The Red handfish is a species fighting battles on many fronts. Dr Jemina Stuart-Smith is a marine biologist who became enthralled with the small, grumpy-looking fish and is working to ensure its survival.


Jemina’s story is also published in Adventures in Climate Science: Scientists’ Tales From the Frontiers of Climate Change, which launches today – World Environment Day, 5th June 2023.

We swim out along the surface, scanning the water below as we go. The strip of reef that runs alongside the rocky shore is relatively narrow and bordered by a deeper sand edge. We descend when we can see the sand, and reel out our transect line parallel to it, in about five metres depth.

We go along the patch of remnant seaweed clinging to the rocks; one of the last refuges for this little fish – the Red handfish – and around this it is bare and bleak. Even if you had not heard stories, or knew of the past life of the reef, you would sense something was wrong if you dived there now.

It’s like walking into an unfurnished room in the middle of an otherwise occupied house. It almost has a sense of eeriness, an innate feeling that something is missing, even if you had not seen its previous state.

*    *    *

Even by the ocean’s standards, handfish are peculiar looking little creatures. They possess two large fins resembling ‘hands’, a toad-like head that sports a grumpy-looking upturned mouth, and a punk-style dorsal fin reminiscent of a mohawk. But it doesn’t end there.

Their idiosyncrasies are coupled with a preference for walking on the seafloor using their over-sized ‘hands’ rather than swimming, and they have a fluffy ‘lure’ on their head, characteristic of Anglerfishes, that they move around presumably as bait.

Instead of a conventional gill-opening like other fish, they have a small pore behind their pectoral fins. Adding to these unusual behaviours is that they are also ambush predators, preferring to sit and wait for food to swim past, rather than chase it themselves.

These quirky features, combined with their elusive nature, makes them more akin to an oddity from a children’s fiction book, rather than a living creature.

My first dive at the Red handfish site was in 2010, when I had only recently heard about this tiny, elusive fish through local divers and scientists in Hobart. The science and dive community are well-connected, something which often comes with living in a small island state.

At the time, we only knew the Red handfish from this single site. There were murmurs across the dive community regarding their small declining population, and fears that they were headed for extinction.

I was mostly incognisant to their plight back then – keen to see them because they were so unusual and the rumoured urgency about running out of time. It didn’t occur to me that no-one was working to protect them.

Human impacts like climate change are discussed at large scales by scientists, but small changes are often noticed first by local people, like divers on the east coast of Tasmania who have witnessed changes occurring in their lifetime.

At the time I had dived for a few years and was involved in a citizen science project called Reef Life Survey. It was as part of that program that I went out on my first dive to see, and help collect data on, the Red handfish.

I had already dived to help conduct surveys for another handfish species, the closely related Spotted handfish. These fish also occur on the doorsteps of Hobart, albeit in totally different habitat – they are found in sandy, silty areas. They look and behave quite differently, but are just as beautiful.

The Red handfish dive site is close to shore, just an hour from Hobart. The traverse to the water is down a short rocky slope that would be difficult to navigate at the best of times, let alone when laden with a thick wetsuit that restricts movement, and carrying heavy dive gear and equipment.



The shoreline is rocky, and when we reached the water, we sat resting our dive tanks on the rocks with our legs in the water to put our fins on and rinse our masks. The cool water was knee-deep as we slid in.

Even many years and dives later, at this point of every dive I think about the same thing. I picture the accounts of past divers who have told stories about seeing Red handfish so numerous in these shallows that they numbered in the hundreds.

In such times, I’m told, divers had to be careful of their footing when clambering in from shore for fear of standing on them in the shallows. The seaweed-covered reefs they lived on extended hundreds of metres along the shoreline; a vast area for these mysterious little creatures to hide.

Those stories of lush reefs supporting an abundance of Red handfish occurred within my lifetime, but before I even knew handfish existed. Sliding baselines are gradual changes in the accepted norm of the environment, despite it being quite different from its initial state.

It’s where your original reference point, what you use to measure change, is in itself a degraded state. Each generation who views it, then has an altered perception of what the condition is due to lack of personal experience in the original state. Changes you see are relative to your earliest recollection (an already degraded state), rather than its true original state.

Today the reef no longer extends very far. The rocky structure that once bedded the plant life is still there of course, but it is largely devoid of the seaweed that used to cover it; the casualty of ecosystem imbalance at the hands of humans that results in an increase in native urchins (which consume the plants the fish need for cover), among other impacts that combine to degrade their habitat.

Our historical knowledge of other handfish species is also limited, although early European explorers and convicts collected and painted handfish. Some of these specimens remain in museums across the globe.

From this, scientists suspect they must have been quite common during the early days of British settlement in Australia. While I don’t know if Indigenous cultures hold stories and information about handfish, I can’t help but think it is very likely for those species that inhabit shallow waters.

I edge into the water, taking deep breaths, and accept the cold. The site sits in a little pocket that is influenced by currents and nearby water bodies; it gets cooler water temperatures in winter, and stays warmer longer in summer, than most of the state. We think the cold winter temperatures are particularly important for the handfish.

We don’t have enough data to understand exactly why the Red handfish need the cold water. We theorise that it could be due to breeding or egg developmental cues, but we don’t know enough about their biology, or where else they lived previously, to work this out.

At this point, much of our effort is focused on conservation of the species, as we tackle the looming threat of extinction.

Climate change threatens the persistence of many marine species. Some animals can adapt or adjust – move with warming waters, or change the timing of their biological events (such as breeding or migration) to coincide with changing temperatures.

But some species have limited ability to adapt. The Red handfish walk on the sea floor; they lack a planktonic life stage which would allow them to follow currents to new areas, and both of these characteristics limit their ability to disperse in the face of climate change (or other impacts).

