The GATHERING
BBC Wildlife|May 2021
In May, the quiet coastal town of Whyalla bursts into life as thousands of Australian giant cuttlefish gather offshore to breed.
Melissa Gaskill
Just off the rocky shore, several groups of people stand in hip-deep water, while a few dozen more float face down in the gentle swell. Get a little closer and the focus of their attention starts to become visible. Beneath the surface, countless alien-like creatures are moving in a slow, silent dance.

These peculiar creatures are not aliens, of course, but Australian giant cuttlefish. From May to August each year, these spectacular cephalopods, which can reach almost 1m long, gather in their thousands in False Bay, a wide, shallow arc between Point Lowly and the town of Whyalla. The spot sits high inside Spencer Gulf on the coast of South Australia. The cuttlefish come here to spawn, but where they come from, and why they choose this spot, remains a mystery.

The main attraction

The style and energy with which the animals conduct the business of breeding attracts visitors from far and wide. Short-lived cuttlefish have only one chance to pass on their genes, and with 11 males typically competing for each female at the aggregation, they throw everything at it. A suitor positions himself next to a female and turns on the charm, flashing eyecatching shades of neon blue, purple, green, red and gold and intricate patterns of dots and lines. Some blanch completely white; others create bold stripes across their bodies or even ripple in patterns. While he works on his appearance, a male may also gently caress the female using his eight tentacles.

Let another male get too close, though, and Romeo flares his arms and stretches out his body as far as possible. Should none of this serve to scare off the interloper, he may resort to fighting, using those strong, suckered tentacles and a sharp beak built for tearing flesh. Weeks into the mating season, most males bear the scars of battle; some may have lost an arm.

Large males clearly have an advantage when it comes to courtship, but observers often see smaller individuals hovering quietly while a competitor puts on a show, waiting for an opportune moment to dash in and swiftly mate with the female. According to locals, these ‘sneaker males’ masquerade as uninterested females, modifying their appearance and behaviour, and hiding the specialised mating arm – the hectocotylus – that only males possess. In fact, biologists believe that sneaker males may account for more than a third of all successful mating. Size, it seems, doesn’t always matter.

So focused are they on pursuing reproductive success that the animals remain largely oblivious to the humans in close proximity. “The more time you spend with them, the more you notice different behaviours,” says local resident and diver Carlo Possagno. “The courtship, two huge males coming to a fight, throwing out ink and with their tentacles wrapped around each other is a real draw.”

Once a male gets the go-ahead from the female, the pair entwine arms head-to-head. The male then uses his hectocotylus to hand the female a sperm packet. She stores it in a pouch and may use it to fertilise her eggs, or might discard it later in favour of another from a more promising mate. The female fertilises her eggs bypassing them individually over the chosen sperm packet. She then attaches them to the underside of a rock with a glue-like secretion. One female may lay hundreds of tiny, teardrop-shaped eggs during the spawning season. Cuttlefish breed only once, though, and after successfully mating, they die – at the ripe old age of one or two years old.

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