N I G E L M A R S H P H O T O G R A P H Y
U N D E R W A T E R I M A G E S A N D A R T I C L E S
UNEXPECTED & UNDERRATED
by Nigel Marsh
When I moved to Brisbane in 1990 I had no idea what the diving was like, having never dived ‘Brisvagas’ as it is affectionately known. I had read there were rocky reefs, coral gardens and a number of shipwrecks and artificial reefs, which sounded interesting, but not inspiring and certainly not world class. However, after twenty years of living and diving here I can easily say that Brisbane has some of the best and most underrated diving in Australia, and has more than one world class dive site.
Brisbane sits on the winding banks of the Brisbane River, which is always brown in colour, occasionally floods and drains into one of the largest bays in Australia – the magnificent Moreton Bay. Named by Captain Cook in 1770, Moreton Bay covers an area of 1523 square kilometres and is dotted with 360 islands. The bay is an important habitat for sea birds, and is home to one of the world’s largest populations of turtles, dolphins, sharks, rays and dugongs.
In 1992 Moreton Bay was declared a marine park, and in 2009 the area of the park was expanded with 16% of the bay protected as green zones. While divers have access to the entire bay, the best diving is on the eastern side where two giant sand islands form the outer edge of the bay; these are Moreton Island and North Stradbroke Island (Straddy), and surrounding them are some brilliant dive sites.
When I first arrived in Brisbane I couldn’t wait to get into the water to explore, and one of the first dive sites that really impressed me was Curtin Artificial Reef, the world’s oldest artificial reef created for divers, by divers. In 1968 members of the Underwater Research Group of Queensland selected a barren sandy bottom near Cowan Cowan, on the inner side of Moreton Island, to sink a barge, and within months it had attracted a wealth of marine life. Since then they have added over thirty vessels; old tug boats, whale chasers, barges and a yacht, plus concrete pipes, pontoons, car bodies, tyres, buoys and even an old Brisbane tram.
The artificial reef is spread over 400m, in depths from 12m to 30m, and like all sites inside Moreton Bay it is tidal, so best dived on the high or low tide, although drift diving the site is also popular. All the ships and other items are covered in growth; hard corals, soft corals, sponges, ascidians, tubastra corals and black coral trees, and support a great range of reef fish and invertebrate species. Exploring the ships is a lot of fun, as a number can be penetrated, and on a typical dive you can generally explore four or five of the wrecks. Commonly seen at Curtin Artificial Reef are turtles, wobbegongs, moray eels, stingrays, lionfish, eagle rays, reef fish and schooling pelagic fish like barracuda, trevally, batfish, rabbitfish, fusiliers and kingfish. But the highlight of any dive at Curtin is a close encounter with a giant Queensland groper. Dozens of these huge fish live in and around the wrecks, most are around 2m long, and on a typical dive you will generally see one or two, but occasionally divers will encounter groups of these enormous fish or even one of the monster ones, which are over 2.5m long.
While there are many other dive sites located inside the bay, two other popular sites are The Pines and the Tangalooma Wrecks. The Pines is a very unusual dive site, a coffee rock reef, which are essentially dirt boulders. Now you may scoff at diving on dirt boulders, but these are cut by ledges and packed with marine life. The Pines varies in depth from 3m to 25m and it always surprises me with the quantity and the quality of the marine life to be found here. Common are schools are trevally, batfish, yellowtail, fusiliers and barracuda, but reef fish are also very abundant. Divers regularly see turtles, gropers, stingrays and wobbegongs. However, one of the main reasons I like this spot is for its unique critters; such as pineapplefish, leaf scorpionfish, cuttlefish, pipefish and a good variety of nudibranchs.
The Tangalooma Wrecks were scuttled in 1963 to form a safe anchorage for small boats. Seventeen ships create the harbour and are always fun to snorkel or dive. The maximum depth is 10m at this site, but you generally spend most of your time above 5m. The ships are rusting barges and dredges, and are now covered in hard corals. Quite a few can be penetrated, so it is worth taking a torch to explore inside the ships. There is plenty of marine life on these wrecks, especially reef fish and invertebrates, but a feature of diving here is watching birds underwater. Numerous sea birds roost on the wrecks and the shags are quite use to divers, so will swim between people as they hunt fish.
