Category: Travel

Travelling with your fishes and travelling to see fishes.

Tropical Fish in the Snow

Now that winter is back again, we once more have the opportunity to see one of the world’s truly unique vistas…tropical fish in a snow bound lake. Yes, just 1½ hours from Calgary is the only place in the world that tropical aquarium fish live outside, wild, all year long, in a natural body of water that has snow around it. It is the marsh below the famous “Cave and Basin”, in Banff National Park, just west of the Banff townsite.

The Cave and Basin is an historic site and one of the major tourist attractions in Banff. The site was first brought to public attention in 1883 by William and Tom McCardell, and Frank McCabe; three railroad workers who followed a free-flowing stream (that was still warm to the touch in the middle of winter) up to its source: a collection of hot (well, warm) springs on the north side of Sulphur Mountain. One of these springs was in a small but lovely cave set in the cliff face. Two other springs were open to the sky. The men wanted to take ownership of the site and build a bathhouse/resort there. However, the federal government saw fit to intervene and used the feature as a cornerstone attraction for our first national park, which was incorporated in 1885.

The springs immediately became a popular swimming area. Warm, but not nearly as hot as the springs on the mountain’s eastern flanks, the Cave and Basin springs were a popular place of recreation. The warmest spring (in the cave) was a famous “medicinal” spring. The coolest spring, with a temperature of about 27C, could be used for a refreshing swim on a hot day, without being brain-numbingly cold like the typical mountain lake is in even the hottest summer.

A resort was built on the site in 1886, to be later expanded in 1932. But, although the resort was commercially successful, even the hardest nosed capitalist would be hard pressed to call this development an improvement in any sense of the word. It must be remembered however that the primary purpose of the national parks at that time was recreation, not conservation. Banff was (as the park’s historians like to say) an island of civilization in a sea of wilderness, and development – any development – was welcome. But nowadays the park is an island of wilderness in a sea of civilization, and development threatens the very thing that the tourists come to see. And in the case of the Cave and Basin, all natural beauty is long gone. The Cave is now just a room in the resort building and even the exterior springs are surrounded by walls. Sigh.

The desecration of these natural wonders was more than just an aesthetic loss, as unnoticed in the springs lived a small, rather non-descript, pond snail. The Banff Springs snail (Physella johnsoni) was originally endemic to five springs and their outflow streams near Sulphur Mountain. It was known to occur in the Upper Hot Springs, Kidney Spring, Middle Springs, the Cave and Basin, Vermilion Lakes Spring, and a warm stream near the Banff Springs Hotel. Now they are found only in one of the Cave and Basin springs, its outflow stream, and the Cave and Basin marsh below the spring. The reason for its disappearance in the other locations is believed to be development and human disturbance of the algal mats upon which the snail feeds. Now all swimming in the Cave and Basin is forbidden in order to preserve the species, and so the resort has lost its original reason for existence. Today it is a museum and interpretive center.

Compared to the springs themselves, the stream and marsh below the Cave and Basin are relatively pristine “warm water” ecosystems. However, human interference has been at work here too, as residents of Banff released a variety of tropical fish into the marsh after the war years (no one seems to know exactly when this happened). At one time or another, angelfish, guppies, and tetras have all been spotted in the marsh, but these failed to thrive and are probably no longer present. Now there are three introduced tropical fish species known to live in the marsh; Gambusia affinis (the mosquitofish), Poecilia latipinna (the sailfin mollie), and Hemichromis bimaculatus (the jewel cichlid).

Getting to the see these fish is easy – the route to the Cave and Basin is well signed. Follow the main drag through the town of Banff west until you cross the Bow River, then turn right. Head down the road another mile. From the Cave and Basin parking lot, walk up to the main building and around to the north side. Take the “Discovery Trail” north of the main building (there is no reason to actually enter the building). A boardwalk goes down to the marsh, culminating in a “fish-watching” platform.

Along the way take note of the white algae growing in the springs’ outlet stream. I found this stuff fascinating (how does it photosynthesize without pigment?) but could not find out anything about its biology.

Be careful heading down the boardwalk as it can be icy in winter. On really cold days fog shrouds the marsh, making the scene very otherworldly, but although beautiful, the fog doesn’t help you find any fish. The best place to see the fish is (not surprisingly) the fish-watching platform. Lie quietly on the platform with your head over the side, and in a few moments the fish will reappear. Pretty much all of the fish you see will be introduced tropicals.

