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SPECTACULAR SOUTH SOLITARY

By Nigel Marsh & Helen Rose

 

The Solitary Islands are a collection of islands, rocky outcrops and hidden reefs off the north coast of New South Wales. The first marine park declared in New South Wales, covering 70,000 hectares, the Solitary Islands offer spectacular diving year round from the holiday town of Coffs Harbour.

 

On a recent drive/dive trip along the north coast of New South Wales we stopped off at Coffs Harbour for a few days to dive South Solitary Island with Jetty Dive. Owned and operated by Mike and Deb Davey, Jetty Dive is one of the most professional dive shops we have had the pleasure of diving with. They have a large dive shop, with a great retail range and offer daily boat dives on the largest and most comfortable inflatable dive boat we have ever been on ‘Wild Fin’.

 

Meeting at the dive shop at 7.30am the dive gear is loaded onto a trailer for the short trip to the Coffs Harbour Jetty. Awaiting us at the jetty was skipper Chris ‘Goose’ Yorke and Wild Fin, an 11.8m alloy rigid hull inflatable fitted out for 20 divers. Loading the gear onto the boat every diver gets a number, which corresponds with their position on the boat, with racks for tanks and under seat space for other dive gear. The boat also has a toilet and a full canopy.

 

With everyone onboard we departed the harbour for the run out to South Solitary Island. We settled back expecting the trip to take around an hour, based on past dive boats, but with Wild Fin powered by twin 350hp outboards and blasting through the 1m swell at 30 knots we arrived at South Solitary in only 25 minutes. While Jetty Dive visit almost every dive site in the Solitary Islands Marine Park, South Solitary is their most popular dive site, and for good reason.

 

The water surrounding South Solitary was blue, and calm enough for us to head around to the eastern side of the island to dive one of the most spectacular dive sites here – Manta Arch. We descended to find the visibility 30m and a number of rocky gutters below us in depths from 15m to 26m. We slowly swam the first two gutters to encounter blue gropers, kingfish, numerous reef fish and a grey nurse shark. There was also some very pretty corals here, including gorgonians and black coral trees.

 

The next gutter led us to Manta Arch, a lovely swim thru full of bullseyes and coloured by sponges, tubastra corals and soft corals. Grey nurse often hover in this arch, especially over winter and spring, but being summer there were only a few sharks in the area. Today there was only a massive banded wobbegong resting in Manta Arch, almost 3m long.

 

With the plan being to swim back to the western side of the island we didn’t linger too long at Manta Arch as we had to swim against a mild current. On our way back to the other side of the island we swam through numerous gutters and encountered black cod, schools of sweetlips, kingfish, turtles, wobbegongs, reef fish and another grey nurse shark.

 

Once on the western side of the island the current dropped as we explored the rocky bottom at North Boulder Wall. This site has always been a fishy spot and it was no different today. Swarming around the boulders were schools of bullseyes, sweep, goatfish, red morwong, bream, kingfish and even a school of mulloway.

 

Back on Wild Fin for our surface interval Goose supplied us with a selection of food and beverages – tea, coffee, soup, water, chocolates, cake and lollies. We sat back and enjoyed views of South Solitary Island with its historic, and said to be haunted, lighthouse and watched hundreds of sea birds gliding around.

 

For our second dive we did a drift dive down the western side of South Solitary, from North Boulder Wall, along South Boulder Wall and finishing at The Gantry. This was a wonderful relaxing dive, being propelled by the gentle current as we explored boulders, gutters and ledges in depths from 6 to 20m. The corals here are very pretty and included a variety of hard corals and soft corals. We also encountered reef fish, pelagic fish, wobbegongs, stingrays, turtles, eagle rays and a great variety of invertebrate species.

 

The end of the dive was spent around The Gantry, where there is a sloping rock wall and the remains of the gantry where supplies to the lighthouse were once off loaded. The end section of this gantry has collapsed and now makes for an interesting dive in depths to 10m. Steel beams, rails and winch gear litter the bottom and are now home to ornate wobbegongs and red morwongs.

 

The following day we explored more of South Solitary, returning to Boulder Wall and also exploring Buchanan’s Wall. The visibility wasn’t quite as good, but there was still plenty to see, including a great collection of critters – cuttlefish, nudibranchs, shrimps, hermit crabs and anemonefish. We had two lovely days of diving at Coffs Harbour and look forward to exploring more of the wonderful dive sites in the Solitary Islands Marine Park in the future with Jetty Dive.

 

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