Flinders Reef is the most popular, all weather, dive site on the outer side of Moreton Island. Surrounded by coral gardens, Flinders Reef is like a small part of the Great Barrier Reef off Brisbane. There are actually over a dozen dive sites around Flinders Reef in depths from 3m to 30m, and several moorings have been placed here to protect the delicate hard corals. The terrain varies depending on where you dive, and includes gutters, ledges, caves, bommies and ridges. Abundant reef fish and invertebrates are found here, but also common are wobbegongs, moray eels, gropers, stingrays and eagle rays. Grey nurse sharks are occasionally seen over winter, and leopard sharks, white-tip reef sharks and shovelnose rays over summer, but numbrays are always present, just hard to find as they like to lie hidden under a layer of sand. However, turtles are the main feature at Flinders Reef and on some days you can see dozens. Loggerhead, hawksbill and green turtles are all seen resting and feeding around Flinders Reef, and one of the best places to see them is the cleaning station on the western side of the reef. Here turtles line up to get cleaned by cleaner wrasse and also surgeonfish that scrap the algae off their shells.
Surrounding Flinders Reef are a number of hidden reefs and shipwrecks that offer exceptional diving. The Cementco rests in 25m of water and is a hopper barge that was to be scuttled as an artificial reef when it sank in rough weather and settled on the bottom upside down. The wreck is fun to explore and can be penetrated. Nearby is a recently discovered shipwreck of a trawler, called the Hustler 3. Though only small, this wreck is in 22m and is covered in corals and home to schools of sweetlips and snapper.
Smith Rock is another colourful reef with caves and canyons to explore in depths from 3m to 30m. Hidden just below the surface this rock has claimed three ships over the years. The Aarhus was the first, an iron sailing ship that sank in 1894. The wreck rests on a sandy bottom in 21m and is completely broken up, but sections of the bow and some of the cargo remain to make for a fascinating dive. The St Paul was a French freighter that sank in 1919; it is a great dive, but resting in 42m is for advanced divers only. The Marietta Dal sank in 1950 and littered Smith Rock with her cargo of tractors and other pieces of machinery, making for an interesting dive in 10 to 15m.
There are dozens of other dive sites on the rocky reefs off the northern end of Moreton Island, including Hutchinson Shoal, Robert’s Shoal and Brennan Shoal. But for a world class dive I would recommend Gotham City. This spectacular dive site consists of a huge lump of granite rising from the sand at 38m to 22m. The walls and caves of this site are covered in black coral trees, tubastra corals and sea whips, very colourful, but most divers come here to see the larger marine life and it never disappoints. Schools of snapper, sweetlips, batfish, barracuda and trevally are always seen; also common are wobbegongs, stingrays, turtles, gropers and schools of spotted eagle rays. The only problem with diving Gotham City is strong currents and depth, and I always find it hard to drag myself away after such a short bottom time exploring this incredible dive site.
Another set of wonderful dive sites are found off the exposed eastern side of Moreton Island and are generally only dived over the winter months when conditions are calm and grey nurse sharks are in residence. China Wall, Henderson Rock and Cherub’s Cave are all similar dive sites with rocky terrain, numerous caves, bommies, pretty corals and surprisingly kelp. These sites vary in depth from 12m to 30m and while there are good populations of reef fish and invertebrates, divers visit these sites to see larger marine life. Like many sites off Brisbane wobbegongs, turtles, gropers, stingrays, eagle rays and pelagic fish are common. But it is the small groups of grey nurse sharks that make these sites special. Around three to six sharks are seen at times, but as they move from reef to reef encounters are never guaranteed. While most of the grey nurse seen off Brisbane over winter and spring are male, around 2m to 2.5m long, larger pregnant females, some 3m long, are also seen and appear to pup in the area. Fortunately all identified grey nurse aggregations sites in Queensland are protected from fishers, but sharks with hooks embedded in their jaws are still seen.
NORTH STRADBROKE ISLAND
The dive sites off Straddy are all located at the north eastern end of the island and to reach them from Moreton Bay boats have to cross the notorious ‘Straddy Bar’. This sand bar can be tricky with unpredictable waves, but most experienced skippers handle it with ease. The dive operator based on Straddy launch their boat directly from the beach to avoid the bar and also to reduce the travel time to dive sites.
There are a number of hidden reefs off Straddy, but by far the most popular dive sites are four rocky outcrops. Shag Rock is the most protected and home to roosting sea birds, so tends to be smelly at times, but is surrounded by rocky reefs in depths from 5m to 22m. There are some pretty corals to be found at Shag Rock, especially on the southern side, and some interesting caves and ledges to explore, but the thing I most like about this site is the macro marine life. Amongst the rocks and corals divers will find cuttlefish, shrimps, octopus, crayfish, nudibranchs, flatworms, anemones and even porcelain crabs, but I have also found pineapplefish, Caledonian ghouls and slipper crays. Also common at Shag Rock are wobbegongs, turtles, brown banded catsharks, moray eels, gropers and colourful reef fish. Surrounding Shag Rock are vast plains of sand that are often overlooked but support a surprising amount of marine life, including stingrays, shovelnose rays, numbrays, flatheads, flounders and even tiny stingarees.
