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MAGNIFICENT MONTAGUE PART 1

by Nigel Marsh and Helen Rose

 

If forced to compile a list of our top ten dive sites in Australia, Montague Island would definitely by on that list and easily in the top half. We have dived Montague Island several times over the last twenty years and it has always been spectacular, and our recent visit in December was our best trip yet.

 

Located 9km off the town of Narooma, 350km south of Sydney, Montague Island is a national park and home to sea birds, little penguins and thousands of Australian fur seals. Diving around the island is magnificent, with rocky reefs, rocky walls, kelp beds and sponge gardens to explore - which are populated by a wide range of temperate marine life. But it is without doubt the wonderful fur seals that make Montague Island such a special diving destination.

 

On our recent trip we had allowed three days to dive Montague Island, and good thing we did as the first day was a blow out with a large swell hitting the coast and island. Fortunately overnight the swell dropped, and with light winds and a lovely summer day we boarded Island Charters boat bound for Montague Island.

 

Island Charters is owned and operated by Martin and Cathie Thackray, who for the past 13 years have been running trips to the island on their 10.2m long vessel Dallas. We found Dallas a comfortable boat to dive from, with a large dive deck, saloon and toilet, and surveyed for 12 divers plus crew. They also offer fishing, snorkelling, whale watching and eco tours when not busy with divers.

 

After a briefing from Martin we were off on the thirty minute trip to Montague Island. On previous trips to Montague Island we have had 30m visibility, and it looked no different today as we anchored at Pebbly Bay. Martin later informed us that 30m visibility is average due to the island’s offshore location, but he has experienced over 50m at times!

 

Our first dive was to be at the Seal Colony at Pebbly Bay, and we could see, and smell, around one hundred seals resting on the rocks nearby. Several dozen seals were already in the water tempting us to join them. The number of fur seals on the island is increasing each year, around two thousand juvenile and sub-adult seals now call the island home during the peak season in spring. During summer there are less seals, still several hundred, spread around the island in a number of haul out areas.

 

We quickly geared up and jumped into the clear water, the water temp a cool 19°C. We followed a slope of boulders to 18m at the sand and encountered several large smooth stingrays and plenty of reef fish. Reaching the point where the seals were hanging out, several came down the join us briefly, but unfortunately didn’t show us much interested. This was a little disappointing, so we thought we would explore the rocky reef and return to the seals later.

 

Exploring the rocks and kelp we found Port Jackson sharks, banded wobbegongs, blue gropers, schools of pike and bullseyes, and swarms of damsels, plus a few more smooth stingrays. Returning to the point we headed into shallow water and this time the fun really started. We quickly had several dozen fur seals zooming around us. We stayed with the seals for over twenty minutes and had a ball with them barking at us, chasing each other, staring at us and being very playful. It was hard to leave the seals and return to the boat.

 

For our second dive Martin headed north to see if we could dive with the grey nurse sharks that gather at Montague Island over summer, but the site was rough and looked to be washed by a strong current. So we instead explored the other side of Pebbly Bay. Here there were some impressive rock formations; gutters, walls and pinnacles. In the kelp we encountered smooth stingrays, blue gropers, leatherjackets, wobbegongs and several fiddler rays. There were also some nice sponge gardens here where we found sea stars, nudibranchs and green moray eels.

 

We ended the dive with the fur seals for another brief play before we had to surface. It had been a brilliant day of diving, which was only topped by our next day at Montague Island. To be continued.

 

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