Personally, I found the mollies a bit of a disappointment. They are much smaller than well-fed aquarium specimens. And although all were originally black, they have over the generations reverted to their original spotted coloration. So from the top (looking down on their backs) they aren’t too impressive. I saw one male however with a lovely sail fin and a pleasant yellow cast to its fins. Quite nice. The jewel cichlids are also small (about 6cm) but feisty and in nice color. And the male mosquito fish court like male mosquito fish do.

Although the tropical fish are introduced, they now enjoy the full protection of the national park authority. You can not legally catch, keep, feed, or unduly disturb them.

It is hard for a tropical fish enthusiast to not to be impressed by seeing these fish in the snow, but it must be remembered that they are introduced species that had a profound impact on the native fishes of the marsh. The marsh was once the only home of the Banff longnose dace (Rhinichthys cataractae smithi), which was declared extinct in 1986. It is highly likely that it was competition with the introduced species that led to its extinction.

So enjoy a walk through the marsh on a winter’s day. But give a thought to what we have lost to greed and ignorance.



Nelson, J.S. 1983b. The tropical fish fauna in Cave and Basin Hotsprings drainage, Banff National Park. Can. Field-Nat. 97(3): 255-261 ?

Two Wrecks, Part 3 (?): The Lake Illawarra

In Two Wrecks, parts 1 and 2, I wrote about two spectacular and fish-filled shipwrecks in Australia: the Nord and the Yongala. Both of these wrecks are regularly visited by commercial dive operations, and so all advanced divers could, if they so wished, visit them on a trip to Australia. But now I would like to tell the story of the Lake Illawara, a recent wreck in Tasmania. But alas, the Lake Illawara is neither fish-filled nor spectacular. And in addition, I am almost certain that no one who reads this article will ever have the opportunity visit her; as it was only through the most unusual set of circumstances that I did, and thus became one of only a handful of people who ever has. This article is therefore of no use to the prospective underwater tourist selecting potential vacation spots.

All this explains why I didn’t include it in the original series of articles. So why write about it now? Well, you’ll still want to know about it if you ever visit Tasmania since it’s an important part of their recent history, and her sinking still affects the lives of all the people living in Hobart. It is also a very interesting story.

The story begins with the opening of the beautiful Tasman Bridge in 1964. The Tasman Bridge is a graceful 1.5km long, five lane, concrete-arch span that crosses the estuary of the Derwent River, thus connecting the city of Hobart (the capital city of Tasmania) with the townships on the eastern shore. Before that time one either crossed the estuary with a ferry or drove some 35km to the north to cross the river before it widens out.

Fast-forward eleven years to a foggy night, 5 January 1975. A bulk ore carrier, the Lake Illawarra, was on her way upstream to the zinc refinery about 5 km up the estuary. But she rammed one of the bridge’s 25m high concrete pylons, bringing down a section of the bridge onto the boat’s deck. The boat, already laded with ore and low in the water, sank immediately upon impact of the 700 tonnes of concrete from the bridge span. But most of the crew, including the captain, were either rescued later or swam to shore on their own. However, several cars travelling on the bridge fell into the gap in the bridge surface. They would either splash into the water 25m below, or else crash onto the boat deck. Several other people managed to narrowly escape this fate, as two more cars barely stopped in time and were left hanging with their front wheels dangling in the air. One of these cars, still belonging to its original owner, was to be featured in a TV news story in 1997 that celebrated the 20th anniversary of the bridge reopening.

Twelve people, including seven ship’s crewmen and five people in cars, were killed.

The Lake Illawara was deemed unsalvageable because of the close proximity of the hull to the remaining bridge. She was left where she lay.

The bridge remained closed for over two years, finally reopening in October 1977. In the meantime, the long-disused ferries were pressed back into temporary service. A temporary floating bridge was also built about 10 km to the north, and it was (some years later) replaced by a second permanent bridge across the Derwent. Several new ferries also had to be built for temporary service. The shipwright who built most of them used the revenue to build up his business into one of Tasmania’s largest locally owned corporations: a high-speed ferry builder with world-wide sales and a reputation for cutting edge design and performance. One of their ferries holds the Trans-Atlantic speed record for a passenger vessel. However the boom for the local ferry industry turned out to be a bust for east-shore residents, as they were faced with either long drives or ferry waits, and their property values crumbled. They have never fully recovered.

The location of the wreck is easily seen on the photograph of the Tasman Bridge. The picture was taken on the eastern shore, just north of the bridge. If you follow along the row of pylons supporting the bridge you will see two “double wide” pylon spacings; one directly under the highest point of the bridge and the second about half way between the highest point of the bridge and the near shore. These two gaps are the shipping lanes for freighter traffic moving up and down the estuary. The Lake Illawarra is under the gap closer to shore, although you naturally can’t see it since its resting on the bottom in 35m of water.

