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THE SMALLER SIDE OF FISH ROCK

By Nigel Marsh & Helen Rose

 

Fish Rock, off South West Rocks, is famous for its cave and the large marine life that gathers around this spectacular dive site - grey nurse sharks, turtles, wobbegongs, gropers, stingrays and abundant pelagic fish. But this wonderful dive site off New South Wales also has a great collection of small critters that are often over-looked or ignored.

 

We usually dive Fish Rock with wide angle lenses on our cameras, but for something different on a recent visit we decided to concentrate on the macro life. While a great variety of small critters can be found at Fish Rock there was one particular animal we dearly wanted to photograph - the magnificent mosaic moray eel, which is endemic to this part of the country.

 

Upon arrival at Fish Rock Dive Centre we asked owner Jon Cragg if they had seen any mosaic morays lately. Jon flashed us a smile and then showed us an image on his computer of a mosaic moray taken just the day before. Jon told us where we could find it, at the boulders near the shallow entrance to Fish Rock Cave, but also showed us a sea spider he had found in the cave, so we added that to the list of photographic subjects.

 

The next morning we loaded our gear onto Fish Rock Dive Centre's dive boat 'Terror' a 7.5m long catamaran surveyed for 12 divers. After a bumpy ride across choppy seas we arrived at Fish Rock to find the water calm and blue. While Jon and guide Larry led the other divers to observe a pack of thirty grey nurse sharks, which we had dived with the day before, we headed in the opposite direction to hopefully find a mosaic moray. Swimming along the southern side of Fish Rock we quickly found plenty of subjects for our cameras; nudibranchs, hermit crabs, octopus, cowries, hawkfish, scorpionfish, triple-fins and numerous other moray eel species - green, white-eyed and Abbott's morays. We have found small mosaic moray eels in the cracks of this wall in the past, but couldn't see any today.

 

Reaching the boulders at the shallow entrance of the cave we spend ten minutes searching every nook and cranny, but no sign of the mosaic moray. Fortunately there were plenty of other subjects to keep our cameras busy, especially other moray eel species. A very usual sight here was a batfish with its fins covered in feather-like copepods. The poor fish could barely swim.

 

Giving up on the boulders we entered the cave, searching the boulders on the cave floor. Still no mosaic, but a few pretty Pacific rock cods, hermit crabs, shrimps and quite a few green moray eels. With our quest for a mosaic bust we searched the walls of the cave for the sea spider. We quickly found cowries, crayfish, shrimps, sea cucumbers and a slipper cray, and finally the tiny orange sea spider slowly walking across a clump of bryozoans.

 

Returning to the boat for our surface interval we informed Jon that we had no luck with the mosaic, but would search again on the next dive. This time we headed into the main shark gutter, directly below the boat, to search the boulders here in depths to 20m. We encountered wobbegongs, blue gropers, many friendly reef fish and a hunting reaper cuttlefish. From a distance we watched this tiny cuttlefish spear a shrimp with its tentacle, but it stopped feeding once we got too close.

 

We searched high and low, under each and every boulder, finding scorpionfish, nudibranchs, shrimps, rock cods and lionfish, but no elusive mosaic moray. Two displaying reaper cuttlefish captured our attention, so we settled down to watch them flashing colours as they drifted between the boulders. We took a few images when suddenly another reaper cuttlefish darted in from the side. The two males had a quick fight, which lasted barely a second, and then the intruder darted off again. We then expected to see the cuttlefish mate, but this must have already occurred as the small female appeared to be looking for somewhere to lay her eggs. We left the cuttlefish and were just about to give up on the mosaic, as we were running out of bottom time and boulders, when suddenly we saw a moray eel’s head poking out between two urchins - it was a mosaic, finally!

 

We quickly got into position for some photos, hoping that the eel wouldn't disappear, but we only had to wiggle our fingers for the eel to emerge and show off its rows of razor sharp teeth. For the next five minutes we shot photos of this spectacular eel from every angle, while elbowing away a very curious blue groper that was wondering what all the fuss was about.

 

Back on the safety stop we showed Jon an image of the mosaic, he gave us the thumbs up, happy that we had finally got our eel. He then showed us his own camera, an image of a colourful and tiny white spotted lobster found deep inside Fish Rock Cave - just another wonderful macro subject we will have to capture on our next dive trip to South West Rocks.

 

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