In Search of Australia’s Most Bizarre Creature: The Duck-Billed Platypus

PHOTO: Visions of Victoria

The ancient creature can only be found near Australia's Great Ocean Road.

One early dawn at o’dark hundred, I’m traipsing beneath primordial gums and giant ferns toward glassy Lake Elizabeth, through a forest alive with flitting birds. I think I hear a laughing kookaburra off in the distance, and the childhood song whirls through my head: Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree, eating all the gumdrops he can see. Stop, Kookabura! Stop, Kookabura! Leave some there for me. I’m here at this tiny lake deep in the Otway Ranges, near Australia’s Great Ocean Road, hoping to see a duck-billed platypus.

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 Visions of Victoria

This bizarre, ancient critter (its species dates back more than 100 million years) is abundant along Australia’s eastern coast, the only place in the world where they live. At least that’s what my guide tells me as we hike through mossy eucalyptus forest on our approach to the lake. The possibility of spotting this animal that I recall from childhood textbooks is exhilarating.

Ten of these egg-laying mammals—or monotremes—reside in Lake Elizabeth (with three babies born this year). Shy and independent, each lives in its own burrow, coming out every day at dawn and dusk to prowl the lake for shrimp and other invertebrates.

“Look for bubbles,” the guide says as we float on ebony-black waters in the canoe that he had hidden on the shore.

Visions of Victoria

I scan the dark glassy waters, right and left and back and forth. Nothing. The tour brochure guarantees sightings 95 percent of the time.

The guide quietly, slowly paddles us to the lake’s far end as the sun wakes up, painting the sky with vibrant magenta and tangerine. The black silhouette of spindly trees against the fiery backdrop is dramatic and worthy of any early morning wakeup call. We hear a koala growl in the distance, the guttural burst echoing through the trees.

As we float, scanning the watery surface, our guide whispers platypus facts:

“The males are venomous, with a spur on the heels of their rear feet connected to a venom-secreting gland.”

“They have evolved from a reptile to a mammal. Meaning, they went from being cold-blooded to warm-blooded.”

“Their thick fur helps keep them warm underwater.”

We float awhile longer, and nothing.

“Be patient,” he says. “They’re here.”

 

And then we see it. We don’t even have to look for bubbles, because the little guy has heaved himself on to a log, totally immersed in his personal grooming.

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“That’s a rare sight,” says the guide. “I’ve never seen that before.”

We don’t go too close, but my first impression is that the platypus is much smaller than I envisioned. He’s about six or eight inches long—though they grow up to 15 inches (with 5 additional inches for the tail). I can make out the spoon beak and paddle tail. And I know their feet are webbed, like a duck’s, though I can’t see that. No wonder 18th-century British scientists thought the animal was a hoax when explorers brought one home; they thought two animals had been sewn together.

And looking at this one, it’s still hard to believe they’re real.

It’s still hard to believe they’re real.

 

There are glow worms that come out here at night, thousands of illuminated pinpricks twinkling in the forest like Christmas tree lights.  As a kookaburra laughs in the background—koo-koo-koo-koo-koo-kaa-kaa-kaa—I feel as if I’m walking through a Dr. Seuss book. We paddle around a little more, and within minutes see more bubbles. A little head surfaces on the water, and we know it’s one, even though we can’t see him very well.

We paddle toward a clump of submerged trees, their gangly, dead branches reaching skyward like arthritic witch’s fingers. And there we find another platypus. He’s swimming, dawdling in front of us flirtatiously, then dives.

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And then, that’s it. The platypuses are quiet. Floating along the shoreline, with the eucalyptus forest towering above, we enjoy a hot cup of coffee and some biscuits, quiet as we take in the intangible scope of time this ancient landscape represents.