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SOUTH OF SYDNEY - A SOUTHERN SOJOURN

By Nigel Marsh

 

Australia has many amazing dive sites, with the Great Barrier Reef the most famous and most popular destination. However, Aussie diver Nigel Marsh recommends you look south of the reef if you want to explore the real underwater Australia, with one of his favourite areas being the coast south of Sydney.

 

I had only been in the water for a few minutes before I was joined by the local bully wanting a handout. This bully was an eastern blue groper, a very large species of wrasse, and also a very over-friendly one. The curious fish was swimming around me, peering into my mask and basically being a pest. I knew if I didn’t feed the fish, it wouldn’t leave me alone, so I flipped a nearby sea urchin to keep it occupied. These fish have very thick lips - lips designed to smash sea urchin shells and spines. In two quick bangs with its lips it had the urchin open and was sucking out the tender flesh. Now satisfied, the blue groper left me in peace to explore this lovely rocky reef on the New South Wales south coast.

 

I grew up in Sydney and spent many childhood holidays on the south coast of New South Wales. This coastline stretches from Sydney south to the Victorian border, 500km of pretty beaches, beautiful bays, rocky headlands and wonderful dive sites. After I learnt to dive, this stretch of coast became a favourite weekend destination, its temperate waters home to an amazing variety of endemic species. And even after I moved to Brisbane in 1990, 1000km north of this region, I still drive down the coast to explore this area whenever I can. My last trip in June 2017 was one of the best, a week of incredible diving on a southern sojourn.

 

Joining me on this trip was an old Sydney dive buddy, Stuart Ireland, who now lives in Cairns and is one of Australia’s top underwater cameramen. Our first challenge was to drive from Brisbane to Shellharhour, 1100km in one day. Shellharbour is located 100km south of Sydney and I use to dive this area on day trips, with the area having a good variety of shore and boat diving sites. Arriving late at night we checked into our hotel and crashed.

 

The next morning we woke to blue skies and mild weather, Aussie winters are hard to take. We only had time for a quick dive, so drove to nearby Bass Point to dive the Blue Metal Loader. This long jetty, used for the loading blue metal, is always a great dive, especially when the seas are calm and blue. With barely a ripple on the surface the entry and exit was easy over the rocks and once in the water we were happy to find the visibility 15m. We were quickly joined by the bully from the introduction, the over-friendly eastern blue groper. The state fish of New South Wales, every dive site in the state is home to a family of these cheeky fish that follow divers around like puppies.

 

We explored the rocky reef and jetty in depths to 11m. There was plenty to see amongst the rocks, kelp and seaweed, including nudibranchs, morays, leatherjackets, wrasse and a small reaper cuttlefish. Usually this site is home to dozens of giant cuttlefish, but I could only find one. We later learned from the local dive shop, Shellharbour Scuba Centre, that a small group of grey nurse sharks had taken up residence under the jetty over the previous months and had only just moved on. I suspect they might have also enjoyed feasting on the giant cuttlefish. The highlight of this dive was a vast school of old wives milling around the pylons.

 

Checking out of our motel we jumped in the car and headed 350km further south. On the way we drove passed many fabulous dive sites off Ulladulla, Bateman’s Bay and Narooma. I usually never bypass Narooma, as offshore from this town is Montague Island, which is always washed by clear water and home to a large colony of playful Australian fur seals. But on this trip I wanted to dive an area I hadn’t dived for over 20 years, a pretty holiday town close to the Victorian border called Merimbula.

 

Arriving late in the afternoon we checked into the Merimbula Divers Lodge, the local dive shop with cheap, but comfortable, bunk style accommodation. While this area has some great boat diving, we were here to explore a few of the local shore diving sites, especially the wonderful Merimbula Wharf.

 

The next morning the weather was a little cold and cloudy, but the water looked fantastic; flat and blue. We quickly geared up in the carpark at Merimbula Wharf, strolled across the rock platform and jumped into a shallow gutter. While it is possible to dive under the wharf, the main attraction at this site is the rocky reef. We quickly found ourselves in 14m, and with 20m visibility we could really appreciate the unique rocky terrain, with lots of small ledges to explore and lovely sponge gardens. Sponge gardens are a feature of the south coast, with colourful sponges, gorgonians, ascidians, sea tulips and bryozoans decorating each rock. A close look between the sponges revealed nudibranchs, hermit crabs, shrimps, moray eels, octopus and many pretty sea stars.

 

We explored the rocky reef for a while, encountering a good range of southern reef fish and naturally several eastern blue gropers. We then headed out over the sand, as I was hoping to photograph an Australian angel shark for my next book project ‘Diving with Sharks’. I had previously found a few of these elusive sharks off Merimbula Wharf, but had no luck today. Instead we found common stingarees, kapala stingarees, lots of sea pens, giant sand sea stars, flatheads, an eastern stargazer and a Port Jackson shark. We ended the dive under the wharf, which is only 2m deep, with two very large smooth stingrays swimming around us. These giant rays gather under the wharf to scavenge scraps from the fishers overhead.

