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Destinations Underwater Photography

Soft-shell crab anyone?

Words and Photography by Brandon Cole

Photo: Brandon Cole

Clinging to a sponge-covered piling under Australia’s Blairgowrie Pier, giant spider crabs hope to avoid being eaten by predators patrolling the sand below. Each winter, tens of thousands of crabs with legs spanning 16 inches (40cm) march from deep water into the shallows of Port Philip Bay south of Melbourne. They gather en masse to molt, a freakishly fascinating bit of crustacean biology in which a noticeably larger version of the selfsame crab slowly, awkwardly, crawls backwards out of its old carapace (shell) to emerge full of promise, but acutely vulnerable. The new carapace is dangerously soft for a few days until hardening into the formidable, armor-plated protection like the crab just vacated. With hungry horned sharks and 6-foot (2m) stingrays waiting to greedily hoover up the tender morsels, it’s a numbers game. Clever crabs know their best chance to survive, thrive and molt again next year requires clearing the killing ground. They clamber from the sandy bottom at 16 feet (5m), up into the shadowy security offered by the pier’s underside. Here they bide their time until it’s safe to migrate back into the deep. 

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