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HMAS BRISBANE – AUSTRALIA’S FISHIEST DIVE

By Nigel Marsh

 

In the nine years that the former guided missile destroyer HMAS Brisbane has been on the bottom the ship has been transformed into an incredible artificial reef. However, of its many attractions the thing that most impresses me is the amazing amount of fish that the ship has attracted – making it Australia’s fishiest dive site.

 

I have dived HMAS Brisbane regularly since it was scuttled on the 31st July 2005 (and even producing a book about the ship) but still look forward to every dive with great anticipation, as you just don’t know what you are going to see. And it was no different on a recent trip in October, as only days before a group of grey nurse sharks had been sighted on the ship that I was eager to see and photograph.

 

Arriving at Sunreef Diving Services in the morning it looked like it was going to be a perfect spring day – light winds, warm, sunny and only slight seas. The team at Sunreef run a well organised operation and quickly had everyone sorted with dive gear. Once everyone was loaded into the van it was a quick drive down the road to the wharf and their comfortable dive boat, 2 Ezy.

 

Only thirty minutes after departing the wharf and we were over HMAS Brisbane, with her funnels clearly visible from the surface in the clear blue water. I jumped in first to find the visibility 20m, the water temperature a pleasant 21°C and to find myself surrounded by batfish, hundreds of them!

 

Descending to the wreck we passed through the thick school of batfish only to find a school of yellowtail kingfish below them. Kingfish are always a delight to watch as they are so streamlined with their bullet shaped heads. There must have been a hundred in this school, all around a metre long.

 

Finally settling on the wreck we paused to marvel at all the fish swarming around the ship; besides the batfish and kingfish there were also schools of surgeonfish, fusiliers, rainbow runners and silver batfish. Plus swimming amongst the schooling fish were huge snapper, mangrove jacks, trevally, bream, parrotfish, sweetlips, emperors and many other species. I had always rated the SS Yongala as the fishiest dive site in Australia, but now think the HMAS Brisbane surpasses it!

 

We could have just stayed at mid-ships between the two funnels and stared at all the fish, but we headed towards the stern to see if we could see the grey nurse sharks. Over the last few years the odd grey nurse has made an appearance on the wreck, but these visits have become more frequent and it was pretty obvious why looking at all the fish around us, the sharks are gathering on the wreck to feast on this bonanza of fish.

 

We did a quick circuit around the stern, but unfortunately found there was a dirty layer of water below 20m. The sharks obviously didn’t like this dirty water and had moved on, or maybe we just couldn’t see them in the reduced visibility. We decided it was best to head back into the clear water at mid-ships and enjoy the company of so many fish.

 

It was quite mesmerising watching so many large fish that have little fear of divers. I found a cleaning station and settled down to observe the cleaner wrasse working on batfish, snapper, kingfish, surgeonfish and emperors. After forty minutes it was time to ascend, but the safety stop was the best part of the dive as I spent around ten minutes swimming with and photographing the immense schools of batfish between the two funnels. There were actually two large schools of batfish, and two species, the tall-fin batfish and the prettier Boer’s batfish. They seemed to be separated by species, but a few confused ones were in the wrong group, as were a few very confused snappers.

 

After a surface interval watching humpback whales breeching only a few hundred metres from the dive boat, we descended for a second dive. This time we headed towards the bow where the Queensland gropers usually hangout, but found that the water was just as dirty below 20m here as well. Instead we had a look inside the ship, admiring the soft corals that adorn almost every room of the old warship now. Inside the ship were more schooling fish, masses of cardinalfish, glassfish and bullseyes. But once again we spent most of the dive at mid-ships admiring the gathered fish, which now included two large barracuda and several mackerel.

 

It was sad to see one kingfish with a hook and lure trailing from its jaw. Even though HMAS Brisbane is protected as a marine sanctuary, ignorant fishermen continue to fish here illegally (mainly at night) evident by the fishing line that is found tangled on the wreck at times. When will these selfish individuals learn that we need a few protected sites to maintain fish populations, and they can’t continue to rape and pillage. Fortunately most of the fish on HMAS Brisbane are eluding these fishermen judging by their healthy numbers.

 

I surfaced with over two hundred images on my camera, and each image was packed full of fish. The fish, the corals, the invertebrate species and the fascinating wreck itself make HMAS Brisbane one of the best and fishiest dive sites in Australia.

 

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