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SYDNEY MUCK

By Nigel Marsh

 

Sydney maybe the largest city in Australia, but it is also blessed with some of the best diving ‘Down Under’. Offshore from Sydney are rocky reefs and numerous shipwrecks that are packed with an amazing variety of marine life. Sydney also has brilliant shore diving along its rocky coastline, but what I most enjoy about Sydney is its unique muck diving.

 

I grew up and learnt to dive in Sydney, but needing a change of pace and lifestyle I moved to Brisbane 26 years ago. There are only a handful of things I miss amount Sydney, and top of that list is its wonderful muck diving. Of course I return when I can, but on many visits there isn’t time to dive, as I’m too busy visiting family and friends. But recently working on a book on muck diving I had the perfect excuse to return and enjoy Sydney’s best muck sites.

 

With three days up my sleeve, and a list of subjects I wanted to photograph, my first stop was a return to an old favourite, Bare Island. Made famous in the film ‘Mission Impossible 2’, Bare Island was used as the villain’s base at the climax of the film. Located in Botany Bay, Bare Island is connected to the mainland by a short bridge and surrounded by wonderful dive sites. Some wouldn’t consider Bare Island a true muck dive, as it has rocky reefs, but it also has plenty of sand and silt, so let’s say it is a mixed muck site.

 

For the first dive I jumped in from the shore on the western side of the island, and spent the first few minutes exploring the kelp hoping to find one of Sydney’s iconic species, a weedy seadragon. These spectacular fish can be difficult to find, as they come and go from Bare Island, and they eluded me today. Instead I found leatherjackets (filefish), wrasse, scorpionfish, old wives and a group of very cute eastern cleaner clingfish. These tiny fish, they only grow to 3cm in length, cling to sponges and kelp and are known to clean other fish.

 

I then explored the rocky reef and adjacent sand in depths to 17m, marvelling at the wonderful sponges, ascidians and corals. The visibility was typical for Sydney, not great, but okay at around 6 to 10m. Amongst the sponges I found many species to photograph; nudibranchs, hawkfish, octopus, cuttlefish, goatfish and several lovely pygmy leatherjackets. While on the sand were common and kapala stingarees (a smaller relative of the stingray that is common in southern Australia) and a school of squid.

 

Continuing around the rocky reef there were numerous caves and ledges to investigate, which were populated with nannygai, old wives, sea perch and one very large spotted wobbegong shark. At this stage I was joined by a friendly local, an eastern blue groper. A member of the wrasse family, blue gropers grow to 1m in length and every dive site off Sydney has its local population of these wonderful fish. To say they are friendly is a bit of an understatement, as blue gropers follow you around like a loyal puppy, peering into your mask. The reason they are so friendly is they are fed urchins by divers, so expect a free feed from every diver they meet.

 

With the blue groper buzzing around me, scaring off some potential camera subjects, I suddenly stumbled across one of the species I was looking for, the bizarre red Indian fish. This weird fish looks like a sponge and it even swims like it is a piece of broken sponge, drifting slowly on its side. With a high dorsal fin that runs the length of its body it looks like it is wearing a native American feathered head dress, hence the unusual name. The red Indian fish is endemic to southern Australia and reaches a length of 35cm. I shot dozens of images of this wonderful fish before realising there was another one just a metre away.

 

After a surface interval it was time to explore the eastern side of Bare Island. The rocky reef on this side of the island is only 12m deep, but still covered in beautiful sponge gardens. I quickly found cuttlefish, squid, boxfish, leatherjackets, sea perch and another blue groper to photograph. Exploring a cave I found it packed with nannygai, but behind them I could see another endemic species I was after, the beautiful eastern blue devilfish. These colourful fish, with yellow poker-dots on their face, are only found in New South Wales and love to sit on the bottom, generally in caves, propped on their fins. With a macro lens on my camera I could only get a portrait of this wonderful fish, as it was over 40cm long.

