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BIG STUFF AT THE BUNKERS

by Nigel Marsh & Helen Rose

 

In a diving world that seems to have gone crazy about macro critters and muck diving it is still great to go to a destination where you can see ‘Big Stuff’ and lots of it. Manta rays, reef sharks, stingrays, leopard sharks, tawny nurse sharks, turtles, eagle rays, giant moray eels, gropers and wobbegongs are just some of the big animals we have encountered on trips to the Bunker Group.

 

Never heard of the Bunker Group? The Bunker Group is a collection of eight reefs and coral cays located at the southern most end of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. These reefs are located approximately 60km off the Queensland coast, with access from the towns of Hervey Bay, Bundaberg and Agnes Water.

 

THE LADY OF THE REEF

The most famous island of the Bunker Group is Lady Elliot Island, and it happens to be one of the best places in the world to see reef manta rays. I did my first dive trip to Lady Elliot in 1984 and in those days the resort was very basic. Meals were taken under a large tree, accommodation was tent style and the bathroom was so tiny that it didn’t have space for a mirror. Since then the resort has been redeveloped, offering a range of luxury accommodation, but one thing that hasn’t changed is the fabulous diving.

 

There are dozens of excellent dive sites around Lady Elliot that can be reached by boat or just by stepping off the shore. The eastern and southern side of the fringing reef has a continuous drop-off from 15m to 25m that features many wonderful caves and ledges.

 

The best dive site here is The Blowhole, a large L shape tube that cuts into the wall and exits on the top of the wall. This wide swim through cave is lined with soft corals, tubastra corals and countless feather stars and home to a range of invertebrate species. The cave at times can be filled with cardinalfish and baitfish, which may be hiding ‘big stuff’ like tasselled wobbegongs, stingrays, turtles, potato cod and tawny nurse sharks. Cruising this drop-off are nearly always schools of pelagic fish; trevally, rainbow runners, mackerel and barracuda. But divers may also see eagle rays, reef sharks and manta rays.

 

The best place to regularly encounter manta rays is on the numerous coral bommies that rise from the sand on the western side of the island. Anchor Bommie is a favourite, a huge apartment block of coral rising from 20m to 10m. Decorated with hard and soft corals, this bommie is a giant cleaning station and attracts reef fish, reef sharks and manta rays to get a regular service. Reef fish swarm over the bommie, as do pelagic fish like trevally and rainbow runners.

 

It is quite common to see two or three manta rays when diving Anchor Bommie, either gliding around the bommie or just hovering to get cleaned. If you sit still on the bottom you can watch them for quite some time, and on occasions a curious manta will even come over to investigate you. The bommie also attracts white spot shovelnose rays, spotted eagle rays, numerous stingray species, turtles, leopard sharks, wobbegongs, grey reef sharks, gropers, Maori wrasse and even the odd sea snake.

 

For those that need a macro fix the bommie supports a large invertebrate population, including shrimps, crabs, nudibranchs, sea stars and feather stars. But also keep an eye out for tiny pipefish and the elusive leaf scorpionfish. On the sand beyond Anchor Bommie stingrays are common, and if you look closely you will see a large colony of garden eels swaying back and forth.

 

Another interesting dive off the western side of the island is the Severance, the wreck of a yacht that sank in 1998. This yacht is virtually intact, but now covered in soft corals and home to sweetlips, gropers, wobbegongs, trevally, reef sharks, stingrays and often a small school of cobia.

 

On the in-coming tide the place to dive or snorkel is at the Shark Pools, as when the rising tide floods the reef flats dozens of sharks race over the shallows to capture trapped fish. It is quite common to see white tip reef sharks, tawny nurse sharks, black tip reef sharks, grey reef sharks and the occasional silver tip shark at this spot.

 

Other wonderful dive sites at Lady Elliot Island include Lighthouse Bommies, Three Pyramids, Maori Wrasse Bommie, Sunset Drift and Hiro’s Cave.

 

LADY MUSGRAVE DAY TRIPPING

Located 40km north of Lady Elliot is Lady Musgrave Island, a popular destination for day trippers and campers.  The island is one of the only coral cays where camping is permitted, but with no facilities, except for a toilet block, it’s not the best destination for a dive holiday. However, divers will find it easier to visit the island on day trips or liveaboard vessel.

