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MONTAGUE’S SEAL APPEAL

by Nigel Marsh and Helen Rose

 

Diving Montague Island reminded us very much of New Zealand’s famous Poor Knight Islands. There are rocky reefs and walls to explore that are richly decorated with kelp and sponges, plus populated with a wide variety of temperate reef fish and pelagic fish. Just like the Poor Knight Islands stingrays are especially common, but while the Poor Knight’s also features many magnificent caves, Montague has its own special attraction – thousands of fur seals.

 

Montague Island is located 9km off the small town of Narooma, 350km south of Sydney, and is one of the most spectacular dive destinations in New South Wales. Washed by the East Australian Current and located only five nautical miles from the continental shelf, Montague Island is a haven for marine life.

 

A number of charter boats depart daily from Narooma to explore the waters around Montague Island. On our recent visit we dived with both Island Charters and Narooma Charters that offer diving, snorkelling, whale watching, fishing and island tours. The trip from Narooma to Montague takes only 30 minutes and arriving at the island we were greeted by wonderful blue water (30m visibility is common). While the island is surrounded by brilliant dive sites, the most popular sites are at the numerous seal colonies.

 

Gearing up as the crew anchored at Pebbly Bay we could already see, hear and smell over a hundred fur seals on the rocks nearby. Behind the boat several dozen more seals were already splashing around in the clear water. We quickly joined them and had a ball with dozens of these underwater acrobats zooming around us.

 

The seals seem to take great joy at charging straight at us, barking at us and even snapping their jaws at us. They are so graceful and manoeuvrable in the water, compared to the clumsy clots they are on land, that they soon had us dizzy watching them swim around. While most of the seals seem to have their attention focus on playing with us, it was also fun to watch others interact with each other; wrestling, blowing bubbles, pushing, chasing and playfully biting.

 

Some of the seals would quickly get bored with us unless we joined them in a game. To keep them entertained we would wave our hands about, bark back at them and do somersaults. Other seals were not interested in us at all, just lazed on the surface, occasionally looking down to see where the bubble blowing ‘aliens’ were.

 

Almost two thousand Australian fur seals (and also a few New Zealand fur seals) reside on Montague Island at peak times (spring), but even in summer, when we were diving, there were several hundred seals to be seen. This seal colony is the largest in New South Wales and is a non-breeding colony, with most of the seals being juvenile and sub-adult males. The island is like a hangout for teenage seals, who are bidding their time (and having fun while they wait) until they are old enough, and big enough, to take on mature males for breeding rights in the larger seal colonies off Tasmania and Victoria. The island is a national park and beside seals is also an important nesting and breeding site for numerous sea birds and little penguins.

 

When the fur seals finally tired of us we explored the rocky reef at Pebbly Bay. In depths to 24m we investigated the kelp to find cheeky blue gropers, squid, nudibranchs, green moray eels, a wealth of temperate reef fish and pelagic fish. But a highlight was all the shark and ray species, which included large wobbegong sharks, eagle rays, bizarre looking eastern fiddler rays, small stingarees, plus some very cute Port Jackson sharks. But the biggest and most numerous were the smooth stingrays (also known as short tailed stingrays in New Zealand). These massive rays, the world’s largest stingray species, were cruising over the sand or just resting in the kelp. At one point we had three stingrays and a dozen fur seals swimming around us, until one of the seals decided to chase the rays away!

 

With the island washed by the East Australian Current, which runs down the east coast of Australia from the Great Barrier Reef, this brings a number of unexpected visitors to Montague Island. Over summer tropical fish and even turtles are regularly seen around the island. This current also bring manta rays, and the first time we dived the island we had an unexpected encounter with a manta ray that glided overhead and caused just as much excitement amongst the seals, with a dozen closely following it across the bottom. Summer also sees the arrival of grey nurse sharks to Montague Island. The island is at the southern end of the range of this critically endangered shark species, and their arrival is always unpredictable. Other visitors to Montague Island include sunfish, makos, bronze whaler sharks, dolphins, humpback whales, southern right whales and even the occasional pod of killer whales.

 

We spent two glorious days diving at Montague Island and left with memories and images of the playful fur seals of this unique location.

 

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