Thorny Devils and Tiger Sharks

The thorny devil, not quite as sinister as it appears. Photo: Gilley

Rob Gilley

Previously in denial about his photographic past, Rob Gilley now rummages through his trove of mediocrity.

Ever seen a thorny devil? They’re bizarre, ugly creatures—two-headed lizards covered front to back in sharp, conical spikes, and capable of changing skin color at any moment. Fundamentally, thorny devils are spiked chameleons, but to the naked eye they are clearly miniature dinosaurs—a 10-year-old boy’s dream pet.

Besides their looks, thorny devils are unique in an evolutionary sense. They are distant cousins of the North American horned toad, but are still a little boggling to scientists in their current form. One theory is that their unchanged existence is due to clever and intimidating survival mechanisms: when threatened by a potential predator, thorny devils lower their real head and offer a second brainless false head as bait, change body color to disappear into the surroundings, and have cactus-sharp spikes that make them extremely difficult to swallow. Otherwise thorny devils are completely harmless.

I happen to know about thorny devils because I saw one in Australia on a surf trip. During a photo shoot at Red Bluff in Northwest Oz, I met a surfer who lived in a cave with a thorny devil. This guy was proud as punch of his spiky friend, and even prouder that he had found a cave in which he could house himself and surf big left barrels all day. This bloke was happy as a lark, and had been at the Bluff for a month…in a cave…with a lizard.

This was my introduction to the Bluff. A place so foreign and rocky and red that it was like being on Mars—except for one thing: it was full of life. I mean exploding with life. Despite the remoteness, everywhere you looked something was going on. Humans breaking camp, ants marching, mice scurrying, flies swarming, and an ocean so alive it bordered on fictional: waves on the point, a huge whale shark basking and twirling the middle of the bay, pods of dolphins, a crashing shore pound, and huge bait balls swirling everywhere.

It was this last gathering of life that drew the special attention of my two companions, Colin Smith and Scott Brown. As blue-water hunters, both of them knew what bait balls meant: roadside attractions for larger fish. So after surfing, these two friends hatched a plan. Colin and Scott decided to swim out to one of these bait balls, spear guns in hand, and see what they could find. They hoped to wait for a larger fish that would be attracted by these swirling appetizers.

These two free-divers kicked out to the nearest bait ball, which was less than 20 yards from the beach. Once they got to this circling cauldron of life, they began to clear the mass of fish by waving their spear guns back and forth and immediately found a larger fish: lying in wait underneath this bait ball was a 12-foot tiger shark.

The shark, as surprised as the two divers, immediately bolted by swimming between Scott’s legs and even scraped its dorsal fin on Scott’s scrotum. Both divers were back on the beach in less than 30 seconds.

You could say that our time at the Bluff left an impression.

Fast-forward to California a few years later. I was back home, working as a photo editor and had been invited to a surf trade show. Although I had a basic idea of what a trade show was, I didn’t fully know what to expect. It was the late ’90s, at a time when the surf industry was making a big financial comeback.

Roaming the aisles of the convention hall, I was immediately cleave-axed by the display in front of me: Dancing girls, cardboard cut-outs of famed surfers, roving reps in tuxedo T-shirts, skulls everywhere, bejeweled surf accessories, and even an Austin Powers impersonator selling god-knows-what. “Yeah, Baby.”

When I left the convention hall, for some reason I started thinking about the Bluff. About my cave-dwelling friend, the uncrowded surf, and the tiger shark. I guess it was because this experience stood in such stark contrast to the trade show. Even for me, a born-and-raised Southern Californian, this trade show seemed camp and foreign. A shockingly crass display. An over-commercialized, carpetbagger’s circus that seemed to have very little to do with surfing.

Apparently the mass appeal of the surf lifestyle and the associated smell of money had attracted the sharks.

Since then, I have always looked at the cultural/commercial relationship in surfing with suspicion. As wave riding and its associated lifestyle get increasingly popular, more and more surf-related businesses with questionable authenticity surface. Part of me wants to expose them as imposters with profit-only motives, and part of me wants to welcome the possibility of more jobs and sponsorship and opportunities for surfers. Part of me wants to write my suspicion off as undue paranoia, and another part of me wants to put a check in the the decline of western civilization column.

Over time my suspicion has just sort of faded into the background like a thorny devil into the desert sand. Now I only ring the paranoia bell when a particularly daunting predator appears.

One such bell-ringing occurred this summer when I made the mistake of scheduling a meeting in Huntington Beach during a major surf contest. I had completely forgotten about big summer surf events in Huntington, and I paid the price for my oversight hunting for a parking spot and then attempting to negotiate the sweaty masses of humanity on the sidewalk. Apparently 150,000 people were expected to be at the pier that day, and I later learned that the surf contest was supplemented by musical acts, skateboard demonstrations, and a huge variety of endemic and non-endemic surf-related vendors. It was basically the OP Pro and a trade show combined.

Ding!

In a near-Pavlovian way, I immediately found myself thinking about the Bluff again, and this time imagined taking a giant phantom spear gun and clearing the swirling Huntington masses. And then, sadly, I realized all that would be left was messy, 1-foot surf.

On the other hand, when I stopped daydreaming and looked upon the Huntington crowd again, I had to admit that everyone looked to be having a good time. It was a warm, sunny beach day, and the masses seemed to be enjoying the spectacle despite the small, gutless surf.

In the end what it came down to was choosing between thorny devils and tiger sharks. Should I look at the increased number of commercial interests in surfing as ugly and intimidating yet ultimately harmless, or sleek, sneaky, and deadly?

Although I’m still searching for an answer, I know one thing for sure: that for me, the increased commercialization of surfing is, at the very least, difficult to swallow.