But where there’s death there’s also life and Dugga has had the privilege of seeing great stretches of the Bay covered in the snapper’s milky white spawn, the microscopic roe and milt held in suspension like fine white flour.
“When you come back in a week or so,” he said, “and take a close look, you can make out millions of tiny eyes. They’re like tadpoles with outsize eyes and wrigglin’ tails. Then they’re off.”
But the Port Phillip snapper don’t just disappear. Dugga says they stay within the Bay for four years when they reach sexual maturity.
“Then off they go,” he said. “Out through The Rip. Some turn left and go all the way up to Coffs Harbour in northern New South Wales and others turn right and go all the way round to Shark Bay in Western Australia.
“Seven years later they somehow find their way back to Port Phillip where they form their own red tide. I think that’s bloody marvellous.”
Dugga, his son David and his late father, Len, have all had close encounters with death in the Bay.
During the great gale of 1951, his father’s net boat, the Volunteer was the only vessel to survive being wrecked in the Port Melbourne Lagoon.
“The old man and I went down to the Lagoon at the height of the storm,” Dugga recalls. “I got in the dinghy and sculled out to the Volunteer while Dad stopped on the pier. Big breakin’ seas were rollin’ in clear. I looked back and saw a huge wave go right over the top of the old man.
“Then he’s gone. I thought ‘geeze, we’re in trouble now’. The old man couldn’t swim a stroke. I sculled back to the pier and looked down and there he was under the water, still hangin’ on to the pile. I hauled him up.
“‘Geeze’, I said, ‘that was bloody close.’”
In July 2010, in the depths of one of Melbourne’s coldest winter’s days on record, Dugga and David had a very close call of their own.
“We catch a lot of snapper round the back of Wiliamstown in the winter,” Dugga said. “We use four inch nets and it’s best to shoot them when the weather’s bad and the water’s murky. It had been blowin’ a 25-30 knots sou’wester all day. When it went into the west and eased a bit, David and I went out just on dark, shot a mile of net and went home.
“In the mornin’ it’s a feather-white southerly. Straight up the Bay at 25-30 knots. My daughter, Melissa, came with us. We went down to St Kilda and got into the boat. Melissa’s a good hand. She was steerin’.
“David and I got one net onboard. There was 16 boxes of snapper in it. By this stage the water was boiling. We could see the seas comin’ in sets of three. We picked up the other net, but it got foul on the bottom and we had to do a circle to get the net clear.
“We got half-way round, stern on to the wind when three breakers hit us, one after the other. There was so much pressure that the bloody tiller broke.
“Within 30 seconds the floors were afloat. We always carry a spare tiller so in it went and we got her head-to-wind, but by then the water was up to the flywheel and the engine coughing and spluttering and chuckin’ water all over the place. Three times we went round before we got clear.
“That was a close call. We were a bit lucky to get out of that. We finished up with 26 boxes of snapper that mornin’”.
Dugga and David had one other experience, which very nearly cost them their lives.
“About five or six years ago,” he said, “we were down in Corio Bay one mornin’ with nets shot up near the Point Henry Pier. We were in David’s 15ft tinnie doin’ 30 knots in a short chop and 15 knots of wind.
“It was the last day of June and freezin’ cold. I was standin’ in the middle of the boat hangin’ on to a bow line. David was standin’ aft steering. He must have had his hands in his pockets and the tiller between his legs. The boat’s runnin’ down these waves, but she buries her head in one and next thing I know she’s up on her side.
“I dives head-first into the water, seaboots, jumper, coat, wet-weather gear and all. I went down. I heard the boat go over me head, three times.
“I thought if I go up I’ll be cut in half, but if I stay down here I’ll drown.
“So I took a chance and came up. Lucky for me the boat was goin’ away crabwise. I though David would still be aboard and he’d soon pick me up but no, there he was in the water 50 feet away.
“The closest thing in the water was a pile at the end of a reef about a mile and a half away. I said right, that’s where I’m goin’. David wanted to swim for the boat, but I said no, if it hits you, it’ll kill you, so we swam for the pile. David stripped off to his jeans and a tee-shirt but I never discarded one piece of my gear because it seemed to give me an extra bit of warmth and buoyancy.
“We made it to the pile about nine o’clock and held on there for half an hour, hoping someone would come along. We were on the point of swimming for the shore, about a mile away when we saw a boat coming. It turned out to be my nephew, Andrew.
“He spotted our boat going round in circles and realised something was wrong. He went to it, then figured out where we were and came straight to us. He saved our lives. Another half an hour and hypothermia would have finished us for sure.”
Although the Beazleys were exhausted when they came ashore, they hadn’t forgotten that they still had nets to clear. After a change of clothes and dry wet-weather gear, father and son went back out that same afternoon. Was it worthwhile?
“Sure,” Dugga said. “We pulled four boxes of whiting that day.
“Mind you,” he added, “every day’s a bonus after that.”