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
DIVING RAINBOW BEACH’S SHARK MATERNITY WARD
By Nigel Marsh and Helen Rose
At first we could only see three sharks slowly patrolling the side of the pinnacle. They were a little wary of us, so we hung back so we wouldn’t frighten them away. When the other divers arrived we followed the sharks and were suddenly surrounded by dozens of their friends! All around us were large female grey nurse sharks, and from the size of their swollen bellies, most appeared to be pregnant. We were diving Wolf Rock, one of Queensland’s most exciting dive sites, and Australia’s only known shark maternity ward.
Located 230km north of Brisbane, Wolf Rock is located off the small holiday town of Rainbow Beach, a town more famous as the gateway to the world heritage listed Fraser Island, the largest sand island in the world. However, offshore from Rainbow Beach are several wonderful dive sites, including one of the best dive sites in Australia – the legendary Wolf Rock.
We first dived Wolf Rock 25 years ago and have been lured back many times to this incredible location. Our most recent visit in May was sensational, with the greatest number of grey nurse sharks we have seen at the site.
Arriving at Wolf Rock Dive Centre at 7.30am, we were greeted by two of the new owners James and Alex. They, along with James’ wife Fiona, purchased the business 15 months ago, after working in numerous dive resorts in Australia and overseas. Our group of seven had chartered the boat for the day, so had organised to do a special triple dive trip, instead of the usual double dive.
With all the gear organised we headed to the boat ramp and were soon heading offshore to Wolf Rock. After some very average weather at the beginning of the year we couldn’t have asked for a more prefect day – no wind, calm seas and blue skies. The forty five minute run to Wolf Rock sped by, and tying up at the mooring we were all very keen to explore.
Once in the water we found the visibility was around 15m, but with lots of suspended particles from recent rough seas. Not the best for photography, but good enough to enjoy the sights of Wolf Rock.
For those that have never dived this site, Wolf Rock is located 1km east of Double Island Point and is a multi-peaked pinnacle surrounded by rocky gutters. Two of these peaks barely break the surface and depths around the site vary from 20m to 35m.
Following the mooring line we descended on the deeper peak, quickly encountering some of the resident fish – brown-spotted gropers, tuskfish, batfish and trevally. Heading to the southern side of the rock we spotted the first sharks, three female grey nurse slowly patrolling the pinnacle. Not wanting to disturb the sharks before the other divers arrived, we hung back and inspected the lovely black coral trees, soft corals, sponges and numerous invertebrate species in the nooks and crannies.
When the other divers finally arrived, we followed Alex and the three sharks along the southern side of the pinnacle. Very soon we were surrounded by numerous large female grey nurse sharks. It was hard to tell how many there were, spinning around you could easily see a dozen or more, and Alex estimated that there were around 40 sharks, based on the numbers they had seen only two weeks before when the visibility was better. All the sharks were large, around 3m long, and with their swollen bellies they looked huge.
It was just incredible to watch and photograph these impressive pregnant sharks as they slowly swam around us. We tried to avoid disrupting their swim patterns, but this was almost impossible with so many sharks coming from different directions. At one stage a massive school of trevally swept in and engulfed several of the sharks. We could have stayed with the sharks for the entire dive, but Wolf Rock has much more to offer.
Heading to the northern side of the rock we were hoping to see some of the resident stingrays, Queensland gropers, sea snakes and maybe a manta ray. But these usually common residents proved elusive today. Instead we encounter schools of barracuda, kingfish, fusiliers, rabbitfish and several spotted eagle rays. In this area we also found moray eels, nudibranchs, lionfish and a reef stonefish. Our bottom time ended all too quickly.
While we enjoyed snacks during our surface interval, James had a quick dive. He returned to tell us that he had seen two manta rays on a western pinnacle, so we started our second dive here. Unfortunately the manta rays had moved on, so we headed back to the southern side of Wolf Rock for more magic grey nurse shark encounters.
Wolf Rock is actually the most important gestation site for pregnant grey nurse sharks. Why they gather here is unknown, but it is possibly to avoid amorous males which are more common at the southern end of their range at this time of year. While grey nurse sharks can be seen year round at the site, their numbers peak over summer and autumn.
While most divers only want to dive Wolf Rock when they visit Rainbow Beach, there are two other lovely dive sites in the area. Nursery Reef is quite shallow, only 7m deep, but is home to a good variety of reef fish and invertebrate species. But a site that can be just as good as Wolf Rock is Round Bommie. This lump of rock rises from the sand at 15m, and parts of it are only 4m below the surface.
Jumping in at Round Bommie the visibility was similar to Wolf Rock, but with a ground swell the sandy bottom was getting stirred up. We managed three circuits around the bommie, and encountered cowtail stingrays, a white-spotted shovelnose ray and a group of rare leopard whiprays resting on the sand. On the bommie were schools of snapper and trevally, red emperor, gropers, moray eels, ornate wobbegongs, egg cowries, nudibranchs and a small green turtle. It was a wonderful dive and great way to end a fabulous day of diving at Rainbow Beach.
Wanting to make a weekend of our trip to Rainbow Beach, and with the dive boat full the next day, we decided to explore the area’s other attraction - Fraser Island. Not wanted to hire a 4WD, we instead booked a day tour with Fraser Free Tours.
Picked up at our accommodation at 8am in a large bus-like 4WD, it was a quick trip to Inskip Point, then a speedy barge crossing and we were on Fraser Island. Over the course of the day we explored all the main sites on the island; the beautiful clear waters of Lake McKenzie, the magnificent forest and creek at Central Station, the beached shipwreck Maheno on 75 Mile Beach, the coloured sands at the Pinnacles and a drift down the cool clear waters of Eli Creek. The tour also included morning tea and a wonderful buffet lunch at Eurong Beach Resort. A big highlight was the wildlife – sea eagles, goannas and several dingos. After a very full day exploring this beautiful island, we were dropped off at our accommodation at 5pm.
We had a wonderful weekend at Rainbow Beach, enjoying a great combination of diving and sightseeing on Fraser Island, and know it will not be long before we are back to admire the sharks at the Wolf Rock maternity ward.
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