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
A GREAT DAY WITH THE MANTA RAYS AT MANTA BOMMIE
By Nigel Marsh
Manta Bommie, off Brisbane, is one of my favourite dive sites in the world and I am fortunate to have it on my doorstep. Since I first dived Manta Bommie in 1991 I have seen some incredible marine life at this amazing site, especially manta rays. But over the last decade my manta encounters have been a bit hit and miss – either no mantas or only one or two in poor visibility. I just couldn’t seem to time my visits with good visibility and great manta action, until a recent trip in March.
Manta Bommie maybe a great dive site, but located off the north-eastern tip of North Stradbroke Island (Straddie to the locals) it certainly gets a mixed bag of conditions. Some days it can be calm and clear, then the next it can be dirty. It can also be affected by strong currents and rough surface conditions that don’t always affect the other wonderful dive sites in the area. You can have 30m visibility at nearby Flat Rock, and then move over to Manta Bommie and find it only 5m, so you have to be prepared to take the good with the bad – but when it is good it is very, very good.
Keeping an eye on social media in early March I saw an old mate David Biddulph, from Manta Lodge and Scuba Centre (MLSC), had posted some great images of blue water and manta rays taken at Manta Bommie that day, just the conditions I was after for some underwater photography. I quickly contacted James Griffith, the owner/manager of MLSC to see if they had space on the dive boat. James informed me that they certainly did and to get over the next day, before a forecast front came through.
MLSC is located at Point Lookout, at the northern end of Straddie, which gives them quick access to the brilliant dive sites in the area. Besides being a PADI dive centre and operating daily boat dives, they also have a YHA hostel as part of the complex, making the centre a great destination for dive groups, couples or singles looking to dive and stay for a weekend, week or longer, and once you have experienced the local dive sites you will want to stay as long as possible.
Living in Brisbane I was only heading over for the day, so drove down to Cleveland, about 30 minutes south of the city, and then jumped on the very early Gold Cat ferry service departing at 5.55am. After a relaxing 30 minute cruise over Moreton Bay, the ferry arrived at Dunwich where James was waiting to pick me up. A short drive across the top end of Straddie and we arrived at the MLSC complex.
MLSC is one of the best setup dive centres in the country, with a retail dive shop at the front, the YHA hostel in the centre and above, toilets and shower facilities and all the hire gear at the rear. This is also where their 6.8m long ridged hull inflatable is located, for quick loading and offloading of dive gear (they actually have two dive boats that can cater for 14 and 11 divers, and schedule two double dive trips daily). With the dive gear organised everyone climbed on board the boat for the drive to the beach (the boat being on a trailer). The dive centre is conveniently located right on the beach, and James and the crew quickly launched the boat into the small surf.
The weather looked perfect; light winds, slight seas, blue water and sunshine, and in 15 minutes we arrived at Manta Bommie. Before anchoring we saw three manta rays, making everyone eager to get into the water. I was the first to submerge and found the visibility 15 to 20m, just perfect especially as I could see two manta rays directly below me.
I quickly photographed the mantas as they slowly glided around a small bommie getting serviced by cleaner wrasse. When they departed I turned to see two other manta rays in the shallows behind me, this was the most mantas I had seen at Manta Bommie in years.
Back in 1991 I was lucky enough to be one of the first divers to explore Manta Bommie when Kev Russell rediscovered the site with the help of diving legend John Harding, who had dived it over twenty years earlier. Since that first dive I have loved this dive site, it is something very special, not just because of manta rays but for all the amazing marine life that gathers here – turtles, eagle rays, shovelnose rays, gropers, wobbegongs, reef fish, pelagic fish, schools of stingrays and leopard sharks. The site is only 5 to 15m deep and consists of a series of rocky ridges and sandy gutters in the shallows, a rugged bommie group, a small drop off and a deeper sandy plain. But a word of warning Manta Bommie is only packed with marine life from November to May, if you dive the site in winter it is quite desolate, and as mentioned earlier it can also suffer from some very unpredictable conditions, but this is when you discover some of the other wonderful dive sites off Straddie.
Fortunately today it was all coming together. Moving into the shallows we soon had four manta rays gliding around us, the largest one with a 5m wing span. It was just magic watching these graceful creatures swimming around or just hovering in the slight current. I shot image after image of the rays circling me, from head on and from underneath. When these rays moved on we explored more of the reef, and every few minutes encountered more manta rays, they seemed to be everywhere today.
It was hard to tell exactly how many there were swimming about us, but I saw two almost all black mantas, another one missing a cephalic fin, another missing its tail, another with a tear in its wing and at least another five that varied in size from 3m to 5m wide. So can only assume there were at least ten.
Manta Bommie is recognised as the second best manta ray dive site in the country after Lady Elliot Island, and the Project Manta team are regularly at the site to study these majestic creatures. They also ask divers to send in belly photos to identify individual rays from their spot patterns.
After many manta encounters in the shallows, we decided to have a look for leopard sharks in deeper water on the sandy flat. Unfortunately there was a ripper of a current out here and no leopard sharks today. We did find one leopard shark in a sandy gutter, and also saw turtles, spotted eagle rays, wobbegongs, sweetlips, trevally, cobia, kingfish and a few stingrays, but the mantas were the stars today. Back in the shallows we spent the rest of the dive just watching manta after manta patrolling the site. What a stunning dive, and easily the greatest number of manta rays I have seen at Manta Bommie on one dive!
After a surface interval behind the more sheltered Shag Rock, enjoying soups, cakes, lollies and hot drinks, we returned to Manta Bommie for our second dive. The surface conditions were starting to deteriorate, and underwater the current was getting stronger, stirring up sand and weed which reduced the visibility to 10 to15m. But the manta rays were even more playful on this dive; at times I could see four or five in front of me and managed to capture images of two or three rays gliding around me. There were also a few mantas feeding with their mouths open wide to trap plankton on their gill-rakers. I surfaced from this dive with a huge smile having had two of the best manta dives I have ever enjoyed at Manta Bommie.
Of course Manta Bommie is not the only wonderful dive site off Straddie, as you can explore Flat Rock, Shag Rock, Middle Reef or Boat Rock with Manta Lodge and Scuba Centre at any time of the year. These sites are all packed with marine life and over winter Flat Rock is a great place to encounter grey nurse sharks. If you have never dived Manta Bommie you are missing something very special from your log book, one of the best dive sites in Australia.
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