They now occur in small, isolated populations—without the ability to reconnect. They also live on the south-eastern coast of Tasmania, at the bottom of Australia. With warming waters and no shallow reefs further south, there is nowhere for them to move to, even if they could.

More immediate, however, is the indirect threat caused by increases in the number of native urchins, which feed on the kelp reefs, reducing the habitat needed by the Red handfish.

The urchins are spreading because their predators, such as lobsters, have been removed. The red handfish are also close to urban areas, and are likely impacted by pollution, siltation, and direct disturbance by humans.

I don’t recall the first half of the survey on my initial dive there, the pre-handfish part, but I clearly remember getting halfway through my cryptic fish search, slowly sweeping away some thick brown seaweed to uncover a little Red handfish sitting motionless in the centre of my field of view, staring up at me.

I recall being startled. I had been so convinced that I wouldn’t find one that I then froze when I saw it.

Neither of us moved, a trait I’d later learn is just the norm for the Red handfish. I didn’t have a camera, so I just stayed still, staring, trying to make a mental note of every tiny detail of this little creature.

The bright red fins contrasting against the dark shell-grit on which it was perched, the fluffy lure on its head, and that characteristic frown on its little face.

And the size! Small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, smaller than the spotted handfish I’d seen previously. I stayed for as long as I could.

My first encounter was captivating and exciting, but it wasn’t until years later that I was given the opportunity to work more closely with Red handfish.

While I continued doing volunteer citizen science, it wasn’t always around the Red handfish. In fact, I probably didn’t revisit them again for several years, focusing instead on diving abroad and on mainland Australia more so than in my home state.

But several years later I fell into a role with the National Handfish Recovery Team that arose from concern about the declines of the species (from the monitoring we had been doing). For reasons I’m not entirely sure of, I felt a sense of responsibility to be involved in the recovery of this species.

This new role meant that several years after my first dive at the Red handfish site I began returning there regularly.

The dives are long, because the handfish are difficult to find, and we move slowly and carefully as we search so as to minimise disturbance caused to them.

We sometimes spend more than 100 minutes underwater. We do a mix of handfish-specific dives for a PhD project, and continue the Reef Life Survey transects intermittently. 



A typical Reef Life Survey transect involves laying out a survey reel (a measuring tape), swimming along counting fish, then focusing search efforts on a narrow band on the sea floor to look for all the things that live there or like to hide.

The searching is slow and meticulous. It requires carefully looking down crevices and brushing aside seaweed to find the sea creatures that don’t wish to be found, for which the Red handfish is the poster child.

The divers who volunteer are often those who like to focus on the little things, the nudibranch-seekers, those who spend half a dive taking photos of the intricate patterns found on a seastar or finding millimetres-long amphipods clinging to seaweed.

For them, it’s all about the hunt; finding that new or unusual species, behaviour, or colouration. They often lose themselves in the moment so much that during the cryptic fish search, seals and sharks might swim unnoticed overhead.

It makes them the ultimate handfish detectors. I wouldn’t technically put myself in that category, but I do like the little things – which might be why I became so fascinated with the handfish.

Over time, the handfish have become harder to find, and our search area even smaller as the seaweed patch containing the fish continues to diminish.

But then, just a few years ago, there was a community sighting of a Red handfish in a new location, and a second population was discovered by the Reef Life Survey team, also close to Hobart.

This second site holds more handfish, and with it, hope for the future. It has allowed us to start a conservation program to increase the wild population.

We have trialled collecting eggs to hatch and raise young in captivity, to protect them while they grow, before returning them to the wild. We take photos of spots on their sides, and have given some of them tiny tattoos before we release them, so we can identify them when we see them again.

There has only been hatch and release so far, but the work continues. The new site is buying us  time while we look at other options, including maintaining an ‘insurance’ population in captivity.

We’ve also taken steps to reduce urchin numbers, to help restore their habitat. It’s a temporary fix, but it’s another way to buy us a little more time.

Our sites are often littered with discarded fishing gear – sinkers and lines that we remove. The lobsters that once must have been abundant are all small.

Boats whir past, and the odd diver stops by to photograph handfish or collect a feed of shellfish. The human impacts on the natural world are always visible, but fewer people see these consequences since they’re underwater.

Climate change presents an ever-looming threat to the Red handfish, as the cold water they thrive in is reduced to small pockets. But human-induced changes to the ecosystem, and other human disturbances, exacerbate the danger to this already critically-endangered fish.

On a good day, with three hours underwater, we might be lucky enough to find two Red handfish at our original site. I have been diving there intermittently for 10 years now, and that is all I have ever known – my sliding baseline.

Yet despite the low numbers, the cold conditions, and often limited visibility, it is never tedious. Each sighting is met with excitement and avid descriptions as we dismantle our dive gear – where it was, what it was doing, whether it was one we’d seen previously, or curious behaviours that we might not have noticed previously.

Perhaps it is the rarity that makes every sighting exciting, and because we fear we are looking at a disappearing species. Whatever the reason is, every find represents a glimmer of hope, when on some days we’re not sure we will see anything.


Jemina’s story is also published in Adventures in Climate Science: Scientists’ Tales From the Frontiers of Climate Change, which launches today – World Environment Day, 5th June 2023.

The book is edited by Wendy Bruere and published by Woodslane Press with support from Paddy Pallin. It brings together science and adventure, the anthology features 15 stories by scientists from around the world. With tales of falling into crevasses, facing sharks, surviving cyclones, and chasing pirates on the high seas, the contributors explore the science behind exactly what is happening as the world warms.

Available from Paddy Pallin, Australian and NZ bookstores and online at Woodslane Press. 


This Marine Biologist Is Fighting To Save a Very Peculiar-Looking Fish That ‘Walks’ on Its ‘Hands’, jemina stuart-smith