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THE MAGIC OF MERIMBULA WHARF

By Nigel Marsh

 

The south coast of New South Wales has some of the best shore diving sites in Australia. Many of these sites are simple beach entries, but some of the best require you to scrabble over slippery rocks and are known as ‘rock hops’. One of my favourite rock hops is the wonderful Merimbula Wharf.

 

Merimbula is a lovely holiday town 440km south of Sydney, and almost the same distance from Melbourne. It may be a little too far from both cities for a weekend dive trip, but it is the perfect destination for a long weekend or even longer.

 

While you can explore Merimbula from a boat, with local dive shop Merimbula Divers Lodge offering charters and accommodation, but each time I visit the area I have found the shore diving to be so additive that I don’t have the inclination to jump on a dive boat. And it was no different on a recent visit in June when I introduced the area to an old mate, Stuart Ireland, one of Australia’s leading videographers. Stuart and I are currently working together on a series of short videos that showcase the best of Underwater Australia, and we were hoping to capture some great footage of all the wonderful endemic species of Merimbula.

 

The premier shore dive in the area is Merimbula Wharf, and while you can dive under the wharf, the adjacent rocky reef is the big attraction. This site is a classic rock hop, and while usually sheltered from the swell, it is always best to assess the conditions as entry and exits can be a little tricky for inexperienced divers. With light winds, no swell and clear blue water we had perfect conditions to explore this magic dive site.

 

Once in the water, a challenge with two large camera housings, we were pleasantly surprised to find the visibility over 20m, the best I had seen at Merimbula Wharf. We quickly found ourselves on a pretty rocky reef covered in sponges, tube worms and soft corals. We followed the reef deeper as it dropped in two steps down to 14m. Here the sponge garden is coloured by sea tulips, gorgonians and a variety of sponges. It didn’t take long for the resident reef fish to find us, and we were soon surrounded by blue gropers, leatherjackets, damsels and a variety of wrasse species.

 

As tempting as the rocky reef was, we decided to head out over the sand, as this is where some of Merimbula’s most interesting species are found. At first the sand looked quite barren, but then we spotted dozens of stingarees and flatheads. We also encountered a large smooth stingray resting on the sand, found a number of beautiful sea pens, saw schools of silver trevally and yellowtail feeding and also spotted a Port Jackson shark and an eastern stargazer. We then returned to the rocky reef and ended the dive under the wharf, which is only 2m deep, watching two of the resident smooth stingrays patrolling between the pylons.

 

For our next dive we explored the rocky reef into deeper water, well 16m away. Here the sponge gardens were even better and for most of the dive we were surrounded by a school of yellowtail. This wonderful rocky reef has fascinating terrain, with ridges, gutters, ledges and crevasses to explore. Everywhere we looked we found subjects for our cameras; giant cuttlefish, Sydney octopus, green moray eels, old wives, long-snouted boarfish, scorpionfish and even a blue-lined octopus. But a highlight for me was a cute crested hornshark, the much rarer cousin of the common Port Jackson shark.

 

Over the next two days we did four more dives at this amazing wharf, each time exploring a new area and finding a host of wonderful marine life. On these dives we found coffin rays, banded wobbegongs, a gurnard perch and more Port Jackson sharks and friendly blue gropers. But the surprises kept coming too. On one dive we found a large cowtail stingray resting on the sand. This tropical species is generally not found south of Coffs Harbour. We also found a small green turtle cruising over the seagrass beds. While turtles are occasionally seen this far south over the summer months this was an unexpected sight in winter, especially with the water temperature only 16°C.

 

However the biggest surprised came on our last dive when we found a rare Melbourne skate lazing on the bottom. This huge ray, easily 1.5m wide, is endemic to Australia’s southern waters, and occasionally seen off Melbourne. I have dived Melbourne many times hoping to encounter one of these impressive rays, but never expected to see my first one off Merimbula. I can tell you I had a smile on my face for the entire day.

 

After six incredible dives at Merimbula Wharf we had only explored a small portion of this large dive site. And I forgot to mention the humpback whale that cruised over the site, just after we surfaced!

 

 

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