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
EXPLORING THE SOLITARY ISLANDS WITH DIVE QUEST
By Nigel Marsh & Helen Rose
Mullaway is a tiny holiday town on the New South Wales coast, around 25km north of Coffs Harbour. The turn off to Mullaway is also tiny, so tiny that if you blink you will miss it, and also miss some of the best diving in New South Wales around the fabulous Solitary Islands.
Located in this one horse town is Dive Quest, owned and operated by Chris Connell. Chris has been taking divers to explore the Solitary Islands for over twenty years and operates two dive boats and has onsite accommodation, above the dive shop, for groups, couples or individuals.
Arriving at Dive Quest at 7.30am for a double dive trip it was good to catch up with Chris, who hasn’t changed much since I first met him twenty years ago, the hair is still wild, just a little greyer. With the dive boats parked out front of the shop it was an easy process to load the gear.
With everyone ready it was time to head to the boat ramp at nearby Arrawarra. Launching the boats at Arrawarra Beach can be tricky, but the crew from Dive Quest have it down to a fine art – using a tractor. We were soon on the boat with skipper John heading to the Solitary Islands.
For those that have never dived this area, the Solitary Islands are a marine park and stretch over an area of 70,000 hectares, covering a huge stretch of coastline. Dozens of islands and reefs are found in this area, literal over a hundred dive sites, with Dive Quest concentrating on the northern area. Today we were heading to one of the best dive sites in the area – North Solitary Island.
The run out to North Solitary takes about an hour, so we sat back and watched the water change colour from murky green to bright blue. We also had a quick look at North West Solitary on the way, as the reefs around this island are visited by manta rays during summer and autumn, but we couldn’t see the distinctive black shape of these giant rays today.
Arriving at North Solitary the conditions couldn’t have been better, calm and clear, as John tied up to the mooring at The Canyons, off the western side of the island. We quickly geared up and entered the water to find the visibility over 20m as we explored the boulders, rocky walls, gutters, ledges and caves at this site. We quickly encountered the usual reef fish – blue gropers, comb wrasse, hawkfish, red morwong, butterflyfish, angelfish, sweeps and old wives. The Solitary Islands are located in the subtropics and get a wonderful mix of tropical and temperate marine life.
As we drifted around the reef we were amazed to see a blanket of anemones covering much of the bottom, these were not this thick last time we dived here. Chris later informed us that this had only occurred in the last two years and there were now more anemones at The Canyons than in nearby Anemone Bay, which is reputed to have the greatest concentration of anemones in the world. Most of these anemones were devoid of anemonefish, but we did find three species of anemonefish and a few porcelain crabs.
Exploring more of the rocky reef we encountered wobbegongs, a spotted eagle ray and thick schools of surgeonfish and bullseyes. After half an hour we headed into the shallows where the canyons are, a series of narrow gutters cutting into the island. Here we found crayfish, nudibranchs, moray eels, wobbegongs and a series of ledges where black cod, squirrelfish, lionfish, octopus, sweetlips, coral cod and a small cuttlefish were sheltering.
After our surface interval John suggested we head over to North West Rock, about 2km north, as the conditions looked good for a dive at Fish Soup. I last dived Fish Soup twenty years ago so was keen to see if it was as good as I remembered it.
We descended on the western side of North West Rock, and while there were a few hard corals and small fish about, there was not much else to see. But the action started as soon as we heading into the narrow gutter that splits this rock in two. In this surgy channel were blue gropers, bullseyes and bream, plus numerous reef fish. There were also many ledges to investigate, home to crayfish and a few wobbegongs.
Once on the eastern side of the rock we were in a cluster of boulders that were swarming with fish – thick schools of red morwong, goatfish, bream, sweep, bullseyes, sweetlips, surgeonfish and swimming amongst this fish soup were also kingfish and mulloway. There were fish everywhere, which would have be great for photos, except the visibility had dropped to 8m on this side of the island.
We spent half an hour watching the fish and exploring the boulders, finding a number of large black cod and a pair of rarely seen splendid hawkfish. It was hard to drag ourselves away from the fish, but we had to return to the western side of the rock for our pickup.
The next day we hoped to explore more of the northern Solitary Islands, but with the swell picking up and strong northerly winds Chris had to unfortunately cancelled the dive. But we know we will return, as the Solitary Islands keep luring us back with their spectacular diving.
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