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In the 1920s, it was the only thing a woman

without an education could do. That and Nursing.

Isobel Bennett AO (1909 – 2008)


Part 1    The Christmas Cruise


William J Dakin meets Isobel and her sister

at boat drill, his wife by his side, his voice

ruffling the deck of the P&O Straithaird.                                          


They kept a friendly eye on us, she writes.

Isobel, twenty-three and out of work,

learns of the world in the word ‘zoology’.    


Part 2     It was all a matter of practice                                


Professor Dakin invites his secretary, Isobel,

to focus on the microscope. And she joins

the crew of the Thistle vessel, sea legs steady                      


even up the mast with brush and varnish.

She hauls in the silk net from Broken Bay

to sort, to study, to sum the catch


on the laboratory bench. Month by month

records grow, the script becomes a monograph

becomes the reference, a standard like gold.



They sift King Prawns in Lake Illawarra.

Phenomenal win they offer fishery: find

prawns large as young lobsters, out at sea.



Isobel considers the craft of concealment:

a crab fixing grit or sponge bits to its carapace,

the stick insect, chromatophores of cuttlefish,


a sand-coloured goby in the sand, the leafy sea

dragon, how squid by the bombora turn to water

and back again, their eyes set on her stance.


Meticulous in everything he did, mercurial

in temperament. Forthright. Irrepressible.

Enough was never enough for Professor Dakin.


After the war, Isobel and three zoologists pack

the 1940 Ford sloper: boot stacked with ropes,

nets and lidded jars; tents and cases on the roof


rack, hats and oranges on the back shelf. Going

north to Coolangatta for a dozen coastal points;

ninety species she’ll register at Merewether.


You haven’t lived

until you’ve seen a sea-worm

under the microscope.


At Gorgonia Hole, in clear twenty-four

degrees with little current, she floats

in the thrill of flying without the fall.


Only the light drops in long shafts

down the blue. There among the sculptures

of limestone, as if she’s before the birth


of fish stripe and dash and swirl in

black, scarlet, orange; that pea-green

parrotfish aslant in a trance by streaks


of cleaner wrasse (how he shimmies

when they’re done), the school in flicks

of pink, lemon and mother-of-pearl.


In the shallows, two turtles are mating;

the female gasps air and groans into

the long and moonlit hours.


I have rock-hopped from Double Island Point

to southern Tasmania, from Wilsons Prom

to the Leeuwin and north in WA …


See her combing mainland shores and islands:

Heron, Lord Howe, the Low Isles, Macquarie,                      

Maatsuyker, Kangaroo; the list is long.


Picture her with upturned boulders by reef or

tidal pool, to count worms, tunicates, and sponge;

showing students the shapes and singularities


in the zones and among the fronds. Faux play

in shallow brine near that wild swirl about

the coral or cunjevoi or kelp. Hear her: how


a sea star cut in half becomes two; the crabs’

moult and couple, the moonlight trigger of

a coral cloud, squid’s quick clasp and dump,


a sea hare’s eggs on a string, the sea squirts’

release and the common toados’. See her over

the oceans in a floating class on the Te Vega,


and the Galathea, or the descent to Kieta

as the plane circles over sand cays and reefs;

how she notes in Arawa Bay: dolphins and


tuna preying on small fish gorging

on a swarm of larvae, terns diving into the mix

and taken in turn by frigates on the wing.

Part 3    Legacy


Who can’t love the wafting nudibranchs,

the shell-less slugs, like Glaucus, little drifters

of decoy: lapis-back, a blind for the birds,


silver-under to fool the fish; smaller than

a child’s thumb, its stomach slips the stinging

cells of a blue bottle into its own defence.


Pretty on the cover for Isobel’s ninetieth.

And there’s her photo, a gilded Glaucus

pinned to her red cardigan, her papers soon


for the nation’s archive, the boxes loaded

for the trolley. Nine books, one reef,

one genus, five species, carry her name.


One expects to quietly fade away and be

forgotten, but with the Mueller Medal

I felt I had joined the immortals.


* Lines in italics are from the Papers of Isobel Bennett, National Library of Australia MS 9348.