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DIVING THE TASMAN PENINSULA WITH EAGLEHAWK DIVE CENTRE

By Nigel Marsh

 

The Tasman Peninsula has many wonderful tourist attractions. Most visitors to this part of Tasmania are here to see the ruins at historic Port Arthur, or to see a Tasmanian devil at the Tasmanian Devil Park or to marvel at the spectacular sea cliffs that line the coast in this area. But for divers the area is extra special, as it is home to some of the best temperate water diving in the world.

 

I first dived this area ten years ago and was very impressed by the wide variety of diving on offer and also by the abundance of endemic temperate marine life. But strong winds during the visit meant I didn’t get to dive some of the best dive sites in the area. Fortunately on a recent revisit the weather was perfect to explore the best of the Tasman Peninsula.

 

The Tasman Peninsula is conveniently located only one hour drive from Hobart, and can be visited on a day trip. But with dozens of brilliant dive sites in the area divers should allow a few days to see a variety of dive sites. Taking divers to the best sites in this area is Eaglehawk Dive Centre, located on a lovely bush block at Eaglehawk Neck. Owned and operated by Mick Baron and Karen Gowlett-Holmes, the dive centre opened in 1991 and offer daily boat dives to the best dive sites in the area. They also have a divers lodge on site, which is a comfortable and convenient place to stay when diving the area.

 

Contrary to popular belief the water in Tasmania is not freezing, and varies from 12°C in winter to 18°C in summer. The dive shop provides 7mm wetsuits, which most people find quite warm. The visibility is generally clearest in winter, over 30m at times. But even diving in summer, when I was there, the visibility varied from 15m to 30m.

 

For my first dive Mick ran the dive boat south to Munro Bight, so we could explore the last giant kelp forest on the east coast of Tasmania. Over the last 30 years the kelp forests have been dwindling, due to warmer sea temperatures, pollution and being eaten by sea urchins. So if you have ever wanted to dive through a kelp forest you better book a trip to Tasmania quickly, before this unique habitat disappears completely.

 

Diving the kelp forest is a very surreal experience, like you are swimming though an underwater jungle. The giant kelp stretches from the rocky bottom to the surface, in depths from 8m to 18m. It is quite easy to glide between the kelp as the plants are spaced at regular intervals. We spent over an hour exploring this maze of giant kelp and encountered a great range of species, including a draughtboard shark, banded stingarees, giant cuttlefish, leatherjackets, cowfish, crayfish, boarfish, trumpeters and wrasse.

 

Surface intervals along this section of coastline, with its towering cliffs and sea caves, are never dull. The scenery is breathtaking, but you are also likely to see albatross, dolphins and fur seals. You can even spend part of your surface interval playing with the long-nosed fur seals. We had a ball playing chicken, tag and other activities with these underwater acrobats as they zoomed around us.

 

For our second dive we had a choice to explore caves or see dragons. Half the group decided to explore the caves, while the rest of us decided to search for weedy seadragons at a site called Studio Two. This pretty dive site is only 12m deep, with a wide sand patch surrounded by kelp. We saw plenty of reef fish, but no weedies, the surgy conditions possibly too rough for them.

 

The next day we had calm seas and experienced divers on board, a perfect combination to dive the colourful sponge gardens at Sisters Rocks. This rocky reef varies in depth from 20m to 45m, with the best sponge gardens below 30m. We maxed out at 39m as the sponge gardens at this depth were just superb – beautiful finger sponges, ascidians, ferns, bryozoans, zooanthids and masses of sea whips. Amongst the sponges were boarfish, weedfish, morwongs, wrasses, leatherjackets and thick schools of butterfly perch. Clinging to the sea whips were also basket stars and lovely jewel anemones. Our bottom time ended all too quickly, but not before we had explored numerous gutters and walls at this incredible dive site.

 

After a hot soup during our surface interval (no fur seals today as we were north of the seal colonies), it was time to explore Australia’s largest and longest network of sea caves at Cathedral Cave. With conditions looking nice Mick decided it was time for a dive so he could give us the guided tour. Our first stop was a visit to the resident weedy seadragon, a large male carrying eggs. We then explored the massive Cathedral Arch, next it was the Aisles and into Skull Cave. These areas of the cave are grand in size and very colourful, with the walls coated in sponges and yellow zooanthids. Mick then led us through a series of very small and tight caves with names like Revelation Bend, the Dog Leg, the Catacombs and the Devils Tonsils. These narrow passageways are definitely not for those that get claustrophobic.

 

Depths in the cave vary from 16m to 22m, and there is plenty of marine life to be seen, including giant boarfish, crayfish, crabs, butterfly perch, morwongs, leatherjackets, trumpeters, nannygai and even the odd sea spider.

 

For my last day of diving we had perfect weather to visit a site I have always wanted to explore, Tasmania’s best shipwreck, the incredible SS Nord. The SS Nord was a 96m long cargo ship that sank in 1915 after striking nearby rocks. The ship now rests in depths from 35m to 42m, so is a site for advanced divers only.

 

Descending on the wreck the visibility opened up when we hit the 15m mark, giving us a great view of the ship. Much of the hull has collapsed on itself after 100 years on the bottom, but there is still plenty to see on this fabulous shipwreck. We started at midships, admiring the sponges and fish that covered the ship. But we didn’t linger too long as the stern, the most intact part of the ship, was awaiting us.

 

The stern sites proud off the bottom and is covered in zooanthids, turning it into a bright yellow structure. As we explored the stern we were suddenly joined by a massive school of baitfish, which swirled around us before heading over to the nearby rocky reef. We then investigated the most impressive part of the stern, the still intact rudder and prop, a great location to get some photos.

 

With limited bottom time we only explored half of this wonderful shipwreck, but what we saw left us spellbound. We ended the dive swimming amongst the masses of fish at midships, schools of pike, bastard trumpeters and millions of butterfly perch. The SS Nord is one impressive dive site.

 

After another dip with the fur seals it was time for my final dive on the Tasman Peninsula, one last look at the Munro Bight Kelp Forest. It was another amazing experience and I only hope that the next time I visit this wonderful part of Australia that there will still be a giant kelp forest to explore.

 

 

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