Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Not So Merri Creek

Wednesday last week began ordinarily enough. I was jogging (somewhat reluctantly) along my usual route by the creek, when I passed a mum and her toddler looking at something in the water. I ran past, glancing over at what I supposed was a duck or moorhen, only to see, swimming against the far bank, the unmistakable form of a duck-billed platypus. Here in the inner north of Melbourne, a real live platypus!  I stopped instantly (and not at all reluctantly), sat down by the woman and her toddler and gazed in wonder at the murky little shape on the other bank. I knew that there were recent reports of platypus in the Merri Creek near Moreland Road and I knew that this meant the stretch of creek just upstream from my house in East Brunswick. The reports were entirely credible and yet somehow I didn’t really believe that something so wonderful could be living practically in my backyard.

The toddler’s cheerful cries of “duck, duck!” rang out across the mud-coloured waters. The platypus swam in and out from the bank, splashing gently - sometimes surfacing under the overhanging vegetation of the bank, sometimes a little further out but never more than half a meter from the far edge. I watched for a while and as I did my wonder was tinged by a niggling concern. What was a shy, crepuscular creature doing splashing about mid morning, seemingly oblivious to its audience of gobsmacked inner-city humans? Was it trapped in some way? Or hurt? Something seemed not quite right but the woman and I talked in excited whispers and I pushed away my concerns. Who were we to wonder at the motivations of a platypus? Surely it knew what it was doing... maybe even building a burrow!

The woman eventually picked up her child left but I stayed to watch for a while until the far bank went quiet and still. Then I jogged back home and reported the whole adventure breathlessly to my boyfriend and housemates. I was beyond excited at the thought of a platypus living happily, just down the road, in MY creek! Throughout the day my heart leapt with joy at the thought of it swimming, feeding and perhaps even burrowing, just around the corner! Yet every now and then, the wildlife-crusading eleven year old inside me was troubled by the not-quite-rightness of it all. I convinced my housemates, Eliza and Lachy, and my boyfriend, Sean, to come back with me at dusk for another look. They didn’t need much convincing. I could hardly wait.

Platypus have numbered amongst my favourite animals since third year uni, when a tall, curly-haired PhD student wooed me by taking me platypus-watching at a secret location on the banks of an outer Brisbane creek. I am willing to acknowledge that a certain amount of the evening’s excitement lay in the romance of the secluded bushland location and the company of a handsome “older” man. Yet I was taken completely by surprise at the uncanny wonder I felt when I caught my first glimpse of the platypus, swimming with strange grace across the surface of that suburban creek. 

My interest in the PhD student soon waned but my devotion to the delightful duck-billed creature remained. Over the years I have sat silently on the banks of numerous bushland creeks and lakes, from Cairns to Tassie, plagued by mozzies, squinting through the half dark, in the hope of catching a glimpse of the local platypus. 

Those who have watched for platypus know that there is nothing quite like waiting at dusk or dawn, every moment doubting, about to give up and leave; then all of a sudden catching sight of that utterly distinctive shape as it slips across the water’s surface before diving back out of sight.  The elusive, mysterious, marvellous platypus, most primitive of mammals and yet so beautifully adapted it has remained unchanged across millennia; a creature so seemingly improbable and yet clearly so quietly comfortable in its own skin.

And so that evening we trailed back to the same spot, breath held, eyes peeled. As we approached, I crossed my fingers that we’d see the platypus gliding merrily across the creek, ducking and surfacing as it searched for dinner. But as soon as we reached the place where I’d sat that morning, I realised something was up. The shadows were long, the dusk light was dimming but the platypus was splashing against the bank exactly as it had been earlier that morning. 

We watched for a little while but deep down I knew that it was trapped in some way. I realised that as I’d watched that morning, as I’d walked away and every moment since, the poor creature had been struggling desperately free itself. My stomach sank as I grasped what should have been obvious all along. And yet, the eleven year old self inside me gave a silent cheer of excitement – it was time to get involved!

And so we did. All four of us sprang into action. Lachlan stayed where he was to direct us, while Eliza and I crossed to the far bank for a closer look. Eliza held my ankles securely while I lay down on my stomach and pushing aside the over-hanging plants, peered down past the edge of the bank and into the darkening water of the creek. Through the gloomy water I could see that the platypus had something looking suspiciously like a rubber band twined tightly around its torso, and that this was badly tangled in the roots hanging from the bank. 

I realised at once that I couldn’t untangle the mess with my hands so Sean rushed back home to get a knife, a torch and a bucket. Despite our efforts to work quietly and carefully, the platypus had managed to get even more tangled and had flipped itself onto its back. I couldn’t see much in the dark and I started to worry that if its head was underwater it would drown before Sean returned with a knife. Eliza, still firmly holding my ankles, had a MacGyver moment and suggested I try cutting it free with a key. She passed over her house key and I started sawing away carefully at the roots. To my joy, it worked!

The sawing of the key disturbed the platypus even further and it started making the strangest little gurgling growls which carried eerily across the dark water. I worried that the extra pressure of my sawing was pulling on the twine around its body and hurting it. However, the noise did make it easier to keep its head above water as I could clearly hear from the gurgles when it slipped underneath the surface. Things were, however, made trickier by the fact that we didn’t know if it was a male or a female. Male platypuses have a poisonous spur on their hind leg, and I had no intention of getting spiked. This meant that whatever happened, I had to keep my hands well clear of its back end.

