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by Nigel Marsh and Helen Rose


Rock hopping or shore diving is a very popular activity in southern Australia, but in the north of the country few shore diving sites are available. Queensland in particular has very limited shore diving, however there is one area of the Sunshine State that offers wonderful rock hopping – the Woongarra Coast off Bundaberg.


Known as the ‘Sugar Coast’ Bundaberg is renowned for its sugar cane which goes into producing its most famous export – rum. This large country town is located adjacent to the coast and is best known among divers as the jump-off point for the always brilliant Lady Elliot Island, the most southern reef of the Great Barrier Reef. But Bundaberg has a number of other tourist attractions and top of that list would be Mon Repos Beach, where each summer thousands of turtles come ashore to lay eggs. But this area also boosts national parks, historic sites, boat cruises and you can even tour the rum distillery. But the town’s best kept secret is the Woongarra Coast, a 30km stretch of rocky coastline from Elliot Heads to Burnett Heads.


This rocky coast line is unique in Queensland and was formed around one million years ago by a volcanic eruption. That volcano is now dormant but still dominates the Bundaberg area, rising 95m above the surrounding plain and is today called The Hummock. This volcanic eruption left the countryside covered in rich soils and igneous rocks, which tumble into the ocean and provide a solid base for the corals to flourish along the coastline.


We first dived the Woongarra Coast ten years ago and were instantly impressed by the brilliant shore diving, the rich coral gardens and the abundance of marine life. Over the years we have enjoyed many wonderful dives on this coastline, but have also discovered some of the limitations of this area which impact on the diving.


While this rocky coast can be dived at any time of the year it is always best when there has been little or no rain for weeks, which is generally over winter. With two rivers and several creeks draining onto this coast it only takes a dose of heavy rain to turn the water murky green or chocolate brown. We generally try to dive this area once or twice a year and have generally enjoyed 6m visibility when conditions are good, but have also had several visits when we haven’t even got wet due to the poor visibility. However, our most recent visit was very special, exposing us to the best diving we have ever done at Bundy.


Barolin Rocks

While you can jump in the water anywhere along the Woongarra coastline, there are three established sites that have good entry and exit points and a wealth of marine life. One of our favourite sites is Barolin Rocks, and it was our first stop on our most recent visit. Located in the suburb of Coral Cove, Barolin Rocks is the most sheltered dive site in the area and a great introduction to the Woongarra Coast.


We parked in the car park just after sunrise, while the conditions looked great with flat seas and no wind it was hard to tell what the visibility was like as the water was dark in the early morning light. But as it hadn’t rained for weeks we were hoping for at least 6m visibility. A short walk, a little bit of a rock scramble and we entered the water at a natural rock pool. Upon submerging we got a wonderful surprise to discover that the visibility was at least 15m! We had heard it gets this clear, but this was the first time we were going to enjoy this wonderful blue water ourselves.


We quickly descended and soon found ourselves surrounded by rocks and lovely corals. Soft corals dominate the bottom here, but pushing up between them are also hard corals, gorgonians, ascidians and sponges – a beautiful tapestry of shapes and colours. We then proceeded to explore the rocky reef, which reaches a maximum depth of 8m, and encountered an impressive range of reef fish. Rabbitfish, butterflyfish, grubfish, morwong, goatfish, wrasse, snapper, sweetlips, boxfish, pufferfish, bream and hawkfish were just some of the species parading before us. However, the most spectacular were the scribbled angelfish, which are always seen in pairs and are a signature fish of the area.


With a macro lens on our camera we had no shortage of subjects as between the corals and rocks we found crabs, shrimps, sea stars, feather stars and several species of colourful nudibranchs. We were also surprised to find a number of spindle cowries on the gorgonians. These beautiful tiny shells are generally difficult to find, but seemed to be on every second gorgonian we looked at today.


Many of the larger boulders form ledges and caves, which were home to crayfish and quite a few ornate wobbegong sharks. While the sandy patches between boulders provided a resting place for large flatheads and numerous blue spotted stingrays, but we also found a metre long eastern shovelnose ray half buried in the sand that allowed us to get very close for some photos.


We then stumbled upon another regular resident of this coastline, an olive sea snake. Although highly venomous, olive sea snakes are very docile creatures and easily avoided if you fear these marine reptiles. We always enjoy encounters with these serpents and followed this one for five minutes as it searched the reef for potential food.


After spending over an hour exploring the rocky reef we headed into the shallows where there are numerous ledges to investigate. Here we saw honey-comb moray eels, brown-spotted gropers, squirrelfish, crayfish and several sea hares. But the highlight was all the gorgeous twin-spot blennies that seemed to hang out of every hole and were darting about in front of our camera.


