Few creatures inspire the imagination quite like the duck-billed platypus—but most Australians have never seen one in the wild. With populations reportedly in decline on the Australian mainland, Adventure.com heads to Tasmania, widely considered a “platypus stronghold”, hoping to find one.
“They still look like they’ve just been patched together, don’t they?” says Tony Conlan as he looks out into the calm waters of the Kermandie River, tracking a couple of platypus with his gaze. “You don’t look at that animal and think: now there’s a highly intelligent super-predator in its natural environment.”
Tony’s right. I look at that animal and think: I can’t believe I’m looking at that animal. And they weren’t even hard to find. We drove to Geeveston (just an hour south of Hobart), pulled into the car park, strolled down to the river, and here they were. “I ordered them in for you,” says Tony, owner of Wildways Tours and local platypus expert, with a grin.
The duck-billed platypus is one of only two monotremes (egg-laying mammals) in the world. The other is the echidna. And while the echidna is itself a beloved Australian oddity, no animal on this vast and peculiar continent captures the imagination quite like the platypus.
And yet, if you were to raise the subject of the platypus with almost any Australian, almost anywhere in the country (save for perhaps Geeveston), most would tell you they’ve never seen one in the wild.
Much has been written of the sad decline of the platypus on the Australian mainland in recent months, particularly their plight in South Australia, where they’re listed as endangered; Victoria, where they were listed as threatened in early January; and Brisbane, where it was recently reported that they’ve gone missing from five local waterways.
A Guardian article from this year predicted a “glum future” for the platypus and claimed they’re “disappearing right under our noses.” Another reckoned their habitat has shrunk as much as 22 per cent in 30 years.
But here in Geeveston, Tasmania (human population: 600-ish), the local platypus population still has room enough to thrive. The same is true for many other parts of the island, in fact—save for the Hobart Rivulet, where the human impact is much larger (and growing), due to its proximity to Tasmania’s largest city.
Dr. Sarah Munks, a consultant scientist and adjunct senior researcher at the University of Tasmania, who’s spent large chunks of her life studying the animal, says that while it’s hard to know for certain how the island’s platypus populations are trending (they’re notoriously hard to study), there’s currently no widespread cause for concern.
“We don’t really have any concrete monitoring data to say how they’re doing in Tasmania,” Dr. Munks tells me over the phone, a couple of weeks after our trip to Geeveston. “But I would be perfectly happy to tell people that Tasmania is still a stronghold for the platypus.”
“See that one scooting across?” says Tony, nodding toward a platypus as it glides effortlessly upriver. “They only paddle with their front feet. Their back feet are like a rudder.”
Every time Tony opens his mouth, some kind of platypus trivia comes tumbling out. He’s been studying wildlife for 40 years; frequenting this particular spot for around 20.
“Tassie is the best place in the world to see platypus.”
Tony Conlan, 'Platypus Man'
He says he picked up a love for nature in the army, where he was a close-quarter combat instructor (the job entailed teaching recruits about the environment and what was in it, apparently) and then “did every wildlife course I possibly could.” He used to give talks in schools. The kids would call him ‘Platypus Man’.
Tony runs platypus tours most evenings. If not here, then at one of several other locations around Tasmania. Mount Field National Park is the best place in Tasmania for platypus-spotting, he reckons, which by default makes it the best place on the planet to see a wild platypus. But on this warm, sun-dappled evening in early January, with four or five platypus splashing around in the river before us, Geeveston might as well be the platypus capital of the world.
I ask Tony about the apex predator thing. He says platypus eat small fish, yabbies, worms, insects and small frogs—anything they can get their (webbed, cute) hands-on. The platypus also has the unique distinction of being one of only 16 venomous mammals in the world. “They have spurs on the inside of their hind legs which are incredibly toxic,” says Tony. “You don’t want to get smacked by one.”
I ask Tony if he knows anyone who’s been smacked by one. He says a friend of his, “a hardy fellow,” copped one once. “He thought his life was coming to an end,” says Tony. “His arm doubled in size and they had to open it up so it didn’t burst. He was on painkillers for four days, throwing up, all of it. Apparently, it’s one of the most painful experiences a human can have.”
To find a platypus for yourself, you’d do well to start in Tasmania (“Tassie is the best place in the world to see platypus,” says Tony). Then, head to hotspots including Geeveston, Mount Field National Park, Latrobe, Mole Creek or one of the other platypus hotspots (Google it) in Tasmania.
Dawn and dusk is when they’re most active, and the ideal time to see them is a couple of hours before dark—that’s when the shadows start to fall across the water, and they “get a bit more relaxed.”
You want a quiet and relatively calm river or stream, and some foliage hanging over the banks. Keep your dog at home, and only take your kids if they’re the quiet, well-behaved type. Then, it’s a case of being calm, considerate and—above all else—patient. Respect the habitat, and the platypus’s right to go about its business unbothered by your presence, and you can’t go too far wrong.
While the Tasmanian platypus is in relatively good shape compared to its mainland cousin, Tony is still doing everything he can now to protect the local habitat to ensure it remains in good shape. “We’re rewilding here,” he says, pointing to the bank on the opposite side of the river. “These blackwoods will be good for another 40 years, then they’ll die. So we’re going to replant some native vegetation along here over the next four months. We could do the whole job in a couple of days but, if we did that, the platypus would move on.”
As the sun dips behind the horizon and the moon prepares for the nightshift, Tony ponders the monotreme marvels in the river before him, the same ones he’s pondered for the last 40 years. “They still look like a made-up creature, don’t they?” he says. “I still love them…and I see them all the time.”
Head to Discover Tasmania for more ideas and inspiration for exploring Tassie in 2021.