 

One species I dearly hoped to find at Bare Island was a species unique to Sydney, a close relative of the seahorse, the Sydney pygmy pipehorse. Only discovered in 1997, this gorgeous little fish is highly camouflaged and only 6cm long. I didn’t like my chances of finding one, and after searching for 30 minutes I was just about to give up when I noticed a movement in the algae. I couldn’t believe my luck, as when I looked closer I hadn’t found one Sydney pygmy pipehorse, but two. I spent the rest of the dive photographing these two incredible creatures that have the body of a pipefish and a tail like a seahorse.

 

The next day I headed to the southern suburbs of Sydney to explore a wonderful muck site called Shiprock. Located in Port Hacking, this shore dive has a sandy bottom that leads to a rocky cliff that drops 10m and is covered in beautiful sponges and ascidians. Tidal, Shiprock is best dived on the high tide for clear water. Cruising the sand and exploring the wall there was no shortage of subjects for my camera, including cuttlefish, octopus, moray eels, nudibranchs, dragonets, hermit crabs, gobies, scorpionfish, grubfish, hawkfish and several large estuary catfish, another endemic species. I was very surprised at the number of sharks and rays hiding at this site, encountering stingarees, numbrays, a spotted wobbegong and a crested hornshark.

 

With a maximum depth of 18m, but able to spend plenty of time in shallow water, I spent over 80 minutes exploring this amazing dive site. I thought the highlight of the dive was finding a pineapplefish under a ledge, but then I found another of the subjects I was after, an eastern toadfish. These weird fish have a wide mouth and flat head, which they generally have poking out of a hole. I took many images of this strange fish, and by then it was time to ascend and find some dragons.

 

Not far from Shiprock is the suburb of Kurnell, which is on the southern side of Botany Bay, directly across from Bare Island. There are a number of brilliant shore dives at Kurnell, with rocky reefs covered in sponges and kelp, the perfect place to see weedy seadragons. Exploring the rocky reef and sand there was plenty to see including numerous reef fish, nudibranchs, moray eels and even a giant Australian cuttlefish. This was only a small one, about 50cm long, the large ones get over twice as big. There was also the resident blue groper to welcome me. I didn’t take long to find a weedy, and over the course of the dive I encountered four seadragons. These lovely multi-coloured cousins of the seahorse are only found in southern Australia and are fabulous camera subjects. As I observed and photographed them, the weedies just ignored me as they were busy feeding, sucking up mysid shrimps with their long vacuum-like snout.

 

The next day I had time for one more dive, so headed to Sydney’s muckiest dive site, Clifton Gardens. Located in Sydney Harbour, Clifton Gardens is a wonderful shore dive where you can explore a jetty or a bathing net in depths to 9m. The best marine life is found under the jetty as the pylons are encrusted with sponges and kelp. With the sandy bottom below this jetty is covered in rubbish, it almost felt like I was diving a typical Asian muck site. I soon found myself photographing nudibranchs, moray eels, dragonets, gobies, leatherjackets, decorator crabs, hingebeak shrimps and numerous cuttlefish, including a few tiny ones no bigger than my fingernail.

 

Searching the sponges I also managed to find several lovely White’s seahorses, another endemic species only found in this area. But the two big surprises for me was another couple of species I was hoping to find, a blue-lined octopus and a striped frogfish. The blue-lined octopus is a member of the blue-ringed octopus family and only found in New South Wales. I found this tiny octopus slowly walking across the bottom on its tentacles. I also found the striped frogfish walking across the bottom, in search of prey. More commonly known as the hairy frogfish, the ones found around Sydney are generally bald, so their striped pattern is more pronounced. After finding these two wonderful critters I surfaced with a smile and some great images.

 

After three days it was time to head home. Sydney had turned it on once more with some brilliant muck diving, but there are a few other endemic muck species I still need to photograph so it will not be long before I return to enjoy more Sydney Muck.

 

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