Ships moving up estuary still pass over the wreck, so no unregulated boat traffic is allowed over her. And parking a dive boat in the middle of the shipping lane is of course right out, so that is why you are unlikely to ever be able to dive there.

However, while living in Hobart I was a member of the University of Tasmania Underwater Club; an organization of hard-drinking and slightly off-kilter scuba divers and snorkelers. John, my dive buddy in the club, had always wanted to dive the wreck and thought he could get permission to visit it for the club. As an official organization, at least as far as the Hobart Ports Corporation was concerned, John’s request was considered and we were finally granted permission after he got the five necessary signatures, including one from the highway department (?).

We were given our choice of two-hour windows when we could park above the wreck without getting run over by any passing freighters. But we needed a window when the tide was slack and we were all off school, so we had to wait almost three months before a Saturday afternoon break in freighter traffic would coincide with a low current.

When the day finally arrived it dawned bright and clear. It was May, late autumn, but the weather was certainly warm enough at about 15C. We gathered at the university to collect the club’s 5m power boat and trailer, then headed to the boat ramp at the commercial dock. We were going to dive in three groups of four, and I was in the second group. While waiting on shore for the first group to return we amused ourselves by jumping off a 10m high scaffold into the water.

After 45 minutes the first group returned and we finally headed out to the wreck site, about 2km away. There wasn’t much wind, but the waves were still big enough to bounce the small boat around. When we reached the bridge that towered over us, the boat seemed even smaller.

The wreck showed up immediately on our depth finder, with the top of her bridge 15m below the surface and her deck 5m below that. We dropped an anchor onto the deck and when it snagged on something (a railing as it turned out) we were ready to dive. But the surface current was very strong, making me think we had miscalculated the current tables. The dive boat was taught to an anchor line that led down at a 45° angle: not very promising. However, the current was confined to the surface, and the water below a depth of 10m was very still.

Unfortunately the water clarity in the Derwent estuary is nothing short of atrocious.

The Derwent River is a “black water” stream: with soft (almost zero-hardness) water stained dark with tree tannins and peat. However, she’s polluted by a pulp and paper mill, the zinc refinery, and the untreated sewage that still pours into her. Her nutrient-laden water creates a bloom of algae when it mixes with the salt water of the estuary.

The environmental degradation of the estuary is quite saddening, as the estuaries of other black water rivers in Tasmania are the sites of fabulous and rare ecosystems. The layer of dark freshwater that overlies the dense, cold seawater of the Southern Ocean creates a uniquely dark but well-oxygenated environment close to the surface. Deep-water invertebrate species and calcareous algae are therefore found much closer to the surface than in other areas. Undisturbed examples of this type of environment, such as Port Davy in the remote south-west corner of the island, attract scientists, photographers, and divers from all over the world. But as the largest such estuary, the Derwent was undoubtedly the finest example of this special environment before it was lost under the weight of tons of accumulated pulp fiber and raw sewage.

Because of the anticipated poor conditions, everyone who had signed up to dive the Lake Illawarra had to do a preliminary “Braille dive” a couple of weeks earlier. This dive was done under supervision in shallow water (but poor visibility) at a site down stream of the bridge. This was to make sure no prospective adventurers would panic in the low visibility conditions of the wreck, since panicking at that depth is potentially very dangerous. So I had some idea what to expect, but despite the preliminary training dive – not to mention a lot of experience diving in British Columbian soup – I was quite surprised about how bad the visibility actually was at depth.

The fibers from the pulp mill have (over the years) filled the deepest channel of the estuary, and so the ship now sits in 10m of semi-suspended black organic goo; enough to cover the hull up to about half way up its side. You can stick you arm into this goo without feeling any resistance whatsoever, but when you draw it away, your arm comes back covered in black. The goo is of course completely opaque. I have been told you can swim right through this stuff and go right under the hull, but that would border on insane, not to mention pointless as you wouldn’t be able see anything anyway.

Above the goo layer the visibility is not exactly zero, but it is abysmal. But if you looked really hard and the light was just right, you could see your feet. Clumps of living and non-living organic material (mostly unidentifiable) floated in the water. And it was dark. Because of the time of year, the sun angle was quite low, and so the light penetration, even if the water had been clear, would have been poor. But with the naturally dark-stained water made even darker by the muck, diving lights were mandatory despite the brilliant sunshine topside. And because of the lack of water clarity our dive lights simply illuminated the goop in the water rather than the ship: it was like trying to drive through a snowstorm with your high beams on.