Hoffman’s Rocks

For our second dive we headed to the most popular dive site in the area, Hoffman’s Rocks. This site is a little more exposed to the weather, which can make the entry and exit a little tricky, especially with a camera, but today it was calm and almost like diving in a swimming pool. Once in the water we were happy to see that the water was just as clear as Barolin Rocks, so we knew it was going to be a great dive.


The rocky reef at Hoffman’s Rocks is very similar to Barolin Rocks, with the same lush coral gardens. But this site also has numerous small bommies beyond the rocky reef that rise a few metres out of the sand and attract a great assortment of marine life. We went no deeper than 9m, but you can reach a depth of 12m at this site. We also noticed a slight current, which is more common at this site and brings in pelagic visitors. On previous dives at Hoffman’s Rocks we have seen turtles, Queensland gropers and even schools of barracuda.


Exploring the reef we saw many of the same species as Barolin Rocks, but there seemed to be many more nudibranchs, which kept our camera busy. We also photographed spindle cowries, moray eels, brittle stars, pufferfish, scorpionfish, crayfish and numerous crabs.


While mainly interested in macro critters every time we looked up we were joined by larger residents – a school of golden trevally, a large Spanish mackerel, a group of batfish and also a school of sweetlips. But the most impressive sight was a squadron of six spotted eagle rays that glided around us for a minute.


Burkitt’s Reef

On our second day of exploring Bundaberg’s rocky reefs the wind and swell had started to rise. We did another early morning dive at Barolin Rocks, which was superb once more with even more nudibranchs and fish, but by mid-morning the swell had risen to 1m, making a rock entry a little tricky. With these conditions the best choice was a dive at Burkitt’s Reef, right in front of the town of Bargara. The last time we dived this site we entered at Shelley Beach and swam right around the edge of the reef and exited at Bargara Beach. It was a brilliant dive with the highlight being schools of barracuda, trevally and even queenfish. Today with the rough conditions we decided to enter and exit at Bargara Beach.


After a five minute surface swim we descended on the rocky reef in 4m of water. The visibility was stirred up in the shallows, only 8m, but got better the deeper we went. This site has a boulder wall varying in depths from 3m to 8m, and is decorated with similar corals to the other sites, but also has a lot more hard corals, which are also found in outcrops rising from the sand. We soon found ourselves photographing tube worms, anemones, sea pens, sea stars, feather stars, shrimps and crabs.


The best part of the dive was exploring the hard coral outcrops that dot the sand as these were home to a diverse range of species, including numerous reef fish, honeycomb moray eels and a surprising number of ornate crayfish. We also encountered several blue spotted stingrays, brown-spotted gropers, an eastern shovelnose ray, ornate wobbegongs and a very large olive sea snake.


But the highlight was all the nudibranchs, there were hundreds of them. Nudies are very common on these rocky reefs, but their numbers vary from season to season and almost day to day. On this dive we only saw a dozen species, but they were everywhere, covering the bottom in some places. These colourful sea slugs are always wonderful to photograph and we found most were eating, mating or sleeping. Even with the stirred up visibility we had a brilliant dive exploring this rocky reef.


We love the easy shore diving found off Bundaberg, and only wish this area was closer to Brisbane, as the four and half hour drive makes a weekend seem far too short. We have had some amazing dives here over the last ten years and are pleased to know that future generations will enjoy these sites as they are protected as part of the Woongarra Marine Park.


Bundy Boat Diving

Bundaberg has much more than just shore diving as off the coast are a number of brilliant boat diving sites. The most popular of these is the Cochrane Artificial Reef, a great collection of old ships and even several planes that rest in 18m. This is a spectacular site that covers a large area and is home to massive volumes of marine life; including turtles, pelagic fish, stingrays, reef sharks, gropers, sea snakes and much more.


The Bundaberg area also has a number of offshore reefs that are covered in coral and marine life. These reefs are found at Two Mile Reef, Four Mile Reef and Evan’s Patch and vary in depth from 12m to 22m. For something completely different divers can explore the remains of a Beaufort Bomber that crashed in 1943 and now rests in pieces in 27m. There are a number of shipwrecks in this area, most are small trawlers, but north of Bundaberg is one of the best wreck dives in Queensland, the MV Karma. This 42m long gravel barge sank in 2003 and now sits in 26m and is home to a staggering number of fish and other species.


Bundaberg is also the gateway to Lady Elliot Island, which has some of the best diving on the Great Barrier Reef. It takes a week to explore all the wonderful dive sites at Lady Elliot Island; however, if you don’t have that much time a day trip to Lady Musgrave Island is hard to beat, with Lady Musgrave Cruises departing daily from the Town of 1770, an hour drive north of Bundaberg.


Servicing the Bundaberg area and offering invaluable advice on local shore and boat dives is Bundaberg Aqua Scuba.


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