Rare sawfish captured on camera in remote Exmouth Gulf coastal wilderness

For videographer Andre Rerekura, seeing the critically endangered green sawfish for the first time was like finding the Holy Grail.

Exmouth-based Andre Rerekura discovered the sawfish hunting in the shallows of a remote creek in north-west Australia.

Mr Rerekura and a group of friends had traveled by boat to Urala Creek on the eastern side of the Exmouth Gulf, which is about 50 kilometers by water from the coastal town.

The gulf is full of dugongs, fish and whales during their migration but the eastern side where water meets land is a 100-kilometre-long stretch of mangroves and algal flats teeming with life.

Mr Rerekura said the gulf’s east coastline was a labyrinth of creeks and mangroves.

Urala Creek is on the eastern side of the Exmouth Gulf which could be included in a future marine park.(Google)

“We were lucky enough later in the day one of the guys actually spotted a sawfish in the shallows feeding and cruising through,” Mr Rerekura said.

“That’s kind of like the Holy Grail for some of us. Because I suppose they’re quite rare.

“For us to come across that, we were pretty excited.”

At first, the group thought the sawfish was two or three meters long when they filmed it with a drone, but when a not-so-large mullet swam past they realized it might be a bit smaller than they thought.

“It shows the area is like a little nursery for these sawfish,” Mr Rerekura said.

A medium-sized white recreational boat is seen from an aerial view in a green creek cutting through orange land.
Urala Creek has mangroves, salt pans and a bevy of animal species on the eastern side of the Exmouth Gulf.(Supplied: Andre Rerekura)

A sawfish stronghold

Murdoch University post-doctorate researcher Karissa Lear travels up and down the West Australian coast studying sawfish and other elusive species.

She said the green sawfish in the video captured by Mr Rerekura was probably a juvenile and maybe less than one meter in length

“That means it’s been pupped … pretty recently. Sawfish give live birth like most sharks and rays. This one probably would have been born where we saw it,” Dr Lear said.

“They live there for maybe up to a year and then they start moving slowly into other creeks and river mouths and mangroves around there.

Low-growth mangrove trees fill the frame at sunset with a larger water body in the background.
A long strip of mangroves runs along the eastern side of the Exmouth Gulf in Western Australia.(Supplied: Andre Rerekura)

“It’s really special to know that one was probably pupped down there so some of those creeks are probably a nursery area for at least a few juveniles.”

Green sawfish can be found from north of Perth around the top end of the country and over to Papua New Guinea and Indonesia, but Dr Lear said WA was a particular stronghold for the species.

“We’re really lucky in Western Australia that we have a couple of species of sawfish but globally nearly all of those animals are critically endangered,” she said.

“Where we find the most sawfish in WA are those areas that are really remote and hard to get to.”

The Ashburton River, some 70 kilometers north of Urala Creek, is a major nursery for green sawfish.

A white and green kingfisher bird stands perched on the left branch of a tree fork with a blue-sky background.
A kingfisher at Urala Creek off the Exmouth Gulf in Western Australia.(Supplied: Michael Tropiano)

Dr Lear said areas with human development sometimes meant altered ecosystems which might not benefit sawfish but where there were untouched stretches of Pilbara coastline there was lots of prey and healthy ecosystems for species to live.

“Keeping these remote areas that we do have in the Exmouth Gulf and all the way up the Pilbara is really important for species like sawfish and other threatened species as well that use those habitats,” she said.

“WA is pretty much the only place left in the world that we have what appears to be a healthy functioning population.”

New marine park to protect parts of the Gulf

The West Australian government has promised to protect select coastal and marine parts of the Exmouth Gulf.

The under-researched area was once touted for inclusion in the World Heritage listing of the Ningaloo Reef and ranges until political pressure left it out of the final submission from the state government.