I was surprised to find no evidence of damage to the hull, or any sign of the concrete block that landed on top of the ship. Presumably the block landed off center, and then slid off the deck into the goo layer after it pushed the ship under the water. There was no sign of any of the cars either.

The wreck, only 21 years old at the time, was also in reasonably unaltered (meaning boring) condition. The ship’s paint was still clearly visible under a surface layer of gunk, and besides a coating of dirty rust-colored algae, not much life had taken over the surface.

But the wreck, perhaps surprisingly, was not completely devoid of life. The water below the first five meters is almost 100% seawater, with practically no mixing with the freshwater layer flowing above. So sea creatures are found on the wreck. Most surprising is that we saw some crayfish (Jasus novaehollandiae). Crayfish (or more properly, rock lobsters) are quite delicious and are a valuable commercial catch in southern Australian waters, but one would not be wise to eat those particular examples; maybe after the zinc refinery shuts down for a few centuries. There was also some schools of small fish swimming around as well, but the only ones I could identify were the blotch-tailed trachinops (Trachinops caudimaculatus), which are a very common goby-like fish on southern Tasmanian reefs. And there was even some benthic invertebrate life in the form of yellow colonial anemones starting to appear in some patches. These animals can create spectacular yellow “shag” carpets over the rocks in more pristine environments, but the small colonies that had taken hold on the Lake Illawarra were as dingy and dirty as the rest of the wreck. It was nice to see them though.

Now don’t get me wrong: by all reasonable criteria, the Lake Illawarra is a terrible dive. All the muck down there and the relative sterility of wreck itself means that this is hardly an underwater showpiece. But I really had a great time that day: some of the most fun I have ever had on the water. The day was fun for the adventure: diving in difficult conditions to see an important part of the local history; one that few Tasmanians ever have the chance to see. It was not an opportunity to be missed. ?

Collecting and other stories from the Island of Borneo

The tropic is a fascinating place to visit and if you are a tropical fish enthusiast, a paradise. The abundance, profusion, and exuberance of life are incredible. Every niche is exploited even in the worst polluted environment of man’s creation. Having spent my childhood in this environment, I had the chance to cultivate my fascination for nature and especially for the aquatic realm. The place I called home for the first sixteen years of my life is Kuching, which is the capital of the Malaysian state of Sarawak, on the island of Borneo.

The island of Borneo can be divided roughly into three distinct zones that are the coastal/mangrove forest, the lowland peat swamp forest, and the montane forest. In the coastal/mangrove forest zone, the species that are of interest to the aquarist are brackish water fishes (mud skipper, archerfish, bumblebee goby, puffer, monos, etc.) and of course the marine species. In the lowland peat swamp forest, where the waterways are coffee-colored has a pH of 4, live the barbs, rasboras, bettas, loaches, gouramis, catfishes, shrimps, crabs, halfbeaks, etc. A lot of these same species can be found in the montane forest zone waterways which are usually clear, fast following, and have a pH of about 8. Additional species that live only in the montane forest zone are the danios, sucker mouth loaches, and few others.

It is quite amazing that the water temperature remains quite constant at about 28C except at the higher elevations. Some of the fish species are quite adaptable as they can be found in both alkaline and acidic environments. These species suffer no ill effects when moved from an acidic to an alkaline environment with little acclimatization. This adaptation is probably due to the periods of torrential rainfall, called the monsoon, which can quickly change the pH and temperature of the water. I discover this adaptive trait when I had to transfer the fish from the collection pail (pH 4) to the holding tanks (pH 8) and they survived. The lower parts of the rivers and some of their feeder streams are tidal meaning the salinity of the water changes with the tides. Some of the brackish water species could be found miles inland and sometimes in fresh water. I did not collect any brackish or marine species since they would be difficult to maintain.

In and around the city, a series of open drainage and sewer canals help flush the effluent from human habitation into the river and finally out to sea. There is no water treatment plant but each house has a septic tank that drains into the open sewer. Even in this polluted environment, I was able to collect Trichogaster pectoralis, Channa asiatica, Barbus binotatus, Poecilia reticulata (introduced species to control mosquitoes), an unknown goby species, and even a terrapin. While I was there, my cousin was able to net two blood parrot cichlid from the drain that I presume someone had dumped! Tilapia was introduced into a reservoir by the agriculture department for aquaculture. It seems that the people and the government have no regards of the consequence to the local aquatic fauna. The local fish stores stock mostly large South American cichlids and if any of these species escape or are released they would devastate the local fish fauna. The endemic species get no respect and some are fed to these large cichlids. The most common feeder species is Esomus danricus that is like a large danio with a really long pair of barbels extending past the anal fin. Small freshwater shrimps are also sold as feeder.

