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
HOOKED ON COOK
by Nigel Marsh and Helen Rose
Cook Island was first named Turtle Island but was later renamed after the first European that sighted the island in 1770, Captain James Cook. For divers the original name is far more appropriate as turtles are seen on every dive, but it could also have been called Stingray Island, Wobbegong Island, Nudibranch Island or after any of the other marine creatures that are found in abundance around this amazing island.
Cook Island is the most popular dive site off Tweed Heads/Coolangatta, twin holiday towns that straddle the border between New South Wales and Queensland. This area, at the southern end of the Gold Coast, has many tourist attractions, but for divers it offers a great variety of underwater experiences. Divers can shore dive in the Tweed River, which has a surprising wealth of marine life, or board a charter boat and explore the numerous offshore reefs, such as Fido’s Reef, Palm Beach Reef, Five Mile Reef, Kingscliff Reef and the legendary Nine Mile Reef. All of these reefs offer spectacular diving, but nothing like the quality and quantity that can be experienced at Cook Island.
Located 600m off Fingal Head, Cook Island is the only island in the area and as such offers the best all-weather diving on the Gold Coast, with somewhere to dive in all but the roughest of conditions. The island is easily reached by boat, only a ten minute run down the coast from the Tweed River mouth. However, this journey does take you across the notorious Tweed River Bar, which can terminate a trip to Cook Island in extremely rough conditions.
Once at Cook Island your choice of dive sites are endless, but generally dictated by the prevailing wind and swell. The Northern Ledges is the best place to start an exploration of Cook Island as it is the most sheltered site in southerly winds.
Located on the north-western side of the island, the Northern Ledges covers such a large area that it takes several dives to explore the site. A boulder wall is the main feature here, the top of the wall in 3m and the base in 10m. These boulders are decorated with hard corals, soft corals, sponges and ascidians, plus home to a great range of fish and invertebrates.
One of the first things divers will notice when diving Cook Island is the mix of tropical and temperate species, as this island is located in the subtropical zone so gets a mix of both regions that varies with the changing seasons. It is common to see tropical angelfish, butterflyfish and batfish swimming alongside temperate old wives, stripeys and blue gropers.
Most divers spend their entire dive exploring the boulder wall as there is just so much to see, including sea stars, nudibranchs, pipefish, red morwong, wrasse, hawkfish, lionfish, moray eels, ornate wobbegongs, scorpionfish, octopus, cuttlefish, crayfish and even mantis shrimps. Schooling fish also swarm here and divers can be engulfed in schools of bullseyes, goatfish, snapper, surgeonfish or trevally. The top of the wall is especially good for macro photographers as the best corals are found here, plus numerous anemones that are home to anemonefish, commensal shrimps and the odd porcelain crab. But we like to spend our safety stop searching between the boulders for blennies and dragonets, as a number of these cute fish are found here, including the spectacular leopard blenny. If you are not into looking for small critters on your safety stop, don’t worry as you will not get bored as this is the best spot to see green turtles that gather in the shallows to get cleaned.
It takes several dives to explore the length of this wall, and divers shouldn’t forget to check the sandy plain at the base of the wall as found here are flatheads, shrimp gobies, a number of stingray species, shovelnose rays and usually a few leopard sharks over the warmer months. Once you have explored the boulder wall a few times, and are looking for something different to do, then you can head across the sand as numerous small bommies are found here in depths to 15m. These bommies shelter gropers, rock cods, wobbegongs, stingrays, leopard sharks and turtles, and also quite a few critters. If you take your time and closely inspect these bommies you will be surprised by what resides here. We have found velvetfish, leaf scorpionfish, dwarf lionfish, boxfish, tiger pipefish, Spanish dancer nudibranchs, robust ghost pipefish and even a sad seahorse, an endemic seahorse generally only found in deep water.
Located off the northern tip of Cook Island is an exposed outcrop known as Mary’s Rock. Extensive rocky reefs are found around Mary’s Rock that continue well to the north, reaching a maximum depth of 22m. This area is a maze of gutters, ledges, ridges and caves, where it is easy to get lost, we should know as we have got lost here on more than one occasion! Decorating the bottom at this site are wonderful soft corals, hard corals, sponges, ascidians and black coral trees. The reef around Mary’s Rock easily has the best corals found at Cook Island.
Wobbegongs are a feature here, dozens of them. Every cave or hole you stick your head in is home to one or more of these camouflaged sharks, and some of them are huge, almost 3m long. Three species of wobbegongs are common to the area, the ornate, banded and spotted wobbegongs, so take care where you place your hands. A few other shark species are seen here, hidden in the caves are the odd blind shark or brown banded catshark, and lazing on the sand during summer are leopard sharks. But divers have also seen grey nurse sharks over the winter months. These critically endangered sharks are not common and seem to come and go, so this site isn’t really seen as an aggregation site, more of a grey nurse stop-off between other aggregation sites.
Mary’s Rock is often swept by currents and as such it is a good place to see pelagic fish, including schools of trevally, kingfish, batfish and mackerel. Other common species here include turtles, blue gropers, sweetlips, nudibranchs, crayfish, moray eels, stingrays and eagle rays.
When northerly winds are blowing a dive on the southern side of the island is on the cards at the Coral Gardens. Pretty corals are found at this site, but the main feature is the rocky wall that drops from 6m to 15m and is home to a great collection of reef fish and invertebrates. Commonly seen here are a good variety of nudibranchs, egg cowries, feather stars, octopus, crayfish, slipper lobsters and the odd cuttlefish. Typical to all sites around Cook Island divers are likely to encounter turtles, stingrays, wobbegongs and blue gropers, but keep an eye out for spotted eagle rays as they often patrol the wall at this site. Manta rays have been known to cruise this wall over summer, and on one dive we were surprised to found an eastern fiddler ray or banjo ray, a temperate species more common south of Sydney.
The eastern side of Cook Island is exposed to more swell and current so is not often dived, but when conditions allow it is well worth a look. The rocky reef on this side of the island varies in depth from 5m to 15m, with some of the best diving in the shallows as there are numerous caves to explore at sites called The Tunnels and The Caves. These caves shelter wobbegongs, blind sharks, brown banded catsharks, squirrelfish, pufferfish, moray eels, sleeping turtles and crayfish. But the prize here is to find pineapplefish. These bizarre looking fish can be found hidden in caves just about anywhere around Cook Island, but seem to be most common off the eastern side, where a dozen can be found huddled together in some caves.
COOK ISLAND MARINE RESERVE
Cook Island is a very unique location, which was recognised when it was declared a marine reserve in 1998. No fishing of any kind is allowed around the island, and moorings have been placed at all the popular dive sites for boats to tie up and avoid the use of anchors, which would damage the delicate corals. Diving conditions are good year round, but always best after southerly winds. The visibility at Cook Island averages 10m, but varies from three to 30m, and can be affected by runoff from the Tweed River after heavy rain.
The island itself is covered in low scrub, but does have one small tree and is home to a large population of sea birds, including terns, gulls and shearwaters, plus a few majestic osprey and sea eagles. Landing on the island is prohibited without a permit.
Cook Island is one of those dive sites that you never get tired of, as it always delivers something special, every time you dive it.
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