Nearby Boat Rock barely brakes the surface, is difficult to anchor on and is always swept by currents, but this rocky pinnacle is an excellent dive. With walls that plummet straight to 20m, this rock is home to stingrays, wobbegongs, pelagic fish, eagle rays and some huge Queensland gropers.
Flat Rock is a world class dive surrounded by a dozen sites in depths from 12m to 35m. The Shark Gutters off the south eastern end of the rock is the most popular site here, especially when grey nurse sharks are in residence. The sharks cruise the main gutter in 22m, but can also be found in several smaller side gutters and patrolling the edge of the drop off. Up to a dozen grey nurse can be seen at peak times, but even if no sharks are seen this is an impressive dive site. The outer drop off is particularly spectacular, decorated with black corals, gorgonians and soft corals, and at the base of the wall rest turtles, stingrays and wobbegongs. But divers are also likely to see gropers, eagle rays, pelagic fish and a diverse range of reef fish and invertebrates.
The diving is excellent all around Flat Rock as there are walls, ledges, caves and gutters to explore. One of my favourite spots is the Turtle Caves at the northern end of Flat Rock, as the terrain is fascinating to explore and you just never know what you will encounter. I had one memorable dive here with dozens of leopard sharks cruising around me in a breeding aggregation. On other dives I have been buzzed by a bronze whaler, had a school of hundreds of cownose rays fly over me and also been engulfed in a huge school of trevally.
But anywhere you dive around Flat Rock you can encounter spectacular marine life; including schools of barracuda, white-tip reef sharks, gropers, shovelnose rays, mobula rays, manta rays and even the odd giant leatherback turtle over winter. Other divers I know have also encountered shark rays, hammerhead sharks, dolphins, tiger sharks, humpback whales and even a whale shark at this amazing dive site.
While Flat Rock is without doubt a world class dive site, there is one even better, a spot that on the maps is named The Group, but is known amongst divers as Manta Bommie. This dive site is not only my favourite off Brisbane, but it is easily the best dive site I have dived anywhere! A big call you may say, but if you experience this site when it is ‘going off’ you will understand why.
Now Manta Bommie doesn’t always have the best visibility (it can be 30m viz. at nearby Flat Rock and only 5m here), is almost constantly washed by currents, on the surface it can be like a washing machine and it is only buzzing with marine life from November to May, forget diving here over the cooler winter months as there is nothing to see!
The site consists of a rocky reef with small bommies, gutters and a sandy plain in depths from 3m to 15m. The main feature is a jagged bommie that is the centre of the action as reef manta rays gather here to be cleaned. Some days there are no manta rays, other days one or two, but on a busy day there will be five or six circling the bommie and gliding around the reef. They are always wonderful to watch and if you don’t chase them you will have spectacular close encounters and get some great photos.
However, it’s not just the manta rays that make Manta Bommie special, as this site is overflowing with marine life. On a typical dive you will see wobbegongs, spotted eagle rays, reef fish, turtles, crayfish, octopus, moray eels, nudibranchs (including Spanish dancers), batfish, trevally, kingfish, barracuda and gropers. This is the best spot I have ever seen for stingrays, not just one or two individuals, but schools of blue spotted stingrays and pink stingrays, plus cowtail, black blotched and coachwhip stingrays. If that wasn’t enough it is also the best spot for white spotted shovelnose rays I have ever seen. At other dive sites you would be lucky to see one or two of these primitive looking rays, but at Manta Bommie there can be dozens lined up across the bottom.
But the main feature that makes this spot special for me is the leopard sharks, as Manta Bommie is the best spot on the planet to see these lovely patterned sharks. Northern New South Wales and southern Queensland is documented as a hotspot for leopard sharks, and at the epicentre of this region is Manta Bommie. On a typical dive at Manta Bommie you will see at least a dozen leopard sharks, but I have done dives when I have stopped counting at sixty sharks! The sharks gather over the summer months, possibly to breed but no one is really sure why, and once the water cools they disappear to parts unknown. The leopard sharks, manta rays and all the other marine life listed above make Manta Bommie an action packed dive site that will leave you breathless!
There is no good or bad time to dive Brisbane, but as many species are seasonal you can time your visit to see certain species, but in general the winter months have the most stable weather patterns. Visibility inside Moreton Bay averages 10m, but can vary from 5m to 20m and is always best on the high tide. The visibility outside the bay is rarely under 15m, but can be over 30m at times, while the water temperate varies from summer highs of 26°C to winter lows of 18°C. All of Brisbane’s dive sites are only accessible by boat, there are sites off Moreton and Straddy that can be reached from the shore, but you will still have to journey on a boat over to the islands at some stage to reach them. A number of day dive boats and even a liveaboard offer dive charters to the best dive sites off Brisbane.
I hope this article has given the reader an insight into the wonderful diving off Brisbane, a dive destination that you might never have considered before and one that I am very happy to have on my doorstep!
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