As the city is built on the lowlands, some of the streams are acidic because of the underlying peat (remnant of the peat swamp forest). In these streams I was able to collect Betta climacura, Rasbora kalochroma, Esomus danricus, Trichogaster trichopterus, Trichogaster leeri, Mastacembelus circumcinctus, Lepidocephalus thermalis, Barbus pentazona pentazona, Barbus binotatus, an unknown catfish, and a tortoise. The tannin leached from the leave litter causes the water to turn to the color of coffee. To catch the bettas, you have to scoop some of the leaf litter from the bottom of the stream with a net. Upon examining the contents you will see some bettas and if you are lucky you may also catch a loach or a catfish. To catch the rasboras and the gouramis, you will have to wait patiently for them to break the water surface and then quickly sweep your net across the general area of the ripple. Seining is impractical here due to the dense vegetation and the submerged tree roots. There are numerous aquatic and semi-aquatic plants but I did not collect any, as I would have problems bring them past Canadian Customs. Introduced aquatic plant species like the water lettuce and the water hyacinth grow like weeds and spread everywhere. One thing that you will have to watch for is the ubiquitous leech.

A short drive inland from the city would bring you to the foothills. Here the streams are clear, unpolluted, and swift running. The underlying limestone dictates the water chemistry of these streams which are hard and alkaline (much like Calgary’s water). This is also the source of the city’s water supply. The species collected here are Glyptothorax callopterus, Rasbora caudimaculata, Rasbora meinkeni, Rasbora argyrotaenia, Barbus rhomboocellatus, Barbus lateristriga, Barbus binotatus, Hemirhamphodon pogonognatus, Glaniopsis hanitschi, Bagarius bagarius, a Gastromyzon species, and an Homaloptera species. Each stream has its set of fish species with no two streams alike. Generally, there are no aquatic plants here as they would be swept away by the current. An interesting behavior was observed while collecting these species. When chasing the fish into a trap, most of them would swim towards and past the disturbance instead of away from it. One nice thing about these streams is that when you get tired of chasing fish, you could jump right in for a refreshing dip.

The fishes that I had collected came from small shallow streams. There are even more and bigger fishes in the bigger streams and rivers that are beyond my ability to sample. One way to find out what other species of fish are in the rivers is to visit the local fish market. Some of the food fishes that can be found for sale are large cyprinids and knife fishes. It is interesting to see that some of the aquarium fish species in Canada end up on the dinner tables in Asia. Another interesting observation is that although the Asian arowana is on the endangered species list, every local tropical fish store has a few for sale. The locals here are willing to pay an exorbitant price for a fine specimen because the fish is suppose to bring its owner good luck.

Bringing tropical fish out of Malaysia presents no problem. You do not need a permit to bring out your private collection. The tropical fish industry is well established in Kuching so there are no problem in obtaining a Styrofoam box and bagging your fish with oxygen. However, the airline charges about US$30 per kilogram (cargo price) for your box and so it could get quite expensive. The first time I tried to bring fish back to Canada, they wanted to charge me US$300 so I left the fish behind. I was so disappointed. The next time I brought a big cooler bag and hand carry it on to the plane with no problems at all. All the fish survive the thirty hours trip back to Calgary.

It is never boring when I go back home, as I seem to collect new species every time. However, I wonder how much longer the environment can withstand the onslaught of development. Everyday more of the rainforest is cut for timber, cleared for palm oil plantations, and swallowed up by urban sprawl. I guess it is not any different in Canada or anywhere else. Enjoy paradise while you can and don’t let the leeches suck!


Earl of Cranbrook & David S Edwards, 1994, A Tropical Rainforest, co-published by The Royal Geographical Society & Sun Tree Publishing.

Dr Herbert R. Axelrod, 1986, DrAxelrod’s Atlas of Freshwater Aquarium Fishes second edition, published by T.H.F.

Dr. J. D. Van Ramshorst, 1991, The Complete Aquarium Encyclopedia, published by Elsevier Publishing Projects.

Jorg Vierke, 1988, Bettas, Gouramis and other Anabantoides, published by T. F.H. ?