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By Nigel Marsh & Helen Rose


We don't generally make New Year's resolutions, as most are impossible to keep, but we did promise that we would dive on the first day of the New Year at one of our favourite dive sites, the fabulous Fish Rock off South West Rocks.


Meeting at Fish Rock Dive Centre at 7.30am meant we didn't have a big New Years eve party, but a day of good diving was more appealing than a day with a nasty hangover. Greeted by the always cheerful Jon Cragg, the owner of Fish Rock Dive Centre, he said it should be a great day - the water was clear, the seas slight and there were plenty of sharks in residence. We quickly loaded our dive gear onto 'Terror', the dive centre's 7.5m long catamaran, and met our fellow divers, only four other keen divers, plus guide Larry.


Arriving at the boat ramp there were only a handful of boat trailers, all the usual fishermen were sleeping in today. It looked like we would have Fish Rock all to ourselves. The run down to Fish Rock was pretty bumpy, caused by a small southerly swell and fresh northerly winds, but once at Fish Rock the surface was calm and blue. While Larry guided the other divers, we are very familiar with Fish Rock so were doing our own thing, heading straight for the sharks.


Once in the water we found the visibility to be a wonderful 30m and the water warm at 23°C, we could even see the sharks as we descended, patrolling the gutter 30m below. We first settled on the ridge above the gutter to watch the thirty odd grey nurse sharks slowly cruising below us. It is always an impressive sight to see so many large sharks gathered together.


We then moved along the side of the gutter to get photos, lying low to avoid interfering with the sharks swimming patterns. The grey nurse were unconcerned by our presence, swimming over our heads, only inches from our faces. The sharks varied in size from 1.2m to 2.7m, and there was an even number of males and females. Grey nurse sharks are found at Fish Rock year round, but summer is generally when the numbers are at there lowest, but obviously not this year.


With the gutter in 30m we couldn't spend too long at this depth admiring the grey nurse, so left the sharks to explore more of Fish Rock. We soon found spotted and ornate wobbegongs, kingfish, mackerel, batfish, sweep and schools of surgeonfish. We then swam along the southern wall of Fish Rock and entered its famous cave at the shallow entrance.


Having dived right through this 120m long cave many times we didn't need to do the full tour, so just had fun photographing the colourful corals that line the walls and ceiling. We also encountered wobbegongs, moray eels, black cod, squirrelfish, bullseyes and a number of crayfish.


We then did a slow swim along the southern side of Fish Rock, investigating the wall to find octopus, shrimps, hermit crabs, moray eels and nudibranchs. We also had some fun with the resident blue gropers, which are constant companions and always after a feed of urchin.


For our second dive we returned to the grey nurse sharks for more images, and then headed into the next gutter, which leads to the deep entrance of the cave. Here were another dozen grey nurse, some were patrolling the bottom, one was even rubbing its side along the gritty bottom, while the rest where swimming in mid-water. It was good to see that only one shark had a hook in its mouth, and hopefully none had hooks in their stomachs.


We then attempted to swim up the east side of Fish Rock, but the current was just too strong once we rounded the corner, so returned to the southern side of the rock. We spent more time photographing the blue gropers, noting where the territory of each male started and ended. While these blue gropers are very friendly with divers, they are not so friendly with each other, chasing and snapping at each other over territorial disputes.


One of these disputes got right out of hand, with Helen in the middle of it. A large male zoomed around Helen chasing off a smaller male, smacking Helen in the head a few times. Finally the smaller male swam off, but the larger male didn’t realise this and continued to swim around Helen until it grabbed her on the arm and gave her a nasty bite and shake!


Helen had to pull the groper off her arm and decided she had had enough of these over friendly fish. Back on the dive boat Helen peeled back her wetsuit to reveal a bruise. None of us had never heard of a blue groper ever biting anyone before and we can only assume it was a case of mistaken identity, as the bite took place on a light blue panel on Helen’s wetsuit – which the blue groper must have assumed was the other blue groper.


Apart from this unusual love bite we had a spectacular day of diving at Fish Rock and couldn’t think of a better way to see in the New Year.


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