I don’t know how long we worked on that dark, mozzie-infested creek bank but I remember, despite my concern being thrilled at the feel of the platypus’s velvety pelt under my fingers. A wild platypus, at my fingertips, in my creek! I sawed away frantically and eventually the poor beast was almost free. Sean arrived back with the gear just in time. There was a minor setback when the bike light I was holding between my teeth slipped irretrievably into the creek but by that stage we were nearly done. However careless I may have been with Sean's bike light, I make very sure that I held on most carefully to the terrible tangle that was still attached to the platypus. The mess of rubbish and roots was still firmly bound to its body and I could imagine nothing worse than having it escape in its current state and swim away into the blackness. Finally, I scooped the aggravated creature carefully into the big bucket and snipped the last of the roots with scissors. I tied my scarf around the bucket and everyone simultaneously hauled me and the platypus-filled bucket carefully up onto the bank. 

Despite its day-long ordeal, the platypus was incredibly strong and it tried repeatedly to scrabble over the side of the bucket. Tying the soggy scarf over the top to keep the beast contained, we hurried home, debating whether or not to cut it free ourselves or rush it straight to the vet and let them deal with it. The decision was made when we saw clearly in the hallway light just how tangled it was. The rubber band was cutting deeply across the poor animal’s neck and shoulders and there was a huge snarl of black roots still attached to its back like some kind of nightmarish alien parasite. 

It was decided that the empty bathtub would be the best place to work so wearing a pair of (disturbingly flimsy) washing up gloves and armed with a towel, I held down the struggling platypus (gently) by the head and tail while Liza snipped carefully away the snarl of roots, rubber band and what turned out to be several coils of black plastic twine. Sean dodged around us snapping pictures where he could while Lachie consulted Google to get the number for a late night vet. 

There was a moment of strange exaltation when Eliza snipped the last bit of debris free. We lifted the platypus out of the bathtub. None of us could quite believe what we’d done and that we were sitting here in an inner city flat with a real, live platypus. There wasn’t time to ogle or coo, we were keen to get straight to the vet, but there was no mistaking the uncanny, furry, strong, duck-billed, platypussyness of it, so wild and weirdly out of place amongst the white tiles and toilet paper of this suburban bathroom.

And that was it, we tucked the brown body amongst towels in an esky, piled into the car and, directed by Lachie, hightailed it to the Essendon Emergency vet. They whisked it away and I left my number in the hope of finding out the rest of the story. And I was lucky. The next morning I received a call from the dedicated wildlife carer, Helen who had collected the platypus and taken it up to Healesville for an appointment with Jess, the platypus specialist. The vets at Healesville were fairly positive about things. Apparently he (it was a he) had some nasty gashes around his neck from the entanglement but all going well he would be released that evening.

Photo by Healesville Sanctuary
The rubbish and roots in which the platypus was tangled.

The grotty stretch of creek that our platypus appears to call home.
By well-intentioned law, the platypus had to be re-released in exactly the same spot it was found. I was at first dismayed, actually, horrified at the idea of putting the poor creature back into a stretch of creek chocked with litter. It could only be a matter of time before some rubbishy snag appeared and the platypus was unwittingly trapped once more. And yet as the evening approached and I organised to meet the wildlife carer at the creek, I came to realise that that law was (who would have thought it?!) quite right. It was put in place to ensure that wild animals are released into their own, familiar territory and not into the unknown dangers of somewhere new. But there is a deeper wisdom to it as well. Releasing animals back where they were found puts the power back into the paws, claws, fins and flippers of the wild animals themselves. 

Because it’s not our place to question the platypus’s choice. For reasons known only to himself, he chose to travel through, perhaps even live in that stretch of Merri Creek. The fact that he was in good condition, big, strong and glowing with health suggests that until he was inadvertently tangled, he was doing pretty well for himself. Perhaps the work we put into our suburban creeks, monitoring water quality, holding cleanup days and replanting native vegetation means that despite the rubbish and the roadside runoff, they’ve actually become a decent habitat for platypus. 

Regardless of whether or not we agree with the animal’s choices, whatever our inner wildlife warriors might tell us, sometimes it’s important not to interfere. If platypus want to try their luck in Merri Creek, we should probably let them. Indeed, when it all comes down to it, we really shouldn’t be removing the platypus because of the rubbish - damn it, we should be removing the rubbish because of the platypus!

And so, twenty four hours after his dramatic rescue and just meters away from the bank where we’d found him trapped, I watched the platypus slip quietly, for better or worse, back into the dirty brown waters of Merri Creek. 

To find out when the next Merri Creek clean up day is, visit Friends of Merri Creek.


  1. What an incredible story! Great work guys and well done for saving the little platypus.

  2. I just saw a Platypus swimming in the stretch of the Merri between Bell St and the swing foot bridge. SOOOooo amazing to watch swim..they are truly special. I walked home with a little grin on my face, and will be back to keep an eye on my new friend tomorrow night.

  3. Oh Glenda! That's so exciting!!! And almost a year to the day that the platypus above was released back. I'm sure MCMC and Melbourne Water would love to know.

    I'm gonna have to resume my platypus walks...

  4. Hey Lauren - we saw a Platypus on Tuesday last week - in the stretch of Merri Creek near the Metro Fire Truck depot, just before dark - absolutely brilliant! That's my second sighting, two separate places along the creek. Definitely Platypus, could see it's tiny head and watched it swim up a bit before it disappeared into some cover along the creek edge.