 

The reef surrounding Lady Musgrave covers a huge area, 18 hectares, and encompasses a very large lagoon. Diving in the lagoon can be fun, with thousands of small coral heads dotting the bottom in only 8m of water. These make for great night dives, with a wide array of reef fish and invertebrate species to be observed. On a recent trip even a manta ray circled a couple of divers on a night dive in the lagoon.

 

The entrance channel to the lagoon is an exhilarating drift dive, with schools of trevally, barracuda and rainbow runners feeding in the current. While the Entrance Bommie, sitting in 23m, is a wonderful site to see all manner of reef fish, as well as gropers, tawny nurse sharks, tasselled wobbegongs, Maori wrasse, turtles, moray eels, coral trout, barramundi cod and schools of sweetlips.

 

Manta Ray Bommie is one of the best places at Lady Musgrave to encounter these large graceful rays. Located on the western side of the island, there are several bommies here to explore in depths to 22m. On our last dive at the bommie we encounter five reef manta rays just cruising about or getting a clean. Three species of turtle; green, hawksbill and loggerhead, nest on the Bunker Group islands and are also regularly encountered by divers. Manta Ray Bommie is also a great place to see batfish, coral trout and pelagic fish.

 

The most exciting dive sites at Lady Musgrave Island are located on the south side of the reef on the drop-off. The reef wall here drops from 12m to 26m and is undercut by ledges and caves. In these caves shelter tasselled wobbegongs, painted crayfish, stingrays, lionfish and sleeping turtles. The wall is decorated with some fantastic corals, especially black coral trees, gorgonians, sea whips and spiky soft corals. Reef sharks regularly patrol the walls, as do pelagic fish, eagle rays and the odd manta ray. This is also a good spot to find olive sea snakes, highly venomous, but very docile creatures.

 

CRUISING THE BUNKERS

The best way to enjoy a wide variety of dive sites on the Bunker Group is on a liveaboard vessel. Unfortunately only one liveaboard vessel (Big Cat Reality) now operates to this area, offering only a few trips at Christmas and Easter each year. These trips explore Lady Musgrave Island, and occasionally Lady Elliot Island, and all the other reefs of the Bunker Group.

 

Our most recent liveaboard trip to the Bunker Group on Big Cat Reality we had five fantastic days of diving and eating, which is all we seemed to do on the trip. After diving Lady Musgrave for a day we then headed to Fairfax Islands and the reefs further north. The best diving at Fairfax Islands is on all the coral bommies that dominate the underwater landscape on the northern side of the reef. Located in depths from 12m to 20m, these bommies are packed with marine life. Most of these bommies are unexplored and have no name, the crew just find a likely spot, drop the anchor and you jump in and explore.

 

Our best dive was on a collection of bommies in 17m. As we descended we found a large Maori wrasse, but this big fish was very shy, meaning no chance of taking a photo. Under the first bommie we found a 2m long tawny nurse shark having a snooze. We quickly snapped some photos of this harmless giant. At the next bommie was an enormous black-blotched stingray. One bommie was riddled with ledges and caves, and overflowing with cardinalfish. Parting this curtain of fish revealed two tasselled wobbegongs perfectly camouflaged in a cave. But the highlight of this dive was a close encounter with a very friendly manta ray. For almost ten minutes this gentle animal cruised between the bommies, feeding and getting serviced by all the cleaner wrasse.

 

On other dives on the bommies at Fairfax Islands we saw a 4m wide all-black manta ray, giant moray eels, leopard sharks, reef sharks and watched four mobula rays perform an underwater ballet.

 

Hoskyn Islands, Boult Reef, Llewellyn Reef, Fitzroy Reef and Lamont Reef are the other reefs that make up the Bunker Group. All offer a wonderful variety of coral gardens, reef walls and bommies, with a fantastic range of reef fish, invertebrate species and of course, big stuff.

 

We almost forgot to mention that the ultimate in ‘big stuff’ arrives at the Bunker Group each winter, humpback whales. Thousands of humpback whales cruise around these islands each year. While Australian regulations don’t allow you to swim with the whales, the whales don’t know this and underwater encounters with these gentle giants are becoming more and more common at the fabulous Bunker Group.

 

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