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THE BEST OF SOUTHEAST QUEENSLAND ON BIG CAT REALITY

By Nigel Marsh

 

Southeast Queensland has many wonderful dive sites and over the last 25 years I have been fortunate to dive almost all of them. But there was one spot that had eluded me in all that time, a remote reef off Mooloolaba called the Barwon Banks. Located 22 nautical miles offshore, Barwon Banks is rarely visited by charter boats as it is deep and often washed by strong currents. But one vessel does visit this isolated dive site on a few special trips each year, Big Cat Reality.

 

Big Cat Reality is a 25m long by 9m wide catamaran, and one of the only liveaboard vessels in southeast Queensland. This large vessel accommodates 24 divers in two large bunk style cabins, and has two lounge areas, a bar, share toilet and shower facilities, plus a huge dive deck. Big Cat Reality used to be based in Brisbane, offering weekend trips to the Moreton Bay Marine Park, but since last year the boat has been based at Bundaberg, offering dive trips to the Bunker Group.

 

Once or twice a year Big Cat Reality has to travel from Bundaberg to Brisbane, or vice versa, and divers can join these trips to explore some of the best dive sites between these two ports, including the Barwon Banks. In March I joined one of these trips, organised by John Gransbury from Professional Dive Services, on a journey from Brisbane to Bundaberg. The trip was planned to take three days, but due to a number of factors it got reduced to two days and was going to terminate at Tin Can Bay.

 

This didn’t really concern me, as the first two days were what I was really looking forward to, some deep dives on three of the most spectacular rocky reefs off southeast Queensland – Gotham City, Barwon Banks and Wolf Rock.

 

Boarding Big Cat Reality on Friday night, we departed at 9pm and headed across Moreton Bay. The forecast for the weekend sounded great, light winds and slight seas, with the chance of a storm late Sunday afternoon.

 

Early the next morning we dropped anchor at one of Brisbane’s most exciting dive sites, Gotham City. Located north of Moreton Island, Gotham City is a giant lump of rock that rises out of the sand from 36m to 22m. This site is almost always washed by strong currents, but is a stunning dive.

 

We jumped in to find the water very blue and surprisingly no current at all. We descended to find the visibility 25m and the water lovely and warm at 26°C. Landing on the rock we did a slow circumnavigation, admiring all the beautiful corals, the black coral trees, soft corals, gorgonians, tubastra corals and spiral sea whips that decorate the walls and top of this monolith.

 

At first there were only small reef fish darting about, but then we explored a wide gutter that almost splits the rock in two. The caves, ledges and overhangs in this area were packed with fish – schools of sweetlips, surgeonfish, snappers, bullseyes and trevally. In this area we also found gropers, crayfish and a very large banded wobbegong.

 

Exploring more of this massive bommie we encountered more schooling fish, angelfish, tuskfish and many pretty basslets. Usually schools of eagle rays cruise around the top of Gotham City, but with no current they were absent. Reaching a maximum depth of 32m our bottom time ended all too quickly on this incredible dive site.

 

A three hour steam north saw us arrive at Barwon Banks around lunch time with perfect conditions; no wind, sunshine, blue water and only a small 1m ground swell. Barwon Banks covers a large area and rises from 50m on its inner side and from 100m on its outer side. The shallowest parts of the reef rise up to 22m, and we anchored on one of these shallow rises.

 

Once in the water we found there was hardly any current and the visibility was around 15m. The terrain was very impressive, a jagged rocky bottom in depths from 35m to 22m, with bommies, gutters, ledges, caves and overhangs to explore that were covered in wonderful corals.

 

I had heard reports of massive schools of pelagic fish from divers that had previously dived Barwon Banks, but for the first five minutes all I had seen were smaller reef fish. Then suddenly out of the blue, a huge school of barracuda appeared. These impressive fish circled us for several minutes and were quickly followed by a squadron of eagle rays and cobia. We then explored a gutter filled with sweetlips and mangrove jacks and were then engulfed by a school of several thousand big-eye trevally. There seemed to be fish everywhere – schools of fusiliers, bannerfish, batfish, goatfish, snappers, surgeonfish and also large Spanish mackerel and bonito.

 

Our second dive at the Barwon Banks was just as good, with all the schooling fish, plus leopard sharks, turtles and a huge black blotched stingray being escorted by two pink stingrays and a cobia. Large sharks are often seen at Barwon Banks, we didn’t see any, but the fish life at this amazing dive site left a very lasting impression. In the afternoon we headed north once more to our final dive site off Rainbow Beach.

 

Early the next morning we were 1km off Double Island Point, anchoring at another legendary dive site of southeast Queensland – Wolf Rock. A series of five pinnacles that rise from 33m, Wolf Rock just breaks the surface and is always an incredible dive. Unfortunately the surface conditions were terrible, the southerly storm having arrived much early than expected.

 

With Wolf Rock a critical habitat for grey nurse sharks we could only have ten divers in water at a time, so were split into two groups. My buddy and I were in group two. Though eager to dive this spectacular dive site (it had been over ten years since my last visit), I was happy to wait for better light for photography.

 

But there was bad news when group one surfaced, no grey nurse sharks. This was a big surprise as we were visiting at peak time and there should have been dozens. Once in the water the visibility was very patchy, 9m to 12m, but the limited visibility was quickly forget once we saw all the fish. Descending on the western end of the rock we were quickly surrounded by thousands of fusiliers, trevally and darts.

 

We then dropped into the large gutter on the northern side of Wolf Rock, a place often packed with grey nurse sharks. Here were snappers, red emperors, pufferfish, gropers and a green turtle, but no sharks. We then checked the next three gutters to the north, as often the sharks move out here if disturbed, but they were nowhere to be seen. We then did a slow circumnavigation of Wolf Rock, and even lacking sharks it was still a stunning dive. We encountered olive sea snakes, moray eels, batfish, angelfish, lionfish, Spanish mackerel and bonito. A mixed school of kingfish and rainbow runners circled us at one point and we also saw more turtles and gropers. But the highlight was a brief encounter with a manta ray, which glided by before I could get any photos.

 

Puzzled by the disappearance of the grey nurse sharks, on the second dive we explored more of the gutters. Here we found lovely black coral trees, sea whips and gorgonians, a school of barracuda and several brown-spotted gropers, but no sharks. Back on Wolf Rock we also encountered a loggerhead turtle, a potato cod and a very large Queensland groper.

 

By the time we entered the water for the third dive the visibility had been reduced to only 6m, and most of the schooling fish had departed. So we concentrated on the smaller species that are often overlooked at Wolf Rock, finding nudibranchs, shrimps, crabs, crayfish and a colourful stonefish.

 

After three very enjoyable dives at Wolf Rock, even with terrible conditions, it was time to head to our drop off point, Tin Cay Bay. Later talking to John Gransbury about the mysteriously absent grey nurse sharks, plus the lack of eagle rays, stingrays and leopard sharks, we both came to the conclusion that a great white shark must have visited the area recently and scared them off.

 

Even though we missed the grey nurse sharks, we had six amazing dives over a wonderful weekend, with a great group of divers, on a superb dive boat, seeing the best of southeast Queensland.

 

 

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