 

Over the next three days we did six more dives at Merimbula Wharf, each time exploring a different area and seeing a host of different marine life. The angel shark still eluded me, but I was just as happy to find a rare crested horn shark. On other dives we encountered gurnard perch, a coffin ray (a type of electric ray), a giant cuttlefish, a blue-lined octopus, a banded wobbegong, a green turtle (very out of season) and a cowtail stingray (1000km south of its normal range). But the highlight for me was a close encounter with a Melbourne Skate, a rare species I had been hoping to see for forty years.

 

While at Merimbula we did a morning trip to nearby Tathra, to dive the historic Tathra Wharf. With a small swell washing over the rocky shore we decided against a shore entry and instead climbed the ladder to get in and out. The only problem was it was 8m above the water line, hard work with heavy underwater camera housings. We managed and it was worth the effort as the rocky reef at this site was sensational. Under the wharf were schools of yellowtail scad and old wives, but the best part of this dive was the adjacent rocky reef in depths to 14m. The sponge garden at this site was just beautiful, a wonderful mix of pastel colours. Exploring the reef we encountered eastern blue gropers, several Port Jackson sharks, banded wobbegongs, smooth stingrays, boarfish, crested horn sharks, an eastern fiddler ray and vast schools of yellowtail scad.

 

After three wonderful days at Merimbula we had barely scratched the surface of the brilliant diving in this area, but it was time to head north to our final destination, Jervis Bay. This picturesque bay is located 200km south of Sydney and was once my favourite weekend getaway. Jervis Bay has the whitest sand beaches in Australia, and some lovely shore diving, but we were here to explore some of its spectacular boat diving sites with Dive Jervis Bay.

 

The mouth of Jervis Bay is dominated by towering sea cliffs, which continue underwater to form walls, caves and incredible swim throughs. While the diving outside the bay is unbelievable, some of my favourite spots are just inside the heads. These sites are shallower and protected from the swell, and as such abound with a great variety of marine life. With a little wind it was a perfect excuse to dive one of these protected sites, The Nursery.

 

I hadn’t dived this site in over twenty years, so it was great to jump in the water and find the visibility over 25m. We first headed across the sand to a small rocky reef in 16m. This reef was covered in spotted wobbegongs; we must have seen over a dozen. While busy with the wobbies we were suddenly bombarded by an Australian fur seal, which did a circuit around us and was gone. We then headed into shallow water to explore the main reef, which was covered in the most beautiful sponges and sea tulips. Here we found numerous reef fish, banded wobbegongs, eastern fiddler rays, crested horn sharks, a grey nurse shark, Port Jackson sharks and several over-friendly eastern blue gropers.

 

It was such a great dive that we voted to do it as a second dive. We saw many of the same animals but also found a pair of male giant cuttlefish having a showdown over mating rites. These two huge cephalopods, over one metre long, were displaying waves of colour to each other and flattening their bodies to make themselves look bigger. We couldn’t find the object of their affections, the female, as she must have been hidden away under a ledge. Exploring other ledges we found a pineapplefish and another species unique to New South Wales, the eastern devilfish.

 

The next day the boat wasn’t running so we did a couple of shore dives at Murrays Beach. This site is always interesting, with rocky reef, seagrass beds and sand flats to explore. While there were lots of reef fish to be seen, the main feature of this site are the rays, with dozens of common stingarees, kapala stingarees and eastern fiddler rays to be seen.

 

Our final day of diving arrived on this southern sojourn with another double boat dive trip with Dive Jervis Bay. This time we explored two sites on the northern inner headland, The Docks and Outer Boat Harbour. The Docks is one of those magic dive sites that I never get bored with, with walls, boulders, caves and beautiful sponge gardens to explore in depths to 20m. With June the start of the winter breeding season for Port Jackson sharks we were happy to see a dozen of these cute sharks lazing on the bottom, saving their strength for several months of mating. Exploring the caves we found an eastern devilfish and a very large banded wobbegong. We also encountered two huge smooth stingrays, one lazing on the bottom and the other cruising around.

 

Our last dive was a new spot for me, Outer Boat Harbour. It had been recommended as a good spot to see angel sharks, but once more these sneaky sharks eluded me. We instead found a lovely rocky reef covered by a pretty sponge garden and populated with a good variety of reef fish and invertebrates. A thick school of trevally were the highlight of the dive, but we also saw a southern eagle ray and a grey nurse shark before we reluctantly surfaced.

 

After a wonderful week on the New South Wales South Coast we loaded the car for the road trip back to Brisbane. We had seen some amazing endemic marine life, beautiful sponge gardens and had enjoyed fabulous visibility. I know it won’t be long before I am back to explore more of this incredible region on another southern sojourn.

 

Getting There

Sydney is regularly serviced by domestic flights in Australia on Qantas, Jetstar and Virgin Australia, and on international flights from many countries. The best way to explore and dive the New South Wales South Coast is to hire a car and explore this area at your own pace.

Visas

Nationals from all countries, except New Zealand, require a visa for entry to Australia. No visa on arrival is possible, so please contact the Australian Consular Office in your nearest capital city for details.

When to go

Diving conditions can be great at anytime of the year along the South Coast, but winter brings the most stable weather conditions. Water temperature varies from summer highs of 22°C to winter lows of 14°C. Visibility varies greatly in this area, but is generally 5m to 15m at inshore sites and 10m to 30m plus at offshore sites.

Diving

All the main towns on the New South Wales South Coast have dive shops and charter boats.

 

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